Do Their Teenaged Brains Make Adolescents More Likely To Commit Crimes?
Teenagers aren’t known for making extraordinarily good decisions. They’re stereotypically known to do somewhat idiotic things, like, for instance, drunkenly stealing a llama and taking it for a tram ride. They have a tendency to do impulsive, risky things—one study puts teens’ risk of getting themselves killed at 200 percent greater compared to children.
Why are teens so prone to risk-taking compared to either their childhood or adult selves? Younger kids don’t have the same propensity for risk-taking, though their brains are also developing. As a pair of researchers told a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience this week, it might be that teenagers’ brains have to work harder to keep their impulses in check, making them react more impulsively in threatening situations.
Neuroscientists Kristina Caudle and BJ Casey of Weill Cornell Medical College discussed their work on the teenage brain and self-control. In emotionally cool situations, “the teen appears to be capable of acting rationally and making optimal decisions,” as they wrote in an April 2013 paper. However, when things get emotional, many teenagers have more difficulty with self-control.
"Teenagers tend to be drawn to danger. It’s as if they can’t helps themselves.”
In a more recent unpublished study, presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting this week, they used an image of an aggressive face as an emotional cue to test how teenagers reacted in a threatening situation. When participants were shown a neutral face, they were instructed to press a button, but told to avoid pressing the button if they saw the aggressive face. Teens were around 15 percent more likely to react and press the button when they saw the aggressive face compared to children or adults in the study. Those teens who did manage to control their reaction and not press the button showed higher activity in the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex region, a portion of the brain implicated in controlling emotional responses. Because of changes in this region of the brain, teenagers might get an emotional reward from dangerous activities.
"Teenagers tend to be drawn to danger,” Casey, who direct's Cornell's Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, told Popular Science. “It’s as if they can’t helps themselves.” That’s not to say they can’t be trusted to make any decisions whatsoever, just that those abilities “might be compromised in emotional setting.” Though teenagers might be at the healthiest and quickest stage of their life, she says, “in the heat of the moment, they falter. We don’t tend to do that as much as adults.”
Impulse Test Accuracy Across Age
Caudle & Casey, April 2013
This temporary developmental difference has implications for how we treat teenage criminals. “Crimes are often committed in emotionally charged or threatening situations, which push all the wrong buttons for reasoned decision-making in the adolescent brain,” as Caudle told the Society for Neuroscience.
Building on Casey and Caudle's work, an ongoing research project from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience is seeking to determine whether or not teens really are more likely to engage in risky criminal behavior because of the way their brains are developing. A combined effort between legal scholars and scientists like Casey, the network is conducting a study of 250 subjects between the ages of 10 and 25 years old, assessing impulse control, sensation seeking and decision making in emotionally charged situations.
"You start to see the increase in criminal activity around 14 or 15, and a decrease around the 20s,” Casey explains. “We want to show that this is phasic or transient exploration, and experimentation is somewhat of a normal phase of adolescence.”
Casey and her colleagues will be collecting data for about the next year and a half, but the ultimate goal is to be able to influence juvenile justice policy with empirical data on how emotional settings might compromise a teen’s decisions. "We’re just really trying to see what impacts decision-making during this time,” she says.
How Low Is The Sky? And More Questions A Drone Legal Case Might Resolve
The FAA alleges that Pirker recklessly flew a drone or model airplane like this one over the University of Virginia campus.
Austrian Raphael "Trappy" Pirker has been flying drones and taking aerial photos as a hobby for about five years. But now he may have to pay $10,000 for an incident in October 2011, according to a complaint filed by the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging reckless flight over the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., and taking paid compensation for aerial photography without being licensed.
Pirker's lawyers have already counter-filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. Bigger than this case are the legal gray areas it will clarify. The FAA is planning to accept drones into commercial airspace in 2015, but until then, unmanned aircraft—from toy RC planes to 8-foot storm chasers—are governed by old guidelines. The 2012 FAA re-authorization act provides rules for model airplanes in the transition before drone law is figured out, but Pirker's case* predates that. Here are the most important parts of the case:
Where is the line between drone and toy?
The 2012 FAA re-authorization explicitly adds a category for model aircraft, where "model" is determined by size (under 55 pounds), use (flown strictly for hobby or recreational use), and visibility (must be within line of sight of the person operating the aircraft). Beyond that, model airplanes are governed by community standards, until they interfere with the flights of larger aircraft. Pirker was flying by First Person View, where a video camera pointed forward from the drone streams film back to the pilot in a remote viewing location. This breaks the third requirement of model aircraft, but that law wasn't in place in 2011, when the incident the complaint is about took place.
