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You’re Stressing Me Out: Adolescent Stress Response to Social Evaluation and its Effect on Risky Decision-Making

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Compared to children and adults, adolescents make riskier choices and do so more often when in the presence of peers. Traditional cognitive explanations for adolescent behavior have failed to account for increases in risk-taking during this developmental period. More recent biopsychosocial models of adolescent risk-taking have emerged, highlighting the importance of not just cognitive but social and biological factors that contribute to adolescent risk-taking. Nonetheless, one biological system- the adolescent physiological stress system- has been understudied and may add to our understanding of adolescent risk-taking. More specifically, it may be that physiological stress makes adolescents vulnerable to making risky decisions by increasing their self-conscious affective states. These effects were hypothesized to be more pronounced after a stressful encounter with a peer, while being dampened after a stressful encounter with an adult.

Sixty male adolescents aged 12 to 16 were randomly assigned to one of two Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) conditions. In the first condition, adolescents were evaluated by same aged peers, and in the second, adolescents were evaluated by adults. The manipulation of the age of evaluators in these two conditions was effective, with adolescents in the peer condition perceiving evaluators to be around 17 years old and adolescents in the adult condition perceiving evaluators to be around 31 years old. Throughout the experimental session, adolescents provided 4 whole saliva samples which were assayed for cortisol and alpha-amylase as markers of physiological stress response.

No differences were found between the two TSST conditions regarding physiological stress response and risky decision-making. However, adolescents who were evaluated by adults reported more self-conscious affect compared to adolescents who were evaluated by peers. Additionally, adolescents who were more self-conscious experienced larger changes in salivary alpha-amylase. Although adolescence is a time of social orientation towards peers, the results of the current study illustrate that adults’ negative evaluations are powerful and influence adolescents’ emotions and physiology. These findings suggest the potential iatrogenic effects of negative adult evaluations in environments like classrooms and juvenile courtrooms.

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