Factors Influencing Adolescents' Decisions to Engage in Risk-Taking Behavior

By Rolison, Mary R.; Scherman, Avraham | Adolescence, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Factors Influencing Adolescents' Decisions to Engage in Risk-Taking Behavior


Rolison, Mary R., Scherman, Avraham, Adolescence


Adolescents seek to develop their own identity, opinions, and values (Miller, 1989). For adolescents, given the freedom to experiment, this stage also entails taking some risks. When adolescents take risks, the consequences can be negative: car accidents can occur while driving drunk, smoking can lead to cancer, and unprotected sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies and disease (Worrell & Danner, 1989). This paper presents the findings from an investigation into the effects of sensation-seeking and locus of control, as well as perceived benefit and cost, on risk-taking. First, theories of adolescent risk-taking, risk-taking studies, sensation-seeking, locus of control, and risk-taking from a decision-making perspective are reviewed.

Theories Explaining Adolescent Risk-Taking

Adolescent risk-taking behavior can be analyzed from several different perspectives. Risk-taking theories based on dispositional traits examine individual differences between persons that might account for a propensity to take risks (Kaplan, 1980; Botvin, 1986; McCord, 1990; Petersen, Compas, Brooks-Gunn, Stemmler, Ey, & Grant, 1993). However, most of the research in this area is not conclusive enough to state that dispositional traits are causal factors in adolescent risk-taking (Milistein & Igra, 1995).

Biological models of adolescent risk-taking examine genetic factors, neuroendocrine influences, and pubertal events (Irwin & Millstein, 1986; Cloninger, 1987; Udry, 1988, 1990). Another approach entails using the developmental perspective to explain risk-taking in light of the biopsychosocial changes that occur during adolescence. Risk-taking is seen as a way of coping with normal developmental tasks such as exploration and achieving autonomy (Lavery, Siegel, Cousins, & Rubovits, 1993; Millstein & Igra, 1995) and difficulties adolescents face in making decisions (Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992).

Another perspective is to examine stable differences such as sensation-seeking or locus of control (Zuckerman, Eysenck, & Eysenck, 1978; Milistein & Igra, 1995). Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological theory describes the social world of adolescents in several microcosms of contact. Parental monitoring of adolescent behavior has also been associated with adolescent risk-taking (Millstein & Igra, 1995). In reviewing the theories, it appears that none offer conclusive insight into the risk-taking behavior of adolescents.

Risk-Taking Studies

In general, involvement in high-risk activities has been positively associated with personality factors, such as social maladjustment, and with perceived benefit of risk (Lavery, Siegel, Cousins, & Rubovits, 1993). Researchers reported that persons who engaged in high-risk behaviors had higher scores on affiliation, desirability, dominance, exhibition, and self-esteem variables and they exhibited significantly higher sexual risk, smoking risk, driver and passenger risk, venturesomeness, and impulsiveness (Jackson, 1984; Moore & Rosenthal, 1993).

Adolescents may not see the same types of behaviors as risky as do adults. Alexander, Kin, Ensminger, Johnson, Smith, and Dolan (1990) conducted a study in which they asked 8th and 9th graders what teenagers their age do for fun. Males' responses focused more on physical feats while females focused more on rule breaking. Results also showed a significant decline from 8th grade to 9th grade for involvement in physical feats.

In examining risk-taking studies in general, most use self-report measures without giving participants an actual task that might represent risk-taking. This raises the concern that these self-report measures do not validly measure risk-taking or related constructs. In addition, many studies do not take into account the difference in cognitive maturity between younger and older adolescents.

Sensation-Seeking

Sensation-seeking is "a need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experiences" (Zuckerman, 1979, p. …

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