Scimex: Teens with a weaker working memory - which allows us to draw on and use information to plan and make decisions - are more likely to have early and unprotected sex, because they're more impulsive, say US scientists. Memory tests could allow early intervention to help improve working memory, reducing the risks associated with promiscuous teenage years, they say. Teenagers vary substantially in their ability to control impulses and regulate their behavior. Adolescents who have difficulty with impulse control may be more prone to risky sexual behavior, with serious consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. A new study has found that individual differences in working memory can predict both early sexual activity and unprotected sexual involvement during adolescence.
Working memory— the system in the brain that allows individuals to draw
on and use information to plan and make decisions – develops through
childhood and adolescence. The new study found that adolescents with
weaker working memory have more difficulty controlling their impulsive
urges and considering the consequences of their behaviors.
The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Oregon,
the University of Pennsylvania, and the Children's Hospital of
Philadelphia. It appears in the journal Child Development.
Prior research in this field has linked impulsivity and lack of
self-control to risky behaviors during adolescence. This study builds on
earlier findings, focusing instead on cognitive abilities, such as the
ability to concentrate on tasks and filter out distractions, which rely
on working memory.
"We extended previous findings by showing for the first time that
individuals who have pre-existing weakness in working memory are more
likely to have difficulty controlling impulsive tendencies in early to
mid-adolescence," explains Atika Khurana, assistant professor of
counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon,
who led the study. "Furthermore, changes in these impulsive tendencies
are associated with early and unprotected sex in adolescents, even after
taking into account parents' socioeconomic status, involvement, and
monitoring of sexual behavior."
The study followed 360 adolescents (ages 12-15, from a range of
racial/ethnic backgrounds, and from families of low- to
mid-socioeconomic status) for two years, examining the effects of
working memory (measured at the start of the study) on changes in the
youth's self-control and sexually risky behavior. Researchers assessed
working memory using tasks that examined the youth's ability to maintain
attentional focus on information relevant to a task. Impulsivity was
measured using a behavioral task that assessed the adolescents' ability
to delay gratification as well as self-reports of tendencies to act
without thinking and seek excitement (known as sensation seeking). Using
privacy-enhancing, computer-assisted self-interviewing techniques,
youths also provided self-reports on their risky sexual involvement
(i.e., what age they were when they first had intercourse and whether
they engaged in unprotected sex).
Youth with weaker working memory at the start of the study reported
larger increases in impulsive tendencies over the follow-up period,
which in turn boosted their likelihood of early and unprotected sexual
activity. Adolescents with weak working memory were likely to have
greater difficulty regulating dominant impulses; for example, the desire
to have sex outweighed the risks of longer-term consequences, such as
sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. High sensation
seeking wasn't tied to weak working memory and didn't increase
adolescents' likelihood of sexual risk taking. Parental variables such
as socioeconomic status and involvement in their children's lives were
related to both working memory and sexually risky behavior, but the link
between working memory and sexual risk taking held despite taking these
influences into account.
"Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively,"
notes Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center
at the University of Pennsylvania, the lead investigator of the
longitudinal project on which the study was based. "For adolescents who
have weak ability to override strong impulses, improvements in working
memory may provide a pathway to greater control over risky sexual
behavior. Certain parenting practices, characterized by nurturing and
responsive involvement, have been shown to support the development of
working memory. Interventions could aim to strengthen these types of
parenting practices as well. "
The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the study.