Why Do They Do It? Affective Motivators in Adolescents’ Decisions to Participate in Risky Behaviors

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Affective motivators have been targeted in many theories as playing a critical role in adolescents' decisions to participate in a variety of risky behaviours that may have life-altering consequences. In this study, we examined the role of several of these affective motivators across low and high experience groups to determine their perceived influence on the desire to participate in each of five risky behaviours (drinking alcohol, using drugs, having sex, smoking cigarettes, and skipping school). The affective motivators included those that: (a) promote risky behaviours by enhancing pleasant affective states (sensation seeking, social/emotional), (b) promote risky behaviours by reducing or avoiding negative affective states (negative emotions, tension reduction), and (c) deter risky behaviours by avoiding anticipated regret (e.g. of harming future). Results showed that the perceived motivational strength of the affective goals differed substantially between low and high experience groups and across the different risky behaviours. Adolescents with less experience were much more focused on avoiding the negative affective consequences associated with regretting unfavourable future outcomes. In contrast, adolescents with more experience participating in a risky behaviour held stronger beliefs that participation in the behaviour could both enhance positive and reduce negative affective states. We describe how the perceived importance of these motives varies across the risky behaviours, and offer insights into the likely motivational changes that occur as an adolescent moves from no experience to chronic experience engaging in risky behaviours.

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Cognition and Emotion, v. 14, issue 4, p. 543-576