OGDEN -- The stereotype is that teenagers are impulsive and use their immature brains to take stupid risks without considering the consequences.
That stereotype is wrong.
"We've been selling them short," said Leigh Shaw, Weber State University associate professor of psychology, who conducted a new study with department head Eric Amsel. "Certain groups of teens are more thoughtful than we have given them credit for before, and have reasons to engage or not engage in risky behavior."
Shaw and Amsel's research will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Research on Adolescence. The pair's research surveyed 132 adolescents, most of them 18-year-old college freshmen. Participants were asked to characterize their risky behavior and explore their reasoning about taking risks.
The research revealed two types of teens who took risks.
"The risk-seekers were pretty adamant that anyone has the right to do it," Amsel said. "The curious, who were motivated by wondering what the experience would be like, were easily swayed by additional information -- for example, explaining why it might not be a good idea to do it -- and they would be thoughtful about that."
Those who avoided risk fell into three categories. One group considered the harm to themselves and others, any moral or legal implications of specific risky behaviors. Another group assessed risk as "just bad," without a detailed assessment process. The third group's members hadn't taken risks because they had not yet had the opportunity.
"They don't have a car to drive dangerously, or they don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend, so they haven't had the opportunities for certain risky behaviors," Amsel said. "Presented with the opportunity, they might take the risks."
Amsel added that any teen may have different reactions to different risks. He or she could think drugs are unacceptable for moral and legal reasons, but be ready to take big risks for sex.
Shaw said even teens who weigh the benefits and dangers of risks may come to the wrong conclusion, because their still-developing brains tend to exaggerate rewards and minimize negative risks. Their rewards center develops faster than does their ability to assess probable outcomes and consequences, Shaw said.
Add social pressure to the mix, and everything goes downhill.
"If someone in the car whispers 'Let's go 90 miles an hour down Harrison,' being cool in front of your friends is a big reward," Amsel said. "Teenagers tend to overestimate what seems positive, and they don't anticipate being in the back of a police car."
Shaw and Amsel said parents can use their understanding to talk their teens through the thought process and assess possible benefits and consequences to specific actions. With enough guided practice, teenagers may try the assessment process on their own, analyzing their own motivations prior to taking dangerous risks.
Shaw said in general, she does not support trying to control every aspect of a teenager's life.
"There's a big push about monitoring teens on cell phones, and putting cameras in cars," Shaw said. "I would suggest talking to teenagers like the rational adults you want them to become. Give them chance to think about behaviors, to really think through the consequences and implications. That will allow them to grow and reflect, and to become the kind of adults we want them to be."