Teenagers become more given to exploration with age and become increasingly likely to visit new places over time, a study finds.
The results also show that greater exploration is associated with enhanced psychological well-being and larger social networks.
The researchers also discovered that adolescents who explored their natural environments more also reported a greater number of risky behaviors.
“While adolescent risk taking is typically seen as a problematic behavior, we found that heightened exploration was also linked to greater social connectivity and emotional well-being,” says Catherine Hartley, an associate professor in New York University’s department of psychology and the senior author of the study in the journal Psychological Science.
“This suggests that risk taking may have an adaptive function during adolescence.”
Previously, Hartley and the University of Miami’s Aaron Heller reported that new and diverse experiences are linked to enhanced happiness and that this relationship is associated with greater correlation of brain activity. Those findings, which appeared in the journal Nature Neuroscience, show a connection between our daily physical environments and our sense of well-being.
In the new study, Hartley, Heller, and UCLA doctoral student Natalie Saragosa-Harris sought to better understand teens’ and young adults’ exploration of their environments, how it relates to behaviors we tend to see as “risky,” and what the psychological significance of these behaviors might be.
Earlier studies have suggested that, compared to children and older adults, adolescents and young adults tend to engage in more exploratory and novelty-seeking behaviors—whether it’s trying out new hobbies, sampling new friend groups, or visiting new places.
However, most studies of adolescent exploratory behaviors have relied on self-report or behavior in controlled laboratory environments, leaving open the question as to whether heightened adolescent exploration is evident in the real world—when participants are in natural daily settings.
To better capture these phenomena, the scientists measured the everyday lives of 58 teenagers and adults (ages 13 to 27) in New York City, using GPS tracking to measure how often participants visited novel locations over the course of three months. From these measurements, they were able to capture daily exploration based on movement. Based on these GPS data and self-report, the researchers found several notable patterns:
- There was an association between daily exploration and age, with individuals near the transition to legal adulthood (18- to 21-year-olds) exhibiting the highest exploration levels.
- Regardless of age, people reported better moods on days when they explored more, supporting the notion that exploration is linked to psychological well-being.
- People who had higher average levels of exploration also reported larger social networks—measured by the number of unique individuals the subjects interacted with via phone calls and direct-messaging platforms.
- Adolescents who explored their natural environments more also reported a greater number of risky behaviors (e.g., gambling, heavy drinking, illicit drug use, etc.)—an association not evident in adults.
“These findings point to an important role for exploration in sustaining adolescent well-being and establishing social connectivity,” observes Hartley. “And while risky behaviors undoubtedly pose challenges, a healthy amount of exploration is important, particularly as individuals become adults, gain independence, and form their identities.”
Support for the work came from the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award.