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Tolerance for Ambiguity May Drive Adolescent Risk-Taking

Teens are more averse to clearly stated risk than older peers, but prepared to tolerate ambiguity

MONDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Compared with adults, adolescents tolerate ambiguous conditions, which may underlie their risk-taking behavior, according to a study published online Oct. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Noting that adolescents engage in a wide range of risky behaviors at great cost, Agnieszka Tymula, Ph.D., from the New York University in New York City, and colleagues used standard experimental economic methods to examine the attitudes of a cohort of 65 individuals aged 12 to 50 toward risk and ambiguity.

The researchers found that, compared with their older peers, adolescents were more averse to clearly stated risks. Adolescents were prepared to accept ambiguous conditions, in which the likelihood of winning or losing was unknown. In contrast to adults, adolescents found ambiguous monetary lotteries tolerable.

"This finding suggests that the higher level of risk-taking observed among adolescents may reflect a higher tolerance for the unknown," the authors write. "Biologically, such a tolerance may make sense, because it would allow young organisms to take better advantage of learning opportunities; it also suggests that policies that seek to inform adolescents of the risks, costs, and benefits of unexperienced dangerous behaviors may be effective and, when appropriate, could be used to complement policies that limit their experiences."

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