Big Think Interview With Laurence Steinberg

A conversation with the Temple University psychologist.
  • Transcript


Laurence Steinberg: I'm Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University.

Question: Has the American juvenile justice system become more punitive over the last couple decades?

Laurence Steinberg: Sure. I mean, in virtually every state across the country, provisions have been made to get tougher on kids. That means being tougher on how they're sentenced in the juvenile system. It also means sentencing more than in the adult system, where they serve time often in adult facilities.

Question: What factors have contributed to this trend?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, the trend really began about 10 or 15 years ago, and it was in response to a dramatic increase in crime. Now, the increase was not just among teenagers; it was also among adults. But many politicians began spouting a kind of get-tough rhetoric, saying that the juvenile justice system was not sanctioning kids severely enough and that we needed to take stronger measures in order to prevent kids from offending.

Question: Does this approach to juvenile justice reflect a misunderstanding of adolescent psychology?

Laurence Steinberg: I think it does, in a couple of ways. The first is that it assumes that kids are going to be deterred by harsh punishments. And surprisingly, they're not. So studies show that kids coming out of adult prisons are just as likely, in fact even more likely, to reoffend than kids who have committed comparable crimes but are coming out of juvenile facilities. In our own research we have found that incarcerating kids for longer periods of time gains you no benefit over incarcerating them for shorter periods of time. So kids are different from adults in some very important ways, and we need to think about how to hold them accountable and punish them and rehabilitate them in ways that are different than we would do with adults.

Question: What's the chief cognitive difference between the brains of adolescents and adults?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, the brain undergoes significant maturation during the adolescent years, and there's two main features that are important here. The first is that adolescents have a much more active reward system than adults do, so things feel better to them, and that makes them more likely to engage in sensation seeking and novelty seeking. I often joke and say that things will never feel as good again during adulthood as they did when we were teenagers, which is sort of a sad thing, I guess. But this is what propels lots of kids into risky and reckless behavior -- that focus on what reward am I going to get from doing this? So that's one important difference. The second important difference has to do with what we might think of as the braking system of the brain, the region and system of the brain that's important for things like impulse control, for planning ahead, for weighing the costs and benefits of a decision. That is still undergoing significant maturation during adolescence, and it doesn't really reach adult maturity until the mid-20s.

Questions: Can we speak of criminal intent in an adolescent?

Laurence Steinberg: Sure, we can speak of criminal intent in an adolescent. So the question really, when an adolescent commits a crime, is never did he know right from wrong? Learning right from wrong is something that occurs very, very early in life. I mean, my dogs know the difference between right and wrong. So that's a pretty primitive thing. The issue really has to do with adolescents' ability to control their behavior in a way that's consistent with their understanding of what's right and wrong. A lot of adolescent criminal behavior is impulsive; it's not premeditate. It's done in a group; our own research has focused a lot on how group dynamics change decision making and risk taking during adolescence. And it's often sort of a spontaneous behavior, not something that's planned out and thought through.

Question: How should we change the juvenile justice system?

Laurence Steinberg: I think there are a couple of changes that would make a big difference. The first, and I think most important, is that we don't use, generally speaking, the kinds of interventions and treatments that have scientifically proven to be effective and cost-effective. We commissioned a study when I was working on this project for the MacArthur Foundation in which we looked at what works for juvenile offenders. And there's good news and bad news. The good news is that there are programs and interventions that work; so family-based programs tend to be pretty effective in reducing recidivism. The bad news is that only about 5 percent of juvenile offenders who are eligible to be in these kinds of programs get that kind of treatment. So the first change that we need to make is to really move toward evidence-based practices within the juvenile justice system. When people look at the data and they say, look at this high recidivism rate; obviously nothing works -- well, that's not how I read the data. What I read the data as saying is that we don't use the things that work, and that's why the juvenile justice system has the track record that it does. So that's one important change.

