The science behind risky behavior

Blame bad decisions on your still-maturing brain.

Some research suggests that emerging adults are still going through a vital process of brain development that affects risk-taking. This development continues through the mid-20s, said Shelly Mattocks, a school psychologist at Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV, an educational services agency in Grove City, Pa.

For instance, the prefrontal cortex of the human brain — which “controls your strategies, reasoning, organizing abilities and your capacity to be able to stop and think things through completely” — is still growing, Mattocks said. So is the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating social processes.

In addition, the cognitive control area of the brain, or the rational mind, is not fully developed, while the brain’s socio-emotional control network is stimulated by being scared or excited about an idea, thus making risky and impulsive behavior more appealing. Social rewards also invigorate this area of the brain.

Mattocks described how teenagers and young adults do not read emotions as well as fully mature adults can. This is why they tend to exhibit impulsive behavior, and why parents and their children often have a difficult time seeing eye-to-eye.

“They don’t take the time. That’s what their problem is. They jump to conclusions too quickly,” Mattocks said.

Still, an immature brain isn’t exactly a sufficient excuse for thoughtless actions. Young adults still have some of the cognitive processes of adults and, subsequently, can make rational, smart choices.

YSU senior Hana Somogyi said bad decisions “probably result from peer pressure and kids just wanting to be cool and fit in.”

Somogyi said people often try to act tough — and that alcohol doesn’t help; drinking just makes them more likely to do stupid things.

Melanie Muscolo, a student at Youngstown State University, said she recognizes when she acts recklessly, but said adult advice doesn’t always get through to young men and women.

“I don’t think you can just tell kids to not do something and expect them not to do it. When I was younger and people told me not to drink, I still drank,” Muscolo said. “I think the best advice is to just be careful. If you’re going to do something [risky], then take precautions.”

Muscolo said that as she’s gotten older, though, her decision-making process has changed.

“I’m not in my late 20s, but even now I can tell a noticeable difference in my maturity and decision-making [from] when I was 18,” she said. 

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