Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture featuring Laurence Steinberg

How Adolescents Make Decisions

September 25, 2013
3:00 PM-4:30 PM

Adolescence is a period of heightened engagement in risky and reckless behavior, including unprotected sex, substance use, reckless driving, and criminal activity. Laurence Steinberg, one of the world’s leading authorities on adolescent psychological development, will describe the underpinnings of adolescent risk-taking, informed by recent advances in developmental neuroscience.

Recent research on adolescent brain development shows that reward-seeking and impulsivity have different neural underpinnings and develop along different timetables. These differing timetables help account for heightened risk-taking during adolescence. Indeed, a recent study of nearly 1,000 Americans, ages 10 to 30, found a substantial increase in reward-seeking during early adolescence, with a preference for immediate rewards. In contrast, impulsivity develops along a linear pattern, declining steadily from age 10 on. Heightened vulnerability to risk-taking in middle adolescence (as well as a range of mental health problems) may be due to higher inclinations to seek rewards, combined with still-maturing capacities for self-control. In addition, adolescents’ sensitivity to rewards is heightened by the presence of peers, an effect mediated by hyper-activation of the brain’s reward circuitry.

Steinberg has consulted with numerous lawmakers and government agencies regarding child labor, secondary education and juvenile justice and other topics. He will discuss the implications of this work for parents, policymakers, and practitioners.

Steinberg is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. His research has focused on a range of topics, including adolescent brain development, risk-taking and decision-making, mental health, family relationships, after-school employment, school achievement, and juvenile justice.

He is the author of more than 350 articles and essays on growth and development during the teenage years, and the author or editor of 13 books, including Adolescence, the leading college textbook on adolescent development, now in its 10th edition; When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment; Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do; Rethinking Juvenile Justice; You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25; and The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, which has been translated into ten languages. He is working on a book that will examine the elongation of adolescence and its implications for society.

Steinberg served as a member of the National Academies’ Board on Children, Youth, and Families and chaired the Academies’ Committee on the Science of Adolescence. He was the lead scientist on the amicus curiae briefs filed by the American Psychological Association in several landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that abolished the juvenile death penalty and restricted the use of life without parole for juveniles convicted of serious crimes. He has also provided expert testimony and consultation in a number of legal cases involving adolescent brain and behavioral development.

He has been the recipient of numerous honors, including lifetime achievement awards from the Society for Research on Adolescence and the American Psychological Association. In 2009, he was named the first recipient of the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize, for his contributions to improving the lives of young people and their families. In 2013, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Steinberg is a frequent consultant on adolescent development for print and electronic media, including The New York Times and National Public Radio. He has also written for many popular outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

He was educated at Vassar College, where he graduated with a degree in psychology, and at Cornell University, where he received his Ph.D. in developmental psychology.

This talk is part of the Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture Series.