The dual systems model: Review, reappraisal, and reaffirmation

Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2016 Feb;17:103-17. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2015.12.010. Epub 2015 Dec 29.


According to the dual systems perspective, risk taking peaks during adolescence because activation of an early-maturing socioemotional-incentive processing system amplifies adolescents' affinity for exciting, pleasurable, and novel activities at a time when a still immature cognitive control system is not yet strong enough to consistently restrain potentially hazardous impulses. We review evidence from both the psychological and neuroimaging literatures that has emerged since 2008, when this perspective was originally articulated. Although there are occasional exceptions to the general trends, studies show that, as predicted, psychological and neural manifestations of reward sensitivity increase between childhood and adolescence, peak sometime during the late teen years, and decline thereafter, whereas psychological and neural reflections of better cognitive control increase gradually and linearly throughout adolescence and into the early 20s. While some forms of real-world risky behavior peak at a later age than predicted, this likely reflects differential opportunities for risk-taking in late adolescence and young adulthood, rather than neurobiological differences that make this age group more reckless. Although it is admittedly an oversimplification, as a heuristic device, the dual systems model provides a far more accurate account of adolescent risk taking than prior models that have attributed adolescent recklessness to cognitive deficiencies.

Keywords: Adolescents; Cognitive control; Dual systems; Reward sensitivity; Risk taking; Sensation-seeking.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Reward*
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Self-Control / psychology*
  • Young Adult