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Not a Risk-Taker? Your Childhood May Have Something to Do With That

We know that when a child is exposed to adverse experiences like abuse, neglect, or having an incarcerated family member, those experiences can affect their health and well-being as adults. But how do they affect specific traits?

In a new study from Queens College and The Graduate Center, researchers examined how adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, affect risk-taking propensity and sensation seeking in 18- to 25-year-olds.

Researchers hope that by revealing the relationship between ACEs, risk-taking and sensation seeking, they can better equip mental health providers to give tailored treatment to young adult ACEs survivors. The tendencies to take risks and seek out new or stimulating experiences can be useful—these have been associated with increased entrepreneurship and the ability to adapt in response to negative experiences. However, they have also been linked to less desirable behaviors such as risky drug use. During the exploratory years between 18 and 25, risk-taking and sensation-seeking are increased, making it even more important to understand how they work.

The study, appearing in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, includes authors from Professor Valentina Nikulina’s Childhood Adversity Lab at Queens College.

The researchers conducted an online study surveying 518 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25. While they didn’t find a connection between ACEs and risk-taking propensity, the study showed that certain ACEs were related to decreased sensation seeking. Interestingly, these ACEs all had to do with environmental, rather than physical, instability. They included emotional abuse, exposure to a mentally ill family member, and witnessing domestic violence.

Decreased sensation seeking, the authors suggested, could explain why adult ACEs survivors sometimes experience impaired social functioning or worse academic performance.

The study only considered college students—a population the study said is more likely than non-students to seek mental health care. But it’s also a population more likely to put their health at risk via behaviors like alcohol consumption. Because of this, the authors wrote, it’s necessary to clarify these childhood and behavioral connections in order to provide the best mental health care for these students—though future research should examine the effect of ACEs on these traits in non-college students as well.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Valentina Nikulina (Assistant Professor , Psychology) | Profile 1