Summarized by Carol Lee, University of Massachusetts Boston Clinical Psychology Graduate Student
Introduction: Researchers have found that adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than adults are, and that this likelihood increases when they are in the presence of their peers. One proposed explanation for this is that the presence of peers increases the importance of an immediate reward.
O’Brien and colleagues investigated if adolescents’ preferences for immediate rewards were higher when their friends were watching them than when they were alone.
Method: The participants were 52 females and 48 males ages 18 to 20. Participants completed a computerized task where they were presented a series of choices between a smaller, immediate reward (e.g. $200 today) and a larger, delayed reward (e.g. $1,000 in 1 year). Participants were randomly assigned to complete the task with two of their friends watching (45 of the total participants), or to complete it alone (55 of the total participants). Participants were also administered an IQ test.
- Adolescents completing the task with their friends watching displayed a significantly lower tolerance for delays than those completing the task alone.
- Adolescents completing the task with their friends watching discounted the value of delayed rewards more than those completing the task alone did. This suggests that they found smaller, more immediate rewards to be more valuable than larger, delayed rewards.
- The results did not differ between age, maternal education, gender, ethnicity, or IQ.
Implications: The findings of this study imply that adolescents, in addition to being more likely to engage in risky behaviors, are more likely to do so in the presence of their peers due to the accompanying increased preference for immediate rewards over long-term benefits. Thus, when evaluating whether to take a risk, adolescents in the presence of their peers may be biased toward the immediate benefits that accompany a risky choice over the long-term benefits of a safe choice. In sum, the current study highlights the magnitude of the effect that peer presence has on risky decision-making in adolescents, as well as the importance of considering the peer effect in adolescents.