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RISK, RATIONAL DECISION MAKING, AND THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN
Valerie Reyna, Ph.D.
Professor, Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research,
Departments of Human Development and Psychology
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
Risky decision making in adolescence and young adulthood is a focus of research for both practical and theoretical reasons. On the practical side, poor decisions about risk taking produce social, economic, and public health problems. On the theoretical side, behavioral and neurobiological theories have been used to understand the origins of unhealthy risk taking. These theories, and associated data, have implicated individual and developmental differences in brain systems that control reward salience and behavioral inhibition. However, recent reviews of the literature on adolescent risk taking, as well as risk behavior in laboratory tasks, have identified additional factors that influence risky behavior. According to fuzzy-trace theory (FTT), decision makers encode multiple representations of options ranging from precise verbatim representations of exact details to fuzzy gist representations that capture the essential meaning of information. In contrast to traditional dual-process models, FTT posits that what develops is a shift away from deliberative analysis of degrees of risk and reward to a more categorical or qualitative gist-based thinking. Adults avoid risks by intuitively grasping the risks of situations through knowledge and experience, and making all-or-none decisions to avoid dangerous risks. Both verbatim and gist processes continue to develop from childhood to adulthood. However, because children and many adolescents lack relevant life experience in most domains of risk taking, they fail to grasp the bottom line of these decisions. Hence, they rely on more precise verbatim thinking that often promotes risk taking. Attendees of this course will: (1) understand the brain and cognitive systems involved with a variety of risky behaviors, and (2) become familiar with the results of interventions (based on FTT) that reduce unhealthy behaviors.