The adolescent age period is often characterized as a health paradox because it is a time of extensive increases in physical and mental capabilities, yet overall mortality/morbidity rates increase significantly from childhood to adolescence, often due to preventable causes such as risk taking. Asynchrony in developmental time courses between the affective/approach and cognitive control brain systems, as well as the ongoing maturation of neural connectivity are thought to lead to increased vulnerability for risk taking in adolescence. A critical analysis of the frequency of risk taking behaviors, as well as mortality and morbidity rates across the lifespan, however, challenges the hypothesis that the peak of risk taking occurs in middle adolescence when the asynchrony between the different developmental time courses of the affective/approach and cognitive control systems is the largest. In fact, the highest levels of risk taking behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use, often occur among emerging adults (e.g., university/college students), and highlight the role of the social context in predicting risk taking behavior. Moreover, risk taking is not always unregulated or impulsive. Future research should broaden the scope of risk taking to include risks that are relevant to older adults, such as risky financial investing, gambling, and marital infidelity. In addition, a lifespan perspective, with a focus on how associations between neural systems and behavior are moderated by context and trait-level characteristics, and which includes diverse samples (e.g., divorced individuals), will help to address some important limitations in the adolescent brain development and risk taking literature.
Keywords: Adolescent risk taking; Brain development; Dual system; Lifespan; Social context.
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