Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are Teens More Rational?

No, really. At Frontal Cortex, a link to a story on teens being very “cost-benefit” and overestimating risks but doing them anyway because they also way overestimate the benefits, too. And here’s the blogger’s own reaction, which has relevance to both juvenile justice and to TECHNOCORRECTIONS:

I'm not sure I agree. First of all, a one in 12 chance of getting pregnant is not an inconsequential risk. I think you could easily make the case that rational people, even Bayesians, would still choose to wear a condom given those odds. Secondly, I think the "teens are too rational" theory contradicts recent findings about the teenage brain. The problem for teens is that the rational circuits of the frontal cortex are actually the last to develop. (The development of the brain recapitulates its evolution, so that, in general, the brain areas that were last to evolve are the also the last to develop.) While the have fully functional emotional brains, adolescents often lack the mental muscles to hold these emotions in check. A 2006 fMRI study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards (like sex, drugs and rock n' roll), was significantly more active and mature than the prefrontal cortex, which helps us resist such temptations. In other words, teens have reckless sex and drink too much and drive dangerously because their rational brain is at a literal disadvantage. It can't argue back against their impulses.

[Of course, as you contemplate the rationality of young adults, keep this recent finding in mind:

Researchers at Duke University have demonstrated that monkeys have the ability to perform mental addition. In fact, monkeys performed about as well as college students given the same test.]

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