A second change is, we need to keep kids from penetrating more deeply into the system than they need to penetrate. So we don't need to lock up as many kids as we lock up. We lock up a lot of kids for nonviolent offending. We don't need to transfer as many kids to the adult system as we do. We transfer a lot of kids who are first-time offenders; we transfer a lot of kids who are nonviolent offenders. So one of our recommendations in our book, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, is that we limit the eligibility for transfer to the adult system to violent repeat offenders who are at least 15 years old. That would significantly diminish the number of kids that are transferred into the adult system.

And then the third change is to recognize that a lot of kids in the juvenile justice system have significant mental health problems. A lot of them have substance abuse problems. A lot of them suffer from psychiatric disorders like PTSD or depression. And if we don't get those kids services, when they come of the justice system they're going to be likely to offend again because many times their offending is related to the mental illnesses that they have. So substance abuse is a perfect example. In our studies we find that if you give juvenile offenders with substance abuse problems substance abuse treatment, they're less likely to offend, even though you haven't done anything directly to address the offending. But by diminishing their addiction, or by eliminating it, or by controlling it, you're engaging in crime control.

Question: How would a family-based prevention program work?

Laurence Steinberg: Okay, so a family-based program, something like functional family therapy, would take place in the community, so we wouldn't incarcerate the juvenile. We would work with the family, with the parents or the guardians, to improve the quality of their parenting, which has a big -- so we would work with the family or the guardians in the community to improve the quality of the parenting that the juvenile gets, because parenting and bad parenting has been shown to be related to juvenile offending. We would try to strengthen the links between the family and the school, because being engaged in school is also a protection against juvenile offending. And we would work with the adolescent as well. The idea here is that you can't just change the kid; you have to change the context that the kid lives in. And that's the logic behind these family-based interventions.

Question: What is bad parenting?

Laurence Steinberg: So when I say bad parenting, I mean parenting that is excessively harsh, parenting that is inconsistent, or parenting that is excessively permissive. And lots of times kids get all three of those things together. So their parents will swing from being really, really harsh and punitive to not even caring, and being what most of us would consider to be negligent. And so those three things, the harshness, the permissiveness and the inconsistency, all have been shown to contribute to antisocial behavior during adolescence.

Question: Can you explain your study into racial associations?

Laurence Steinberg: Our group did a really interesting study of this. We brought people into the lab, and in this experiment one sample were police officers and one sample were probation officers. We found the same thing in each sample. So we bring them into the lab and we say, we're going to ask you to read through this hypothetical discussion of a crime. And the person is going to be given a couple of paragraph to read that describe a crime but that don't have any information about the perpetrator's race. In each case it's a juvenile. Now, we tell you that before you read this we want you to do an exercise to kind of clear your mind. And we ask you to look at a computer and to tell us whether a point of light that you're going to see flashing is on the right side or the left side of the screen.

Now, in reality it's not a point of light; it's a word. But it's flashed so quickly that you can't process it; it's all subliminal. Half the people in the study get a list of words that we associate with African-Americans, things like Oprah or reggae. So not bad things, but things that we tend to associate with being black. Half the sample gets a list of words that has no racial association but that are matched for their word length. And then people are given these crimes to read, and they're asked, how guilty is the person? How much punishment does the person deserve? How likely is the person to reoffend? How adult-like is this offender? And in both samples, regardless of the race of the person in the experiment, if you got primed to think of African-Americans, you rated the person, the criminal, as guiltier, more deserving of punishment, more likely to reoffend, more adult-like. And this happened, as I said, regardless of the race of the person in the experiment. So black police officers were just as likely to do this as white police officers, black probation officers just as likely as white probation officers. But it gets to something that's important about understanding disproportionate minority involvement in the system, which is that we have unconscious biases that affect the decisions that we make.

