Framing Effects and Risky Decision Making in Adolescents and Young Adults

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Fuzzy-trace theory postulates that intuitive decision making is at the apex of development. To examine developmental differences in risky decision making within this theoretical framework, framing problems factorially crossing levels of risk (1/2, 1/3, 1/4) and outcome magnitude (low, medium, high) to create two blocks of nine framed problems were administered to 102 young adults and 51 adolescents. In the gain-framed block, participants chose between a sure win and a possibility of either a larger win or nothing. In the loss-framed block, participants were given an endowment and then chose between a sure loss and a possibility of either losing nothing or losing everything. Consistent with fuzzy-trace theory?s predictions, collapsed across the medium and high levels of outcome magnitude adolescents focused more on the quantitative differences between outcomes and were more consistent in choice across frames, while adults relied more on qualitative distinctions between outcomes and displayed framing effects (risk aversion in the gain frame and risk-seeking in the loss frame). At the highest level of outcome magnitude, adolescents displayed a reverse framing pattern (risk-seeking in the gain frame and risk aversion in the loss frame), suggesting a stronger focus on maximizing gains and minimizing losses when the stakes are high. Participants also completed a survey assessing intuitive and quantitative risk perceptions, risky intentions and behaviors, sensation seeking, behavioral inhibition, and behavioral activation. Intuitive thinking about risk was correlated with perceived global risks of sex and negatively correlated with perceived global benefits of having sex, intentions to have sex, total sexual partners, and sensation seeking, while quantitative risk assessment was correlated with total sexual partners. This suggests that qualitative representations of risky situations are protective, while quantitative thinking supports risk-taking, findings which have potential policy implications for risk reduction in adolescents.

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