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Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence JRALISTAT (2)

Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence JRALISTAT (2)

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Published by Ramona Anisie
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Published by: Ramona Anisie on Mar 28, 2013
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 Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence
Dustin Albert and Laurence Steinberg
Temple University
In this article, we review the most important findings to have emerged during the past 10 years in the study of judgmentand decision making (JDM) in adolescence and look ahead to possible new directions in this burgeoning area of research.Three inter-related shifts in research emphasis are of particular importance and serve to organize this review. First, re-search grounded in normative models of JDM has moved beyond the study of age differences in risk perception andtoward a dynamic account of the factors predicting adolescent decisions. Second, the field has seen widespread adoptionof dual-process models of cognitive development that describe 2 relatively independent modes of information processing,typically contrasting an analytic (cold) system with an experiential (hot) one. Finally, therehas been an increase in attentionto the social, emotional, and self-regulatory factors that influence JDM. This shift in focus reflects the growing influence of findings from developmental neuroscience, which describe a pattern of structural and functional maturation that may setthe stage for a heightened propensity to make risky decisions in adolescence.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are 16 years old. It isthe spring of your sophomore year of high school,and you feel a newfound sense of optimism aboutyour social prospects. Best of all, it is Friday nightand you are ready to take advantage of your recentlyrenegotiated curfew, now extended to 11p.m. Whenpressed for your plans, you tell your parents that youare just going to the movies and then maybe hangingout at the coffee shop: No need to worry. In reality,you know that when your friends pick you up, youwill head straight to the first big keg party to whichyou have ever been invited. Everyone will be there.But you will have to be careful, because these thingsget busted by the cops all the time, not to mentionthe fact that your parents will be waiting up for youwhen you get home. You are not really planning ondrinking at the party, but if you do, you will defi-nitely need some breath mints and a believablehorror movie synopsis. That should be easy enough.We begin our review with this exercise in creativevisualization not to inspire fear and suspicion inthose among our readers charged with parenting ateenager, but to illustrate the multitude of factorsthat dynamically shape adolescents’ choices. On thisone weekend evening, our hypothetical teenager willmake a series of choices with potentially lastingconsequences for his health, safety, criminal record,family relationships, and social status. These deci-sions are likely to be influenced not only by his ca-pacity to accurately evaluate the relative costs and benefits of alternative courses of action, but also thesocial and emotional contexts in which he makes thedecisions
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the mix of excitement and anxiety he brings to the party, his in-the-moment assessment of social expectations, and his background fear of get-ting caught by police or parents, to name just a few.Stated simply, adolescent decision making is a com-plex and multiply determined phenomenon.Fortunately, the last decade of scholarship on ado-lescent judgment and decision making (JDM) has seenremarkable progress in modeling this complexity.Building on normative models of rational decisionmaking, the field has dramatically expanded its ex-planatory power by integrating research methods andtheoretical insights from cognitive, developmental,social, and emotion perspectives, with a growing in-fluence from the neurosciences. Indeed, this move-ment toward an interdisciplinary perspective hasmade it increasingly difficult to define the boundariesof adolescent JDM as a topic of investigation. After all,what domain of adolescent behavior does not involvesome degree of JDM? Because space limitations pre-clude an exhaustive consideration of such an expan-sively defined literature, our review is necessaryselective, guided by our assessment of the most im-portant developments over the last decade within thetraditional domains of interest to adolescent JDM re-searchers. Responding to public policy concerns re-garding adolescents’ relative competence to makedecisionswithlong-termconsequencesfortheirhealthand well-being, the field has historically focused onidentifying domains of immaturity in adolescent
r
2011 The Authors Journal of Research on Adolescence
r
2011 Society for Research on AdolescenceDOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00724.x
Requests for reprints should be sent to Dustin Albert, TempleUniversity, Department of Psychology, Weiss Hall, 1701 N. 13thStreet, Philadelphia, PA 19122. E-mail:dustin.albert@temple.edu
 JOURNAL OF RESEARCH ON ADOLESCENCE, 21(1), 211224
 
