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NSF grant funds research on risky decision-making in pre-teens

Researchers at the University of Iowa have secured a $396,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study risky decision-making among pre-teens.

"We hope to identify characteristics of kids who become risk-takers, such as lack of attention to risk levels or unwillingness to factor in long-term consequences," said Irwin Levin, principal investigator for the project and a UI professor with joint appointments in psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and marketing in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. "If we can do that, future research could identify ways to proactively intervene and help those kids before they engage in risky behaviors like smoking or drinking, having unprotected sex, or disregarding traffic laws."

In the first phase of the study, funded by a $262,000 National Science Foundation grant, Levin tested children between the ages of 6 and 11 to gauge their ability to weigh risks. In a computer game, the subjects chose between two arrays of cups. Their options were to play it safe, selecting the cups guaranteed to contain one coin, or to take a chance, choosing the cups that sometimes had several coins and sometimes had none. The youngest children made the riskiest choices, while the older children varied their choices depending on the level of risk and whether the risk involved potential gains or potential losses.

Levin is conducting the second phase of the study with co-principal investigator Joshua Weller, who earned a doctorate in psychology from the UI in May and is now working for Decision Research in Eugene, Ore. The researchers plan to track changes in children's decision-making competence.

At age 10, children will complete surveys about the perceived risk of real-life scenarios, such as riding a bike without a helmet, being in the sun without sunscreen, riding in a vehicle without a seat belt, eating too much junk food, or playing violent video games. They will report the extent to which they engage in such risks, the extent to which they consider the behaviors risky, and how they think their peers would respond. The two-part survey will also include questions to assess each child's personality and grasp of probability. Parents will be surveyed on what they think their children are doing or would do in each scenario.

The same group will be surveyed again when the children reach age 13 or 14, this time including questions on some of the temptations they may be beginning to face, such as smoking, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, or sex.

Levin hopes to enroll 100 children and 100 parents in the study.

"We expect steady increases in decision-making competence over a three-year period, and we should be able to identify profiles of at-risk children and track how their decision-making deficits affect choices in their everyday lives," Levin said. "If we can define deficits in terms of some children not understanding the concept of risk very well, we can reach out to these potential risk-takers and help them better understand the possible consequences of some of these risks."


Contact: Nicole Riehl
University of Iowa

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