CogniFit's Science blog: Gambling In Decision Making: Young Children Prefer Risk

Gambling In Decision Making: Young Children Prefer Risk

Risky adolescent decision making is widely documented and research has taught us that adolescents constitute the most salient risk-prone group, a group that often makes the wrong decision to engage in drug consumption, practice unprotected sex or hazardous driving.

For the first time, a new study, conducted at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, and published in Frontiers, tells us that children, as young as six years of age, are even more risk prone in decision making than are adolescents.

The researchers at Duke University constructed an ingenious monetary gamble game that requires no complex calculations or mathematical knowledge to estimate the degree of risk involved in selecting one option over another in decision making in their mind.

Three groups of participants, children (6- to 8-years-old), adolescents (15- to 16-years-old), and young adults (18- to 32-years-old) played the game which consisted of three types of items, risk–safe items involved a decision between a gamble and a sure bet; risk–risk items involved a choice between two gambles and safe–safe items required a choice between two certain results. The results come to us as a great surprise.

Risk taking preference was strongest in the children. In the risk-safe items children gambled more extensively (70%) than both adolescents (56%) and young adults (31). They retained their risk-taking preference in the risk-risk items where they gambled 77% of the time, significantly more than both adolescents and young adults who gambled 51% and 47% respectively. It is clear that the children understood the task, because on the safe-safe items they preferred the better value option as often as the adolescents and the young adults (98% of the time).

The researchers present their finding within a developmental concept of risk taking. Children begin their development with a strong attraction towards gambling but it gradually lessens as they develop into adolescents and later, into young adults.

It is important for parents and educators to understand these findings fully. At a time when children are continuously learning about their environment, they are doubly vulnerable, firstly, because of their inexperience and of the dangers inherent in the environment, and secondly because, they appear to prefer risky options.

Those findings imply that younger children are more likely to gamble when deciding not only on a monetary matter (such as in the game used in the experiment) but also on a non-monetary course of action, for example when they reflect on whether to cross the road, what to do if accosted by a stranger or whether to bully a friend.

These findings about the marked preference for risky options in very young children teach us that children must constantly be guided in decision making. Short and long-term consequences for each course of action must be carefully and fully explained to them. This can be done in the classroom and at home, perhaps through the use of stories which illustrate the choices a child has to make and the consequences for each possible choice in its brain.