From binge-drinking to reckless driving, our teenage years are known to be a time of risk-taking. Now we are starting to understand why such behaviours spread between friends.
Many previous studies have shown that adolescents are more likely to start smoking or drinking if their friends do, but it is hard to study how such behaviours spread through social groups. While working at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, Andrea Reiter and her colleagues used a simple gambling game to dig into the teen appeal of risk-taking, and its social implications.
The task involved choosing between a definite payout of €5 or a known, small chance of winning up to €50. The game was played over a series of rounds by 86 male volunteers, half of whom were between 12 and 15, while the rest were adults. Previous work suggested boys and girls have different levels of risk-taking, so the team focused on males.
When the volunteers played the game alone, the boys were less likely than the men to take the risky gamble of trying for a larger payout. “There is this stereotype, but teens were not more risk-seeking when tested alone,” says Reiter.
However, this changed when the participants no longer thought they were alone. In a second run of the experiment, the volunteers met a “partner” face-to-face before playing the game, and were told they could see each other’s actions on a computer. In reality, the researchers were in control of all the “partner’s” decisions.
If the fake partner took the risky gamble more often, the boys’ own play became riskier – but only if their partner was another teen, not an adult. The boys’ behaviour changed more than twice as much as that of the adults.
A questionnaire revealed that the boys who changed their behaviour the most also reported having more friends and a higher social confidence.
These findings don’t prove that taking more risks is a direct cause of popularity, but they do hint at a link. “The idea of ‘risk contagion’ has this passive connotation, like these empty-headed teenagers are being infected with something,” says Gabriele Chierchia of University College London. “But it may be an active effort. There’s probably something adaptive going on.”
Reiter suggests that teenage bloggers and YouTube stars should be more aware of their potential influence over their audience. “You might see YouTubers that are risk-taking and you might also see YouTubers that are suggesting nice things. [Copying behaviour] is not necessarily something bad, it’s just a natural thing in adolescence.”
In a previous study, smoking rates at a school were cut by identifying its most influential pupils and getting them to discourage others from starting.
Author Clare Wilson
New Scientist Magazine issue 3216, published 9 February 2019