Today’s research summary is based on a paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, and examines the nature of self-control as assessed by risk-taking, sensation-seeking, future time perspective and delay of gratification in US adolescents.

  1. Adolescents are known to indulge in risk taking activities like recreational drug use and various theories abound as to why adolescence is a particularly sensitive time.
  2. As per one theory, there is a dopamine surge in reward centers of the brain during adolescence which leads to impulsive sensation seeking behavior. Traditionally, it is believed that the prefrontal cortex , which can override such impulsive behavior, does not mature in teenage and continues to mature till late thirties, and thus unable to self-regulate behavior in the teenage adequately.
  3. The above view posits that there is not much one can do about impulsive and risk taking behavior as the brain will take its own sweet time to mature; another view suggests that there are two independent processes involved in risk taking behavior- an underlying propensity to indulge in impulsive sensation seeking behavior (which can be considered as the accelerator moving one towards risk taking behavior)  and an ability to delay gratification in service of long term goals (which can be considered as the brakes which moves one away from risk taking behaviors).
  4. Literature review suggests that sensation seeking is uncorrelated with delay of gratification and both may independently impact risk taking behavior. It was unclear from prior research if delay of gratification can be an effective brake even in adolescents who were very high on sensation seeking. Also future time perspective, or the tendency to think about future more than present, is related to reduced risk taking, but the effect may be mediated by ability to delay gratification (because that ability directly depends on an ability to visualize the future) .
  5. 900 US adolescents were administered a delay discounting task (choice between larger reward later and a smaller reward now)  to ascertain their ability to delay gratification. Their sensation seeking and future time perspective was measured using self-report measures.  Risk taking was again measured using self report about three risky behaviors viz cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and binge drinking.Structural equation modeling was used to determine the relation between all variables.
  6. As expected, sensation seeking in teens and delay of gratification were uncorrelated; delay of gratification predicted less risk taking behavior, future time perspective also predicted less risk taking behavior , but not over and beyond its impact on delay of gratification.  Sensation seeking peaked around age 18 and then started decreasing;  future time perspective kept increasing with age; and temporal discounting showed an upward trend with age.
  7. For teens that were high in sensation seeking, their temporal discounting increased with age more sharply.  The authors explained this due to the fact that teens who were high in sensation seeking would indulge in more risky behavior and on getting negative feedback from environment on these behaviors will learn to self-regulate and increase delay of gratification.
  8. From this research it seems there are at least two routes to increase your temporal discounting muscle and hence reduce your risk taking behavior. The first approach is to become explicitly future focused and have a stronger future time perspective; the second approach is to explore, experiment and learn from your mistakes as your risk taking backfires. If done in a conducive environment, like graded driving tests, then this can lead to good outcomes.

I found the paper pretty interesting as it clearly dissociates the tow mechanisms that lead to risky behavior. If you found the above interesting, check out the paper here.

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