A recent study published in the journal Child Development has analyzed the link between impulse control and cognitive abilities and has proved that a weak working memory in teenagers is linked with risky sexual behavior which leads to accidental pregnancies and the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases.
Working memory represents the system which enables individuals to learn from previously-learned information in order to make decisions. It seems that teenagers which have a weak working memory cannot properly control their impulsive urges and therefore do not calculate the consequences of their decisions. The study was conducted by investigators from the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Oregon.
Other studies conducted in the past have showed that teenagers who have difficulties controlling their impulses are more likely to show a risky sexual behavior, however this is the first study which focused on working memory.
The study was conducted on 360 teenagers with ages between 12 and 15 years. The socioeconomic group and the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the participants varied. The tests conducted in the study were designed to analyze the working memory and the ability to concentrate their attention on data which is relevant for a task.
Through a test which tested the teenagers’ ability to delay gratification the researchers assessed the impulsivity. The participants self-reported their tendency to seek excitement without thinking of the consequences. Self-interviewing techniques conducted privately on computers gathered information about the age of the participants when they experienced their first sexual intercourse and other data about risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex.
The findings of the study indicate that the participants who showed a weak working memory also had higher levels of impulsivity over 2 year of follow-up. They were also more likely to start their sexual life earlier and not use protection. In addition they reported to have a short-time desire for sex which made them overlook possible long-term consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Dan Romer from the University of Pennsylvania said that their study suggests ways in which the risky sexual behavior of teenagers can be changed. According to him in the case of teenagers who have a difficult time controlling their strong impulses working memory improvement could prevent risky sexual behavior. He also remarked:
“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.”
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