a traffic light with the yellow light illuminatedWhen it comes to driving, why do some young adults take risks while others play it safe? Studies have substantiated that young people are over-represented in traffic accidents, with young men aged 18 to 24 exhibiting the riskiest driving behaviors. Researchers from the Neurodriving Project, a collaboration between universities and several public agencies in Finland and Norway, have been scanning young people’s brains to find out what factors contribute to risk-willing and risk-averse behaviors. They discovered that risk-willing young adults are motivated by a strong emotional push. The findings may inform educational approaches to risk-management among teens and young adults.

The researchers used a battery of psychological and behavioral assessments to choose participants for the study; 17 of each risk-willing and risk-averse participants were selected. The participants played a car racing video game while their brain activity was recorded. The game was designed to evaluate how young drivers handle behind-the-wheel decision making and it consisted of directing a car to stop or go at yellow traffic lights. The cars moved at a fixed speed, but the goal was to get through the course the fastest. The only way to gain time was to run the yellow lights without a collision, but crashing after running the light caused a six-second wait. Stopping at a yellow light and waiting for it to turn green cost three seconds.

All the subjects had a neural response to encountering a yellow light, but the risk-willing participants’ responses were more dominated by motivation. States senior researcher Dagfinn Moe, “This group experience no dilemma, since they possess a ‘drive’ to obtain a reward and expect that things will turn out alright … Reward experience and dopamine secretion are strong among these subjects, which means that high-risk takers choose to run a yellow light more often than risk averse subjects.”

They also found a difference between the two groups in the brain’s white matter, which connects different brain regions. The risk-willing group’s white matter had more connections and was better developed than that of the risk-averse. Although this sounds counterintuitive, risk-willingness is often linked to higher levels of activity.

The researchers say that the next step is to examine how education can influence the behavior of young risk-takers. While education does not change brain chemistry, it could help risk-takers find a balance between their inner incentive for rewards and weighing the consequences of their actions.

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