Question: Why do you feel there is a disproportionate number of minority adolescents in prison in America?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, racial disproportionality in the justice system is seen at virtually every level that you look at. So it's seen in terms of who gets arrested, it's seen in terms of how people are charged, it's seen in terms of who gets detained, it's seen in terms of who gets incarcerate, and it's seen in terms of who gets transferred. At all of those levels of involvement in the system, you see more black and Latino kids than you do white kids, controlling for their criminal behavior. There isn't one thing that causes this to happen. It's, I think, probably the sum of many smaller things but then when added up have a large effect. So we know that there is racial profiling going on in terms of how law authorities work. We know that people have unconscious biases against kids of color that might lead them to see them as more dangerous when they may not be. You tend to see disproportionality the most at less serious crimes. So, just in a concrete way, if you're talking about somebody who's murdered somebody, it really doesn't matter, for the most part, whether that criminal is black or white; they're going to be punished for murder. But if you're talking about somebody who's arrested for drug dealing, you know, there's a lot of subjectivity that goes on in how the charge is made and in what the outcome of the charge is.

Question: So how do we go about changing this in a systemic way?

Laurence Steinberg: It's been done in a couple of places and been effective. So what you can do is, you can give the decision-makers objective criteria by which to decide how to punish or sanction somebody. And those objective criteria could include things like the grades somebody was getting in school, the person's prior record, the person's behavior while in the detention facility, how the person scored on some test of personality or aggression or whatever. But when those kinds of objective scoring systems are implemented that then tell you, well, given this score, we want to use this sanction, you can eliminate the racial differences in the way kids are treated.

Question: Can you explain your research into why students are becoming less engaged in academic pursuits?

Laurence Steinberg: And a couple things emerged from that study that I think are really important for understanding American education policy. The first is that a very significant proportion of kids tell us that they're just going through the motions when they're in school; I mean that they're not engaged, that they're not trying their hardest, that they're bored. And clearly we are not challenging kids in American schools as much as we should. And you see this if you do international comparisons. We didn't in this study, but if you look at how much time kids spend on homework, for example, the average in our study -- and this is a figure that you see in lots of different studies -- is about four to five hours a week for a typical high school student. In Japan it's four to five hours a day. And so you see the difference in magnitude of how hard we push kids here in America compared to other places.

The other thing that we found was that parents and peers have a huge impact on kids' engagement in school, independent of what's going on in the classroom. And so kids who are raised in households where their parents practice better parenting -- the kind of parenting that has been called authoritative parenting, where they're firm, but they're warm, and where their parents are involved in their schooling, where they go school conferences and so forth -- those kids do better in school. At the same time, it's not just the home, because we also found that there's significant peer pressure on kids that makes a difference, and unfortunately, more often than not it's peer pressure to do not as well as you might. So a very high proportion of kids told us that they refrained from raising their hand in class to answer a question because they're afraid that their peers will make fun of them. And so we need to do something to transform the culture that says it's okay to be smart. You can also be cool in other ways, but it's also okay to be smart.

Now, perhaps the most controversial finding that we came up with had to do with ethnic differences in achievement. Across all of the schools that we studied, Asian-American kids were doing significantly better than white kids, and white kids were doing significantly better than black and Latino kids. And that's controlling for family income, it's controlling for parental education, it's controlling for other factors that might be correlated with ethnicity and that might have played a role in this too. And when we look at why that is, we see several important things. The first is -- this is a great question that one of my collaborators said; we have to put this on a questionnaire -- and the question was, what's the lowest grade you could get without your parents getting angry, right? So the Asian kids, it's an A-minus, all right? For the white kids, you know, it's more like a B. And for the black and Latino kids, it's somewhere, you know, around a B-minus or C-plus. So clearly there are different expectations in these households.

The second thing is that when we ask kids about the importance of schooling, we see really different patterns in how kids from different ethnic groups answer the question. Asian kids tell us that they are sure that if they do poorly in school, something bad will happen to them. They won't get a good job in life, all right? Black and, to a certain extent, Latino kids don't have that belief. So every -- all ethnic groups share the belief that doing well in school has a payoff. It's how they think about doing poorly in school that makes a difference. And the Asian kids do well in part because they're really afraid of what the consequences of not doing well are. And I think that comes back to the standards that their parents have set for them at home.

