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Scary but Thrilling: The Science of Taking Risks

July 19, 2020
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We talk to pro skateboarder and musician Tommy Guerrero about why adolescents need new and risky experiences—from skateboarding to asking someone out on a date.

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Henry (age 13) When I think of asking someone out, I think, “If I actually do this and she says no, then like, what’s going to happen to me?” And then I get all freaked out. I don’t think I could do it in person.

Celia (age 16) When I, like, dance, I heard everybody, like, cheering my name and then people clapping, my friends clapping. And I felt like, wow, this feels good, like I can actually do this.

Henry I guess the worst thing they could say would be no. Right? And then my social life would be mildly ruined.

Ron Dahl Taking risks, trying new things, exploring who we are; these are essential to how we learn and develop during adolescence.

Henry It’s more nerve-racking than exciting, but I think the thing is that the reason that it’s exciting is because it’s nerve-racking.

Celia It’s like this feeling inside of you. Like you just want a burst out and like, start moving.

Ron Dahl Adolescence represents a remarkable period of developmental changes—one that is second only to infancy as a time of rapid growth, learning, and adaptation. Yet we rarely seem to associate adolescence with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that we typically bring to baby and toddler years.

I’m Ron Dahl, founding Director of the Center for the Developing Adolescent, and host of Adaptivity, a podcast about the science of adolescence.

On Adaptivity, we’ll untangle some misconceptions about this period in life, and the myth that adolescent brains are inferior to adults. In fact, their brains are remarkably good at the key developmental tasks of adolescence: social learning and adaptation. We’ll look at the developmental science revealing new insights into the rapid cognitive, emotional, and social changes that happen during these years.

Adaptivity is created by The Center for the Developing Adolescent which works to improve the health, education, and well-being of adolescents through developmental science.

Let’s take a step back. Adolescence is that transitional period between childhood and adulthood. It starts with the onset of puberty, often beginning around age 9 or 10, and continues until adulthood, when we take on adult roles and responsibilities, typically by one’s early or mid20s. As we go through puberty, we’re not only growing much more rapidly and undergoing seismic changes to our bodies, social lives, and educational environments, our brains are also going through changes in ways that influence our motivations and behavior, and that actually promote effective learning.

On our first episode of Adaptivity, we explore risk taking, and how adolescents are often drawn to the thrill of a novel or risky experience. It’s often feared and misunderstood, but it’s actually critical to the behavioral and emotional learning that underpins successful adolescent development.

At the most basic level, risk can be defined as taking an action despite uncertainty of the outcome. Uncertainty tends to make us feel uncomfortable. Yet, during adolescence we’re a bit more likely to enjoy taking a risk. That makes adolescents a bit more likely to explore the world, meet new people, and learn new things about themselves and their environments. Exploring new and uncertain situations helps them to discover their identities, expand their skills, and ultimately leave the safe nest of home.

The term ‘risk-taking’ tends to evoke images of danger. But there’s myriad ways to create these feelings, like asking someone out on a date, learning to play a musical instrument, raising your hand in class. These things can all be scary, and at times, thrilling. Others explore these feelings through physical risks, like BMX biking or skateboarding.

Christian (age 12) When I do like the heal flips. I like the way it flips. And then like, like it’s just real cool, how I flip it and stuff.

Other skateboarders There’s also an adrenaline aspect to it where your body gets supercharged and yeah, you’re just feeling it, you know.

Sultan Santamaría Yeah, it’s like natural medicine. Yeah.

Other skateboarders Getting a little scared, getting a little nervous, that like gut drop in your stomach. And then you land it or you roll away and—super cathartic.

Tommy Guerrero With skating, like trying a trick and over and over and over and trying this trick. And it is scary for the first time to try something new, but having this desire to overcome that and see it through and make this trick, it almost becomes an obsession. ”Can I do this? I think I can do this.” And then you get to a point, you’re like, “I know I can do this. Now I have to see it through.”

Ron Dahl Tommy Guerrero is a legendary skateboarder and musician. He started skating when he was nine, on the hills of San Francisco, and was immediately hooked. In the early 80s, Tommy joined a skating team called “Bones Brigade” which led him to travel the world, doing competitions and making music all the while. Tommy, thanks so much for joining us on Adaptivity.

