The Study – Part One :
Part One of a study conducted by Professor Seth Pollak (University of Wisconsin-Madison) involving over 50 young people (from a range of backgrounds and all approximately 20 years of age), required the participants to engage in various tasks (for example, simulated gambling) in order to ascertain their behavioral responses reward / punishment and risk-taking.
Results Part One Of The Study :
It was found that those who had experienced trauma / severe stress as children had impaired ability to make good decisions and to accurately assess risk compared to those young people who had not experienced trauma / severe stress while growing up ; especially noteworthy was the finding that, whilst participating in such tasks, those individuals who had experienced trauma / severe stress as children showed a marked inability to learn from their mistakes as well as poor levels of concentration.
Brain Scans :
Whilst the participants were in the ‘decision making’ phase of the task, scans of their brains were taken ; these scans revealed that the individuals who had experienced trauma / severe stress during childhood displayed BELOW NORMAL ACTIVITY in the area of the brain associated with decision making.
Part Two Of The Study :
The second part of the study was intended to discover how the same group of over 50 young people behaved in real life in relation to decision making.
This was carried out by giving the participants a questionnaire to fill out which comprised various questions about how much risk they took (e.g. do you wear a seat-belt?).
Results Of Part Two Of The Study :
The results of this part of the study were very similar to those found from the first part of the study, i.e. the participants who had suffered trauma / severe stress during childhood made worse decisions / indulged in riskier behaviors in real life compared to the participants who had not experienced trauma / severe stress during childhood.
It was inferred from these results that severe stress during childhood adversely affects the way in which the brain functions when making decisions leading to poor judgment and a higher than normal propensity to indulge in risk-taking behavior in those affected.
It was also found that these deficits in decision-making ability were unrelated to I.Q. or intelligence. Because of this, Pollak alikened such deficits to a specific ‘learning disability’ which impairs individuals’ ability to effectively process information relating to potential loss or risk.
Implications For Youth Justice System :
Pollak also points out that up to 90 per cent of young people who become embroiled with the criminal justice system have experienced childhood trauma, and, if they do indeed have a kind of specific ‘learning disability’ (as described above and as the findings of this study suggest) then, in many cases, punishment is neither appropriate nor a solution.
Instead, Pollak suggests that, when dealing with young offenders, it will often be far better for these individuals to participate in training programs that improve the brain’s decision making capabilities.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).