Crosses at the roadside, adorned with flowers, are often a sad testimony of the worst possible outcome of adolescent daredevilry. There are also less radical examples for risky behavior in adolescence, like smoking, shoplifting and driving without seatbelt. A task, that can measure adolescents' risk behavior in the laboratory has demonstrably been related to these behaviors outside the laboratory. In this task, the so-called Balloon-Analogue-Risk-Task (BART), the adolescents decide whether they pump a balloon further and risk bursting it. Alternatively they can exchange the balloon for money. The bigger the balloon, the more money it is worth. However, in case the balloon bursts when trying to inflate it, the participant receives no money.
Recently it has also been shown that the BART is well suited to investigate impulsive decision making in general. Impulsive people showed riskier behavior in the BART than less impulsive people. A first study, which investigated electrical brain activity following the burst of the balloon, found an increased signal when the balloon burst compared to successful inflation. Moreover the use of an imaging technique while participants made risky decisions showed increased activity in a brain region that is involved in estimating possible consequences of risky decisions. A task similar to the BART also showed that adolescents (13-16 years) behaved in a more risky fashion than older comparison groups and that they chose risky options even more often when they were under the influence of peers.
By contrast the influence of emotional processes on risky decision making in adolescents has not yet been sufficiently investigated. Adolescents are also of a special interest in this project since the maturation of the brain is not finished until after this phase of life (until ~ 21st year). The frontal cortex in particular, which is important for controlling emotions and impulsive acts, develops until early adulthood. Furthermore it has been shown that the nucleus accumbens, which is crucial for the impact of reward, shows increased activity in adolescents when they expect a reward. This brain region is also more active with increasing risk.
These findings suggest that adolescents perceive successfully taken risks as especially rewarding. Based on this, an especially strong electrical brain signal is expected when a risky decision was successful.
A first study, which has already been published, showed the basic result that successful risk behavior is associated with an electrical brain signal that is generally found in positive feedback. Failures on the other hand are associated with a signal which is generally present in negative feedback.
Based on this, further studies investigating participants risk behavior in the BART have been conducted and are in the process of being published.
Below are the studies that have been conducted in this area as part of the Schumpeter Fellowship:
1. Risk behavior of adolescents in the BART
Project director: Johannes Hewig