Tommy Guerrero Thank you.

Ron Dahl What was it like skateboarding in the 70s and 80s, when it was relatively new and there was so much uncertainty?

Tommy Guerrero At that time, all these tricks were being developed and invented at that time that didn’t exist before, like when people started skating rails. That was a whole new, you know, way to transcend what these things were initially meant for, right? You know, handrails: hold the rail to walk down. They never, ever thought some kid’s going to grind down this rail, ollie up, grind down this rail, slide down the rail. So it was a whole new frontier. So we’d go skating downtown all the time, getting kicked out of everywhere, of course. And just looking for new terrain, looking for new possibilities.

Ron Dahl When we’re adolescents, there’s something more compelling, rewarding, and identity shaping in the things we master. Whether that’s a musical instrument, whether that’s skateboarding, there’s something about mastering something that’s increasingly more difficult but more rewarding as we go that is fundamental to adolescence. Can you think about some stages in that process that you suddenly felt, “I’m really good at this” or “I’m feeling more intensely about the importance of this.” Are there some times that really seem to be a jump or a leap in that process?

Tommy Guerrero There’s one specific contest. It was in Golden Gate Park in 1983, I think it was. And there were all the pros from all over the states, all over the U.S. They all came to this contest. I was an unknown amateur at the time and I wasn’t writing for anyone at that time. I entered the contest and I won the contest and I beat all these pros. That was the turning point for me, when people started to take notice and then from there, it just went from there. Yeah. It was on.

Ron Dahl A few years ago, in 2013, you were the recipient of the “Legend” Award from TransWorld SKATEboarding. What drove you to keep pushing yourself to the point of becoming a legend?

Tommy Guerrero As you get better and you learn, you definitely want to do something more, right? Because it becomes more rewarding in that way. It’s not accolades. It’s not monetary or anything like that. There’s something else. And I’m not quite sure what it is. It’s maybe a sense of accomplishment, achievement. But there’s a great reward that follows with you the rest of your life—the sense of tenacity and perseverance.

Ron Dahl In addition to the kinds of rewards that would be accomplished by succeeding in a competition, the idea of exploring an entire city, a concrete jungle, that that was compellingly motivating in ways that are separate from competition.

Tommy Guerrero Completely. Skateboarders have this desire to seek out new terrain, to skate new things, to have these new experiences all the time. I think ultimately seeking is fun. Right. Searching out new experiences in new places, new people, new things.

Ron Dahl On top of your success as a pro skater, you’re also an award-winning musician. Rolling Stone magazine called your album Soul Food Taqueria the second best album of 2003. What led you to playing live music?

Tommy Guerrero For me, the thing about playing live and being in that moment, it’s very similar to a contest or demonstration. We used to travel all over the world doing demonstrations all the time. And so therefore you’re in a moment where it’s just you, your skateboard and everyone with their eyes on you, watching you do this, watching you perform. And it’s very similar to music because you’re the focal point. With music, it doesn’t hurt as much, thankfully, but you’re still, it’s still this kind of the same feeling for me where I’m just—you’re being judged, but it’s something that I do, it’s something I’m going to do, so therefore I wouldn’t let the fear of any of that stop me from doing it.

Ron Dahl How old were you when you started performing music?

Tommy Guerrero Maybe 13 or 14.

Ron Dahl This desire to seek and explore and discover and to master things and be recognized are human factors. And one of the things that we’re learning scientifically is that those natural human tendencies become amplified in adolescence. There’s a greater tendency to seek and explore and discover, and the resilience and persistence that it takes. And what differentiates just a crazy risk, you know, that could create a lot of adrenaline in the moment versus kind of pushing yourself to practice and practice and practice and persist even through difficult feelings, it’s not very enjoyable sometimes.

Tommy Guerrero No.

Ron Dahl It’s tedious. It is gnarly for a reason.

Tommy Guerrero With skating it’s painful.

