Dr. Paige Harden Explores Genetics Behind Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior
Spring 2014 Newsletter
Posted: March 7, 2014
Many of us can relate to poet John Ciardi's observation that, "You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone." And yet, along with the obstacles and angst many adolescents experience, there are also opportunities for growth. Dr. Paige Harden's lab is interested in both of these pathways, and in the factors that bestow risk or protection to teens as they navigate these complex years.
Dr. Harden joined the UT Psychology Department as an assistant professor in August of 2009, at a relatively youthful 27, having received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia the previous spring. Her area of research is in adolescent development, both normal and abnormal, and she has a particular interest in how family environments and social experiences combine with genetic factors. Dr. Harden uses data from twins and their families to study patterns in teenage risk behaviors, including alcohol and substance use patterns, delinquency, sexual activity and childbearing. Much of her data comes from UT’s The Twin Project, an on-going study of child and teenage twins in Austin and central Texas that investigates how twins grow up to be so different from each other in some ways, and yet so similar in other ways. Her husband, Dr. Elliott Tucker-Drob, also an assistant professor in the department, is active with The Twin Project, as well.
Dr. Harden states that she “fell into” the research field as an undergraduate, when her interest was sparked in the psychology world, and especially in the relationships between behavior and genetics. That interest found a good fit in the lab of her doctoral mentor at U.Va., Dr. Eric Turkheimer, where an attention to behavioral genetic methods, combined with a spirit of independent inquiry, received constructive support. Dr. Harden developed her work’s focus by applying such methods to the study of the behaviors and growth patterns of adolescents.
Along with the members of her Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab, the investigations Dr. Harden has carried out in her five years as a faculty member at UT have examined both problematic and beneficial aspects of issues like teen risk-taking proclivities. Prior literature in this field has tended to focus on disordered and dysfunctional patterns. The Harden lab continues to devote studies designed to better understand what “goes wrong” in adolescent behaviors and development, but Dr. Harden has become increasingly interested in what constitutes strength patterns in teenagers, as well. “Some degree of risk-taking is adaptive,” Dr. Harden has come to observe. She found, for example, that while the choices some teens tend to make in simulated gambling exercises are unproductively reckless, there are also instances where teens’ decision-making patterns out-perform those of adults—along the lines of “nothing risked, nothing gained.”
“The literature has largely looked at risk as a source of problems and difficulties,” Dr. Harden notes, “and it has highlighted patterns of poor decisions in teens. But the literature in adults regarding such things as the quality of interpersonal relationships includes an emphasis on the positives such relationships provide—and there’s less of that type of focus in work currently being carried out with teens.”
The types of studies conducted in Dr. Harden’s lab, in other words, stand to provide added nuance to our understanding of teen proclivities for exploratory, self-challenging and risk-seeking behaviors, by including attention to questions like “What does it mean to do adolescent life well?” and “What constitutes thriving in this period of life?”
In her own life, Dr. Harden is finding the city of Austin and the Psychology Department of UT supportive environments for personal thriving: “It’s a model situation—life can be lived! Since joining the department, Elliott and I have given birth to our son, Jonah, now 18 months old. And to our grateful delight, we’ve found here that academia can actually be supportive of parents having children. It turns out you don’t have to stop your life while working towards tenure!