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You're Stressing Me Out: Adolescent Stress Response to Evaluation from Peers and its Effect on Risky Decision-Making

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Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2016, $30,416)

Why do adolescents so easily cave to peer pressure when it comes to making risky decisions? And how can the adolescent stress response system help to explain this phenomenon? These are the two overarching questions that I plan to address with my dissertation. Compared to both adults and children, adolescents are more oriented towards their peers and care more about what their peers think of them. This suggests that they may be particularly vulnerable to " social evaluative threat" (being evaluated or judged) by their peers. The experience of social evaluative threat results in activation of the stress response system- being judged and critically evaluated can be a very stressful experience. We also know that stress disrupts decision-making processes, such that stress may influence people to make riskier decisions. All together, this has led to the current hypothesis that adolescents will experience more stress (as measured by salivary cortisol) in response to social evaluative threat from their peers (compared to adults) and this stress response will make them more vulnerable to make riskier decisions. This hypothesis will be tested using adolescents aged 13 to 15 years old (n = 200). Half of these adolescents will complete the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) in front of 3 Adult Evaluators who they have never met (the traditional TSST paradigm). The other half will complete the TSST in front of 3 same-aged Peer Evaluators who they have never met. Following the TSST, all adolescents will partake in a computerized risky decision-making task. A series of analyses will be conducted to test for 1) group differences in stress response between the Peer Evaluator and the Adult Evaluator stressor conditions and 2) the effects that stress response has on risky decision-making. The implications of this work are twofold. First, the results will contribute to our scientific knowledge of the stress response system during adolescence and how it influences risky decision-making. Second, this work has the potential to inform our understanding of adolescent risk-taking and why adolescents are more likely to take risks (such as committing crimes) in the presence of their peers. As such, I plan to use findings from the current study to inform juvenile justice policies related to the culpability of adolescents whose criminal acts were the product of peer influences. ca/ncf
Date Created: July 17, 2016