Socioeconomic Risk for Adolescent Cognitive Control and Emerging Risk-Taking Behaviors: An interview with Dr. Alexis Brieant

Studies suggest that adolescents’ cognitive development may be impacted by elements of socioeconomic status (SES) such as family income, educational attainment, and social status. Dr. Alexis Brieant’s 2020 paper, Socioeconomic Risk for Adolescent Cognitive Control and Emerging Risk-Taking Behaviors examines how SES might impact youths’ cognitive control and, subsequently, youths’ problem behaviors.

 Dr. Brieant kindly took the time to answer our questions about the impacts of SES on cognitive control and risk-taking in adolescence.

1. What is the main takeaway of your article? 

Our findings suggest that adolescents’ cognitive control may explain the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and risk-taking behaviors. Specifically, lower family income and education was associated with lower adolescent cognitive control which, in turn, predicted higher risk-taking behaviors among adolescents.

2. What questions does this paper address? Why were these questions important?

Socioeconomic inequality is prevalent in the United States, and prior research suggests that factors such as family income and education can affect adolescent cognitive and behavioral development. During adolescence, the brain is undergoing important developmental changes, especially in regions that are involved in cognitive control, which accounts in part for heightened risk-taking behaviors during this period. Furthermore, adolescents are especially sensitive to environmental influences. For these reasons, we wanted to address the following questions: 1) Is lower socioeconomic status (SES) associated with higher risk-taking behaviors?, and 2) Is this association explained by neural and behavioral indicators of cognitive control? 

3. What do you wish more people knew about this topic?

It is important to understand that socioeconomic factors such as family income and education, in and of themselves, are not directly affecting adolescent brain and behavior. That is, SES is a broad construct that likely shapes more specific, proximal features of an adolescent’s environment. Adolescents’ environments are complex and multifaceted, and it is increasingly important to identify specific mechanisms that explain how and why SES may be affecting child and adolescent development.

 4. Are there any papers, videos, blog posts, etc. that you would recommend to readers who are interested in this topic?

Dr. Martha Farah has a review paper that provides an excellent overview on SES and neuroscience for those interested in this topic.

Neuroscientist and pediatrician Dr. Kimberly Noble has an informative TED Talk on SES and brain development.

5. What are you most excited to see in this field in the future? What questions are you particularly excited to get answers to? 

There are so many important future directions related to this work. I am especially interested in the identification of protective factors that may mitigate the effects of SES on adolescent outcomes. Prior research suggests that parental warmth and support may be a particularly strong protective factor in these associations. I am also interested in future research on subjective SES, or how adolescents and families perceive their relative social standing, and how that may differentially be associated with the outcomes we examined in this study.

6. Do you have any other information you would like to add about your study’s findings? 

While this study focused on individual adolescents and their families, it is also important to acknowledge the broader, structural issues that socioeconomic disadvantage stems from. Lack of social mobility, racism, and wealth inequality are some of the larger forces that exacerbate socioeconomic disadvantage and may perpetuate disparities in adolescent neurocognitive and behavioral outcomes.


Author: Dr. Alexis Brieant

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