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NIDA. (2016, September 13). How Do You Choose?. Retrieved from

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The NIDA Blog Team
September 13 2016

Have you ever heard somebody say that teens make irrational, overly risky choices sometimes, simply because they’re teens?

It’s tempting to blow off that statement, for sure…but maybe you’ve secretly wondered if there’s any truth to it. After all, it’s true that some teens make very reckless decisions, even when they know there’s a risk involved.

Still, a decision that seems rational to one person can look irrational to somebody else. Which leads back to the question: In general, how rational or irrational are teens, really, when it comes to decision making?

A group of researchers wanted to find out, so they set up a study.

Teens are very rational…

The researchers asked preteens, teens, and young adults to make some simple financial decisions. The groups were asked to choose from different situations, each of which described various ways to win and lose money. For instance, if someone picked situation A, they had a one-third chance of winning $6, one-third chance of winning $4, and one-third chance of losing $4.

Some of the riskier choices involved more immediate rewards. Situations B and C had their own chances to win or lose three different dollar amounts.

The researchers were especially interested in how the three groups made their decisions. Here’s what they found:

  • The preteens and teens considered the potential for winning or losing money in each situation (economists call this “cost-benefit” thinking). They tried to choose situations with the biggest gains and to avoid situations with the greatest losses.
  • Young adults in the study (average age: 22) paid less attention to the details of each situation. They just examined which situations were most likely to lead to a profit, and chose them. As one of the researchers said, young adults “are more likely to use the simple, good-enough rule."

So the good news is that teens are not “automatically” irrational; the teens in the study based their financial choices on careful calculations. It’s just that when you’re a teen, you’re still learning the guidelines (or rules) that will help you make your way through life. Once people learn those rules, they usually put them to use, like the young adults in the study did.

…maybe too rational?

For example, most adults will use the “don’t drink and drive” rule to avoid getting in a car with a driver who’s been drinking. That’s all they need to make the decision.

A teen, on the other hand, might debate the potential cost of choosing to get in the car (for example, a friend getting mad at you), vs. the potential benefit of doing it (staying with your group of friends). If you haven’t made your own rules like “don’t drink and drive” yet, you’re more likely to make choices that could lead to trouble—in this case, deciding to ride with the drinking driver.

An earlier study found that teens took a sixth of a second longer than adults to answer “No” to questions like “Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?” and “Is it a good idea to swim with sharks?” For brain scientists, that tiny delay demonstrates a major difference between the development of the teen brain vs. the adult brain.

Deciding for yourself

There’s another important difference between the kind of financial decisions the new study examined, and decisions about things like driving: a social situation.

The “reward system” of the teen brain has a stronger reaction to social rewards, like a compliment or an invitation to a party, than the brain of an adult or a child does. So being in a social situation can override even your most rational thinking and increase the chances of making a choice you’ll regret later.

But fortunately, now you know what the research says about how you can make healthier choices: First, think about the long-term consequences.

Watch a video about how your choices as a teen can "program" your brain for life.