Sex Differences in the Developmental Trajectories of Impulse Control and Sensation-Seeking from Early Adolescence to Early Adulthood

Abstract

It has been proposed that high rates of risk-taking in adolescence are partly attributable to patterns of neurobiological development that promote an increase in sensation-seeking tendencies at a time when impulse control is still developing. It is not known, however, whether this pattern is the same for males and females. The present study investigates sex differences in the developmental trajectories of self-reported impulse control and sensation-seeking between the ages of 10 and 25 using longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Child and Young Adult Survey (N = 8,270; 49 % female; 33 % Black, 22 % Hispanic, 45 % Non-Black, Non-Hispanic). Prior work has found that, consistent with the dual-systems model of adolescent neurobiological development, sensation-seeking rises and falls across this age span, whereas impulse control increases into the 20s. In the present study, we find that this same general pattern holds for both males and females, but with some key differences. As expected, males exhibit higher levels of sensation-seeking and lower levels of impulse control than females. Differences also emerged in the shapes of the developmental trajectories. Females reach peak levels of sensation-seeking earlier than males (consistent with the idea that sensation-seeking is linked to pubertal development) and decline in sensation-seeking more rapidly thereafter. Also, males increase in impulse control more gradually than females. Consequently, sex differences in both impulse control and sensation-seeking increase with age. The findings suggest that the window of heightened vulnerability to risk-taking during adolescence may be greater in magnitude and more protracted for males than for females.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    When these series of analyses were run as unconditional models (omitting the control variables) the results still favored the cubic models (results available upon request).

References

  1. Arnett, J. J. (1992). Reckless behavior in adolescence: A developmental perspective. Developmental Review, 12, 339–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Asparouhov, T., & Muthen, B. (2006). Comparison of estimation methods for complex survey data analysis. Retrieved from http://www.statmodel.com/download/SurveyComp21.pdf.

  3. Casey, B. J., Getz, S., & Galvan, A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Developmental Review, 28, 62–77. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2007.08.003.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Somerville, L. H. (2011). Braking and accelerating of the adolescent brain. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 21–33. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00712.x.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Chen, L. H., Baker, S. P., Braver, E. R., & Li, G. (2000). Carrying passengers as a risk factor for crashes fatal to 16- and 17-year-old drivers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 283(12), 1578–1582.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cross, C. P., Copping, L. T., & Campbell, A. (2011). Sex differences in impulsivity: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137(1), 97–130. doi:10.1037/a0021591.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Cross, C. P., Cyrenne, D. L. M., & Brown, G. R. (2013). Sex differences in sensation-seeking: A meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 3, 1–5. doi:10.1038/srep02486.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Dahl, R. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021, 1–22.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dahlen, E. R., Martin, R. C., Ragan, K., & Kuhlman, M. M. (2005). Driving anger, sensation seeking, impulsiveness, and boredom proneness in the prediction of unsafe driving. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 37, 341–348. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2004.10.006.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (2001). Risk-taking, intrasexual competition, and homicide. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 47, 1–36.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Donohew, L., Zimmerman, R., Cupp, P. S., Novak, S., Colon, S., & Abell, R. (2000). Sensation seeking, impulsive decision-making, and risky sex: Implications for risk-taking and design of interventions. Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 1079–1091. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00158-0.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Ellis, B. (1992). The evolution of sexual attraction: Evaluative mechanisms in women. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind (pp. 267–288). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2010). Uniform crime reports, table 33. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/tables/10tbl33.xls.

  14. Finer, L. B. (2010). Unintended pregnancy among U.S. adolescents: Accounting for sexual activity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47, 312–314.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Forbes, E. E., & Dahl, R. E. (2010). Pubertal development and behavior: Hormonal activation of social and motivational tendencies. Brain and Cognition, 72, 66–72. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.10.007.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Galvan, A., Hare, T., Voss, H., Glover, G., & Casey, B. J. (2007). Risk-taking and the adolescent brain: Who is at risk? Developmental Science, 10, F8–F14.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2003). A very brief measure of the Big-Five personality domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(6), 504–528.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Harden, K. P., Quinn, P. D., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2012). Genetically influenced change in sensation-seeking drives the rise of delinquent behavior during adolescence. Developmental Science, 15, 150–163. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01115.x.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Harden, K. P., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2011). Individual differences in the development of sensation-seeking and impulsivity during adolescence: Further evidence for a dual systems model. Developmental Psychology, 47, 739–746.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Heron, M. (2012). Deaths: Leading causes for 2009. National Vital Statistics Report, 61, 1–95.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Jaffee, S. R., Lombardi, C. M., & Coley, R. L. (2013). Using complementary methods to test whether marriage limits men’s antisocial behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 25(01), 65–77. doi:10.1017/S0954579412000909.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Laub, J. H., Nagin, D. S., & Sampson, R. J. (1998). Trajectories of change in criminal offending: Good marriages and the desistance process. American Sociological Review, 63, 225–238.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Luna, B., Padmanabhan, A., & O’Hearn, K. (2010). What has fMRI told us about the development of cognitive control through adolescence? Brain and Cognition, 72(1), 101–113. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.08.005.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. McArdle, J. J., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2002). Growth curve analysis in contemporary psychological research. In J. Schinka & W. Velicer (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 447–480)., Research methods in psychology New York, NY: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., & Silva, P. A. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour: Conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin Longitudinal Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Moffitt, T., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2013). Lifelong Impact of early self-control childhood: Self-discipline predicts adult quality of life. American Scientist, 101, 352–359. doi:10.1511/2013.104.352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Montoring the Future. (2009). Trends in lifetime prevalence of use of various drugs. University of Michigan. Retrieved from http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/09data/pr09t1.pdf.

