Why do young people take more risks?

11 June 2018


Reported by Toby Jackson, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (April 2018 – July 2018)

A roundtable discussion in Cambridge for our Policy Leaders Fellows explored the risk-taking behaviour of adolescents.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, presented her work on risk-taking behaviour and brain development during adolescence.

Professor Blakemore emphasised that risk-taking is the leading cause of death amongst adolescents. She showed that increased risk-taking is a social phenomenon - adolescents’ only take more risks than other age groups when they are in social situations. She found no evidence that young people don’t understand risks, but rather that social considerations carry more weight than caution.

The increase in risk-taking behaviour during adolescence, which is evident across different species, coincides with physiological changes in the brain. The amount of white matter increases and grey matter decreases, leading to increased signal transmission speed but less flexibility. Sarah-Jayne explained that there is a huge variation between individuals’ brain development and that this has not been causally linked to increased risk-taking behaviour.

The ensuing discussion focussed on the question: ‘Is risk-taking always a negative thing?’ Since it is such a universal phenomenon, and has been evolutionarily selected for in many species, then perhaps there are benefits. Finally, the discussion turned to methods of reducing mortality from risk-taking, such as Northern Irelands' new laws to discourage dangerous driving by stopping new drivers taking their friends in the car at night.

(Banner image from FORD_DSFL, creative commons)

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge