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Adolescent risk-taking

Adolescence is a period of our lives that is typically characterised by an increase in behaviours such as drinking, smoking, drug taking, dangerous driving, and unprotected sex. These risk-taking behaviours can lead to serious psychological and physical consequences. Laboratory-based analogues of risk-taking behaviour provide an opportunity to assess risk-taking in a controlled context.

The goal of our research was to assess whether a computer game called Stoplight could be used to assess risk-taking in the laboratory. Stoplight is based on the game of Chicken – the goal of the game is to drive a virtual car as fast as possible to a radio station within five minutes to win a prize. Participants were presented with intersections containing a traffic light that cycled from green to yellow to red. If a traffic light turned yellow as participants approached an intersection, they had to choose whether to brake or to continue driving.

If participants chose to brake, then they had to wait for the traffic light to cycle from yellow to red and then to green before they could drive on. If participants chose to continue driving, they could save time, but they also ran the risk of crashing if the traffic light turned red. Crashing resulted in a greater loss of time than if the participant had decided to brake. Thus, participants had to choose between driving through the intersection to save time, with the possible consequence of crashing, or to stop and wait. We compared adolescents and young adults’ risk-taking behaviour on Stoplight to their real-life risk-taking behaviour, which we assessed using a comprehensive life-experiences questionnaire.

We found that risky game-play on Stoplight was associated with real-life risk-taking behaviour. Stoplight appears to have promise as a tool to measure risk-taking behaviour in the laboratory.

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