Is Your Teen Acting Ape-Like? Study Explains Why

Chimpanzees are humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom. We share many of the same qualities – agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness. However, a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) discovered two traits shared by humans and chimps, particularly teenage humans and chimps: impulsivity and risk-taking.

APA researchers conducted a study similar to the famous “Marshmallow Experiment.” For those who aren’t familiar, the Marshmallow Experiment was a study done by Stanford University in 1972. The goal was to test delayed gratification by presenting children with a singular marshmallow. Kids were given the choice between eating the singular marshmallow as soon as it was presented, or patiently waiting to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes and then receiving two marshmallows as a reward.

A similar study was recently repeated by APA researchers, with a couple of changes: chimpanzees were substituted for humans and bananas were substituted for marshmallows. Additionally, the age range for the new study included adolescent, teen, and adult chimpanzees. After offering a singular banana to the 40 chimps included in the study, chimp teens were the age group that impulsively caved to the singular banana, even when knowing they had the option to wait for additional treats. While adolescent and adult chimps were more likely to delay their gratification for additional treats, adolescent chimps were more prone to temper tantrums during the waiting period than their adult counterparts. Teen chimps were the clear winners of the impulsivity award.

The second experiment in the study tested chimps’ affinity for taking risks. Chimps of all ages were presented with two jars: one was always filled with peanuts (a snack that most chimps enjoy) whereas the other was filled with either cucumbers (a snack that most chimps dislike) or bananas (a snack most chimps adore more than almost anything else). The purpose of the experiment was to learn whether chimps would repeatedly reach for the snack they mildly enjoyed or take the risk of reaching for the jar filled with the snack they loved or hated. Teenage chimpanzees were more likely to take the risk of reaching for the latter jar than the adolescent and adult chimps, despite throwing exaggerated adolescent-esque temper tantrums when the jar they reached for was filled with cucumbers instead of their coveted bananas.

These experiments ring true to what we know about humans: we are at our most impulsive and risky during our teenage years. According to Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle, a clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and founder of LiveWell Behavioral Health, this is because teens are more fiercely driven by rewards than punishments. Given the raging river of hormones flowing through a teen’s body, they are much more susceptible to the dopamine that rushes through them when they receive a reward. As we grow into adulthood, fear of punishment starts to outweigh the desire for reward.

This doesn’t mean that all teens are making impulsive, risky decisions all the time. “When things are calm, they are able to problem solve just as well as adults,” said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The best thing you can do, as a parent, to help your teen make the best decision is to keep them calm. Instead of riling them up with your fear of their impulsivity, calmly encourage them to strengthen thoughtful decision-making. Recommend they pause before acting and offer to walk through the deliberation process with them. You can also help guide them by sharing how you think through your own decisions. Knowing teens are hardwired for rewards, look for opportunities to complement what your teen is excelling at. Therapist and author Tina Bryson says, “The more you do that, the more you help them see themselves in a positive light, the more that gets hardwired in them and they are better able to face the world around them.” Next time your teen is acting impulsive or risky, keep these tips in mind, but also remember these behaviors are a natural part of growing up.

Take Action

Increased awareness can only mean increased prevention. Join us in the fight against teen cough medicine abuse by exploring and sharing our free resources.