The juvenile brain is still maturing in the teen years and well into the early to mid-20s. Research on the brain shows that juveniles’ brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex. Because the brain is not fully developed by the teenage years, this makes juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure, causing them to have less control over their environment.
This does not mean that a juvenile is incapable of making a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong. It can mean—particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions—that a juvenile is more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of his or her actions. When compared to adults, juveniles are generally more impulsive, aggressive, emotionally volatile, risky, and reactive in their behaviors. Their desire for peer approval can shape their behavioral decisions even without direct coercion.
Combined Effects of Peer Presence, Social Cues, and Rewards on Cognitive Control in Adolescents
Breiner, K., et al. Combined effects of peer presence, social cues, and rewards on cognitive control in adolescents (February 1, 2018). Developmental Psychobiology.
Abstract: Developmental scientists have examined the independent effects of peer presence, social cues, and rewards on adolescent decision-making and cognitive control. Yet, these contextual factors often co-occur in real world social situations. The current study examined the combined effects of all three factors on cognitive control, and its underlying neural circuitry, using a task to better capture adolescents’ real world social interactions. A sample of 176 participants ages 13-25, was scanned while performing an adapted go/no-go task alone or in the presence of a virtual peer. The task included brief positive social cues and sustained periods of positive arousal. Adolescents showed diminished cognitive control to positive social cues when anticipating a reward in the presence of peers relative to when alone, a pattern not observed in older participants. This behavioral pattern was paralleled by enhanced orbitofrontal activation. The results demonstrate the synergistic impact of social and reward influences on cognitive control in adolescents.
Role of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Impaired Decision Making in Juvenile Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Hauser TU, Iannaccone R, Ball J, Mathys C, Brandeis D, Walitza S, Brem S. Role of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Impaired Decision Making in Juvenile Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(10):1165–1173. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1093
Abstract: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been associated with deficient decision making and learning. Models of ADHD have suggested that these deficits could be caused by impaired reward prediction errors (RPEs). Reward prediction errors are signals that indicate violations of expectations and are known to be encoded by the dopaminergic system. However, the precise learning and decision-making deficits and their neurobiological correlates in ADHD are not well known.
Twenty adolescents with ADHD and 20 healthy adolescents serving as controls (aged 12-16 years) were examined using a probabilistic reversal learning task while simultaneous functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram were recorded. Learning and decision making were investigated by contrasting a hierarchical Bayesian model with an advanced reinforcement learning model and by comparing the model parameters. The neural correlates of RPEs were studied in functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram.
Adolescents with ADHD showed more simplistic learning as reflected by the reinforcement learning model (exceedance probability, Px = .92) and had increased exploratory behavior compared with healthy controls (mean [SD] decision steepness parameter β: ADHD, 4.83 [2.97]; controls, 6.04 [2.53]; P = .02). The functional magnetic resonance imaging analysis revealed impaired RPE processing in the medial prefrontal cortex during cue as well as during outcome presentation (P < .05, family-wise error correction). The outcome-related impairment in the medial prefrontal cortex could be attributed to deficient processing at 200 to 400 milliseconds after feedback presentation as reflected by reduced feedback-related negativity (ADHD, 0.61 [3.90] μV; controls, −1.68 [2.52] μV; P = .04).
The combination of computational modeling of behavior and multimodal neuroimaging revealed that impaired decision making and learning mechanisms in adolescents with ADHD are driven by impaired RPE processing in the medial prefrontal cortex. This novel, combined approach furthers the understanding of the pathomechanisms in ADHD and may advance treatment strategies.
Maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Psychosocial Factors in Adolescent Decision Making
Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (1996). Maturity of judgment in adolescence: Psychosocial factors in adolescent decision making. Law and Human Behavior, 20(3), 249-272.
Abstract: To date, analyses of differences between adolescents’ and adults’ judgment have emphasized age differences in cognitive factors presumed to affect decision making. In contrast, this article examines research and theory on three psychosocial aspects of maturity of judgment: responsibility, temperance, and perspective. For several psychosocial dimensions of maturity that are likely to affect judgment, the existing evidence, while indirect and imperfect, indicates that the greatest differences are found in comparisons between early adolescents versus middle and late adolescents. Developmental research on maturity that focuses specifically on mid- and late adolescence, that simultaneously examines both cognitive and noncognitive factors, and that investigates the relation.
How Adolescents Approach Decisions: Changes over Grades Seven to Twelve and Policy Implications
Lewis, C. C. (1981). How adolescents approach decisions: Changes over Grades seven to twelve and policy implications. Child Development, 52(2), 538-544.
Abstract: Considerable controversy focuses on the ages at which adolescents are permitted to make legally regulated decisions—for example, consent to medical treatment, consent to experimentation, choice of custodial parent. The decision advice of 108 adolescents at three grade levels (grades 7-8, 10, and 12) was investigated in a simulated peer-counseling situation. In adolescents’ advice to their “peers,” there is a significant increase, with grade level, in mention of the potential risks and potential future consequences of decisions; in recognition and cautious treatment of “vested interests”; and in advice to solicit independent professional opinions. No differences between grade levels are found in the incorporation of negative information about a trusted adult or in recommendations that peers or parents be consulted about the decisions.
Brain Science and the Theory of Juvenile Mens Rea
Jenny E. Carroll, Brain Science and the Theory of Juvenile Mens Rea, 94 N.C. L. Rev. 539 (2016). Available at: http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/nclr/vol94/iss2/3.
