The Two-Way
12:15 pm
Tue September 27, 2011

Impulsive Preschoolers Turned Into Risk-Taking Adults

BJ Casey, Director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, studies brain development in teenagers. After Talk of the Nation had her on the show last week to talk about why some kids like to take risks and push boundaries, listeners had so many questions that she returned today to answer a couple more.

Lisa J. Casey, a listener from in Broomfield, Colo., asked: Will teenagers who don't engage in risky or reckless behavior be lacking something as adults?

"There's a full spectrum from risk-averse to risk-seeking," said Casey. To teenagers, appealing risks might be sex, drugs and fast cars. Casey and her colleagues wanted to test how kids' early attitudes toward risk play out over their lifetimes, so they started simple, with four-year-olds and marshmallows.

In the 1960s and '70s a group of preschoolers were told they could have one marshmallow now, or two after waiting for 10 or 15 minutes. Many went straight for the single marshmallow, but those who didn't did all kinds of things to distract themselves, from sitting on their hands to looking away from the marshmallow for the duration of the test.

Casey and her team followed up with 59 of the now-adults who participated in the original marshmallow study. When presented with something compelling, "the same individuals who couldn't stop at four can't stop at 40 ... and the same brain systems tend to be involved." And the four-year-olds who could wait, she said, tend to experiment less with drugs, have higher SAT scores, and lower divorce rates.

That doesn't spell doom for the impulsive children, Casey added, but "if you're already a risk-taker, you might be at greater risk of not-the-best outcomes."

Karen Visser, a listener in South Bend, Ind., asked about her 15-year-old son. He's a risk-taker, she said, and she struggles with the eventual "risk" of holding him back from trying. He also struggles with decisions of safety and says that he feels like he has to do things that are very difficult — otherwise he's bored.

"Risk taking isn't a bad thing," said Casey. But you can help allow for it in a safe way. She suggested finding activities where the risk is real, but managed, for children such as Karen's son. For example, rock-climbing programs: "Giving that opportunity to engage in risk, but yet in a supervised way until they're able to manage and be responsible for their behavior is very, very important."

You can hear the rest of Neal Conan's chat with Casey above, and much more in Understanding The Mysterious Teenage Brain.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.