The brighter side of adolescent peer pressure: MRI studies

Adolescents are known for their risk taking. Health experts in privileged countries like ours cite preventable, often self-inflicted mishaps as the biggest risk to teenage well-being. But while the negative effects of peer pressure are well-known, less known are the more positive characteristics (faster learning and self exploration) attributed to the risks associated with group mentality in teens.

An MRI study entitled Risk Taking in Late Adolescence: Relations Between Sociomoral Reasoning, Risk Stance, and Behaviour, published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, found, using a psychological game called the ‘Iowa Gambling Task’, that adolescents who were being watched by their peers got the knack of the game faster. “Risk-taking in and of itself is not a bad thing, and taking risks is one way we learn about the world around us,” said study author Dr. Laurence Steinberg. “Peers may motivate each other to explore their environment in a way they might not do if they were being more cautious. Sometimes that leads to harmful consequences, but sometimes it leads to learning new things that are good, and I think that’s one of the points of the paper.”

Steinberg has previously discovered–using fMRI–that the brain’s reward centre is activated more strongly in the presence of peers. “When the reward centers of the brain are activated, it tends to make individuals focus more on the potential rewards that they face rather than the downsides,” he said. “We think our brains are wired so that adolescence is a time when people are more willing to take risks, and that’s a good thing as long as the risks they take don’t jeopardize their well-being. It’s important to remember that you’re not going to be able to stop teenagers from taking risks — it’s built into their wiring.”