Much of the research related to adolescent risk taking has relied on the assumption that decision making is based on reasoning and information-processing abilities, and it typically has been rooted in traditional developmental models. The result of the exclusive emphasis on reasoning competence as the basis for decision making is reflected in research from the 1980s and early 1990s that compared adolescents’ and adults’ decision making on unfamiliar, hypothetical scenarios. These studies indicated that by early adolescence (typically about age 12), teens are able to use basic adult concepts and reasoning (Dunkle, 1992; Moshman and Franks, 1986; Overton, 1990). Thus, many studies suggested that by early to middle adolescence, reasoning abilities were similar to those of adults (for reviews, see Byrnes and Beilin, 1991; Kuhn, 1989; Overton, 1990). Moshman (1993) concluded that “there is no evidence of any important component of rationality that is lacking in adolescents and found in most adults” (p. 37). In addition to general reasoning abilities, a few studies investigating specific decision making skills were conducted during the same period. A number of these supported the findings of the reasoning literature, indicating few differences between the decision making of adolescents and adults. For example, studies looking at information use in everyday decision making found that by age 12, adolescents systematically searched for relevant information (Klayman, 1985), and that early adolescents used almost the same sources of information as did their parents when making everyday decisions about certain topics, such as which bike to buy or which camp to attend (Jacobs, Bennett, and Flanagan, 1993).
Other research, however, did not support the adolescent-as-adult perspective. These studies reported age-related differences between early and later adolescence in decisions that involved making inferences, perceiving risk (Lewis, 1981; Shtarkshail, 1987), considering consequences (Beyth-Marom, Austin, Fischhoff, Palmgren, and Jacobs-Quadrel, 1993; Gouze, Strauss, and Keating, 1986; Lewis, 1981), planning (Rowe, 1984; Urberg and Rosen; 1987), and rates of perceived invulnerability (Quadrel, Fischhoff, and Davis, 1993). A big difference between this second set of studies and the first was that they focused on real-world issues, social situations, and judgments based on prior experiences, whereas the other studies were concerned with cognitive performance under ideal conditions. Thus, the earlier studies indicate that decision making is not a single cognitive competence and that there are many complexities inherent in any particular decision related to risk taking behavior. Fischhoff and Quadrel (1991) made a similar point, suggesting that formal decision analysis be used to understand the many variants that affect each adolescent decision regarding alco-