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Behav Neurosci. 2011 Dec;125(6):970-8. doi: 10.1037/a0025768. Epub 2011 Oct 17.

Risky business: executive function, personality, and reckless behavior during adolescence and emerging adulthood.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.


Adolescence is a risky business. Despite outstanding physical health, the risk of injury or death during adolescence is 2-3 times that of childhood. The primary cause of this increase in morbidity and mortality is heightened risky behavior including drinking, driving, drug-taking, smoking, and unprotected sex. Why is it that some adolescents take big risks, while others do not? One potential source of individual differences in risk-taking behavior may lie in individual differences in executive function including judgment, impulse control, self-monitoring, and planning. Researchers have hypothesized that limited brain system integration and efficiency, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and related structures, may be involved in the range and degree of risky behavior commonly exhibited by teens. In the present study, we examined the relation between risky behavior, personality factors, and performance on neuropsychological tests of executive function. The community sample of 136 adolescents aged 13- to 17-years-old and 57 emerging adults aged 18- to 22-years-old exhibited marked individual differences in risk-taking behavior; participants' scores on a alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, driving, and antisocial behavior questionnaire ranged from 0 to near the maximum value possible. We found that risky personality and performance on the neuropsychological tests were both significant predictors of real-world risk-taking. These data have important implications for current public policies involving adolescents and emerging adults.

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