Sex differences in the developmental trajectories of impulse control and sensation-seeking from early adolescence to early adulthood

J Youth Adolesc. 2015 Jan;44(1):1-17. doi: 10.1007/s10964-014-0116-9. Epub 2014 Mar 30.


It has been proposed that high rates of risk-taking in adolescence are partly attributable to patterns of neurobiological development that promote an increase in sensation-seeking tendencies at a time when impulse control is still developing. It is not known, however, whether this pattern is the same for males and females. The present study investigates sex differences in the developmental trajectories of self-reported impulse control and sensation-seeking between the ages of 10 and 25 using longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Child and Young Adult Survey (N = 8,270; 49% female; 33% Black, 22% Hispanic, 45% Non-Black, Non-Hispanic). Prior work has found that, consistent with the dual-systems model of adolescent neurobiological development, sensation-seeking rises and falls across this age span, whereas impulse control increases into the 20s. In the present study, we find that this same general pattern holds for both males and females, but with some key differences. As expected, males exhibit higher levels of sensation-seeking and lower levels of impulse control than females. Differences also emerged in the shapes of the developmental trajectories. Females reach peak levels of sensation-seeking earlier than males (consistent with the idea that sensation-seeking is linked to pubertal development) and decline in sensation-seeking more rapidly thereafter. Also, males increase in impulse control more gradually than females. Consequently, sex differences in both impulse control and sensation-seeking increase with age. The findings suggest that the window of heightened vulnerability to risk-taking during adolescence may be greater in magnitude and more protracted for males than for females.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology*
  • Adolescent Development*
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Risk Factors
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sensation
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult