Neurobiological and memory models of risky decision making in adolescents versus young adults

J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2011 Sep;37(5):1125-42. doi: 10.1037/a0023943.


Predictions of fuzzy-trace theory and neurobiological approaches are examined regarding risk taking in a classic decision-making task--the framing task--as well as in the context of real-life risk taking. We report the 1st study of framing effects in adolescents versus adults, varying risk and reward, and relate choices to individual differences, sexual behavior, and behavioral intentions. As predicted by fuzzy-trace theory, adolescents modulated risk taking according to risk and reward. Adults showed standard framing, reflecting greater emphasis on gist-based (qualitative) reasoning, but adolescents displayed reverse framing when potential gains for risk taking were high, reflecting greater emphasis on verbatim-based (quantitative) reasoning. Reverse framing signals a different way of thinking compared with standard framing (reverse framing also differs from simply choosing the risky option). Measures of verbatim- and gist-based reasoning about risk, sensation seeking, behavioral activation, and inhibition were used to extract dimensions of risk proneness: Sensation seeking increased and then decreased, whereas inhibition increased from early adolescence to young adulthood, predicted by neurobiological theories. Two additional dimensions, verbatim- and gist-based reasoning about risk, loaded separately and predicted unique variance in risk taking. Importantly, framing responses predicted real-life risk taking. Reasoning was the most consistent predictor of real-life risk taking: (a) Intentions to have sex, sexual behavior, and number of partners decreased when gist-based reasoning was triggered by retrieval cues in questions about perceived risk, whereas (b) intentions to have sex and number of partners increased when verbatim-based reasoning was triggered by different retrieval cues in questions about perceived risk.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fuzzy Logic
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Neurobiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Probability
  • Reward
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult