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Adolescent Humans and Chimpanzees Share Risk-Taking Impulses

While both have higher risk tolerance, teenagers struggle more with delayed gratification

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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New research published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General tackles the age-old question of nature versus nurture; specifically, do teenagers take risks because they’re biologically programmed to, or are they encouraged to do so by peers?

To explore this question, Alexandra Rosati, PhD, associate professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Michigan as well as the lead author of this study, decided to compare the risk-taking impulses of teenagers with adolescent chimpanzees. To accomplish this, Rosati and her team traveled to a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, where they conducted two tests with 40 wild-born chimps. In the first test, adolescent and adult chimps were allowed to choose between two containers—one with peanuts, which chimps somewhat like—and one with either a favorite food (such as a banana slice) or an unliked food (like a cucumber slice). The chimps were left to decide between playing it safe and selecting the bowl they knew contained peanuts or taking a risk and selecting the bowl that may or may not have a banana slice.

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Performing the test several times, the researchers noticed that the adolescent chimps opted for the riskier option more frequently than the adult chimps, even though they all had the same negative reaction to receiving cucumber.

The second test, inspired by the marshmallow test psychologists performed with human children, evaluated the chimps’ ability for delayed gratification. In this version, the chimps could receive one banana slice immediately or wait for one minute to receive three. While both the adolescent and adult chimps opted to wait the full minute, the adolescent chimps threw more tantrums. Conversely, research has shown that human teenagers tend to be lacking in delayed gratification—simply put, if in the same circumstances, a human teenager would have taken the single banana slice immediately. (If not a banana slice, then cheap vodka their buddy scored with his fake ID.)

This research indicates that risk-taking behavior goes beyond nurture and is ingrained at a deeper level, with high risk tolerance gradually being tempered as the adolescent ages.