Podcast Transcript: Dr. Carl Lejuez


Photograph of Dr. Carl Lejuez.Dr. Carl Lejuez of the University of Maryland has spent years researching why and when people take risks. He talks with NCFY about his findings and their implications for traumatized youth.

Time: 11:33 | Size: 10.5 MB

JOHN LINGAN: Welcome to Voices from the Field, a podcast series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau. The series is produced by the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth. I’m John Lingan, Managing Editor of Multimedia for the Clearinghouse.

Today, I’ll be sharing a conversation with Dr. Carl Lejuez, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and Director of the Center for Addictions Personality and Emotions Research. I sat down with Dr. Lejuez to ask him about his most recent clinical research, a computer simulation called the balloon analog risk test, or BART, in which young people inflate a balloon as much as possible without allowing it to pop. Lejuez says it's a useful tool for learning how participants measure and react to risk.  

DR. LEJUEZ: One study that we’ve done very recently which we’re really excited about is we looked at how kids play the game in terms of the risks they’ll take in the very beginning of the game as opposed to the later parts of the game. 

And one thing that's very interesting and surprising to us is that kids who had greater economic adversity ... so these were kids for whom they were living either at or below the poverty level ... they looked just like the kids who had greater financial resources at the beginning of the game. There was really no difference there. But the kids with the greater financial resources, as they played the game more and as they started to pop balloons and have negative consequences, they actually kept their behavior the same. And so they weren't necessarily affected by those negative consequences. 

But the kids from the more disadvantaged families, actually once they started popping balloons and having these consequences, actually greatly reduced their risk-taking behavior.

And so at first, we were a little surprised about that. We weren’t really sure what to make of it. But there's actually really good theory around the idea that for kids who come from these kind of difficult environments, they don't have a safety net in the way that maybe kids with more advantages have.  And so they have to learn over time that when things start to go wrong, when you start to see some consequences that are pretty serious, and for them in their real life, consequences often compound on top of each other and they don't have that protection. And so they have to be really aware of their environment, always really vigilant and kind of looking for these negative things that could really derail them. 

And so we saw that these kids really were very sensitive to the game and the negative consequences that were happening in the game, and really get a big change in their behavior to match their environment. Whereas, the kids from, again, with greater financial resources, really were kind of impervious to it consequences that were happening to them. 

LINGAN: So, what relevance would you say that that discovery has to people who work with at-risk youth, and specifically maybe runaway and homeless youth who are typically economically disadvantaged and maybe of the same profile as that more cautious group that you mentioned? 

DR. LEJUEZ: Well, I think it can be relevant in two ways. In one way, it's a good thing. And I think it's something to build on a strength, that kids who are in these kind of circumstances, you know, we tend to only think about what's wrong with them or what the deficits are  But one strength really is the ability to really sense your environment, to be hyper vigilant to risk, to know when things may not be so safe.  

And there may be ways to actually take those and really build on those strengths in terms of when these kids are able to go into other environments or receive other support, that there may be ways to actually take the strength in that part of their life and really build on that. 

I think on the other hand, when you learn to be vigilant this way, it's hard to just forget that. And so, what may happen is these kids may have the opportunity to go into a much safer, or, an environment with a lot more advantages. And it may be hard to kind of forget that hyper-vigilance. It may be really hard to kind of always keep looking for what could go wrong. 

And I think it may be hard for people who haven't had that experience to understand what that is. And it's easy to take that the wrong way and think that maybe the kids are not appreciative or that they’re not really assimilating into a new environment. When it's really not fair or reasonable to expect them to do that right away. 

So maybe just being aware of how having to learn how to always be vigilant can have strengths to build on and can also be a weakness that isn't going to just fix itself simply because some people have chosen to be nice to them or tried to give them some opportunities.

LINGAN: So, if a youth worker sees the ability to sort of assess risk in a young person who's had to deal with it early in life, how can that be a strength? How can that be leveraged into a sort of personal growth strength for that young person? 

