Kashfia Rahman: Why Do Some Teenagers Take Reckless Risks?

Nov 8, 2019
Originally published on November 8, 2019 8:51 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Risk.

About Kashfia Rahman's TED Talk

Teenagers are often depicted as reckless. But what is it that seems to propel them to take careless risks? As a budding neuroscientist, high school student Kashfia Rahman set out to find some answers.

About Kashfia Rahman

Kashfia Rahman is a student at Harvard University, studying psychology and neuroscience. As a researcher, she's interested in the neuroscientific and psychological processes in teen behaviors, and how the environment plays a role in emotion-processing and cognitive functioning in teens. She hopes to promote awareness to minimize harmful behaviors.

As a high school student, Rahman conducted an experiement focused on teenagers and risk. She presented her findings at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair where 1,800 students from over 75 countries participated. She took home first place in her category. Her work was also recognized by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and the American Psychological Association.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


So, clearly, there are different kinds of risks - some that are intelligent and others not so much.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Guys, it is the red zone. We are back with another prank. This time, we're doing the Tide Pod taste challenge. We have...

RAZ: Is it true that there are videos of teenagers eating Tide Pods?

KASHFIA RAHMAN: Yeah. That was this weird phenomenon that was going on by senior year of high school. There'd be kids doing the Tide Pod challenge.

RAZ: So wait - like, what are they actually doing?

RAHMAN: Basically, since Tide Pods, like, kind of look like candy and are colorful, kids would eat them and then film themselves doing so and post that on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So we picked up some Tide Pods, and we're about to become YouTube famous. So I'm going to try one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Try one, bro. Take a bite.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, why not?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ew. Bro, it's, like, poison.



RAZ: That's crazy. That's, like, toxic.


RAZ: This is Kashfia Rahman.

RAHMAN: I'm a student at Harvard University, studying psychology and neuroscience.

RAZ: Kashfia has never herself taken the Tide Pod challenge, but she is fascinated by her friends who take those kinds of risks - kids who are...

RAHMAN: Binge drinking, drunk driving, making bad choices in social situations, peer pressure.

RAZ: Yeah. Kashfia grew up in Brookings, S.D.

RAHMAN: I lived in a college town - about 25,000 people, so pretty small town. Being in South Dakota, it's obvious that there wasn't much to do to entertain yourself. A lot of times, kids would turn to things like drugs and alcohol and risk-taking in order to get rid of boredom. But these were smart kids. There were, you know, in honors and advanced classes. Perfectly, like, friendly people were doing these outrageous things. And that was the first spark.

RAZ: The first spark to conduct an experiment about teenagers and risk.

RAHMAN: Right, exactly. So I think it's, like, a universally known truth that teenagers are reckless and risky. And they're just - the changes that occur in the brain at this developmental period are kind of taking the reins when teens are acting out in this way.

RAZ: So it's, like, almost like a zombie brain.

RAHMAN: Right. Exactly.

RAZ: It's almost like a zombie has taken over the teenager's brain and said, now, I want you to vape. Here's a JUULpod.

RAHMAN: Yes. That's a great analogy, honestly, for what goes on during this time period.

RAZ: Here's more from Kashfia talking about her research from the TED stage.


RAHMAN: Now, it's no secret that teens ages 13 to 18 are more prone to risk-taking than children or adults. But what makes them so daring? Do they suddenly become reckless? Or is this just a natural phase that they're going through? Well, neuroscientists have already found evidence that the teen brain is still in the process of maturation and that this makes them exceptionally poor at decision-making, causing them to fall prey to risky behaviors. But in that case, if the maturing brain is to blame, then why are teens more vulnerable than children, even though their brains are more developed than those of children? Also, not all teens in the world take risks at the same level. Are there some other underlying or unintentional causes driving them to risk-taking?

Well, this is exactly what I decided to research. So I founded my research on the basis of a psychological process known as habituation or simply what we refer to as getting used to it. Habituation explains how our brains adapt to some behaviors, like lying, with repeated exposures. And this concept inspired me to design a project to determine if the same principle could be applied to the relentless rise of risk-taking in teenagers. In short, I wanted to conduct a research study to answer one big question - why do teens keep making outrageous choices that are harmful to their health and well-being?


