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Reward and threat in the adolescent brain: implications for leadership

Riddell, P. ORCID: (2017) Reward and threat in the adolescent brain: implications for leadership. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 38 (4). pp. 530-548. ISSN 0143-7739

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1108/LODJ-03-2015-0062


Purpose: As adults, our decision making process involves a balance between taking and avoiding risk and thus involves assessments of both the rewards that might come from making the right choice and the threats to us if our choice is wrong. This involves a system of areas in the brain that includes (but is not limited to) the amygdala (threat detection and response), the ventral striatum (reward detection and response) and the prefrontal cortex (integration and regulation of emotions, planning and decision making). While the balance between these areas will differ between individuals, in general, adults are well equipped to integrate information about threat and reward, assess risks, and to use this to make decisions that fit the context – whether this is at home, at work or at play. Statistics on, for instance, car crashes, binge drinking and contraceptive use indicate that adolescents and young adults take more risks (Steinberg, 2007). This suggests that their decision making processes are not fully developed until their early to mid-twenties. In order to explain this, researchers have studied the development of decision making in the brain and have found evidence to suggest that the balance between elements of the decision making system changes across the course of development with some parts of the system developing faster than others (Ernst, Pine & Hardin, 2006). One hypothesis that this data has generated is that adolescents and young adults might be more sensitive to both reward and threat, and less able to regulate their response to this, than adults. Potential developmental differences in the connectivity of the adolescent brain will have clear implications for how we might incorporate young adults into agile teams, and develop leadership skills in people of this age group. For instance, it is important to consider the role that experience of risk taking within a safe and structured environment has on the development of the connections between different parts of the decision making system. While age is a useful proxy for development, the way that our brains connect up is not simply driven by the length of time we have been alive. What is just as, if not more, important is the role of appropriate experience in strengthening decision making pathways. Thus, designing environments in which adolescents can be exposed to making the decisions required of leaders and experiencing the consequences of their choices could drive increased neural connectivity. In this paper, I will discuss the developmental changes in connectivity that result in a reduction in risk taking with age, and will consider the implications of these changes for interventions to enhance decision making in young adults by providing a context in which the development of suitable neural systems is promoted. Design/methodology/approach: Recent advances in neural imaging have resulted in a substantial increase in research investigating the development of the brain during adolescence. A literature review was conducted to find adolescent research that investigated decision making and risk taking. The data obtained was integrated and implications for leadership were drawn from an analysis of the resulting theoretical framework. Findings: The research into decision making processes in adolescents and younger adults points to a number of ways in which these differ from mature decision making. Younger people: find it harder to inhibit behaviours); are more responsive to immediate reward; are more optimistic about the outcome of risky decisions; and are more responsive to social rewards (Jones, et al., 2014). They also lack the experiences that adults use to distil the gist of a situation and therefore are more dependent on conscious, cost-benefit analysis of the outcome of decisions. Research limitations/implications: Practical implications: An understanding of the differences between adult and adolescent decision making points to the role of experience as a key factor in mature decision making. If adolescents are to make mature decisions, they have to be offered suitable challenges in safe environments from which they can gain expertise in leadership decision making. These can be designed to account for differences in sensitivity to reward and punishment in this group. In addition, young adults would benefit from learning the gist interpretations that have been extracted from situations by experienced leaders. This suggests that adolescents and adults would benefit from simulated leadership experiences and leadership mentoring. Originality/value: Recent advances in neuroscience of adolescence provide a unique opportunity to bring new evidence to bear on our understanding of decision making in young adults. This provides practical implications for how to develop leadership within this group and to support them as they gain experience in this domain. The evidence also points to a benefit for the increased risk taking seen in adolescence since this leads to greater motivation to try new, and potentially risky, ventures. Through a better understanding of the differences in decision making, we can both help adolescents to develop more mature decision making faster while benefiting from the optimism of youth.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Development
ID Code:67655


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