Question: Is the idea that being smart can lead to success taking hold at all among the youth?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I don't know about how it's changed attitudes. It certainly hasn't done anything to kids' achievement, which has stayed pretty flat. So if you look at these tests that are given by the federal government year after year after year, I mean there's a little bit of fluctuation from year to year; there's been a little improvement in, I think, eighth grade math, something like that. But across the board, I think anybody looking at the data objectively would say that none of the things that we've tried to do in the last 30 years has made a difference. Achievement is lower now than it was in the 1970s, and -- that's partly what prompted us to do the study. We spend all of this money on school reform, and we're constantly having debates about it: how we train teachers, what we pay teachers, how much money we give schools, whether we should have big schools or small schools. People try to do all these experiments where they change these things. And it doesn't make a difference. It really doesn't make a difference.

I'm not saying that teachers shouldn't be well paid; of course they should be well paid. But that alone is not going to raise achievement among American students. Do schools need resources? Of course they need resources. But lots of research shows that there is a very small relationship between the resources that a school gets and the output that it produces in kids. And I think -- and I think if you look at projects like the Harlem Children's Zone, where they have attacked this problem as a community problem and not as a problem that's just located in the classroom, and they're seeing terrific results there. So our point in this book is that you really need to think about the whole context in which kids grow up and not just what takes place inside the classroom.

Question: What particular efforts should be made to enhance the potential educational success of underprivileged kids?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, you know, the fact that underprivileged kids do so poorly in school is a huge, huge problem for society, with tremendous implications for our economic future. And the gap between the rich and poor has grown considerably, and that trickles down to achievement; it's not just in terms of family income. The way that we finance schools I think is misguided, and disadvantages kids from poor neighborhoods. So certainly unhinging school financing from property taxes, which would allow us to redistribute tax income in a way that would be more equitable, would certainly be something that's important. A second thing is this issue of standards. We just don't hold kids in poor neighborhoods to the same academic standards that we hold kids in wealthy neighborhoods to. And so when kids in poor neighborhoods get promoted from grade to grade, or graduate from school, it's often a sham. I mean, often their diplomas are meaningless. I mean, there are kids with high school diplomas in this country who can read no better than at a fifth-grade level. And so we have dismissed that population of young people as being not important enough to really care about. We also need to do a better job at engaging their families in their schooling. A lot of their parents, of course, had their own problems in school, and so they're more reluctant, they're more uncomfortable showing up in school because it was an uncomfortable place for them when they were kids. So we need to think of better ways of getting parents involved in their kids' educations.

Question: What steps should we take in education to equip our kids to better compete in the global economy?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think that we can make schools more challenging, for starters, so that kids are pushed harder and come out with better skills and more knowledge than they are right now. I'm somebody who favors national exams and having national standards. I believe -- I may be off by one country or so -- but I believe every industrialized country in the world except the United States has national standards for kids' achievement. So I think allowing education to be kind of a local issue is part of the problem because it allows districts to set their own standards. We've moved away from that a little bit, but there's been huge rebellion against that, and people have spoken out against performance-based evaluations of kids. I think it's a good thing to do. You know, the major objection to it is that it forces teachers to teach to the test, and that they're not doing things in the classroom that are creative or that promote critical thinking. Well, if that's the case, we need to design better tests. I mean, there's no problem with teaching to the test if the test is measuring something that you want kids to achieve. So I think there are a number of things that we could do to improve academic achievement among American kids.

Question: How would you advise Obama on education reform?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, number one would be to use the bully pulpit to get parents more involved in their kids' education. And that includes reading to them when they're little, staying involved in their education not only in elementary school, but in middle school and high school as well. The second is to push for standards-based reform, to continue along this line, and to ask states to do this.

I think a third thing for the President to do is to again use the bully pulpit -- and I say that because you know the federal government has very little to do with education. All he can do is encourage; he can't really do very much more than that. But I think a third thing would be to try to encourage more talented people to go into teaching and to go into education, because we need good teachers if we're going to deal with the American achievement problem. And I think -- again, I'm not sure what he can actually do, except maybe by setting an example -- and I think President Obama is in a position to do this because he's obviously a very smart guy, and he's also a very cool guy. And I think that to the extent that we want to get kids to see that you can be both, that maybe we can build on his reputation and his persona to encourage that. So those are the main things that I would suggest.

Question: How would you evaluate Obama’s proposals for education reform?

