Many of us have been around an adolescent who seems mature for their age. They act older than they are and act like young adults. According to Susan Harter, author of “The Perceived Competence Scale for Children”, published in Child Development, this is a very common sight to witness (1982). The adolescent’s brain is wired to mimic adults in an effort to prepare for the gradual independence that it will eventually bear. Some adolescents play this role more convincingly than others, depending on their circumstances. Regardless of this, it does not matter how adult they are acting; the fact remains that they are acting. Their adult-like demeanor is not a reflection of their cognitive skills nor is it a reflection of their capacity to make important decisions that concern their life-or-death (1982). Harter goes on to express that though an adolescent may exhibit all of the signs of acting as an adult, their brains are still closer to that of a child: “An adolescent lacks life experience, as well as any experience one would gain as an adult. This puts them at a further disadvantage when making serious decisions (1982).” Harter found that even though adolescents are striving for independence and constantly gaining more life experience, they are still fundamentally lacking in many areas that would allow them the cognitive capacity to make a serious decision. In terms of perceived competence, adolescents are closer to children than adults (1982).
There was dispute about adolescent’s ability to make decision over various things for decades. In many cases, adolescents were not allowed to be tried in legal matters. Elizabeth S. Scott and associates authored an article titled “Evaluating Adolescent Decision Making in Legal Contexts”, published in Law and Human Behavior which aimed to uncover whether an adolescent was credible when giving testimony or even deciding whether to give their testimony (1995). The research revealed that in relatively simple legal cases concerning misdemeanors that did not directly involve anybody they knew personally, the adolescents had no problem deciding to testify. The adolescents also had no problem giving honest testimony in these situations (1995). However, when faced with more serious legal cases concerning violent crimes, or crimes that involved individuals they knew personally, the adolescents often struggled with whether to give testimony and sometimes lied on the witness stand, either in favor or against the defendant. The testimony depended on their personal feelings toward defendant: if the adolescent did not like the defendant, the original report given to the police was altered to cast the defendant in the bad light. By comparison, if the adolescent was close to the defendant, the original report was altered to make the defendant look innocent (1995). These results showed that adolescents are not capable of making serious adult decisions that involve the lives of others which is arguably the first step in learning to make serious life decisions for ourselves. Halter mentioned in her paper that adolescents hung from an emotional pendulum, acting with complete apathy or reactive attachment toward others. It was her postulation that until these emotions calmed down and the adolescent could see others clearly, as well as themselves, stable and definitive decisions about serious matters were unlikely .
Autonomy is one’s capability to maintain a rational state of awareness, even in times of crisis. It is the ability for an individual to take moral responsibility and remain accountable for their actions. Most importantly, autonomy is the ability for the rational, moral individual to make informed and un-coerced decisions. Many adults are fully capable of remaining autonomous while making decisions; it is an important element of life-or-death decisions. Adolescents are not fully capable of autonomy, according to Rebecca A. Turner and her associates, authors of “Autonomy, Relatedness, and the Initiation of Health Risk Behaviors in Early Adolescence”, published in Health Psychology (1993). Turner and her colleagues found that adolescents are not capable of being autonomous or applying autonomy to their decision making, simply because of where their concerns typically lie at that age. An adult as gained life experience, as Harper reminded us in her own article (1982). This life experience allows adults to grow, develop empathy, and a sense of self. Adults begin to become autonomous, taking responsibility for their actions and making un-coerced decisions, because they begin to realize that their opinion is the only one that matters. Adolescents are the opposite of this, typically trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to fit in. Adolescents cannot be autonomous because nearly all of their decisions, whether big or small are coerced, Turner found (1993).
An adolescent susceptible to coercion seems innocent until behaviors that put the adolescent at a health risk are introduced. As a child, the adolescent was bombarded with messages of why these risky behaviors were bad for them. They understand on some level that smoking causes health problems. They also understand that alcohol can lead to addiction and depression, while drug use can lead to those same problems and many others. Despite the numerous serious warnings, adolescents are easily coerced by peers and the media into trying these harmful substances because it will make them fit in. To a lesser extent, smoking, drugs, and drinking are all relative life-or-death decisions and according to Turner’s research, nearly 75% of adolescents fail to make a successful decision when faced with it (1993). Because adolescents are so easily coerced into making a decision they obviously know is wrong, based on peer pressure, it shows that they are incapable of being autonomous and therefore incapable of making the correct decision in a matter of life-or-death.