Amelia (age 11) It’s like, kind of like on the edge of falling, but, you know, like “I’m not going to fall this time, I’m not gonna fall this time.” Even though you’re going to fall, it’s guaranteed. It’s part of the package. So you do need to be aware, “Well, I’m going to fall, but during the times I’m not going to fall, I’m going to have fun.”

Ron Dahl Risks and intense rewards go hand in hand. The stakes and uncertainties, especially the social stakes, go up in adolescence. When adolescents take a joy ride or experiment with drugs or ask someone out, they are often being nudged by this tendency to take action despite uncertainty. This can be scary as hell. It also can create the most intense thrills of a lifetime. Most importantly, these strong feelings can energize motivations to persevere. It’s amplified learning, the kind of learning that’s actively shaping the connections between neural systems in our brains, particularly at the interface between heightened feelings and the goals linked to them.

Adriana Galván Taking risks during adolescence is one of the hallmarks of being an adolescent. It’s when the brain is designed, in a sense, to seek out new experiences and explore new outlets and take new adventures.

Ron Dahl Adriana Galván is a psychology professor and director of the Developmental Neuroscience Lab at UCLA. Her team did an experiment where they put people in an MRI scanner and showed them pictures of things that we generally find rewarding, such as money or pictures of attractive faces.

Adriana Galván One time we dropped sugar water into their mouths while they got a brain scan and we simply looked at whether or not there were differences in how the adolescent brain activated when they received rewards compared to children and compared to adults. And indeed, the adolescent brain was more excitable. So in response to the very same amount of money or to the very same attractive face, the adolescent brain showed more activation. Their brain actually releases more dopamine from what’s called the synaptic vesicles. And that simply means that there’s a greater reserve of dopamine available for release in the adolescent brain as compared to children and compared to adults.

Ron Dahl Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in processing rewards. However, dopamine is particularly important in learning and motivation. A surprising or unexpected reward causes extra dopamine release. It’s a part of a signal that something notable or salient has just occurred. Something that might be worthy of extra attention. A discovery.

Adriana Galván It’s not just the case that they are seeking out more rewards and more risks. It’s that when they engage in those rewarding activities or those risk-taking activities, their dopamine system is releasing more of this kind of pleasure signal.

Ron Dahl Understanding that the adolescent brain becomes more excitable—and is drawn to the thrill of discovery despite uncertainty—gives us a bit of insight as to why they may be more likely to engage in risks.

Adriana Galván So in their early years the research was used to kind of, quote, prove that adolescents are just bad news, that adolescents are prone to make bad choices and that we should lock them up and take care of them until they get through this period of life. But the narrative is shifting and realizing that the adolescent brain is designed this way for a reason and that the very behaviors that we previously pathologized are actually behaviors that help them grow and learn and take healthy risks.

Ron Dahl Adolescents have a natural proclivity to take risks. We’ve known that for centuries. But if there’s a way to activate that reward system by taking risks that benefit the individual and society—this can be a really good thing.

Adriana Galván We can direct adolescents to take healthier risks. And those risks—all they need to involve is a behavior and an unknown outcome. And so that can involve trying out for a school play. That’s really risky because you’re putting yourself in a situation where you may be laughed at. You may be rejected. And that’s kind of a little bit scary, but it’s also thrilling if you are accepted into this new social group.

Celia When I, like, dance, I heard everybody, like, cheering my name and then people clapping, my friends clapping. And I felt like, wow, this feels good, like I can actually do this. You have to warm up your legs mostly. You’re always bending and on the ground and stuff.

Ron Dahl Celia Rodriguez started taking dance and singing lessons a few years ago at the East Bay Center for the Arts in Richmond, California. She’s a sophomore in high school.

Celia At first it was like, nerve-wracking, since, like, I didn’t really know the people. In this community, there’s no judgment at all. People go like extra, they go hard, and they have a good time. And you should enjoy that time. You should enjoy that moment

Ron Dahl Research using data from fMRI has shown that adolescents are not only more likely to take risks when their peers were watching, but also they are more likely to activate reward and learning areas of the brain. Taking risks and potentially impressing new friends is more exciting to adolescents.