Laurence Steinberg: I think -- I'd have to say at this point that there haven't been many proposals. So -- I mean, certainly the principles that President Obama has articulated are important ones. I think they're pretty consistent with the kinds of things that I and other people have been saying we need to do. He certainly understands the importance of education to the American economy. In his controversial speech to those schoolchildren he talked about the importance of doing well in school, of staying in school, in other words, of being engaged in school. That's all good. I think that education really has not been a priority of the administration so far because it's been understandably concerned with the economy, with health care, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I guess I'd like to wait and see what actually develops before we start talking about whether the policies are good or not.

Question: Why don’t America’s prevention based programs work?

Laurence Steinberg: The major causes of morbidity and mortality among American teenagers are self-inflicted behaviors, so motor vehicle crashes, homicide, suicide, drug-related behaviors that lead to health consequences either because of the drugs themselves or because when you're using drugs or drinking, you're more likely to have an accident, get into a fight, have unprotected sex and so on. So our approach to dealing with these problems in this country for years has been through classroom-based education -- abstinence education, just-say-no education and so on. And if you look at these programs and you look at evaluations of these programs, you can't help but come away disappointed, perhaps even skeptical.

I mean, DARE, which is all over the country, doesn't work at all. And we know that from good studies of DARE. Abstinence-only education, which has been thoroughly evaluated, doesn't work. Driver's education, I learned recently, doesn't work. And so educating kids about avoiding risky or harmful situations or substances doesn't seem to make much of a difference. And I think that if you look at basic social psychology, that's not surprising, because what most studies show is that it's not hard to change people's attitudes and knowledge, but it's really hard to change their behavior. And so in our work we've asked, well, why is it that kids know that these things are risky, know that these things are harmful, and still do them anyway? I mean, you know, a huge proportion of kids have sex without using condoms. I mean, they've been told over and over and over again that that's dangerous. A large proportion of kids become cigarette smokers, regular smokers, and they've been told over and over again that that's dangerous. Why do they do these things?

And my argument is not that we should stop telling them the facts about risky behavior, but that we need to understand that kids engage in a lot of risk-taking behavior for reasons that have nothing to do with their knowledge or beliefs. They have to do with something that I talked about earlier, which has to do with this increase in sensation seeking and thrill seeking that occurs during early adolescence that has to do with changes in the brain. And it has to do with the still-maturing control system that regulates impulses, that allows us to make better decisions. And middle adolescence -- let's say from 14 to 17 or so -- is a time when you have a very easily aroused reward system which makes you less attentive to the possible costs of a risky decision and more attentive to the immediate rewards. So you have this hyper-aroused reward system, and you have this immature impulse control system. So kids pursue their rewards, and they don't have the brakes to put on. So how can we address this? Because clearly, when you're on a couch making out with your girlfriend and you're aroused, if you don't have the maturity of judgment to stop and say, you know, we should use a condom before we go any further, you're going to have unsafe sex.

So the approach I think we need to take for many of these behaviors is by changing the context in which kids live, not by trying to change the kid, because I don't think we can change this aspect of adolescence, nor do I think we should. What do I mean by changing the context? Graduated driver's licensing is a perfect example of this. It is well established that adolescents have more crashes when they’re driving with other adolescent passengers in the car than when they're driving by themselves. We did a study in our lab in which we manipulated this experimentally and found the same thing. And we're doing brain imaging work now in which we're seeing why this is likely to be the case. Up until fairly recently there were no restrictions on kids having passengers in the car when they first got their licenses. Well, this doesn't make any sense, given what we know from the actuarial data and from scientific research. I mean, having passengers in the car when you're a teenager increases your risk of having a crash to about the same degree that drinking does.

So it's a really serious risk factor for having a crash. And most parents, I think, would hesitate to turn the car keys over to their teenager if they smelled alcohol on her breath. But would they even ask if she was going to pick up a bunch of other kids and drive around with them, even though they're both risky? So graduated driver's licensing sets restrictions early on in the licensing process over the conditions under which kids can drive. That has been very, very effective in states that have implemented it and states where -- that have enforced it. We could have classroom-based education in which we told kids, you know, if you have your friends in the car it's going to increase the likelihood of an accident, and I'll bet that they wouldn't change their behavior at all. But having a law that says they can't do it -- they can lose their license if they drive that way -- that has shown to be effective. And that's what I mean by changing the context rather than trying to change the kid.

