In Brief

What makes some children more likely than others to dart across the street in traffic? According to a study in the December Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 9, No. 4), it's whether they are risk-takers. In the study, lead author Ulrich Hoffrage, PhD, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and colleagues tested 22 boys and 22 girls who were 5 to 6 years old. The researchers first placed each child on the curb of a busy one-way street in Munich where there was no traffic light or crosswalk. They then asked the children to indicate when they thought it was safe to cross the street. As the researchers expected, some children were more likely than others to say they'd cross the street at potentially dangerous times.

To find out why some children seem to be traffic daredevils, Hoffrage and colleagues played a gambling game with the children. An experimenter presented each child with 10 wooden boxes, nine of which contained coveted stickers; the tenth box was an empty "devil" box. The children were told to choose and open the boxes one-by-one. If they chose the devil box, the game ended and they lost their stickers; but if they terminated the game before they found the devil, they were able to keep the stickers they'd found. Children who terminated the game early were classified as risk-avoiders, while those who pressed their luck were labeled risk-takers.

Overall, the researchers found that the children who were risk-takers in the gambling task were more likely to decide to cross the street, especially when the gaps between cars were midsized--a time when it's often unclear whether it's safe to cross. The risk-takers also made their decisions to cross the street more quickly. Moreover, while boys were more likely than girls to make risky decisions, whether a child was a risk-taker was a far better predictor of their street-crossing behavior than gender.

The findings indicate that traffic-safety education should pay more attention to children's risk behavior and tailor their messages accordingly, says Hoffrage.

"If we succeed in identifying the mechanisms that make risk-takers accept higher levels of risk," write the authors, "we can design and implement training programs tailored to those mechanisms. For instance, risk-takers may profit from training in visual timing skills."