The evolutionary basis of risky adolescent behavior: implications for science, policy, and practice

Dev Psychol. 2012 May;48(3):598-623. doi: 10.1037/a0026220. Epub 2011 Nov 28.


This article proposes an evolutionary model of risky behavior in adolescence and contrasts it with the prevailing developmental psychopathology model. The evolutionary model contends that understanding the evolutionary functions of adolescence is critical to explaining why adolescents engage in risky behavior and that successful intervention depends on working with, instead of against, adolescent goals and motivations. The current article articulates 5 key evolutionary insights into risky adolescent behavior: (a) The adolescent transition is an inflection point in development of social status and reproductive trajectories; (b) interventions need to address the adaptive functions of risky and aggressive behaviors like bullying; (c) risky adolescent behavior adaptively calibrates over development to match both harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions; (d) understanding evolved sex differences is critical for understanding the psychology of risky behavior; and (e) mismatches between current and past environments can dysregulate adolescent behavior, as demonstrated by age-segregated social groupings. The evolutionary model has broad implications for designing interventions for high-risk youth and suggests new directions for research that have not been forthcoming from other perspectives.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Behavioral Symptoms / psychology
  • Behavioral Symptoms / therapy
  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA-Cytosine Methylases
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Motivation
  • Policy
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sex Characteristics


  • DNA modification methylase AgeI
  • DNA-Cytosine Methylases