A new study has found that teens become more susceptible to the potential rewards of a risk when they are with friends than when alone.
Temple University psychologists Jason Chein and Laurence Steinberg measured brain activity in adolescents, alone and with peers, as they made decisions with inherent risks.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Chein and Steinberg looked at brain activity in adolescents, young adults and adults as they made decisions in a simulated driving game.
The goal of the game was to reach the end of a track as quickly as possible in order to maximize a monetary reward. Participants were forced to make a decision about whether to stop at a yellow light when they came to a given intersection or run through the intersection and risk colliding with another vehicle.
While adolescents and older participants behaved comparably while playing the game alone, it was only the adolescents who took a greater number of risks when they knew their friends were watching.
More significantly, according to Chein, the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activation when the adolescents knew that their peers were observing them.
"These results suggest that the presence of peers does not impact the evaluation of the risk but rather heightens sensitivity in the brain to the potential upside of a risky decision.
"If the presence of friends had been simply a distraction to the participant, then we would have seen an impact on the brain's executive function. But that is not what we have found," he said.
The findings were published in Developmental Science.