  28. Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (2009). Mplus user’s guide (v5.2). Los Angeles: Muthén & Muthén.

  29. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2007). Comparison analysis of fatality trend by age group1996 to 2005. Retrieved from http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/810759.pdf.

  30. Op de Macks, Z. A., Moor, B. G., Overgaauw, S., Güroğlu, B., Dahl, R. E., & Crone, E. A. (2011). Testosterone levels correspond with increased ventral striatum activation in response to monetary rewards in adolescents. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 1(4), 506–516. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2011.06.003.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Patton, J. H., & Stanford, M. S. (1995). Factor structure of the Barratt impulsiveness scale. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, 768–774.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Pfeifer, J. H., & Allen, N. B. (2012). Arrested development? Reconsidering dual-systems models of brain function in adolescence and disorders. Trends in Cognitive Science, 16, 322–329. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.04.011.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Piquero, A. R. (2008). Taking stock of developmental trajectories of criminal activity over the life course. The long view of crime: A synthesis of longitudinal research, 23–78. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-71165-2_2.

  34. Quinn, P. D., & Harden, K. P. (2013). Differential changes in impulsivity and sensation seeking and the escalation of substance use from adolescence to early adulthood. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 223–239.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Raykov, T. (2005). Analysis of longitudinal studies with missing data using covariance structure modeling with full-information maximum likelihood. Structural Equation Modeling, 12(3), 493–505. doi:10.1207/s15328007sem1203_8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Romer, D., Duckworth, A. L., Sznitman, S., & Park, S. (2010). Can adolescents learn self-control? Delay of gratification in the development of control over risk taking. Prevention Science, 11, 319–330.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Savolainen, J. (2009). Work, family, and criminal desistance: Adult social bonds in a Nordic welfare state. British Journal of Criminology, 49(3), 285–304.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 168–182. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.94.1.168.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Shirtcliff, E. A., Dahl, R. E., & Pollak, S. D. (2009). Pubertal development: Correspondence between hormonal and physical development. Child Development, 80(2), 327–337. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01263.x.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Shulman, E. P., Steinberg, L. D., & Piquero, A. R. (2013). The age-crime curve in adolescence and early adulthood is not due to age differences in economic status. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(6), 848–860. doi:10.1007/s10964-013-9950-4.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Sironi, M. (2013). The transition to adulthood in the developed Western world: A focus on the achievement of economic independence and on the role of family background. Dissertation retrieved from: http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3565237.

  43. Smith, A. R., Chein, J., & Steinberg, L. (2013). Impact of socio-emotional context, brain development, and pubertal maturation on adolescent risk-taking. Hormones and Behavior, 64(2), 323–332.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Spear, L. P. (2000). The adolescent brain and age-related behavioral manifestations. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 24, 417–463.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Spear, L. P. (2013). Adolescent neurodevelopment. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(2), S7–S13.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Stanford, M. S., Greve, K. W., Boudreaux, J. K., Mathias, C. W., & Brumbelow, J. L. (1996). Impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior: Comparison of high-school and college students using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 21(6), 1073–1075.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78–106.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Steinberg, L. (2010). A dual-systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Psychobiology, 52, 216–224. doi:10.1002/dev.20445.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Steinberg, L., Albert, D., Cauffman, E., Banich, M., Graham, S., & Woolard, J. (2008). Age differences in sensation-seeking and impulsivity as indexed by behavior and self-report: Evidence for a dual systems model. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1764–1778.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Steinberg, L., Cauffman, E., Woolard, J., Graham, S., & Banich, M. (2009). Are adolescents less mature than adults? Minors’ access to abortion, the juvenile death penalty, and the alleged APA “flip-flop”. American Psychologist, 64(7), 583–594.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Strang, N. M., Chein, J. M., & Steinberg, L. (2013). The value of the dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(233), 1–4. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00223.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Sun, S. S., Schubert, C. M., Chumlea, W. C., Roche, A. F., Kulin, H. E., Lee, P. A., et al. (2002). National estimates of the timing of sexual maturation and racial differences among US children. Pediatrics, 110, 911–919.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  53. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat. (2000). World marriage patterns. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/family/marriage-patterns.pdf.

  54. Urošević, S., Collins, P., Muetzel, R., Lim, K. O., & Luciana, M. (2014). Pubertal status associations with reward and threat sensitivities and subcortical brain volumes during adolescence. Brain and Cognition,. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2014.01.007.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  55. Vazsonyi, A. T., & Belliston, L. M. (2007). The family → low self-control → deviance: A cross-cultural and cross-national test of self-control theory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(4), 505–530. doi:10.1177/0093854806292299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 59–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1993). Lethal confrontational violence among young men. In N. Bell & R. Bell (Eds.), Adolescent risk-taking (pp. 84–106). Newberry Park, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Zuckerman, M., & Kuhlman, D. M. (2000). Personality and risk-taking: Common biosocial factors. Journal of Personality, 68, 999–1029. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00124.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author Contributions

EPS conducted the analyses and took the lead in authoring the article. All four authors helped to generate the research idea and to revise and edit the article. All authors read and approved of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elizabeth P. Shulman.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 40 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Shulman, E.P., Harden, K.P., Chein, J.M. et al. Sex Differences in the Developmental Trajectories of Impulse Control and Sensation-Seeking from Early Adolescence to Early Adulthood. J Youth Adolescence 44, 1–17 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0116-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Adolescence
  • Sensation-seeking
  • Impulse control
  • Impulsivity
  • Dual-systems
  • Risky behavior
  • Longitudinal