Adriana Galván And that makes a lot of sense if we think about the context in which adolescents typically engage in risk-taking behavior. So when they’re joyriding or when they’re experimenting with drugs or alcohol, they’re not typically alone. They’re usually with their friends. Risk taking isn’t just incidental to being an adolescent, but it’s actually a tool that’s been used for centuries for adolescents to leave the family group, to feel comfortable striking out on their own, to become independent and gain the skills and the confidence they need to be autonomous from their caregivers. And so what we deem is risk taking may actually be a very rational choice. If the goal—and it is the goal—is to gain social acceptance and status.

Tommy Guerrero Skateboarding—there’s a huge community, but also it does it creates community. You’re looking for your people, you’re looking for your tribe that you can have these experiences with that you can all relate to and that you all have the same language.

Ron Dahl Here’s pro skater Tommy Guerrero again.

Tommy Guerrero And so I think it’s just a sense of belonging and identity. And we’re all after that, I think. Constantly. It doesn’t matter if you rip or if you’re just beginning. But if you show the heart, if you’re out there taking the hits, then you’re one of us. You’re a skateboarder and you’ve proven yourself. And they could be trying the most simple trick and skaters could be rooting for him. It’s so rad. Like it could be the simplest trick, because they see you take the hits.

Ron Dahl A lot of parents begin to clamp down on adolescents taking risks, in part because of their fears, right at the time young people are ready to ramp it up. Tommy, how did your family feel about you skating the streets of San Francisco when you were just starting out?

Tommy Guerrero So our mom was super supportive of skateboarding. She worked a lot and she was extremely supportive. She knew it kept two boys growing up in the city out of trouble. She knew it was something that was healthy. And so she always managed to provide us with skateboards. So I don’t have, you know, first-hand experience with parents coming down on kids saying, oh, it’s too dangerous, don’t do this, don’t do that, other than me being that way with my son.

Ron Dahl So how did this set of experiences influence your parenting of an adolescent or child and adolescent?

Tommy Guerrero I mean, I’m still navigating that. I mean, that’s a daily thing, trying to figure out how to let go, but still keep him safe. Like, how long is that leash? How far am I willing to go? And so giving him that that freedom is, you know, it’s difficult, but he’s definitely been being more much more independent than he’s been in, you know, previous couple, couple of years, even in the last year.

Ron Dahl Is he interested in hearing about your stories, about your experiences?

Tommy Guerrero No. I think part of it is he doesn’t want to be like me. He was taking piano lessons for a while and he didn’t like the lessons. But his teacher said he read really well and that he should keep it up. And he loves music. And so I’m trying to figure out a way to get music into his life, like creating music. And but without forcing the issue, because obviously he’s going to turn away from it. Same thing with skateboarding. He rides a scooter and he’s like, “I don’t want to do what you do, dad.” And that’s what he says.

Ron Dahl Right. And yet it probably is wonderful that you are connecting to him and supporting him to try these things that you really want that for him.

Tommy Guerrero Yeah, especially with what he’s doing, because what happens is at a very young age, people bring their kids to skate parks and they put them on these little scooters and they let them cruise around. And actually, it’s really dangerous. So then the skaters have animosity towards the kids on scooters. So there’s this thing within skateboarding, unfortunately—I’m not one of them—that they don’t like the kids on scooters. So anyway, my what my son is doing, I told a friend, you know my son, Diego, he rides a scooter and he goes, “Wow, that’s punk. That’s punk rock.” And I said, “You’re right, because it’s like a big F-U.” Yeah. And I thought that was actually pretty cool because he knows the grief he’s gonna get from skaters while going to the skate park. And especially then being my son. So it’s really actually pretty cool.

Diego Guerrero (age 15) It’s just something I can do by myself and nobody really like, there’s no rules and there’s nothing that really like stops me from doing anything.

Ron Dahl We ran into Tommy Guerrero’s son, Diego Guerrero, at a skatepark in the San Francisco Bay Area. Diego was there riding his scooter with a friend after school.

Diego Guerrero Once you worked so hard for like a certain trick or certain something, then you just… it feels really good once you land it. It’s all about commitment and getting over that kind of fear factor in your brain.

