Teenage Rebels Likely To Be More Empathetic, Study Suggest

James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

From James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause to Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, the teenage rebel and risk-taker is engrained in our collective psyche. And it's not without reason. Studies have linked changes in the adolescent brain to an uptick in unruly behavior – a behavior frequently attributed to a desire to seek out new experiences or experiment.

But it's not just risk-taking behavior that sets our teenage selves apart. Research recently published in the journal Child Development suggests prosocial (read: helpful) behavior also peaks during adolescence – and the two, apparently diametrically opposed character traits, have a third factor in common: fun-seeking.


"We sought to test the pathways that support adolescents' development of rebellious and helpful behaviors," first author Neeltje E. Blankenstein, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University, said in a statement. "Because adolescence is often associated with negative stereotypes, our findings provide a more nuanced view on adolescent development by focusing on the relation between risk-taking and prosocial behavior."

For the study, researchers at Leiden University, Netherlands, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recruited 210 young people aged 8 to 25 years old in 2011, 10 to 27 in 2013, and 12 to 29 in 2015. Each participant completed three surveys two years apart, filling in questionnaires measuring rebellious, prosocial, and fun-seeking behaviors as well as their social skills (specifically: empathy and social-perspective taking, i.e. the ability to see two sides of an argument).

They were also required to undergo an MRI scan at each interval to measure the development of two brain regions, the nucleus accumbens (which plays an important role in reward-seeking) and medial prefrontal cortex (which plays an important role in decision-making). Both regions are related to risk-taking and prosocial behavior.

Like any study that relies on self-reported results, the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, the researchers note an interesting positive correlation between risk-taking behaviors like smoking, binging, and staying up late and prosocial behaviors like sacrificing your own goals to help a friend with theirs or giving money to a friend in need.


Comparing results over a four-year period, the researchers found that rebelliousness appears to increase between early adolescence and late adolescence, and then decline as we reach adulthood. Prosocial behavior also seems to peak in mid-to-late adolescence. But even when age was controlled for, people who reported higher levels of risk-taking behavior also reported greater levels of prosocial behavior. 

The two behaviors could be predicted by higher levels of "fun-seeking" – the researchers suppose fun-seeking encourages some teenagers to take more risks, others to engage in more prosocial behaviors, and many to do both.

"Our study suggests that fun-seeking may be a trait that leads to diverse aspects of adolescent development, and that adolescence is a time of both vulnerabilities – seen in risk-taking – and opportunities – seen in helping behaviors," said co-author Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

All this could have positive effects in the long-term, the study suggests. Higher levels of prosocial behavior correlated to greater empathy and long-term increases in perspective-taking. When it comes to the physical process behind these behaviors, the MRI scans suggest that faster maturation of the medial prefrontal cortex predicts less rebellious behavior. 


According to the researchers, the next steps will involve addressing the self-reporting problem and testing rebellious and helpful behaviors in a lab setting. 


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  • adolescent,

  • risk-taking,

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  • fun-seeking,

  • prosocial