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Expecting the unexpected: An N400 study of risky sentence processing in adolescents

Authors

  • Jillian Grose-Fifer,

    1. Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, New York, New York, USA
    2. Forensic Psychology Doctoral Subprogram, Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center of the City College of New York, New York, New York, USA
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  • Steven Hoover,

    1. Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, New York, New York, USA
    2. Forensic Psychology Doctoral Subprogram, Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center of the City College of New York, New York, New York, USA
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  • Tina Zottoli,

    1. Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, New York, New York, USA
    2. Forensic Psychology Doctoral Subprogram, Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center of the City College of New York, New York, New York, USA
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  • Andrea Rodrigues

    1. Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, New York, New York, USA
    2. Forensic Psychology Doctoral Subprogram, Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center of the City College of New York, New York, New York, USA
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  • This research was supported by Grant 60037-38 39 from the PSC-CUNY Research Award Program and grants from John Jay College's Research Assistance Fund and Forensic Psychology Research Institute.

Address reprint requests to: Jillian Grose-Fifer, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, 445 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019. E-mail: jgrose-fifer@jjay.cuny.edu

Abstract

Teens often engage in risk taking. Avoiding risk may be aided by rapid access to cognitive models for danger. This study investigated whether these schemata are immature in adolescence. An N400 sentential priming paradigm compared risky, predictable, and incongruent sentence processing in adolescents and adults. Adults and teens processed predictable sentences similarly, as evidenced by equivalent N400 priming. However, in adults, more activation was required to access final words in a risky sentence than when the situation was predictable and benign. Conversely, teens showed little difference in N400s generated by risky or expected sentences. This suggests that risky scenario final words were unexpected for adults but not for adolescents because of age-related differences in world knowledge and risk-related schemata. This study may help to explain why teenagers engage in risky activities when there is little time for deliberative thought.

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