Risky Business: Executive Function, Personality, and Reckless Behavior
During Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood
Henry Pharo, Clark Sim, Mikala Graham, Julien Gross, and Harlene Hayne
University of Otago
Adolescence is a risky business. Despite outstanding physical health, the risk of injury or death during
adolescence is 2–3 times that of childhood. The primary cause of this increase in morbidity and mortality
is heightened risky behavior including drinking, driving, drug-taking, smoking, and unprotected sex.
Why is it that some adolescents take big risks, while others do not? One potential source of individual
differences in risk-taking behavior may lie in individual differences in ...view middle of the document...
indicate that mortality rates during adolescence increase by as
much as 200% from middle childhood (Dahl, 2004; Spear, 2000).
This increase in morbidity and mortality has, in part, been attributed
to a sharp rise in risky and antisocial behavior during adolescence
(Arnett, 1992; Moffitt, 1993). For example, adolescents
are more likely than both children and adults to abuse alcohol, use
illicit substances, have unprotected sex, commit antisocial acts,
drive recklessly, and drive while intoxicated (Steinberg, 2004).
But why do adolescents engage in risky behavior? For some
researchers, and indeed for many concerned members of the general
public, the hormonal changes that accompany puberty are
thought to be responsible for reckless or risky adolescent behavior
(Dahl, 2004). Consistent with this view, some researchers have
documented an association between the timing of puberty and the
emergence of risk-taking and delinquent behaviors. Although early
puberty is related to increased risk involvement (Caspi, Lynam,
Moffitt, & Silva, 1993; Martin et al., 2002; Williams & Dunlop,
1999), the situation is complicated by the mediating role of experience.
For example, Caspi et al. (1993) found that, although girls
who entered puberty earlier were more likely to engage in antisocial
behaviors at age 15 than girls who entered puberty later, this
effect was only apparent for those girls who attended mixed-sex
schools. Furthermore, the notion that only those who enter puberty
early are prone to risk-taking has also been questioned. Williams
and Dunlop (1999), for example, found that male adolescents who
begin puberty either early or late relative to age-based norms
report higher levels of risk-taking and delinquency, especially in
the form of school opposition behaviors and crime. These researchers
propose that those who enter puberty early might engage
in higher levels of risk-taking as a result of advanced peer group
activities, whereas those who enter puberty late may do so as a
means of raising self-esteem and gaining popularity among peers.
Researchers have also proposed that pubertal hormones may
make a contribution to adolescent emotional volatility (Miller,
Buchanan, Eccles, & Becker, 1992) and negative moods (Brooks-
Gunn, Graber, & Paikoff, 1994). Although individual differences
in levels of androgenic hormones, coupled with individual differences
in experience, have been related to variations in the development
of adolescent sexual behavior (Udry, 1988), there is little
evidence for a simple connection between pubertal increases in
hormones and increases in other forms of risk-taking behavior
(Dahl, 2004; Spear, 2000; Spear, 2010). In fact, Dahl (2004) has
argued that there is no causal link between hormones and risk-
This article was published Online First October 17, 2011.
Henry Pharo, Clark Sim, Mikala Graham, Julien Gross, and Harlene
Hayne, Department of Psychology, University of...