Prior to the FAA 2012 authorization, model airplanes were very loosely regulated. The statement from Pirker's defense goes so far as to argue that "the FAA expressly declines to regulate model airplanes." An advisory circular, published in 1981, sets out voluntary guidelines but isn't law and as such cannot be legally enforced. A policy clarification came with the 2007 statement by the FAA in the Federal Register on unmanned vehicles.
The 2007 statement specifies a curious constraint on unmanned flight: drones must be observed, in direct line of sight, by either a pilot or an observer, including the possibility of an observer in another aircraft. If drones are to be truly useful in regular airspace, this can only ever be a temporary rule, as line of sight tethering drastically limits how drones can fly—which in turn limits their usefulness.
What counts as piloting?
Pirker flew the drone using a video camera. His drone, a Ritewing Zephyr, records the video it captures as it flies. The complaint alleges that Pirker sold this video footage to Lewis Communications, an advertising agency. The drone, because it is piloted by a first-person-view camera, cannot help but record video while it flies. Pirker's defense argues that this is merely sensor data, repurposed for sale; drastically different than a manned aircraft carrying a photographer.
Decades of precedent in laws concerning manned aircraft are suddenly confronting aircraft that operate differently. Until new FAA regulations concerning unmanned aircraft are passed into law, courts will have to interpret precedent set with functionally different vehicles.
How low is the sky?
The FAA is an agency formed out of tragedy. In 1956, two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. In 1958, the FAA was created to ensure the safety of American skies by, among other tasks, clarifying where certain aircraft can fly, dividing the sky into a series of mix-use layers, keeping small airplanes out of the way of commercial airliners, and otherwise deconflicting the sky. Class G airspace, the lowest layer in the Eastern United States, starts 700 feet above sea level.
The commonly accepted ceiling for model airplane flight is 400 feet, dating back to the 1981 advisory circular, and the FAA's complaint against Pirker says he:
[O]perated the above-described aircraft at altitudes of approximately 10 feet to approximately 400 feet over the University of Virginia in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another
The trial itself will determine whether or not Pirker's flying was reckless. There's a chance, however, that it will instead determine the limitation of FAA standing. The counter-motion filed by Pirker's defense counsel raises the question of jurisdiction. Recklessly operating a vehicle is certainly a public safety concern, but rather than being a matter of aviation security it might fall instead to local police, who have taken the lead in other cases where unmanned vehicles have caused injury or death. This includes a recent and infamous incident where a young man in New York died after a remote control helicopter struck him. NYPD, not the FAA, investigated the case, even though a flying vehicle was involved.
The precedent determined here will be an important one, and will surely influence whatever new regulations Congress passes when it comes time to let more drones into commercial airspace.
It could also set the balance between federal and local regulation of the air. Does the FAA have domain over all flying things, or does the regulated sky start at 700 feet?
*At the DARC conference in New York City this morning, Pirker showed a video of the Charlotte flight in question. In one part of the video, the drone flies near hospital helicopter landing pads. The FAA sets rules for takeoff and landing safety. If there is any area where jurisdiction of the sky intersects with that of the ground, it's at the point of takeoff.
How Many Gun Bills Pass After Mass Shootings?
Impact Mark of a .45 Hollowpoint Bullet in Plexiglas
After tragedies like the Navy Yard shooting Monday, people often want to do something or change something. It's a natural reaction to an extreme event. But how much really gets done after mass shootings?
In June, two criminal justice researchers reviewed the bills legislators proposed after three school shootings: Columbine, Jonesboro, and Virginia Tech. School shootings are similar to workplace shootings such as the Navy Yard tragedy: "People get hung up on age and that's why they see these as very different," H. Jaymi Elsass tells Popular Science. "They're really very similar kinds of events with very similar kinds of relationships involved in those settings." (Elsass was not involved in the June review, but is a colleague of the authors at Texas State University. All are doctoral students in criminal justice.)
In the 12 months after the Columbine shooting, lawmakers proposed more than 800 new bills having to do with guns.
It turns out each shooting prompted a flurry of proposed legislation, but often, only a small number of such bills passed.
In the 12 months after the Columbine shooting, lawmakers proposed more than 800 new bills having to do with guns. Some promoted gun control—for example, beefing up background checks—while others promoted gun ownership rights—for example, protecting the rights of gun owners who cross state lines with weapons. About 10 percent of those bills passed.
Lawmaking efforts after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, which remains the U.S.'s most deadly, were more fruitful. President George W. Bush signed legislation improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and providing states with funding to improve their own firearms reporting systems. However, 24 states have since added fewer than 100 mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The system contains only about half the number of records that experts expected.
The Sandy Hook shooting was not included in the study, but it had a similar pattern to Columbine: In the first 75 days after the shooting, politicians introduced 24 pieces of gun control legislation. All failed except for one, which required the registration of assault weapons and limited the number of bullets in magazines in New York State.
