Adolescents with stronger working memory are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, according to a study published in Child Development.
Previous studies have shown that impulsivity and lack of self-control are associated with risky behaviors in adolescents. In this study, the researchers wanted to determine if cognitive abilities affected adolescent risk taking.
The study included 360 adolescents aged 12 to 15 years. The researchers followed each participant for two years to see how working memory affected participants’ self-control and risky sexual behavior.
At the beginning of the study, the researchers assessed working memory through tasks that tested participants’ ability to maintain focus on information relevant to the task. They measured impulsivity with two methods: a task that tested participants’ ability to delay gratification and self-reports on sensation seeking and tendencies to act without thinking. Each participant also answered computer-based questionnaires about risky sexual behavior, including their age when they started having sex and whether or not they had ever had unprotected sex.
The researchers found that adolescents with weaker working memory showed larger increases in impulsive behavior over the two-year follow up period. Thus, these participants were more likely to report early and unprotected sexual behavior compared with adolescents with stronger working memory. Participants with weak working memory had more difficulty regulating dominant impulses; their self-reported answers indicated that the desire to have sex outweighed long-term risks like sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.
The results also indicated that parental variables, such as socioeconomic status and level of involvement in their children’s lives, were linked to both working memory and risky sexual behavior. Even after taking these variables into account, the association between working memory and sexual risk taking remained significant.
“Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively,” Daniel Romer, PhD, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a press release. “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.”