When it comes to driving, why do some young adults take risks while others play it safe? Studies have substantiated that young people are over-represented in traffic accidents, with young men aged 18 to 24 exhibiting the riskiest driving behaviors. Researchers from the Neurodriving Project, a collaboration between universities and several public agencies in Finland and Norway, have been scanning young people’s brains to find out what factors contribute to risk-willing and risk-averse behaviors. They discovered that risk-willing young adults are motivated by a strong emotional push. The findings may inform educational approaches to risk-management among teens and young adults.
The researchers used a battery of psychological and behavioral assessments to choose participants for the study; 17 of each risk-willing and risk-averse participants were selected. The participants played a car racing video game while their brain activity was recorded. The game was designed to evaluate how young drivers handle behind-the-wheel decision making and it consisted of directing a car to stop or go at yellow traffic lights. The cars moved at a fixed speed, but the goal was to get through the course the fastest. The only way to gain time was to run the yellow lights without a collision, but crashing after running the light caused a six-second wait. Stopping at a yellow light and waiting for it to turn green cost three seconds.
All the subjects had a neural response to encountering a yellow light, but the risk-willing participants’ responses were more dominated by motivation. States senior researcher Dagfinn Moe, “This group experience no dilemma, since they possess a ‘drive’ to obtain a reward and expect that things will turn out alright … Reward experience and dopamine secretion are strong among these subjects, which means that high-risk takers choose to run a yellow light more often than risk averse subjects.”
They also found a difference between the two groups in the brain’s white matter, which connects different brain regions. The risk-willing group’s white matter had more connections and was better developed than that of the risk-averse. Although this sounds counterintuitive, risk-willingness is often linked to higher levels of activity.
The researchers say that the next step is to examine how education can influence the behavior of young risk-takers. While education does not change brain chemistry, it could help risk-takers find a balance between their inner incentive for rewards and weighing the consequences of their actions.
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