Children take more risks with secure adult back up: Study
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Children less likely to take risks when they don’t feel they have adult back up

by Freya Lucas

November 30, 2023

Children who are raised in ‘resource rich’ environments are more likely to feel comfortable when taking risks, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison have said, because they know they have predictable support from the adults in their lives.


For those children without reliable back up, taking risks can be much more costly, and therefore they are less willing to take those risks and reap the associated rewards.


“If you’re in a resource-rich environment meaning for a child that you’re safe, your meals are coming, someone is at home for you, you’re surrounded by adults that are protecting you you’ll try new things,” Professor Seth Pollak explained, “and that’s how you discover and learn about the world.”


“What’s unseen around that corner could be golden, but you could also end up in some bad situations,” he continued. “You could end up ordering a bad meal or touching something that hurts you. You could end up in a bad relationship or with an empty wallet. And so, we thought, in order to have the confidence to try something new, you have to feel like you’re supported and relatively safe like you can afford to make a bad call.”


To reach their conclusions, the researchers studied the decision-making process of more than 150 children in early adolescence ages 10-13 years using games designed by Professor C. Shawn Green. The games offered the children opportunities to risk a little and explore for potential gains.


One game, fashioned after a pair of casino slot machines, gave players a history of payouts on just one of the machines information that helped them understand their expected winnings if they kept pulling that machine’s handle. The other machine’s history was a mystery, and investing a pull there was more of a risk, but also potentially a bigger return.


The other game, in which the children collected apples in virtual orchards, featured diminishing returns as players continued to pick from an individual tree. With limited time, would the players move to new trees, with unknown bounties? Or would they plug away at the tree they knew best?


The children and their parents also participated in a number of surveys and assessments. The researchers gauged the stress the children experience and the predictability of their lives based on factors like parental job loss, divorce, death or illness in the family, and changing schools and homes as well as children’s own views about whether or not their parents were reliable and predictable.


Questions given to the children included: 


When my parents say they’re going to pick me up, can I count on them to be there? When my parent makes a promise, do they follow through on it? Do I typically know how my parents are going to react to different kinds of situations?


The less reliable and predictable the children felt their parents were, the less likely they were to take exploratory risks in the games they played. They were less likely to give the mysterious slot machine a chance or choose to move to a different apple tree.


“The children from more stable backgrounds, they played around and experimented in our games. They use that to get a sense of how things work, maybe earning them more money or more points,” Professor Pollak explained. “Children from unstable backgrounds just don’t play that way. They stay within a narrower range of possibilities. They prefer to stick with what they already know, even if it’s limited, rather than taking a chance at a higher possible reward.”


The researchers found those self-imposed limits on risk were not related to the more objective measures of stress and unpredictability on the children’s’ lives or even on parental reports that didn’t necessarily agree with their child’s perceptions of their relationships. There wasn’t a correlation between lack of risk-taking and levels of anxiety or neuroses, or of the children’s’ feelings about the rest of the world outside their family. If they felt their parents were unreliable and unpredictable, they were less willing to explore.


“I think it makes sense,” Professor Pollak said. “Their brains are doing exactly what we want our brains to do, right? If you really feel things are not predictable and you don’t know how things are going to land, you’d stick to what works and what’s familiar. You wouldn’t waste your resources on something that could all fall apart.”


The researchers ran their experiments first with a group of nearly 80 children, then repeated it with a second group of just over 80 more to confirm their results.


Openness to exploration wouldn’t be the only important aspect of childhood enhanced by stability, researchers argue. 


Language development, sleep quality, stress regulation and other subjects of childhood development research have been tied to predictability in children’s lives. As such, Professor Pollak plans to delve further into the relationship between predictability and exploration to see how rifts might be healed.


“What can we do for children who view their history of interpersonal relationships as unstable?” he said. “We might not be able to change the relationships by the time we understand them to be unpredictable. But could we change the way children think about them, how they act on them? If that is flexible, maybe we can tune those children into the benefits and rewards of exploration to help foster learning.”


Access the research in full here. 

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