Impulse control comes late for teens

UC IRVINE (US)—Teens may not be able to fully control impulses and resist peer pressure until they reach their early 20s, according to a new study of adolescent judgment and decision-making. The findings suggest teens may lack the emotional maturity to be held as responsible as an adult for a violent crime.

In contrast, intellectual abilities such as logical reasoning reach adult levels long before psychosocial maturity is achieved.

“Many crimes committed by adolescents are done in groups and not premeditated. It’s difficult for a 16-year-old to resist peer pressure and fully appreciate the riskiness of dangerous situations,” says Elizabeth Cauffman, study coauthor and University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior associate professor.

“But they’re able to understand and weigh options when it comes to medical decisions, which rarely are made on the spur of the moment and frequently involve consultation with adults.”

Study participants, ranging in age from 10 to 30, completed interviews and questionnaires measuring psychosocial maturity and basic intellectual skills, including verbal fluency and working memory. Maturity was gauged by impulse control, sensation-seeking, resistance to peer pressure, risk perception, and awareness of long-term consequences.

Researchers found that certain cognitive abilities reach adult levels by the age of 16, while emotional maturity isn’t attained until after 22.

The study appears in the October issue of American Psychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association. The organization previously had described adolescents as being competent to make sound health care decisions but too shortsighted and impulsive to warrant capital punishment.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The Supreme Court may consider issues of adolescent cognitive and psychosocial maturity when looking at these cases,” Cauffman says. “We believe adolescents’ legal rights should be determined by evidence-based research on psychological and emotional development.”

Led by Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, the study was coauthored by researchers from Georgetown University, UCLA, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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