Paige Harden is a clinical psychologist and behavioral geneticist who studies adolescent development. The goal of this research is to understand how social environments combine with biological vulnerabilities, including genetic variants and hormonal changes, to shape the emergence and course of mental disorders and risk-taking behaviors during adolescence. Key outcomes include delinquency and aggression; risky sexual behavior; eating problems and mood disorders; and alcohol and drug use. Paige Harden is also invested in understanding positive youth development, particularly in the areas of prosocial risk-taking and positive sexual development.
My plans for the fellowship period
During the fellowship, I plan to focus on a series of research questions related to sensation seeking, a personality trait that captures the preference for thrilling and intense bodily sensations and experiences, and its behavioral expressions. Adolescence is a peak developmental period for sensation seeking. Although conferring risk for maladaptive outcomes, a teenager’s willingness to take risks and venture into unknown territory might also be a unique developmental strength. I am currently working to (a) develop and validate a measure that captures forms of prosocial risk-taking behaviors in adolescence (e.g., artistic, intellectual, athletic, and interpersonal risks), (b) test the relationship between sensation seeking personality traits and prosocial risk-taking, and (c) identify the social and learning contexts that maximize the likelihood that a highly sensation seeking teenager will take prosocial rather than antisocial risks. In addition to studies on the prosocial manifestations of sensation seeking, I am also working to refine our measurement of sensation seeking itself. Finally, I am actively pursuing a line of more basic research on the genetic, epigenetic, and endocrine underpinnings of individual differences and development change in sensation seeking, particularly its relationship to puberty.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Behavioral risk-taking is a leading cause of injury and mortality in adolescence, and adolescent risk-taking can have profound consequences for educational attainment, health behavior, stress, and access to social resources for the entirety of the adult lifespan. By understanding the biological vulnerabilities and social contexts that shape the development of risk-taking behavior, my research directly addresses a central impediment to maximizing the potential of youth. Even small investments in adolescent functioning can produce large returns in health and human capital across the lifespan. Beyond better understanding how to mitigate risk, I also take a strength-based approach to studying adolescent development: How can parents, educators, and society foster adolescent thriving, and how can thriving adolescents contribute to society? In particular, my research will address how high sensation seeking can be channeled into pro-social risk-taking, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, and leadership.