Friday 20 January 2017

Risky Teens and the maternal gaze

Christian Jarrett at the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog reports that kids take fewer risk when mum's watching:
João Moreira and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 15-year-olds (9 girls) while they played a risk-based game that involved going through a set of 26 traffic lights as quickly as possible and deciding at each set whether to accelerate or brake as the lights turned amber. Accelerating saved time usually, but also carried the risk of a crash which would lead to a greater delay than braking. The teens played the game twice: once in the presence of their mother who was located in the scan control room, and the other time in the presence of an unfamiliar female professor who was described as an expert in adolescent driving behaviour (some played the game with mum present first, others with the stranger present first).

There was a tendency for the teens to take fewer risks when their mum was present, as compared with the professor, but this difference didn’t reach statistical significance. However, at a neural level there were statistically significant differences between the conditions: when mum was present, the teens’ brains showed more reward-related brain activity after making safe decisions and less reward-related brain activity after making risky decisions. Mum’s supervision seemed to make caution a more pleasurable approach, at least at a neural level.
The researchers interpreted their findings as suggesting there is something unique about the influence of a parent (or a mother, at least) on the way a teenager’s brain processes risk, which could have practical implications. For example risk-prevention educational programmes for teenagers, which often struggle to make a difference, might be more likely to be effective if parents are directly involved.
I have a simpler explanation. If Mum sees that the kids are driving like hoons in a simulation even when she's watching, she won't give them the car keys next time they ask. Because the kids know that whatever happens in the game affects Mum's behaviour out-of-game, fun risk-taking is less rewarding. It isn't that Mum being there makes them different people or that they're better learning how to behave, it's just fear of out-of-game sanction.

Or at least that'd be my prior on it, if I were inclined to draw any conclusion whatsoever from a study scanning the brains of 9 teenage girls.

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