Teenagers Are More Likely to Falsely Think That Crime Pays

That’s according to a new study from Penn’s Elizabeth Shulman:

To what extent is criminal behavior in adolescence attributable to risk appraisal? Using two large cross-sectional samples (N = 929, age range: 10–30 years; and N = 1,357, age range: 12–24 years), we examine whether (a) reward bias in risk appraisal is more prominent in adolescence and (b) the association between risk appraisal and criminal behavior is stronger during adolescence than at other ages. In Study 1, criminal behavior was self-reported; in Study 2, it was defined by involvement with the court. Perceived chances of a negative outcome, seriousness of consequences, and benefits versus costs of various risky activities were assessed to gauge reward bias in risk appraisal. The findings indicate that reward bias is elevated during the adolescence years. Also, risk appraisal bears a stronger relation to self-reported crime in middle adolescence and to official law-breaking behavior in early adolescence than at other ages. The findings are consistent with a dual-systems model of adolescent development and align with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing juvenile offenders’ culpability.

In addition to being bad at understanding the risk involved in committing a crime, teenagers are also bad at predicting their risk of dropping out of school or getting pregnant. It’s all the more reason that we need better ways of teaching behavior, whether it’s through schools, communities, or technology.

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