Breaking: Teens are rational beings

Anyone who has ever actually raised a teenager might have difficulty with NPR’s story today that teens’ biggest problem is they’re too rational.

It reports on the research of Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who studied the decision-making of teens.

In the experiment, participants had to choose among scenarios, each of which had multiple ways of winning and losing money. There could be a one-third chance of winning $6, a one-third chance of winning $4, and a one-third chance of losing $4.

The preteens and teens weighed the potential for winning or losing money in each scenario, and tried to minimize loss. They were careful to consider each possible outcome for their choices throughout the experiment. As a result, they did a good job of maximizing profit and minimizing loss.

Young adults, on the other hand, quickly started paying less attention to the fine details. Instead, they took note of the scenarios that were most likely to post financial gains overall and chose them. “They’re more likely to use the simple, good-enough rule,” Huettel says.

So why do we have laws in Minnesota, for example, limiting the freedom of teenagers to drive?

Teenagers tend to put more weight on the social context of a decision, Huettel says, which can override all that careful risk-benefit calculation.

“Is there some way to tell whether this study was done on this particular planet?” an NPR reader asks.