Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Teenage Impulsivity

Anyone who has seen a teenager in the grip of an obsession knows that they can work harder than most people. Like a garage tinkerer who will spend hours refining an invention that will save him a few seconds a few dozen times in his life, a teenager can devote enormous persistence to a task that strikes his fancy. If the reward is visible. If the reward is not visible, they are easily distracted into one that is, even if it is a lesser reward.

I have no idea how you're going to use this information, BTW. I certainly haven't figured it out.

Why then, are they so lazy, so unconcerned, about tasks which need to be accomplished - even they know need to be accomplished eventually - but hold no charm?

Because our "achieve reward" and our "avoid discomfort" circuits are separate, and theirs haven't lined up yet. For adults, the connection between the two concepts has developed over time, so we can at least roughly estimate some balance between them. But for teenagers, these two items are still quite separate. Their "achieve reward" circuits are actually more active than an adult's. So active, in fact, that it kicks in for whatever crosses its path. Their energy goes to "the next visible reward." All others, take a number. Rather like the dog-man in the movie who turns his head and says "Squirrel!" Shiny, shiny.

Complicating this is the underdeveloped circuitry for avoiding discomfort. Because teenagers dawdle over anything unpleasant, you would think it would be the opposite - that they do little but avoiding discomfort. Yet it is the underdevelopment, the lack of ability to see that 10x discomfort will occur if you don't endure x comfort now that keeps them unmoved by consequences. 10x, x, it's all the same. My parents are mildly upset, my parents are very upset, it's all the same. I might be embarrassed for a few moments, I might lose my job - those are about equivalent to a teenager.

This is of course entirely understandable to adults, even as it is infuriating. We feel those same impulses on their separate circuits and get the point that one might not want to do something unpleasant. Why not put it off a few more minutes, hours, days? But adults have the better-developed pain avoidance, and can better foresee how painful this is going to be if it is postponed too long.


sewa mobil said...

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Texan99 said...

Also, teenagers still have the amiable trait of childhood in which the only things that matter are the ones that demonstrably MATTER -- that is, they give a true thrill right to the heart of the soul.

Part of learning to be an adult is learning to soldier through the things that aren't fun but that need doing for a better reason. But the downside of that is getting on a joyless treadmill and forgetting that things are still supposed to MATTER at some point.

Sometimes we mistake patience about rewards for doing without rewards altogether. Then we're sitting ducks, at middle-age-crisis time, for the first thing that comes along and lights up our pleasure-and-enthusiasm circuits, because the rest of our lives have become numb.

Dubbahdee said...

The idea of our psyches being driven by two opposing forces:

Pleasure seeking/Pain Avoidance

is not new.

What I like about your comments here is that it takes time for the human to bring the two into alignment. It seems to me that it might be a useful model for understanding a wide range of human behavior, including certain kinds of mental illness.

For instance, I once knew a young man who clearly had trouble bring his PS/PA axes into alignment. After a while, it seemed that his psyche became calibrated at what most would consider an unbalanced, unhealthy, unhelpful level. Over time, it seemed as thought those patterns of thinking and feeling became ingrained. It seemed as though he could not change, even though he new that what he was doing was not "working" for him.

How do you help people whose habits of the heart are so ingrained they don't know how to reset their internal controls? I guess that is the big question isn't it?