RAZ: So how did you start?

RAHMAN: So I actually started with kids from my own high school. So...

RAZ: Like, you went up to the kids who binge drink and - or swallow Tide Pods and say, hey, you know, I noticed that you swallow Tide Pods and binge drink. Can I study you? Is that - was that your approach?

RAHMAN: That wasn't exactly how I went about it. I told my classmates that I wanted to do a research project on the interaction between risky behaviors and the teenage brain is how I put it to them.

RAZ: And did - were there kids who were, like, chuckling - like, ha, ha, ha - yeah, right on, or did they - was everyone pretty much, like, OK, yeah, cool; I'm in?

RAHMAN: Yeah. So most people were - you know, they were in.


RAHMAN: So I started the research of 86 students ages 13 to 18 from my high school. I had them complete a computerized decision-making simulation to measure their risk-taking behaviors comparable to ones in the real world like alcohol use, drug use and gambling. Wearing the EEG headset, the students completed the test 12 times over three days to mimic repeated risk exposures. This meant that I had measured the process of habituation and its effects on decision-making.

And it took 29 days to complete this research. And with months of frantically drafting proposals, meticulously computing data in a caffeinated daze at 2 a.m., I was able to finalize my results.

RAZ: And what did you start to see?

RAHMAN: Right, so I had them do 12 trials of the simulation. And we saw that at the beginning, when they were on their first or second trial, their levels of, you know, nervousness, anxiousness, anxiety, you know, stress - those were high. But as you looked at the data for, you know, the later trials - the 10th, 11th, 12th trials - you saw these emotions, these negative emotions that are generally associated with risks decrease, and you saw things like excitement and arousal increase.

RAZ: So let's say there was a teenager who was at a party, and a bunch of kids were doing shots of tequila. And that kid said, no way. I'm not getting involved with this. But then they went to the party the next weekend, and again, a bunch of kids were doing shots of tequila, and that kid said, no way. I'm not doing it. What you're saying is that by the fifth or sixth time of being exposed to a bunch of other kids doing this, that kid who previously refused to do it would be more likely to try it. Like, that would be the tipping point.

RAHMAN: Yeah, somewhat like that because it just becomes so normalized in their environment, and they think everyone else is doing it. This is the fifth or sixth time I've seen this. And they'd be unfazed by it and habituated to that kind of risk.

RAZ: So you took your research, and you wrote it into - wrote it up into a paper, right?

RAHMAN: Right.

RAZ: And then what did you do with it?

RAHMAN: So I competed at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for 1,800 kids from 75 countries.


SANDRA ENDO: It is my pleasure to be with you today and to be a part of the Intel ISEF 2017 grand awards ceremony.

RAZ: And were you nervous when you presented your findings?



ENDO: The first place award winners in behavioral and social sciences are, from Brookings, S.D., Kashfia Rahman...

RAZ: And you won. You won this thing.

RAHMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I got first place in my category (laughter).

RAZ: That's amazing.

RAHMAN: So it was completely unexpected, but it was great.


RAHMAN: I was not only thrilled to have this recognition but also the whole experience of science fair that validated my efforts, keeps my curiosity alive and strengthens my creativity, perseverance and imagination. This process taught me to take risks. And I know that might sound incredibly ironic...


RAHMAN: But I took risks realizing that unforeseen opportunities often come from risk-taking - not the hazardous, negative type that I studied but the good ones, the positive risks. The more risks I took, the more capable I felt of withstanding my unconventional circumstances, leading to more tolerance, resilience and patience for completing my project.

And these lessons have led me to new ideas. Like, is the opposite of negative risk-taking also true? Can positive risk-taking escalate with repeated exposures? Does positive action build positive brain functioning? I think I just might have my next research idea.


RAZ: That's Kashfia Rahman. She's a student at Harvard studying psychology and neuroscience. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today - ideas about risk. Stay with us.

I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.