To examine the differences in risk-taking between teens and adults, researchers studied 33 healthy adolescents aged 12 to 17, along with 30 normal adults aged 30 to 50. They all engaged in a gambling game, in which they could take a definite $5 reward or choose between the possibility of getting a much larger payout or nothing at all.
The payout was based on whether there was a greater number of red or blue poker chips in a stack of 100; to vary the ambiguity, larger or smaller portions of the stacks were hidden from view.
In this way, the trials provided different amounts of information about the risks involved: for example, in some trials, participants could choose between the $5 and a clear 50% chance of winning $50. In others, however, they had a choice between $5 and varying amounts of money, up to $125, but the probability of winning appeared to vary from 25% to 75%. In reality, they always had a 50% chance of winning, but were led to believe their odds varied, which allowed researchers to look at how participants thought about ambiguity.
"If the risks are known, adolescents engage (in risk-taking) less than adults do, but if they are unknown, this is reversed," Tymula says. In fact, when the payout was known to be $125, adults always gambled -- but this was not so for teens.
Image: Teenaged boy gambling, via Shutterstock