It's all in the reward: The influence of peer presence on risk-taking behaviour during young adulthood

Presentation First Author: 
Renate Reniers


Young adulthood spans a formative period of human development that is characterised by greater independence and social interaction but also greater vulnerability to emotional and behavioural dysregulation. Particularly during this time, decision-making is modulated by emotional and social factors, such as peer presence. Risk-taking behaviour, defined as behaviour that concurrently involves the chance of a beneficial outcome but also possible negative or harmful consequences, becomes more frequent and riskier in the presence of peers. It is suggested that their presence heightens sensitivity to the potential reward value of risky decisions.


In two studies, we investigated the influence of peer presence on young adults’ risk-taking behaviour using a computerised financial risk-taking task that was performed alone and in the presence of two peers. In the first study, participants (n=201, 18-24 years old) additionally completed self-report measures on reward sensitivity, behavioural control, and resistance to peer influence. A separate sample (n=15, 18-22 years old) performed the task in an MRI scanner. Brain activations associated with the decision-making process preceding risky choices and the processing of the outcome following these decisions were investigated.


In both studies, an overall increase in risk-taking was observed during task performance in the presence of peers compared to when alone (CHANGE). CHANGE was positively related to self-reported levels of reward responsiveness and fun seeking while older age was associated with reduced CHANGE. The relationship between CHANGE and both resistance to peer influence and age was mediated by reward responsiveness. Reward responsiveness was associated with impulsiveness while no such association was found for CHANGE. The fMRI study showed no significant differences in BOLD activation in association with the decision-making process in the peers condition compared to the alone condition. Processing the outcome of a win trial was associated with increased reward-related activation in the lentiform nucleus. Processing of outcome, regardless of win or loss, was associated with increased reward-related activation in the substantia nigra.


These findings support the conclusion that the presence of peers heightens the reward value of risky decisions, even in situations where financial loss occurs. Likely, the mere anticipation of peer feedback introduced an additional, socially rewarding factor to the decision-making process which influenced the choice of whether to take a further risk or not. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying these processes has direct implications for prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing excessive risk-taking behaviour.

Conference Name: 
Date of Presentation: 
9th Oct 2015
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