Question: How can we make sex safer for teens?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, you know, of course, changing the context in which kids have sex is the most difficult of all because it's a private matter, and we're not there. There are a couple of things that can be done. We can make contraception more easily available to kids so that they have it with them. Some kids -- not the majority -- but some kids say in surveys that the reason that they don't use contraception is that they don't have access to it, so we could do something about that. And there have been school-based clinics that have distributed condoms to kids who come in there, give them away for free, have been shown to be effective when it's combined with other efforts to educate kids about safe sex. We can limit the opportunities kids have to be by themselves without adult supervision. The main period of time now for adolescents to engage in risky behavior is between three o'clock and six o'clock in the afternoon, when they're home or in their friends' homes and their parents are at work. I mean, we now know this.

Most kids -- you know, the image of kids having sex for the first time in the back seat of their car? Forget it. They're having it in their own homes or in their romantics partner's home. And so having better supervision of kids, more situations in which adults are around, is going to help all kinds of risky behavior, including risky sexual behavior. And how can we do that? We can make parents more aware of the need to monitor their kids, even when their kids are teenagers. We can do a better job of funding and putting in after-school programs for kids, so that the time after school is spent in structured situations where there are adults who are supervising it. But there's a huge literature showing that unstructured, unsupervised time is a recipe for disaster for adolescents in terms of risk and reckless behavior.

Question: What about drug abuse?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think we have a little more power to affect teenage drug abuse than we do to affect teenage sexual behavior. So here are some other things that we can do: we can make it harder for kids to get the substances through better interdiction and through better enforcement of point-of-sale laws. And that -- both of those things have proven to be effective. We can tax the hell out of these things, which frankly is probably the best single intervention that we could do. So if you look at the decline in smoking that's taken place over time, which is a great thing, so fewer people smoke, fewer kids smoke than was the case a couple of decades ago. The reason for that has almost nothing to do with programs to educate kids about the dangers of smoking. It has to do with an increase in the retail price of cigarettes. So kids who don't have a lot of money are very price-sensitive, and so if we continue as we've been doing to increase the cost of buying cigarettes, fewer and fewer kids are going to smoke. And if we increase the cost of purchasing alcohol, fewer kids would drink

Question: What should parents do when they notice reckless behavior from teens?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think the first thing you should do is to ask whether your parenting is allowing the child to get into situations where this inclination toward risky and reckless behavior is going to be pursued. You know, some kids can handle independence better than others. And parents need to look at their individual kid and say, is my kid ready to be left alone as often as I leave him alone? Or is he ready to drive? Just because a kid turns 16 doesn't magically make him mature. So I think that parents need to adjust their parenting to suit their kids. I mean, there are some basic principles of good parenting that have been shown to diminish risky behavior and to diminish other kinds of problem behavior, and also to -- I mean, the good news is that the same things that diminish problem behavior also facilitate positive development. So by becoming a warmer parent, by becoming a firmer parent, by becoming more involved in your kid's life, you're going to have this positive effect. You're going to diminish problems, and you're going to improve your child's functioning in school in terms of his maturity, in terms of his social relationships.

Question: Why are teenagers the most prone to recklessness?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think you can answer that question on different levels, so let's give it a shot. Think about adolescence from an evolutionary point of view, all right? I mean, adolescence is really the beginning of when we're supposed to be reproducing. And if you look at other species, at puberty the juveniles -- and because some viewers might not realize this, all mammals go through adolescence, and we can measure when they are in the adolescent period in terms of the puberty hormones -- so if you look at what happens at puberty in other species, the juveniles leave the home. And that is, you know, designed so that they don't mate within their family. But now, leaving the home is a very risk proposition. It's dangerous to leave the protection of the older animals that have raised you and protected you. I think that that's why risk-taking is built into adolescence as a part of the repertoire of behavior that's good, that's important and that's necessary for evolution.

