The Science Behind Teenage Stupidity
Adolescents are notorious for their poor judgement and inability to make sound decisions. In other words, teenagers lack common sense. This often reckless and impulsive behavior cannot merely be attributed to angsty teenage rebellion, as it actually has scientific reasoning behind it. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for impulse control and executive functions needed for decision making, is not yet fully developed during adolescent years. Furthermore, adolescents are inexperienced and base many of their decisions on social norms or how they desire to be perceived by others. The combination of these two circumstances creates the perfect storm for poor choices that tragically impact an adolescent’s well being. This reality must be taken into consideration by educators who may not realize the full extent of damage that their ill conceived lessons truly have on a young mind.
In order to fully comprehend the causes of the poor decision making that is common among adolescents, one must understand the steps involved in making a decision. Adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, explains that there are five steps in any decision making process. One must identify options, recognize their possible consequences, evaluate the impact each consequence poses, assess the probability of each outcome, and ultimately, determine the best action to take. For an adult, this process is second nature, however, there are numerous factors that interfere with a teenager’s ability to execute these steps successfully.
For example, when an adolescent is presented with an opportunity for a sexual experience, they often consciously disregard the possible devastating consequences of having unprotected sex. In their inexperienced and impulsive minds, they are not able to accurately assess the probability of an outcome or evaluate how desirable an outcome might be because hindsight is not available. This creates the ever popular, “That will never happen to me,” mindset. While the concepts of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases have been drilled into their brains, the probability that these outcomes will actually afflict them, seems slim-to-none. As a result, an overall sense of invincibility clouds their judgement. The enticement of having sex is a much greater force that dominates over the fear of taking a risk. Therefore, teens are likely to engage in unprotected sex and reap the repercussions thereof.
Conversely, for most adults, their prior experiences guide them through the process of making a decision. They review outcomes from past decisions to make informed choices in the present. Adults know that unprotected sex can yield unwanted pregancies and deadly diseases. Furthermore, a defining characteristic of teenage immaturity is their susceptibility to peer influences. In an article written by Jeanne Miller, she discusses a study conducted by Dr. B. J. Casey, a professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. In this study, participants were monitored through a brain-scanning machine while performing various tasks. The reward center of the adolescent brain responded dramatically more than that of children and adults. Casey concluded that the adolescent response to peer approval was comparable to the satisfaction they experienced when they successfully completed a task.
Another study by Halpern-Felsher concluded “…that adolescents care greatly about whether they are popular or look more grown up, and such desires to gain positive social feedback and avoid negative social consequences influences their decisions.” Adolescence is a time when individuals are beginning to experience more independence. They often begin to spend less time with their caregivers, broadening their horizons, and experiencing more autonomy. This newfound independence results in increased exposure to social pressures, such as body image standards, which in turn, creates a desire for peer validation. The inability to weigh consequences effectively and make sound decisions is impaired and overpowered by the desire to be accepted and perceived in a positive light.
While these external variables greatly influence teenage decision making abilities, a greater impact is attributed to the physiology of the brain. Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher explains, “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions, including cognition, thought, imagination, abstract thinking, planning, and impulse control.” These functions are most essential when a decision must be made. However, the gray matter that makes up this part of the brain physically decreases and is replaced by white matter as the brain matures. During this process, the functions this part of the brain is responsible for are compromised until approximately the mid-twenties. As a result, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
When all of these factors that influence decision making are considered, it is clear that adolescents are at a disadvantage when presented with important life choices. Guidance from not only their guardians, but from other influential adults in their lives, such as educators, is imperative. In fact, public school curriculum throughout the United States has become increasingly more responsible for teaching young learners about appropriate choices in many aspects of their lives. One of the most important aspects is health education. With all of these negative factors limiting a teenager’s ability to make a quality decision, it is important that these adults do not become an additional stumbling block.
