National multi-cohort time trends in adolescent risk preference and the relation with substance use and problem behavior from 1976 to 2011

Katherine M. Keyes, Justin Jager, Ava Hamilton, Patrick M. O'Malley, Richard Miech, John E. Schulenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Aims: Preference for risky activities is an important developmentally graded predictor of substance use. Population-level trends in adolescent risk preference, as well as the way in which risk preference may be a conduit to risk behavior, have never been documented. The present study examines population-level trends in risk preference among U.S. high school seniors for the 36 years from 1976 to 2011, as well as trends in the association between risk preference and substance use and other problem behaviors. Methods: Data were drawn from yearly nationally representative cross-sectional surveys of US high school seniors (. N=. 91,860). Risk preference was measured consistently with two items. Marijuana and cocaine use, binge drinking, and conduct problems were assessed. Trends were tested using JoinPoint software. Results: The mean level of reported risk preference among US 12th graders has increased over time, especially in the 1980s. For example, the proportion of high school females who reported enjoying activities that were "a little dangerous" more than doubled, from 4.9% in 1976 to 10.8% in 1988. While risk preference reports among adolescent males leveled off in 1992, risk preference reports among females show a continued positive overall slope through 2011. The magnitude of the association between risk preference and marijuana use has increased over time. Conclusions: Reported preference for risky activities has increased among adolescents in the US, especially among young women. Reported risk preference is increasingly associated with a higher use of marijuana. Our findings argue for the importance of placing risk preference within a multi-level framework that attends to historical variation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5706
Pages (from-to)267-274
Number of pages8
JournalDrug and alcohol dependence
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015


  • Adolescence
  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Conduct disorder
  • Marijuana
  • Risk preference
  • Sensation seeking
  • Time trends

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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