Tommy Guerrero Fear is good. Having a little fear is always good, to keep that fear with you because it’ll keep you in check. So if you get so confident that everything is fine, it’s just, you know, no problem. That’s when I think you become out of focus in that sense because you don’t have that fear to keep you sharp.

Ron Dahl So you can be excited and thrilled and fear at the same time. And in fact, one could say scientifically, there is no thrill without fear. If you don’t have the fear and arousal to demand your full attention and energize the cognitive processes, it’s unlikely to have a mastery experience in these demanding situations. That if you lose the fear, your performance is going to suffer. And yet that’s easily misunderstood. People think, “Wait a minute. Fear is a bad thing.” And you have some insight into, how do these balance? How do they come together in a way that helps you as opposed to interferes with performance? So the ability to approach what you’re afraid of. It’s not a good feeling, but you learn that there’s something better by approaching it and navigating it.

Now, what I want to ask is imagine you didn’t have those learning experiences until you were an adult. Leave aside the skill development, but the emotional experience of pushing through your fears. What if you had not had those experiences until your mid-20s? How might your life be different?

Tommy Guerrero It’d be completely different. Yeah, because as you get older, you know, we all—you get much more set in your ways, you become less flexible emotionally, physically, etcetera. And so it’s a much bigger hurdle or barrier just to get over than it is when you’re young, because when you’re young, you just don’t know any better. And that’s the beauty of youth. And that’s why you can take those hits and you can take the pain and you can learn and you can absorb everything. Your mind is a little sponge and you just learn everything like it’s second nature.

Ron Dahl So it’s not being a certain age, but an adolescent mindset of discovering and exploring and wanting new experiences and building on things that you already know how to do, feels like something you’re carrying forward in your life.

Tommy Guerrero Yeah. Looking for something new, whether it’s an experience, whether it’s a taste, a sensation, whether it’s cerebral, whether it’s visual. You could always have the same vehicle, but drive it in a different direction.

Ron Dahl Thank you so much, Tommy. I learned such an amazing amount. It connects to so many of the ideas we’ve been interested in, and I really enjoyed the connection.

Tommy Guerrero Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate you guys having me.

Ron Dahl This is teaching us some really important lessons. Risk taking—particularly the process of taking social risks, exploring and experimenting with one’s social world and one’s place in it—has enormous value to adolescent development. This promotes learning and adaptation. It can also lead to resilience, flexibility, and persistence. The development of heartfelt goals and passions. Passionate motivations to pursue one particular kind of goal or activity. The willingness to take the hits. Not because we rationally reason out that it is worth it for the rewards. Rather, because our feelings pull us forward despite the uncertainty. A feeling of something that enlarges us, expands our skills, abilities, and confidence. A feeling that it’s worth it.

Tommy not only became a champion skateboarder and successful musician, he also became a confident person. Not fearless. He was learning how to approach and overcome his fears carefully, while developing more and more skills. He kept taking the hits—while his young body was more resilient and his young brain more adept at mastering new complex skills, and while his passions were budding and his sense of identity and confidence were taking shape. Preventing adolescents from taking some risks and exploring who they are can interfere with these learning processes.

Yes, it is a precarious time of life. These are real risks. So many high-stakes areas of uncertainty. Yet isn’t that one of the most fundamental lessons of life: how uncertain it is? Learning how to navigate uncertainty, skillfully, has value. Isn’t that in many ways at the heart of what human life is about, navigating uncertainty? How else could our species have learned in 100,000 years how to adapt successfully to living in almost every climate on Earth?

If you’d like to learn more about risk taking and adolescent development in general, visit us at

I’m Ron Dahl, thanks for joining us on Adaptivity: The Science of Adolescence. Our podcast is a production of The Center for the Developing Adolescent. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Meghan Lynch Forder. Our associate producer is Ariella Markowitz. Our engineer is Katie McMurran. Special thanks to Fo Traques Ana Munkey and Too Good for permission to use music from Tommy Guerrero’s album, Soul Food Taqueria.

Share your thoughts by emailing us at or using the hashtag #adaptivitypod on Twitter.

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