The overwhelming challenges of the teenage years do not need further amplification through the misguided efforts of educators who lack proper training. When educators indoctrinate adolescents with inaccurate information, they risk encouraging their students to use that information irresponsibly. For example, the damage that occurs in the health classroom, where students are preached to on the importance of a low calorie diet, is detrimental to their health. While the intent of these educators is not malicious, the lessons do not apply to all students whose dietary needs vary vastly. Adolescents are already burdened with peer pressure and the hunger for social validation, so they use this misinformation in an effort to meet social standards. This, along with their immature brain development and lack of experience, can make it exceedingly more difficult for a teenager to navigate through the multiple steps involved in making good decisions. In this particular scenario, adolescents are highly likely to experience serious negative outcomes, such as eating disorders and the plethora of health complications that stem from them.
With all of the obstacles that prevent an adolescent from skillfully following the necessary steps in the decision making process, it is important for educators to aid in making healthy choices, rather than further complicating the issue. Fueling these challenges with inaccurate information, only leads to adolescents engaging in risky behaviors, which can have catastrophic results.
Halpern-Felsher, B. (2009). Adolescent decision making: an overview. The Prevention Researcher, 16(2), 3+.
Miller, J. (2015). The Debt We Owe to the Adolescent Brain. Odyssey, 24(3), 6–10.
You haven’t specified what sort of feedback you seek, StrawberryFields, so I’m going to default to an overview of your argument. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best arguing, we can copy edit or work on rhetoric.
As phrased, this is an odd claim. It sounds as if an earlier capability has been lost:
Was it at full capability during the toddler years?
Hmmm. . . You make your scientifically-validated claim first, identify it as “not merely attributable” to angstiness, and then retreat to something very much like “attributing their behavior” to inexperience, impressionableness(?) and teenage-ness. You might want to stick with the science until you have your readers nodding in agreement.
Or at least drop back to “inexperience” only, which is clearly defensible. “BRAIN UNDERDEVELOPMENT plus INEXPERIENCE is a lethal combination.”
Yes, educators should be aware that teens will act on impulse unchecked by consequences they’ve not yet faced (not necessarily because of lessons they’re being taught).
You introduce five steps. They’re clear. They’re valuable. Let’s take them in order, but be careful of your pattern, which will highly influence your persuasiveness.
Class is over. More to come. Thank you for your patience.
This reader gets impatient at the beginning of the third paragraph.
—He has read the first paragraph with interest, but wishing there were something tangible to keep him hooked. A hint, perhaps, of the TYPE of decision that will be under scrutiny.
—He has read the second paragraph with interest, but wishing even more to see the steps of decision-making played out in an adolescent’s head. Good. There are five steps. Let’s illustrate step one.
—And then we pause again.
You were going to tell me Why it’s hard for an adolescent to 1) identify options, 2) Why it’s unlikely that they’ll recognize their possible consequences, 3) Why it’s difficult for them to evaluate the impact each consequence poses, 4) assess the probability of each outcome, and ultimately, 5) determine the best action to take. Or so I thought.
What you do instead makes sense, I guess. You offer an overall evaluation, comparatively, of the advantage adults have over adolescents because of their wealth of experience. But it feels like you’ve changed the rules of your own argument and wasted the value of the citation in P2.
If we’re following your logic so far, we know that adolescents, lacking experience, are bad predictors of consequence, a decided drawback for those about to embark on dangerous activities. But how does that result in a sense of invincibility? Never having bungee jumped with my friend’s amateur rig, I have NO reason to believe that I’ll survive. Why would I be more likely to conclude that I will live than that I will die? You say
This may be the heart of your causal argument. You appear to jump to this conclusion and want us to jump alongside you. This reader wants to watch you do it first.
By the way, I’ve been hinting (by using the illustration of the bungee jump) that your argument will be easier to follow and more likely to gain converts if you illustrate it with something dramatic, like the chance that a bad decision could result in a busted bungee and a failure to bounce back to the cliff.
It’s also the best way to convince your professor that you’re ENGAGING your sources to provide evidence to back your own good arguments, not just QUOTING your sources to make the case for you. It’s your case. Tell the story.
Your turn, Strawberries. I need to hear back from you and see some substantial revisions. This is a conversation. Thanks!