As the father of two teens who happens to be fascinated by decision making, I had a special interest in “The Terrible Teens“, in the August 31 New Yorker. It opens with vivid visual of (male, of course) adolescent mice drinking alcohol to oblivion. According to author Francis Jensen, teens’ frontal lobes aren’t yet that well connected with the rest of the brain. Since this part of the brain is responsible for ‘executive’ function, deliberative decision making, planning, self-awareness and judgment can be lacking. Development may not be completed until one’s thirties. On this theory, teens should be educated as to the limitations of their brains and parents ought to limit opportunities for their impaired judgment to have severe consequences.
Another theory, from Laurence Steinberg, suggests teens may in fact be acting rationally (from the point of view of their brains) when engaging in risky behaviors. The nucleus accumbens, or “pleasure center” reaches its largest size in the teen brain. In addition, teens produce a lot of dopamine, which among other things, signals pleasure. In a sense, teens are programmed to take risks; perhaps because this helped to perpetuate the species in the ancestral environment. They know that driving recklessly is dangerous; it’s just that “they’re having too much fun to care”.
From the point of view of maximizing immediate happiness and fun, risky behaviour could be entirely rational decision for teens. However, another consequence of a underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex is a lack of empathy (parents with teens will know what I mean). This lack of empathy may extend to a teen’s future self, who likely would not agree with many of the riskier choices their younger self made. A key to effective personal decision-making is empathy for our future selves, or in the language of finance, an ability to discount future consequences, positive and negative, to today.
In addition to the relevant timeframe for the realization of a decision’s outcome, one must carefully chose the objective itself. Fun? Happiness? Wealth? Power? Exercise of ancient Greek virtues? Self-actualization? Religious or spiritual enlightenment? While this is an intensely personal decision, as humans, we have the unique capacity–some would say obligation– to choose an objective beyond merely the activation of our nucleus accumbens.