Development & Education

Know a risky teenager? Evolutionarily speaking, that's good behavior

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Teens are more likely to take risks, or experiment with drugs, pictured, and that's actually an evolutionary advantage. The risk taking, at least. (Photo by Flickr user Torben Bjørn Hansen, cc-by-sa.)

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When you think of teenagers, words like “responsible” or “careful” probably aren’t the first to come to mind.

Teens often drive fast, sometimes experiment with drugs, usually don’t get enough sleep and many seem to care only about hanging out with friends.

But new research about teens’ brains shows that their hunger for risk may be a trait that has evolved over time to help them succeed at such a tumultuous time in their lives.

Science reporter David Dobbs said that during teenage years there are three traits that are at their peak: A taste for risk, a desire for novelty and a need to be around same-aged peers.

“Those are all traits that are tremendously useful to humanity, essential to our success,” he said. “If you look at the task we face at that age, which is to move from the safety of home and out into the world into a bunch of unknowns, that’s the scariest, hardest thing we do in our lives. So you would need tremendous motivation– and that’s what the taste for risk-taking and the desire for novelty and same-aged peers provides."

Dobbs is careful to point out that these traits are not all good. As Dobbs said it in his article, young people between 15-25 die “of accidents of almost every sort at high rates.”

“When we say something is adaptive from an evolutionary point of view, it does not mean it’s always good. It means it’s good more often than it’s bad,” he said.

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