Katherine Keyes weighs in on her latest paper describing 30 year trends in adolescent risk preference.
The graph below shows the yearly trend in a trait termed ‘risk preference’, spanning the last 30 years among adolescents in the United States. Adolescents who prefer risk tend to engage in more varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences. We have considerable data to show that risk preference changes across age (see the end of this blog entry for a reading list). When the teen years begin, adolescents typically begin seeking more novel, risky experiences; the preference for risk increases during adolescence and then typically drops off during the transition to adulthood. It’s clear that the roots of risk preference are neurobiological, and evolutionary experts chime in that preference for risk is probably necessary and healthy – seeking out new experiences allows the adolescent to leave the home with little anxiety and go and discover the world as an adult.
However, there is substantial individual variation around the population mean of risk preference; high risk preference teens are those that are willing to, for example, go on the highest roller coaster or cliff diving on the family vacation; low risk preference teens are the ones who, perhaps, nervously watch from the sideline.But whether a teen wants to go on a roller coaster doesn’t interest me all that much as a public health scientist. It turns out, though, that teens who prefer riskier activities are not only more likely to be first in line for the roller coaster; they are also more likely to engage in drug use, gambling, vandalism, truancy, and experience unintended pregnancy—making risk preference as a concept one of interest for epidemiologists like myself.
In conducting this study, we were not so much interested in individual variation (i.e. what makes some kids prefer risk and not others), but instead in historical variation (i.e. are there time periods in history in which, on average, American teens preferred more risk than others). Historical variation gives us insight into the way in which social context is embedded in our psyche. While risk preference is traditionally believed to be a biological process involving brain maturation with substantial individual differences in trajectories, what would it mean if there were overall population shifts across time, collectively, in the number of teens who prefer risk?
In fact, there are tremendous shifts over time in risk preference (see graph above). We obtained these data from National Institute of Drug Abuse funded ongoing national surveys of high schools seniors conducted every year since 1976 (Monitoring the Future, http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/), using the same questions:
“How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”
1) “I get a real kick out of doing things that are a little dangerous.”
2) “I like to test myself now and then by doing things that are a little risky.”.
We summed the responses (on a five-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”) and took the average by year and for boys and girls separately. As is clear from the graph, there was a dramatic increase in the slope across the 1980s for both genders. After about 1991 the mean stabilized for boys, but the mean has been continuing to increase for girls for the last 20 years. In fact, compared with adolescents responding to surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, adolescent girls are more than twice as likely to report that they prefer enjoying activities that were “a little dangerous”.
So what gives? Why did risk preference increase so dramatically in the 1980s, and why does it continue to go up for girls?
Well, to be honest, we don’t know. To our knowledge, this is the first and only study of its kind that contains data examining historical trends in a construct like risk preference, and we certainly did not expect the results. What do we know? We know that the high school seniors of the 1980s were squarely part of Generation X, which sociologically has been characterized by disrespect of authority, and disenfranchisement with traditional gender roles and other stereotypes .
Generation X came of age in a time of relative economic prosperity, and we saw substantial increases in the proportion of adolescents going to college. The previous generation, those that were high school seniors in the 1970s, were handling a recessed economy and global political struggles, which may have created a national psyche that was less willing to be careless or dangerous in their daily lives. In fact, the proportion of adolescents going from high school to college decreased slightly across the 1970s.Adolescents in the late 1980s, on the other hand, delayed the assumption of adult roles, including taking on responsibilities such as decision-making, allowing for the pursuit of activities purely for dangerousness. In sum, clearly paving the way for the 20-something Winona Ryders and Ethan Hawkes of the early 1990s in Reality Bites.
And what about the continued increases in risk preference among women? Again, we don’t have data to specifically unpack the trends in risk preference, but we do know that during this time we saw increases in women going to college and obtaining advanced degrees, and delaying childbearing and marriage. It is possible that adolescent females of the 1980s were experiencing the rewards of the first and second waves of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and in some ways were able to shed conventions of prior norms of propriety. During this time the prevalence of alcohol disorders in women also increased, and outpaced men’s prevalence increases; progress in smoking cessation among women essentially stalled. Thus while striving for social equity in work and home life, women’s health behavior is also increasingly shaping up to be equitably distributed to that of men.
The prevalence of risk preference, alcohol disorders, smoking, and other externalizing health behaviors remain considerably higher among men than women, but the trends for women continue to increase and deserve our attention and consideration.
Now, to be sure, much of our speculation remains to be tested with data, and I would love to hear others suggestions for why we saw these increases in risk preference.
More broadly, however, historical analyses like we published in this paper can shed a light on facets of public health and health behaviors that we do not normally see. If a trait believed to be as genetically and neuro-biologically rooted as risk preference can shift over time in dramatic ways, what else do we assume to be biological when in fact it may be more socially driven than we previously realized? How does our broader social, political, and economic context shape the way in which we see the world, seek sensation, drive our fear, and assume our adult roles?
We are continuing to analyze these data against a number of other metrics with equally exciting and perplexing results. I’ll report back soon, but first I have to finish watching Stand By Me  for clues to how maturational processes influence the incidence of fight-or-flight response when Kiefer Sutherland surprises you over a dead body with a knife in his hand.
— Katherine M. Keyes, PhD
For all the details of the research project see:
Keyes KM, Jager J, Hamilton A, O’Malley PM, Miech R, Schulenberg JE. 2015. National multi-cohort time trends in adolescent sensation seeking and the relation with problem behavior from 1976 to 2011. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, ePub Jul 2. PMID: 26254018. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26254018
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Jager, J., Keyes, K.M., Schulenberg, J.E., in press. Historical variation in young adult binge drinking trajectories and its link to historical variation in social roles and minimum legal drinking age. Developmental psychology.
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Very interesting article, to help understanding kids psychology. Thank you for sharing. You are such a great author, I enjoy read your post!