Many American teenagers are rebellious thrill-seekers who revel in immediate gratification and relinquish autonomy to peer pressure. But is it just the devil of biology that makes them do it? Or is American culture an accessory to the fact?
That's what renowned adolescent psychologist Laurence Steinberg wants to know — and now he has a $1 million research grant to help him find out.
Steinberg, distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University, recently received the first Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize, one of the largest prizes ever awarded to a social scientist; it rivals the $1.4 million that comes with the Nobel Prize. The foundation called Steinberg "a trailblazer in the field of developmental psychology" in selecting him from 19 nominees. He accepted the award from the Jacobs Foundation of Switzerland on Dec. 3 at a ceremony in Zurich.
With the rare bounty of buckets of money, Steinberg plans to research adolescents in other countries to determine whether they're different from American teens — and, if so, why.
"There are some changes in the brain during adolescence that are, we believe, very strongly linked to the pubertal hormones," Steinberg said. "To the extent that those hormones are universal, we might expect to find that their impact on brain development is pretty much universal.
"But some aspects of brain development during adolescence are probably more influenced by experience."
For instance, do children raised in a society where stricter parenting is normal — and therefore less opportunity for experimentation exists — turn into more grounded adolescents? Do children who don't switch school environments in mid-puberty, as many Americans do, become more stable teens?
If so, those differences may provide clues to the way American culture shapes teens as we know them — and what to do about it.
"A question I get asked a lot is if some of the immature judgment that adolescents demonstrate is due to immaturity in the development of certain brain systems; is there anything we can do as adults to facilitate this process? So if we did the research and we found you have countries where kids at the age of 16 or 17 are not very impulsive, are much more planful, are more future-oriented in the way they think about things, we could ask what are they doing in this culture that seems to be related to this?"
Steinberg is exploring the possibility of expanding an ongoing study of 1,000 children in 10 countries — from Europe to Africa to Asia — to include his own research.
Steinberg's expertise in adolescent behavior and brain biology has taken him from the elaborate halls of Congress, where he briefed staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on proposed juvenile justice legislation, to a spare cell in Guantanamo Bay, where, as a potential defense witness, he interviewed Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee accused of being a terrorist. He's also written or co-written 11 books, from scholarly tomes like Handbook of Adolescent Psychology to popular titles like The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting.
His research has helped reform American juvenile justice policy, as reflected in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons abolishing the death penalty for juveniles. Steinberg's argument that brain systems that control "self-regulation and the coordination of emotion and thinking" aren't fully developed in teens also underpins the American Psychological Association's amicus curiae brief in the current Supreme Court case seeking to eliminate life sentences for juveniles.
And, yes, he's had practical experience: he and his wife raised a son, Ben, who's now 25 and works at Random House.
Steinberg said his professional research helped him keep his son's adolescent antics in perspective, and one incident actually influenced his work in turn. "He and some friends went to the window of a girl they knew and inadvertently set off a burglar alarm," Steinberg told The New York Times. "When a police squad car came, they panicked and fled. When I found out, I said: 'Do you realize that you were running from armed police officers who thought they were interrupting a break-in. What were you thinking?' He said: 'Well, that's the problem. I wasn't.' I wondered: 'What goes on when kids are in a peer group that pushes them to make bad decisions?'"
And while Steinberg's proposed international research might help American teenagers navigate the treacherous shoals of adolescence more safely, he wants to make one thing clear: They aren't crazy.
"I think that in the way that my work on this gets presented, it's that there's something the matter with adolescents because they behave this way," Steinberg said.
To the contrary, he said, adolescence is the time when children become capable of reproduction and risk-taking propels them to reach maturity.
"One of the features you see across all mammals is that before they start reproducing, they leave their parents, they leave their natal environment and go out in the world and that's a dangerous thing to do in most species. So evolutionarily, you want people to be at a point where they're going to feel able and confident enough to take risks and leave home and do these things.
"If the underlying thing that's causing kids to take risks is this drive toward novelty and reward, which is what we believe is driving it, then they're going to do that in many different ways, some of which are healthy and some of which are dangerous," Steinberg said.
"So our job as adults is to think about how do we create a world in which kids can satisfy those inclinations and not be tempted to engage in dangerous risk-taking."
That's the million-dollar question Steinberg hopes to answer.
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