Margin for error: examining racial and ethnic trends in adolescent risk propensity



Relatively little research has accrued examining risk propensity across racial and ethnic groups, especially across time and at the population level.


Using a margin for error framework to conceptualize risk variation among major racial and ethnic groups, we hypothesize that African American and Hispanic adolescents will be less likely to report engaging in dangerous risk taking acts compared to White adolescents.


This study examines public-use data collected on risk propensity and risky behaviors among adolescents 12–17 between 2002 and 2018 as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).


While we observed decreased trends in risk propensity, controlling for demographic factors, we see significantly greater odds of reporting “never” engaging in risk for fun among NH Black (AOR 2.01, 95% CI 1.85–2.18) and Hispanic youth (AOR 1.47, 95% CI 1.37–1.58) as compared to NH White youth. NH Black (AOR 0.74, 95% CI 0.61–0.89) and Hispanic (AOR 0.83, 95% CI 0.71–0.98) youth are also less likely than NH White youth to report “always” taking risks for fun. Moreover, the risk propensity-risky behaviors link was weaker among African American and Hispanic adolescents.


We find compelling evidence that African American and Hispanic adolescents are less likely to endorse deriving positive reinforcement from potentially dangerous risk taking acts compared to White adolescents. These findings suggest that African American and Hispanic youth may perceive less “margin for error” when navigating their environments.

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Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under Award Number K01AA026645. The research was also supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) under Award Number R25 DA030310. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIAAA, NIDA, or the NIH.

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MV conceived the study and led the writing. CSW and SO led the data analysis. AA and TCG contributed to the manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Michael G. Vaughn.

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Vaughn, M.G., Salas-Wright, C.P., Alsolami, A.S. et al. Margin for error: examining racial and ethnic trends in adolescent risk propensity. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (2021).

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  • Risk taking
  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Delinquency
  • Youth
  • Racial differences