Psychologist Wins $1 Million for Showing that Teenage Brains Really Are Different

Incomplete brain development may account for impulsive, risky behavior.

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Teenage brains and behavior are worth $1 million—at least to a researcher who has been trying to figure out why teenagers do such dumb things, particularly when they're hanging out together.

Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, won the $1 million Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize on Dec. 3 for his study of teenage brains and behavior. In the past five years, scientists have made huge progress in understanding that adolescent brains are very different than the adult version. The brain regions that control impulsivity and executive function are not fully developed in teens. Steinberg's work has played a key role in expanding our understanding that physiology drives some of teenagers' illogical or risky decisions, and I've greatly enjoyed reading and writing about his work, most recently in a story on the amazing power of the teen brain.

For instance, in 2005 Steinberg showed that teens taking a simulated driving test were twice as likely to drive dangerously if they had two friends with them as they would if driving alone. Brain scans later showed that reward centers in the teenagers' brains lit up more if they were told that friends were watching them, a pattern not seen in adults. He's now studying how adolescents and adults respond to peer influence when they make decisions and how their brain activity differs when they do. And he's starting to look into whether the teenage behaviors that so baffle American parents are universal or if teenagers in other countries deploy their uniquely adolescent brains in different ways.

Steinberg thinks the scientific evidence on the teen brain is now strong enough to change public policy, particularly when it comes to juvenile justice:

*The U.S. Supreme Court relied on Steinberg's evidence that teenage brains are fundamentally different than adults in abolishing the death penalty for adolescents in 2005.

*Defense attorneys for Omar Khadr, a Guantánamo detainee who was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan, asked Steinberg if the teenager's confession that he had killed an American soldier with a grenade—testimony the youth later recanted—was reliable. Steinberg testified that research shows adolescents are more likely than adults to give false confessions. He said he didn't know whether Khadr's confession was true or false.

*Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that ask whether sentencing a teenager to life imprisonment without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Steinberg helped the American Psychological Association prepare an amicus brief arguing that since teenagers may "mature out" of bad behavior, they shouldn't be automatically barred from having a chance to shape up. (Here's a New York Times op-ed Steinberg cowrote last month making the case for never throwing away the key when locking up teen offenders.)

Steinberg is also a parent, and he says his son Ben, now 25, inspired him to study why teenagers make bad decisions when they're with peers. In a New York Times interview this week, Steinberg said that as a teenager, Ben went with friends to the window of a girl they knew. The boys set off a burglar alarm by mistake, and when the police showed up, they ran. Steinberg asked his son about the fact fleeing from an armed police officer. "What were you thinking?" asked the scientist dad. "Well, that's the problem," Ben replied. "I wasn't." Ben survived, fortunately, and as a result his father has helped the rest of us gain a better understanding of what happens when teenagers don't think.

Want to test your knowledge of the teenage brain? Take our teen brain quiz, developed with researchers at Duke University's DukeLEARN, a new curriculum for high school students.