Now, the conditions under which we evolved are not the same as the conditions that exist today. And so this general inclination for risk-taking, which may be an inherent feature of adolescence, may lead kids into difficult and dangerous situations now that didn't exist when we were evolving, although it was a pretty dangerous time to be a human being when we were evolving as well. And I think that this then helps to explain why the brain changes the way it does during adolescence, why you have this increase in novelty-seeking that is linked to the sexual changes of puberty. And this then encourages kids to pursue rewards and to engage in pleasurable and exciting behaviors like having sex. And I think that if -- that by the same token, you know, the brain's self-regulatory systems are still developing then, and they come online in adulthood, which is when, evolutionarily speaking, we need that because that's when we're raising the children that we have produced during the adolescent years, after we become fertile. So I think it makes a lot of sense, and that's why I think that it's probably futile to try to stop kids from being the way they are. I think it's good to educate them; they need to understand the potential harms and dangers that are out there. But I think we need to recognize that education alone is not going to prevent adolescent risky behavior.

Question: What are some of the latest insights into the nature vs. nurture debate?

Laurence Steinberg: So the -- what has taken place in the last decade or so has been a complete transformation of the way that scientists think about nature and nurture. And this distinction between what is genetic and what is environmental is now seen as a false dichotomy. It's a bad way to think about things because genes are not directions that our bodies follow, but switches that can be turned on and off by things in the environment. And so just because you have inherited a genetic inclination toward something, toward a certain personality trait, let's say, or toward, you know, being relatively smart -- things that we know have some genetic component to them -- whether that will actually be realized in your behavior is going to be a function of the environment.

And so we can't think of these things separately, and the questions that people were asking decades ago -- which was how much of this is due to nature and how much of this is due to nurture? -- are no longer being asked because we realize now that they're dumb questions. That's not the way things work. They work together, and we need to understand how they interact with each other. So there are studies, for example, showing that there's a genetic propensity to become depressed. Some people have a genetic profile that is going to make them more susceptible to the changes in neurotransmission that effect the onset of depression. But this genetic propensity only turns into depression if people grow up under stressful life circumstances. So if you look at individuals who've grown up under less stressful circumstances, even the ones with the genetic vulnerability don't develop depression. And this is the new kind of science that's being done now that's so exciting in understanding which environmental conditions turn on and turn off which genes. And that's going to be the new frontier in understanding development.

So when parents ask, you know, why did my kid turn out to be different than me, I mean there's so many reasons, because even if your child inherited your genes, unless your child grew up in the exact same kind of environment that you did, they might not be manifested in the same kind of behavior. And you know, parents don't treat all their kids the same way. Siblings growing up in the same family may have very different experiences both within the home and outside the home. I mean, experience matters. So when we read that things have a genetic basis, we need to be cautious in understanding what that really means. Genes don't determine our behavior. They establish propensities, but those propensities are realized differentially in different kinds of environments.

Question: Does the Most Likely To Succeed Award predict future success?

Laurence Steinberg: There is, although it's -- you know, it’s not huge. But you know, success in many, many different types of situations requires the same things. And so, you know, being smart, having a good sense of humor, having social skills that allow you to figure out what other people want you to do and how to get them to do what you want them to do, being able to delay gratification -- it's a hugely important factor in success in life. All these are predictors of success virtually at every stage of development. So in some senses it's not surprising that people who are successful in high school are successful as adults, because the same things that got them successful in high school enable them to be successful in adulthood. That said, you know, there is a certain culture of youth that values certain attributes that aren't necessarily valued in adulthood. And so there's maybe a subset of attributes that are operative during high school that are very adolescence-specific that no longer are operative during adulthood. And that may account for the fact that the correlation between success in adolescence and success later is not perfect. But it's certainly significant. [00:47:27.04]

Question: Have you done research where the result turned out differently than you expected?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I can think of two things, okay? One was very early in my career, and one was more recently. The early one was the following: I had done my doctoral dissertation on how family relationships change when kids move from childhood into adolescence. And what we found was that as a direct function of pubertal maturation, there was an increase in conflict between kids and their parents. And I was writing -- this is now back in the late '70s -- about why puberty caused conflict between kids and their parents. And about 10 years later I was driving around with a friend of mine, another psychologist, and he said, have you ever thought about maybe it's the other way around? Maybe family conflict causes kids to go through puberty. And I thought, wow, that's a wild idea!