decision making. Although our review reflects thistradition, we emphasize that many, if not most, ado-lescents demonstrate remarkable decision-makingcompetence across a variety of domains. Future re-search on adolescent JDM should aspire to integratecurrent models focused on adolescent immaturitywith the growing literature documenting the biologi-cal, psychological, and contextual factors promotingpositive youth development (Lerner, 2009).Three inter-related developments in adolescent JDM research serve to organize this review. First,developmental research grounded in normativemodels of rational decision making has made sig-nificant gains in identifying the factors that influenceadolescents’ choices. Building on foundational workmodeling the key components of rational decisionmaking, early research in this tradition focused onidentifying aspects of cognitive processing in whichadolescents were deficient relative to adults, partic-ularly with regard to decisions involving risk. Inresponse to considerable evidence that adolescentsevaluate risky decisions in a manner similar to adults(Reyna & Farley, 2006), research from the past de-cade has shifted from an examination of age differ-ences in risk processing toward comprehensivemodeling of the factors predicting adolescents’ de-cisions. Such models have gained considerable ex-planatory power by examining the interplay of bothrisk
and benefit
perceptions, as well as the role of experience in modifying these views.Second, following theoretical developments in theadult JDM literature (and related trends in cognitiveand social psychology), the field has seen wide-spread adoption of dual-process models of cognitivedevelopment (see Jacobs & Klaczynski, 2005, formultiple examples). These models describe two rel-atively independent modes of information process-ing, typically contrasting an analytic (deliberative,controlled, reasoned, ‘‘cold’’) system with an expe-riential (intuitive, automatic, reactive, ‘‘hot’’) system(e.g., Epstein, 1994; Gerrard, Gibbons, Houlihan,Stock, & Pomery, 2008; Jacobs & Klaczynski, 2002;Reyna & Farley, 2006). Proponents of dual-processmodels argue that traditional cognitive developmentresearch has been limited by its singular focus on theanalytic system, leading to theories of unidirectionalmaturational trajectories proceeding from intuitiveto reasoned processing (Klaczynsi, 2005). Given ev-idence that the use of many heuristics actually
in-creases
in adulthood, dual-process proponents arguethat developmental models of JDM must account forthe distinct maturational trajectories of analytic andexperiential systems. In this view, changes in JDMover the course of adolescence do not reflect a simpletransition from experiential to analytic processing, but rather result from domain-specific shifts in therelative dominance of intuition and reason.The influence of dual-process theories can also befelt in a third research trend, a growth in attention tothe social, emotional, and self-regulatory factors thatinfluence adolescents’ JDM. This shift in focus re-flects the growing influence of findings from devel-opmental neuroscience, which describe a pattern of structural and functional maturation that may set thestage for a heightened propensity to make riskydecisions in adolescence. Social and emotional fac-tors relevant to adolescent JDM include normativechanges in core motivational processes, such assensation seeking and sensitivity to reward andpunishment, as well as age-related changes in therelative influence of contextual variables (e.g., thepresence or absence of peers) on risk-taking behav-ior. Together, evidence for heightened sensitivity tosocial and emotional factors in early-to-middle ado-lescence has offered one plausible account for thecorresponding prevalence of risk taking. Comple-mentary to this focus on social and emotional factors,research has also described continued develop-ment in late adolescence of capacities supportinggrowth in self-regulatory competence, which isthought to contribute to a corresponding decline inrisk taking. Consistent with the dual-process per-spectives described above, this research has soughtto push the field beyond the study of ‘‘cold’’ cogni-tion and toward explication of the experientialfactors that influence real-world, in-the-moment de-cision making.
BEYOND RISK PERCEPTION: EXPANDING THESTUDY OF RATIONAL DECISION MAKING
Before the mid-1990s, research on adolescent JDMfocused largely on whether adolescents used adult-like cognitive processes when making decisions (forreviews, see Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992; Quadrel,Fischhoff, & Davis, 1993). Much of this workstemmed from concerns about the high prevalence of risk behavior among adolescents (especially com-pared with adults) and the consequences of risktaking for adolescentshealth. As a general rule,adolescents are more likely than adults over 25 to binge drink, smoke cigarettes, have casual sex part-ners, engage in violent and other criminal behavior,and have fatal or serious automobile crashes, themajority of which are caused by reckless driving ordriving under the influence of alcohol. Becausemany of these behaviors appear inherently irrationalwhen individuals understand their probable long-
212 ALBERT AND STEINBERG
 
