Study links young minds, decision-making

Studies from the Department of Psychology offer insight into the role the brain plays in risky behavior in young adults.

It’s 11 p.m. Saturday night.

The air is warm and exciting. Main Campus and its surrounding streets are flooded with students – many of which, Dr. Laurence Steinberg said, are at risk.

Though students don’t intend for anything to go wrong when they go out, Steinberg said this is more than just oversight for young adults. This is a result of their brain’s heightened desire for risky behavior, he said.

“The parts of the [adolescent] brain that are easily aroused by reward and [the parts that] need self-control are not communicating as well as they will in adulthood,” Steinberg, a psychology professor in the College of Liberal Arts, said.

Steinberg has explored the adolescent brain for more than 40 years, 28 of which he’s spent at Temple researching and publishing with his collaborators. Steinberg’s most recent book, “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence,” features some of his most prominent findings, including three key differences between the adolescent and adult brain that influence decision making.

“[The] brain is very easily aroused by rewards, both anticipation of rewards and also by the actual reception,” Steinberg said.

This intense desire for a reward, whether a piece of chocolate or a night out, is an important difference between the mature and the developing brain. In addition to a hyperactive reward center, younger brains have a less developed sense of self-control and foresight, Steinberg said.

When the reward center is stimulated, most young adults do not have the developmental strength to weigh future consequences against immediate rewards, according to Steinberg’s studies. Steinberg said what strength young adults do have does not communicate well with the brain center’s controlling impulses.

The result is a young person willingly engaging in risky behavior, like underage drinking, without the ability to fully consider the ramifications of his or her actions, he said.

As potent as “sex, drugs or money,” Steinberg said, “being in the presence of one’s peers” activates the brain’s reward center instantly.

He said the addition of another person of the same age has three avenues of influence: direct peer pressure known as “explicit,” implied pressure from a young person’s desire to “fit in” and the simple presence of one’s companions.

Steinberg’s colleague on adolescent studies, Dr. Jason Chein, recently investigated whether exercises in impulse control reduce risky behavior.

“[Cognitive control] is one’s ability to control behavior,” said Chein, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “Anytime there is a potentially impulsive response where the appropriate response requires a different approach, cognitive control comes into play.”

Chein and Steinberg found that impulse control develops gradually, peaking just after college. However, it is not only impulsiveness that influences risky behavior, they said.

Chein found that one’s ability to evaluate potential gain or loss is also important. In adolescents, these factors are lacking, but are good “potential targets for intervention,” he said.

This intervention corresponds to Chein and Steinberg’s developing research into Working Memory Training, a study through which a subject is asked to remember select information over a prolonged period of distraction. This gives subjects practice at having an end goal, rather than giving in to impulsiveness.

Preliminary results show that Working Memory Training increases cognition and decreases impulsiveness when alone. When peers surround subjects, however, the situation changes.

“We’re finding that people in Working Memory Training are reducing the amount of risk-taking they engage in when their friends are watching, relative to when they’re alone,” Chein said.

Though the addition of Working Memory Training decreases risky behavior, this decrease shows that subjects are still, if not more, susceptible to peer influence.

Steinberg was careful to mention that the adolescent brain is not an “excuse” for bad decisions but rather an “explanation.” The brain is very easily influenced by experience, particularly in the college years, he said. He also said that this plasticity is not a scapegoat and must be handled carefully.

“[Knowledge of the young brain] should guide how we respond to it,” Steinberg said. “Teenagers shouldn’t be punished to the same extent that we punish adults, even when the crimes are identical.”

Steinberg and his collaborators’ research into crafting an appropriate response was recently used in the U.S. Supreme Court, where new rulings have eradicated the death penalty for young offenders. Similar ideas were recently tested on Main Campus.

Steinberg met with university officials regarding student welfare off-campus. Police patrol the Gratz and Diamond Street areas every evening, with increased vigilance on Friday and Saturday nights.

Police sometimes provide intoxicated students with amnesty if they require an escort home. Though Steinberg suggests that the best approach is to remove the temptation toward risky behavior, he does believe that police presence is “the most important thing we can do.”

To eliminate risky behavior off-campus, Steinberg suggests it would “be better if the drinking age is lower [and then] Temple could provide on-campus places where people can party and be better supervised.”

Though the research is still in its early stages, Chein and Steinberg intend to continue to research the adolescent brain and hold that college is not “just a matter of learning, but actually seems to enhance how the brain develops.”

Lora Strum can be reached at

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