Abstract: The law has long recognized the distinction between adults and children. A legally designated age determines who can vote, exercise reproductive rights, voluntarily discontinue their education, buy alcohol or tobacco, marry, drive a car, or obtain a tattoo. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld such age-based restrictions, most recently constructing an Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that bars the application of certain penalties to juvenile offenders and a Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that contemplates an adolescent-based standard of reasonableness for the Miranda v. Arizona custody analysis. In the cases of Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Court’s jurisprudence of youth relies on emerging neuroscience to confirm what the parents of any teenager have long suspected: adolescents’ cognitive abilities and thought processes differ from their adult counterparts. Children are different than adults.
In the cases of Roper, Graham, and Miller, the Court recognized that brain development affects the legal construct of culpability and should accordingly affect punishment. In the Roper case line, the Court reasoned that without mature thought processes and cognitive abilities, adolescents as a class fail to achieve the requisite level of culpability demonstrated in adult offenders. As such, juveniles were categorically spared the death penalty and, in some instances, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Likewise, in J.D.B., the Court concluded that the reasonableness of a juvenile defendant’s perception of custody under Miranda v. Arizona must be age appropriate. The Court concluded that as a class adolescents had a different understanding of custodial status than adults. Courts contemplating the validity of a perception of custody under Miranda had to account for this difference in their analysis.
To date, the Court has limited the application of this principle to punishment and consent analysis under Miranda. The logic of the Court’s decisions, however, applies just as strongly to the application of substantive criminal law. Likewise, scholars writing in the field have limited the application of neuroscience to either the territory staked out by the Court or to objective mens rea standards alone. The science, however, does not support such limitations. Just as modern neuroscience counsels against the imposition of certain penalties on juvenile offenders and an adjustment of Miranda’s reasonableness analysis, so it counsels toward a reconsideration of culpability as applied to juvenile offenders through the element of mens rea. The failure to extend this jurisprudence of youth to every mental state element undermines the very role of mens rea as a mechanism to determine guilt.
“Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty” by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, American Psychologist (2003)
Steinberg, Laurence and Scott, Elizabeth S. Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1013 (2003).
Abstract: The authors use a developmental perspective to examine questions about the criminal culpability of juveniles and the juvenile death penalty. Under principles of criminal law, culpability is mitigated when the actor’s decisionmaking capacity is diminished, when the criminal act was coerced, or when the act was out of character. The authors argue that juveniles should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because adolescents’ decision-making capacity is diminished, they are less able to resist coercive influence, and their character is still undergoing change. The uniqueness of immaturity as a mitigating condition argues for a commitment to a legal environment under which most youths are dealt with in a separate justice system and none are eligible for capital punishment.
“The Legal Construction of Adolescence” by Elizabeth S. Scott, Hofstra Law Review (2000)
Scott, Elizabeth S. (2000) “The Legal Construction of Adolescence,” Hofstra Law Review: Vol. 29: Iss. 2, Article 5. Available at: http://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/hlr/vol29/iss2/5.
Abstract: Two features of the legal regulation of childhood seem troublesome, but ultimately contribute to sensible policies in most contexts. First, the boundary between childhood and adulthood varies in different policy domains, through a regime of age grading under which elementary school students are deemed adults for some legal purposes, while, for other purposes, college students are children. Second, the transitional stage of adolescence is virtually invisible, because, for most purposes, law makers employ binary categories, classifying adolescents as either children or as adults. This framework—a series of legislative bright line rules, arrayed around a presumptive age of majority—generally promotes social welfare as well as the interests of youth. Although this approach sometimes distorts developmental reality, it accomplishes the transition from legal childhood to adulthood over time without incurring the costs associated with the creation of intermediate legal category. Indeed, the unsuccessful experience with abortion regulation (in which adolescents occupy a special category) confirms the benefits of binary classification.
In the context of juvenile justice policy, however, categorical assumptions that ignore the developmental stage of adolescence have harmful outcomes. In responding to youth crime, law makers have shifted the boundary of childhood dramatically during the 20th century. The Progressive architects of the traditional juvenile court described delinquent youths as innocent children, and constructed policies that presumed that the state’s sole purpose was to promote their welfare. Contemporary conservatives, in contrast, assume that young offenders are indistinguishable from adult criminals, and argue that public protection demands that they be subject to the same punishment. I argue that both of these accounts represent distortions and have been the basis of unsatisfactory policies – even in terms of the professed objectives of their adherents. A justice policy that treats adolescence as a distinct legal category not only will promote youth welfare, but will also advance the utilitarian objectives of reducing the costs of youth crime.
“Evaluating Adolescent Decision Making in Legal Contexts” by Elizabeth S. Scott, N. Dickon Reppucci, and Jennifer L. Woolard, (1995)
Scott, Elizabeth S., Repucci, N. Dickon, and Woolard, Jennifer L. Evaluating Adolescent Decision Making in Legal Contexts. Law and Human Behavior (1995).
Abstract: Challenges the use by policy researchers of a model for comparing adolescent and adult decision making that is based on informed consent standards. An expanded decision-making framework designed to evaluate “judgment” in adults and adolescents can better test the empirical basis of paternalistic legal policies. The theoretical and empirical literature on the informed consent framework is critiqued and an alternative framework incorporating judgment factors is proposed. Three judgment factors—temporal perspective, attitude toward risk, and peer and parental influence—and their effects on decision making are explored. Finally, implications for future research are analyzed in several decision-making contexts.