term consequences, it was assumed that adolescentsmust be less competent than adults in one or more of the elements of rational decision making.Normative models of JDM have historically em-phasized five broad stages supporting competent de-cision making, including: (a) identifying options; (b)assessing the possible consequences of each option; (c)evaluating the desirability of each consequence; (d)estimating the probability of occurrence for each con-sequence; and (e) applying a decision algorithm to theabove information to identify the option with thegreatest subjective utility (Beyth-Marom, Austin,Fischhoff, Palmgren, & Jacobs-quadrel, 1993; Halpern-Felsher & Cauffman, 2001). Drawing upon these andsimilar models (e.g., Theory of Planned Behavior;Azjen, 1985), a great deal of research searched for thesource of adolescents’ heightened propensity to makerisky choices by comparing adolescent and adultperformance within specific stages of the decision-making process. Specifically, much of this work ex-amined whether adolescents perceive the potentialconsequences of risk behavior (i.e., Stage b) and ac-curately assess the probability of those consequencesoccurring (i.e., Stage d) to the same degree as adults.Contradicting popular conceptions of the typicaladolescent as beset by an ‘‘invulnerability complex,’adolescents were shown to be no worse than adults atperceiving risk or estimating their vulnerability to it,and studies found that increasing the salience of therisks associated with making a poor or potentiallydangerous decision has comparable effects on adoles-cents and adults (for a discussion of false leads in thestudyofadolescentrisktaking,seeMillstein&Halpern-Felsher, 2002; Reyna & Farley, 2006; Rivers, Reyna, &Mills, 2008; Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). Indeed, thereappear to be few, if any, age differences in individuals’evaluations of the risks inherent in a wide range of dangerous behaviors (e.g., driving while drunk, havingunprotected sex) or in their judgments about the seri-ousness of the consequences that might result fromrisky behavior (Beyth-Marom et al., 1993; although, seeCohn,Macfarlane,Yanez,&Imai,1995,foranexceptionwhere adolescents judge lower risk than adults for‘‘occasional’’ engagement in risk behavior).Given evidence that adolescents do not differmuch from adults in their capacity to rationallyevaluate risk information, researchers have begun tolook for other explanations of why adolescents, as agroup, make riskier decisions than adults. As we willdescribe in later sections, this shift has led to ex-panded consideration of social, emotional, and self-regulatory factors differentiating adolescent fromadult decision making. At the same time, researchgrounded in rational decision theory has madeconsiderable progress in building models describingthe cognitive factors that predict adolescents’ health-risk decisions.Before the last decade, the field’s reliance on cross-sectional self-report studies produced a puzzling set of findings regarding the relation between risk percep-tions and behaviors (for reviews, see Millstein & Hal-pern-Felsher, 2002; Reyna & Farley, 2006). Given theassumption that adolescents rationally evaluate costsand benefits to reach a decision, cognitive modelstypically predict that individuals who perceive lowerrisk will be more likely to engage in a given behavior.Although many studies have reported this expectednegative correlation between risk perception and be-havior (e.g., Benthin, Slovic, & Severson, 1993; Hem-melstein, 1995), others have found the opposite
F
thatadolescents engaging in risk behavior perceive higherrisks than do nonengagers (e.g., Cohn et al., 1995;Gerrard, Gibbons, & Bushman, 1996). To a degree,these contradictory findings can be accounted for bydifferences between studies with respect to the condi-tionality of risk perception assessments (Ronis, 1992).When risk perceptions are assessed unconditionally(i.e., ‘‘How likely are you to experience negative con-sequences from smoking?’’), risk-takers accurately re-port a higher degree of personal risk than their peerswho are not engaging in risk behavior. In contrast,when presented with conditional questions (i.e., ‘‘Iyou smoked, how likely are consequences?’’), risk-takers tend to report lower risk perceptions than theirrisk-abstaining counterparts.Such findings highlight both the role of experienceas a modifier of risk perceptions and the need forlongitudinal studies that assess risk perceptions
before
individuals engage in risk behavior. Although carefullongitudinal research investigating prospective pre-dictors of health-risk behavior is still much neededfor a variety of domains, the last decade has seenprogress in at least one area. Specifically, a number of longitudinal studies examining precursors of smok-ing initiation have provided strong evidence that ado-lescents who perceive a lower probability of harmfulconsequences are more likely to initiate smoking(Krosnick, Chang, Sherman,Chassin,& Presson, 2006;Rodriguez, Romer, & Audrain-Mcgovern, 2007; Song,Morrell, et al., 2009; Song, Glantz, & Halpern-Felsher,2009). These studies provide an important reminderthat, despite the inability to explain age differences inrisk behavior, risk perception remains a valuable ex-planatory construct and a viable target for preventionefforts.Recent research also has made progress in expli-cating the role of experience in modifying risk per-ceptions. As we discussed above, when adolescents
ADOLESCENT JDM 213

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