DR. LEJUEZ: I think one really important thing is to actually work with the youth, to pay attention to the things that they did right in those situations.  In some of the work we do with chronic substance users really across ages, we find that there's a lot of things that people had to do while they were on the street, while they were trying to get drugs, while they were really trying to survive, that most of society may not pay much attention to as positive, but actually have a lot of positive aspects to them in terms of figuring out a situation when you’re safe and when you're not, in terms of having resilience to go through all it takes to be in these difficult situations. 

And I think as a society, we don't pay enough attention to what those strengths are. And we really, you know, we kind of treat people who have these experiences as they don't really have any skills or that there's nothing positive that's come out of that. 

And so I think being able to help the individual look back at the difficult situations that they've been through, the strength and the resilience that they’ve shown in that and reframe it in a way to be able to kind of build some positive self-esteem about these things. And also to give a sense of we might think of self-efficacy or the idea that you've shown that you can get through difficult situations, that you're able to kind of figure out what's the right and wrong choice in a tough situation where you don't know the right answer in the past. So how can we now build on that strength to help you do that more in the future?

LINGAN: So what's next in this research?  What questions sort of remain unanswered for you about risk taking? And what are you trying to figure out? 

DR. LEJUEZ: There's a lot of research suggesting that the brain develops ... if we think of the brain as a car, that there’s the gas and then there's the brakes. So you have kind of the reward circuitry and then the inhibition or the kind of "stopping yourself" circuitry. Those develop at very different speeds. 

And the reward circuitry, this is good in some ways, develops really fast.  So if you take ... if you think about homeless youth and adolescents, for many, they have a fully developed reward circuitry. But now in terms of the brakes, in terms of their ability to inhibit themselves, in terms of their ability to be sensitive to potential punishment, we know that chronic drug use and also abuse experiences can actually retard the ability of those parts of the brain to develop. 

And so you have may have an adolescent who has ... we can almost think of a gas pedal like a Ferrari, because that's developed. But because of these experiences, they now have brakes comparable to a tricycle.  And so they're having not only to deal with all the things around them that are really difficult, but now their ... just at a biological level ... their ability to function well in these situations can be really impaired because of these early life experiences and the fact that these have not influenced the reward circuitry, but it really influenced the inhibitory or the brake circuitry.  

So our interest is, the youth is acting risky. Is it because of the reward circuitry, that it's just over excited? Or is it because the inhibition circuitry isn’t working well enough?

Now, we don't expect to be able to change what's happening in the brain. But it does tell us as interveners how we might intervene. And specifically, if it's a youth in the first case, it may be really important to help that youth learn how to kind of inhibit themselves a little bit in terms of their, you know, to kind of slow themselves down, to try to be less impulsive, to try to not always feel like they have to go after these kind of feelings of wanting to go after risk. And it also could be in terms of helping them find alternatives. So that's one of the really kind of exciting things. 

The other thing that we've become really interested in is peer influence. We’ve been starting to do research to understand the way in which peers can influence risk-taking. And so using the laboratory and these games actually allows us to create situations where we can have peers engage in different kinds of peer pressure to look and see how it affects one’s risk taking. 

And then we can also develop strategies to almost inoculate the youth. So that when they get this peer pressure, they’re expecting it. And they’re able to kind of regulate themselves and be able to not be as impacted by it. And we use the balloon game as an opportunity where they can be more risky or less risky, and the peers are trying to get them to be riskier, to really practice some of that. 

So that provides an opportunity almost to have this experiential way of seeing what does it really ... it’s one thing to talk about it. It's another thing to be in that situation and feel that emotion and really start to have the impact of peers push you in a way that you didn’t expect. And now you have this opportunity to test drive it and really see what that feels like and to see how you’re able to kind of regulate yourself in that situation.  

And so I think, in addition to understanding the biological aspects, I think in terms of understanding the context, especially in cases where peers become more important, I think our ability to understand how to inoculate and help youth be able to make good decisions in those situations become really important. 

LINGAN: The National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth shares the latest youth-related research in our regular column, Primary Sources, available at ncfy.acf.hhs.gov

What would you like to learn about? Tell us at Facebook.com/nationalclearinghouseonfamiliesandyouth or on Twitter @NCFY. Thanks very much for listening.



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