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Many adolescents transgress rules and break laws, not out of criminal intent or because they have some disorder, but "for fun", as an adventure, for the experience.

How is this explained from the perspective of psychology and cognitive sciences? Does this behavior serve a developmental purpose, or is it merely a dangerous side effect that is best suppressed and controlled by parents and authorities?


The following functions have been suggested1 for adolescent risk-taking behavior, such as psychoactive substance use, risky driving, or antisocial behavior:

  • self-affirmation and experimentation / exploration
  • identification and social acceptance
  • ritual and emulation
  • social visibility and desirability
  • self-exoneration
  • escape through action and excitement

But the term "risk" implies that these behaviors are not necessarily functional in the sense that they help the individual develop healthily. Smoking may lead to peer acceptance, but it is certainly not healthy.

Yet, the ubiquity of these behaviors suggests that they must serve some functional purpose. What is it?


1 Bonino, S., Cattelino, E., Ciairano, S., Mc Donald, L., & Jessor, R. (2005). Adolescents and Risk: Behavior, Functions, and Protective Factors. New York: Springer.

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    $\begingroup$ Any initial research you could share? $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Sep 5 '16 at 12:12
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The function of rebellion is to challenge conclusions reached by previous generations.

If the conclusions of each generation were not challenged, errors in judgment would be perpetuated, leading to larger and larger errors in subsequent generations as each successive generation built upon the false conclusions of the previous generations.

This can be observed in technological and entrepreneurial "disruptions", in which rebels (entrepreneurs) gain competitive advantages by challenging established assumptions about the market, or "conventional wisdom," and generate creative solutions that serve as more than just clones of established business models. (PayPal, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Uber, and perhaps even Tesla could be said to have profited from this disruptive, creative paradigm.)

Adolescents transgress for many reasons, but important to remember is that they often do so not in directed pursuit of goals, but rather to explore the possibility space and establish their sense of self-determination. Later, as goal-attainment becomes important, individuals who have explored larger spaces have larger bodies of experience upon which to draw, from which they can generate creative solutions.

I have no academic sources for these assertions. They are simply observations of learning patterns that I have seen others exploit, and thus learned to exploit myself.

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