Neural Predictors of Risky Driving and Susceptibility to Peer Influence in Adolescents

This study tested a series of hypotheses about the underlying neural mechanisms that may predispose teens to be susceptible to risky peer influence. The study was designed to focus specifically on social-cognitive and social-emotional mechanisms.This line of neurocognitive research may be especially useful in understanding the underlying mechanisms that leave adolescents vulnerable to peer influence, as well as capturing signals from psychological processes that participants are unwilling or unable to report.

Principal Investigator: 
Emily Falk, PhD
Title: 
Assistant Professor
Department: 
Communication Studies; RCGD; Institute for Social Research -- University of Michigan
Timing: 
2011 - 2012
Abstract Text: 
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and a major contributor to non-fatal injury in adolescent teenagers, particularly when driving in the presence of male teen passengers. Despite the understanding that peer influences are pervasive, powerful, and especially salient during adolescence, the variability and mechanisms involved are not well understood. Based on a growing body of literature which has begun to characterize neural systems associated with conformity and other influence processes, Dr. Emily Falk sought to test a series of hypotheses about the underlying neural mechanisms that may predispose teens to be susceptible to risky peer influence. The study was designed specifically to focus on social-cognitive and social-emotional mechanisms.This line of neurocognitive research may be especially useful in understanding the underlying mechanisms that leave adolescents vulnerable to peer influence, as well as capturing signals from psychological processes that participants are unwilling or unable to report (e.g. due to lack of conscious access to the factors guiding certain types of decisions). For example, in the first set of results to come from this project, Dr. Falk and her team tested the hypothesis that neural responses in brain systems that are sensitive to social punishment, and to social cues more broadly, may predispose teens to be susceptible to social influence. In the study funded by the U of M Injury Center (in collaboration with researchers at University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute -UMTRI- and NICHD and co-funded by NICHD), Dr. Falk used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate neural systems associated with thinking about what others are thinking, termed “mentalizing”, as well as in neural systems associated with the distress of exclusion, termed “social pain” during a social exclusion experience. Neural responses were recorded during a social exclusion episode, and were used to predict susceptibility to risky peer influence in a separate driving simulator session which took place approximately one week following the fMRI session. In this second appointment, each participant drove in a state-of-the-art driving simulator at UMTRI, alone in the simulator (to assess risk taking without peer influence), and with a passenger (in the presence of a male, peer, confederate, to assess risk taking in the presence of a peer). The team hypothesized and found evidence for the hypothesis that individual differences in neural responsiveness to specific types of social situations, such as experiencing social exclusion, would be associated with susceptibility to social influence in other situations. Results demonstrated that activity in neural systems associated with distress of exclusion (anterior insula, subgenual cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate) and metalizing (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction) during an exclusion episode predicted risky behavior in the presence of a peer, controlling for risk behavior when alone. The neural signals predicted susceptibility to peer influence above and beyond self-reports to peer influence, resistance to peer influence and distress during exclusion. This research has been presented at numerous national conferences across the United States and Canada. Several manuscripts are in preparation and under review (examining the question noted here, and related questions about cognitive control and other mechanisms that relate to risky behavior in teen drivers). These data add to a growing body of studies in which neural data are used to predict real-world outcomes, and which shed light on questions that would be difficult to examine with self-report alone. Such studies also add to our understanding of the relationship between brain and behavior. By examining neural activity during basic social and cognitive tasks, Dr. Falk and her team have been able to forecast susceptibility to social influence in a separate driving simulator session in a way that would not be evident from self-report alone. Given that automobile crashes are the leading cause of mortality, and a leading cause of non-fatal injury in this group, these data aim to contribute to future research that informs the design of interventions, programs and policies to reduce injury and fatalities in adolescents.
PI Title: 
Assistant Professor