An obvious explanation for the failure of many gun laws is that they are so controversial, they have little chance of passing. "That's entirely possible," says Jaclyn Schildkraut, one of the study's authors. She points out that the numbers of Americans who support more or less gun control are nearly even, making every bill difficult to pass one way or another.
Schildkraut and her co-author, Tiffany Cox Hernandez, didn't analyze why so many pieces of post-shooting legislation fail. When I asked her opinion, Schildkraut said she thinks that upon closer examination, the new bills turn out to be redundant. "We do have so many great pieces of legislation in place, both for gun rights and for gun control," she says. "I think it's more important to really work on enforcing what you have before you rush out more pieces that are not going to be enforced."
She and Elsass also think immediate legislative action about guns isn't the right way to respond to mass shootings. Failed bills waste time and money, they say. "Those are resources we could put into the juvenile justice system, or getting people mental health care," Schildkraut says.
Schildkraut and Hernandez published their work in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.
Updated: @txst told me that Texas State University has dropped the "-San Marcos" part of its name, so I changed that in the post.
Researchers Expose Troubling Bias In Forensic Psychology
One of the Original Rorschach Ink Blots
Does your mental health depend on who's paying your psychologist? Clearly not, but a new study has found that psychologists looking at the same evidence will interpret it differently, depending on whom they believed hired them.
Bias in psychologists hired to go to court could have an immense impact on defendants' lives. In many cases, psychological evaluations influence decisions about what sentences people deserve. Was the defendant's crime a one-time thing, punishable by a finite prison sentence, or is she a danger to society who should be locked away forever? Should the defendant go to a rehabilitation program as part of his sentence?
It's already known, of course, that lawyers may choose to call only experts who support their cases. So there's probably a biased sample of psychologists going on the stand in the U.S., anyway. But four psychologists from the University of Virginia and Sam Houston State University wanted to see if a large sample of psychologists, chosen without a side in mind, might also be vulnerable to bias.
An Original Rorschach Ink Blot
The researchers recruited 99 forensic psychologists and psychiatrists, pretending that they wanted help with real cases. (Well, the cases files were real, but the forensic psychologists' evaluations wouldn't have an effect on the real defendants' trials.) The researchers gave each of the forensic experts the same four case files, but told half of them that the defense had hired them, while telling the other half that the prosecution was paying the bills. The cases the experts examined were for violent sexual offenders, whose sentences depend heavily on their perceived likelihood of reoffending.
On average, in most measures, the defense-hired experts came to significantly different conclusions than the prosecution-hired ones. This was using surveys that previous studies have shown work well—that is, a bunch of psychologists assessing someone using the surveys will generally come to the same conclusions—when they're not used in court.
"Most expert witnesses believe they perform their job objectively. These findings suggest this may not be the case," one of the researchers, Daniel Murrie of the University of Virginia, said in a statement. He and his colleagues' work points to a need for scientists to develop ways to reduce this bias, they wrote in a paper they published last week in the journal Psychological Science.
Tech-Law Blog Groklaw Shuts Down, Citing Government Surveillance
Kolab, the email service Jones switched to recently.
Groklaw is one of our favorite blogs; it's a discussion and dissection of the intersection of technology and the law, focusing on open source but also on antitrust and patent law and all kinds of other things we care about. And today the founder and chief writer, Pamela Jones, announced that she's shutting down Groklaw for good, citing concerns over government surveillance.
"They tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it's encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world," writes Jones, presumably talking about Gmail, which retains encrypted emails. "There is no way to do Groklaw without email," she continues, though she doesn't elaborate (presumably this is how she communicates with sources and legal advisers who like to remain anonymous). She says she is personally switching to Kolab, a Swiss email company, but that her "personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible."
Kolab does not offer encryption, but it's a paid service that keeps all data in Switzerland, which is somewhat of a haven for privacy (the country, according to Kolab, wiretapped only 20 times in 2012, which is basically nothing compared to the U.S.). Kolab says it complies with Swiss requests, but only Swiss, and vows to publicize it if it ever receives one.
It's an odd choice, to shut the site down completely; there are plenty of secure email services out there, as Jones knows, considering she's switching to one. The motivation seems less about concerns that her personal email will be read than total disgust that the state of privacy and the law has come to this. "What I do know is it's not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7," she writes. Jones is semi-famously private; she writes as merely "PJ." "I originally wanted to stay anonymous, in a sense, by just saying PJ. Eventually media attention and other factors made it impossible to remain just PJ but I would have if I could have. I have no desire to be famous, for one thing," she once wrote.
We'll miss Groklaw if it's truly gone, but if this shutdown, along with Lavabit's, is an early sign of mass revolt against surveillance, perhaps it'll have some positive effect after all. Groklaw will remain online as a resource, but will not update with new posts.