Working memory is the system that allows individuals to draw on previously learned information and use it to make decisions.
The study found that adolescents with weaker working memories tended to have trouble controlling their impulsive urges and taking into account the consequences of their behavior.
In the past, impulsivity during adolescence has been linked to lack of self control to risky behaviors, but this study focuses on cognitive traits such as the ability to concentrate and block out distractions.
Atika Khurana, assistant professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon, and lead author of the study said, “We extended previous findings by showing for the first time that individuals who have pre-existing weakness in working memory are more likely to have difficulty controlling impulsive tendencies in early to mid-adolescence.”
“Furthermore, changes in these impulsive tendencies are associated with early and unprotected sex in adolescents, even after taking into account parents’ socioeconomic status, involvement, and monitoring of sexual behavior.”
For the study, researchers have monitored 360 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 for two years, for the effects of working memory (measured at the beginning of the study) on self-control and sexually risky behavior. Working memory was assessed through exercise that measures the individual’s ability to focus on information relevant to the task. Impulsivity was measured through a behavior task that assessed the individual’s ability to delay gratification, as well as self-reported sensation seeking behavior. The adolescents were surveyed on their experiments with risky sexual activity.
The study revealed that youth with weaker working memories at the start of the study tended to report larger increases in impulsive tendencies, which in turn raised their likelihood of participants in early or risky sexual activity. In these individuals, the desire to have sex in a given moment outweighed their feat of risks such as sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. High sensation seeking was found to be linked to weak working memory or sexual behavior.
Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the lead investigator of the study said, “Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively, for adolescents who have weak ability to override strong impulses, improvements in working memory may provide a pathway to greater control over risky sexual behavior. Certain parenting practices, characterized by nurturing and responsive involvement, have been shown to support the development of working memory. Interventions could aim to strengthen these types of parenting practices as well.”
The findings of the study were published in the journal Child Development.