And we had these data where we had followed people over time, where we had measured puberty and family conflict and different points in time, so we could look at kind of which came first. And sure enough, we found that kids who grew up -- now, this was limited to girls -- that girls who grew up in family environments characterized by higher levels of conflict went through puberty earlier, which was -- it just completely blew me away. And when I first presented this -- I remember I was out at Stanford giving a talk, and a very famous psychologist there, Eleanor Maccoby, came up to me afterwards, and she said, that was a beautiful talk, but I don't believe any of it. And you know, this was the first study in humans to demonstrate this. Now, we know that biological functioning is influenced by social factors. There's the whole thing of menstrual synchrony: when women live together their menstrual periods tend to get synchronized, and so on. But nobody had shown this before. And since then it's now been replicated in a bunch of different studies, and it's kind of an accepted fact within developmental psychology. So that was something that really surprised me, that I would never have predicted.

Question: What is one of your most unexpected recent findings?

Laurence Steinberg: The more recent finding is this peer effect, where -- we did a study where we had people come into the lab to take a batter of risk-taking and decision-making measures on a computer. And we asked them to come and bring two friends with them. And then we randomly assigned them to either do these tasks by themselves or to do it with their friends watching them. And we had teenagers, college undergraduates and adults, you know, 30 or so years old. And so what we found in this study was that the mere presence of peers doubled the number of risks that adolescents took. It had a 50 percent increase among college students and no effect at all among adults. Now, this was really interesting to me. Nobody had shown this experimentally before, although it's consistent with the idea that most adolescent risk-taking occurs when they're in groups and with their friends.

So we just recently -- my colleague Jason Chein, who's a neuroscientist, and I just recently took this experiment into the FMRI. So we have the subjects with their brains being scanned, and they're lying down on the magnets, the computer screen is in there, they can do the task, the same task. We have them come with two friends; their friends are in the next room. Their friends can see their performance on a monitor that's in the next room, and their friends are miked into the magnets. So on cue, when we tell the friends, they say, okay, Dave, I'm watching you now, all right? And we compare people's performance on these tasks when they know their friends are watching them and when they know their friends can't see them at all. So they're not even in the same room with them; they're just aware of their presence. I mean, they're not encouraging them to take risks or anything like that, because we script what they're allowed to say. And we've just discovered --we're in the process of writing this up right now to send out to a journal -- that the presence of peers activates the brain systems that are in this reward circuit that we've been talking about, in kids, but it doesn't in adults.

And so we think that the reason that we saw the peer effect is that when you are with your friends when you are a teenager, it increases the salience of the rewarding aspects of a risky decision, which then of course is going to make you pursue the risky decision rather than be risk-averse. So we're really excited about this finding. And we are just working on a paper this morning in which we looked at the impact of the presence of friends on people's preferences for immediate versus delayed rewards. And we're just doing this in the scanner now, but in our behavioral research we see the same thing. So we have a sample of 19-year-olds, and they do this task -- it's called a delay discounting task -- where it basically measures how much less of a reward you'd be willing to take to get it now rather than waiting. When the 19-year-olds do this with their friends watching them, they make decisions that are comparable to what 14-year-olds make. But when 19-year-olds do it with their friends not watching them, they behave like adults. And so again it's this impact of peers on reward processing that seems to be going on that may play a role in understanding risk-taking. So when we first saw -- you ask what gets me excited -- you know, when we first saw these brain scans, we couldn't believe it because it looked too beautiful to be true. And we peaked kind of early on; we'd only run, you know, a couple dozen subjects. And now we've done the whole experiment, and it's just amazing. It has held up, so we're really, really jazzed about this.

Recorded on December 10, 2009