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Risky Business?

Behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying risky decision-making in adolescents

Neeltje Blankenstein
14 February 2019


Although the outcomes of our daily-life risky decisions are often unknown (e.g., receiving or not receiving a fine after running a red light), the probabilities of these outcomes may also vary in uncertainty. That is, the probabilities may be known (risk) or unknown (ambiguity), which influences risk taking behavior to a great extent. A developmental phase associated with heightened risk taking is adolescence, yet how adolescents process risk and ambiguity, and the relation with real-life risk taking, remain elusive. Moreover, individual differences in observed risk taking behavior remain largely overlooked. In this PhD thesis risk and ambiguity processing in adolescents were decomposed using behavioral economics and fMRI, and related to real-life risk taking. The results indicated that risk and ambiguity differentially impact risk-taking behavior, and are processed by different neural mechanisms. In addition, individual variation in task-related and real-life risk taking highlighted that adolescence is not a phase of heightened risk taking for everyone. Moreover, it was found that real-life risk-taking and prosocial tendencies were both predicted by fun seeking, suggesting this trait may make individuals differentially susceptible to positive or negative outcomes. Together, this thesis points towards a more nuanced perspective on adolescent risk taking and its underlying components.

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