Anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows adolescents tend to make riskier decisions when they are around friends than when alone. Teens are more likely to drive recklessly, use drugs and commit crimes in social situations.
Scientists, who know the reason goes beyond peer pressure, are looking for causes rooted in the brain to explain how the decision-making process differs when teens are in groups.
Temple University researchers may have a piece to add to the puzzle. In an experiment, teens and adults were asked to play a video game in which they drove a car and had to decide whether to stop or speed through intersections with oncoming traffic.
When teenagers had friends watching from another room, they were more likely to speed through. Psychology professor Jason Chein, who helped run the experiment, said there was a difference even though teens did not talk to each other while they were making the decisions.
“Simply the awareness that you were being observed by peers, if you were an adolescent, influenced decisions about risk and the activity of underlying brain systems,” Chein said.
Brain scans taken during the experiment showed the reward center in the teens’ brains lit up as they made decisions while their friends watched, leading them to make more risky decisions. This is a preliminary finding, and Chein said more research needs to be done to determine why the difference exists.
It may be that kids are anticipating how cool they will seem after pulling off something perceived as risky. But it could be that simply being with friends sensitizes those reward centers, making the reward part of the brain yell louder than the part urging caution during split-second decision making.