Developmental mechanisms influencing decision-making
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The main aim of this thesis was to investigate decision making from a broad developmental perspective to clarify the role of the underlying mechanisms influencing it. Problem solving and cognitive inhibitory capacity were chartered initially through the use of hypothetical vignettes depicting socially relevant situations and through the use of the Stroop task, to tap into automatic inhibitory capacity. Initial assumptions that prefrontal cortical refinement would denote enhanced social problem ability were not confirmed. Experience emerged as distinct factor in problem solving/decision-making, with the youngest participants equally as effective in producing solutions to situations that they had the most experience in. A shift in development is observed with maturation denoting greater experience and this being applied directly to problem solving and decision-making situations. Education was identified as a possible contributory factor in decision-making and this was explored in a cross-cultural study that tapped into a non-schooled population. The results reinforced the centrality of experience in shaping decision-making. Decision-making in regards to the use of experience was then looked at through real life decision-making situations, where adolescents were asked to provide their knowledge or experience of situations where risk was involved. Adolescents possessed the necessary knowledge to distinguish between optimal and sub-optimal decisions in terms of the consequences that risk behaviours carried with them. However, many still chose to engage in risky behaviours. This paradox could also be explained by actual experience, with the suggestion that positive experience in a peer group was serving as a pool from which adolescents drew to make future decision-making. If risk behaviours were not experienced adversely, the likelihood of their repetition was high. Taken together the findings suggest that adolescents are well equipped with the cognitive skills to make decisions. Compared to younger children, they have more experience of a greater range of situations from which to extrapolate responses from. They also have a great deal of knowledge and information about the negative consequences associated with a range of challenging situations and risk-taking behaviours. However, when faced with decisions in the social domain, the behaviour of friends and perceptions of what other people are doing are powerful influences on adolescent decisions.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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