The biggest argument to be made against adolescents making life-or-death concerns their brains; they are simply not completely formed. B.J. Casey, Rebecca M. Jones, and Todd A. Hare, authors of “The Adolescent Brain”, published in Annals of the New York Academy of Science, tell us that adolescent brains are “unfinished” (2008). The neuroscientists discovered, through the use of MRI scans, that an adolescent brain’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for working memory, modulating mood, organization, and controlling planning (2008). Essentially it is the command center of the brain. The prefrontal cortex sees a burst in development just before adolescence but not enough for it to be considered fully developed. They discovered that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for second thoughts, does not develop fully until an individual 18, meaning that adolescents and teens are less likely to think decisions through or even give decisions a second thought (2008). Laurence Steinberg, author of “Risk Taking in Adolesence: New Perspectives From Brain and Behavioral Science”, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests that this underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is directly responsible for most of an adolescent’s risky behavior and bad decisions (2007). Steinberg postulated that the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex was responsible for the severe impulsivity that many adolescents are prone to. In his research he found variables; adolescents with anxiety disorders or depression were less likely to be impulsive but their prefrontal cortexes were still the same as subjects, proposing that their impulsivity was stifled by extenuating disorders (2007). Subjects not suffering from disorders remained impulsive and highly unfit to make a life-or-death decision.
The corpus callosum and cerebellum also remain underdeveloped in the adolescent years, stifling decision making. The corpus callosum is responsible for relaying information between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain. This process is crucial to learning language and associative thinking; like the prefrontal cortex, its development shows a burst just before adolescence with a steep drop off afterward. The decrease in associative thinking leaves the adolescent ill-equipped to associate their actions with long-term consequences. They are able to think about immediate responses to what they are doing but have trouble associating what may happen five years from now (2008). The cerebellum’s primary function is associated with physical coordination but it was also discovered to be essential in processes of higher thought. Matters of math, philosophy, music, art, or decision making all draw influence from the cerebellum. Like both the prefrontal cortex and the corpus callosum, the cerebellum develops swiftly up until adolescence, then experiencing a dormant period. While the cerebellum is not essential to decision making, it is thought of as an enhancement to decision making. This makes it an essential tool when it comes to important matters such as life-or-death decisions (2008).
In sum, there are many valid reasons why adolescents should not be left to make their own life or death decisions. Adolescents lack essential things like life experience in adulthood in order to gain the competency to make important decisions like that. Adolescents are also too easily swayed by any influential sources around them to remain autonomous. Autonomy is an important element of crucial decision making; without it, adolescents are ineffective decision makers. Indisputably, adolescents should not be left to make life or death decisions because their brains are not fully formed. Still a work in progress, their prefrontal cortex does not allow them the ability to think twice before they act. An underdeveloped corpus callosum ensures that they will not associate the decision they make today with the consequences that may occur years from now, and an insufficient cerebellum means that any important decision making is left without any enhancement. With these facts in mind it is clear that adolescents are not yet ready to make important decisions for themselves.
Casey, B.J., Rebecca M. Jones and Todd A. Hare. "The Adolescent Brain." Annals of the New York Academy of Science (2008): 111-126.
Harter, Susan. "The Perceived Competence Scale for Children." Child Development (1982): 87-97.
Scott, Elizabeth S., N. Dickon Reppucci and Jennifer L. Woolard. "Evaluating Adolescent Decision Making in Legal Contexts ." Law and Human Behavior (1995): 221-244.
Steinberg, Laurence. "Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives From Brain and Behavioral Science." Current Directions in Psychological Science (2007): 55-59.
Turner, Rebecca A., et al. "Autonomy, Relatedness, and the Initiation of Health Risk Behaviors in Early Adolescence ." Health Psychology (1993): 200-208.