Teenage rebellion can be easy for adults to dismiss, but new research is casting it in a more sympathetic light, says Matt Huston at Psychology Today (October 2012). A new study in Developmental Psychology suggests that risk-taking at a young age, particularly among underprivileged teens, can have very real social benefits that may have an evolutionary basis.
The study, authored by University of Arizona researcher Bruce J. Ellis, contrasts the new results with an older approach to child development. In the past, psychologists saw risky or anti-social behavior as the result of disadvantaged or unstable environments. When a kid’s well-being is threatened, it can impact their psychological development, and this leads to acting out in an unhealthy way.
That model, writes Ellis, puts teenage rebellion in too negative a light, and ignores the benefits it can have for young people, like finding a mate or attaining social status. And if it is true that teens from less privileged backgrounds rebel or act out more than their peers, it may be less dysfunction at work than adaptation. In challenging or unpredictable circumstances, teens may take what seem like irrational or anti-social risks, but this may lead to social and ultimately evolutionary benefits (like getting a boyfriend or girlfriend), argues Ellis. In an environment that is already risky or unstable, adapting to risk may only look dysfunctional.
Meanwhile, adults who ignore those benefits may do more harm than good, says Huston. In a separate study, researchers found that an anti-smoking campaign fared better when it emphasized the social costs of smoking, rather than the potential health risks. The same is true of other after school special favorites, from drinking to reckless driving. “In advertising the dangers of driving fast,” Ellis told Huston, “you make reckless driving more of a status symbol.”