Laurence Steinberg, PhD, is living the researcher’s dream.

Twice in the last five years his findings have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, his studies showing that adolescents’ brains are not mature enough for teens to be responsible for certain impulsive actions were central to an amicus brief APA filed in Roper v. Simmons, the case that abolished the death penalty for juveniles. In December, Steinberg returned to the court to watch oral arguments in two cases looking at whether teens should be subjected to life imprisonment without a chance for parole. APA submitted another brief in the cases based on Steinberg’s research showing that the brains of teens lack the maturity to enable them to consistently control their impulses, resist peer pressure and appreciate the risks of their actions — limitations that mitigate adolescents’ criminal responsibility.

Now, topping off those achievements, the distinguished Temple University psychologist has become the first recipient of a $1 million Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize from the Jacobs Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropies for youth development. The award recognizes outstanding scientific accomplishments that help to improve the lives of young people.

The Monitor spoke with Steinberg about his accomplishments and future research.

Few psychologists have won a $1 million prize for their research. How does it feel?

Of course, I’m thrilled and honored. But I also think it’s terrific for the field of psychology. Most prizes of this amount are given for biomedical research. I think it makes a statement about the importance of the work we do.

What are your plans for the money?

Part of the prize will go to replicate internationally the projects my colleagues and I did here on adolescent impulsivity and risk-taking. The research will look at children in different countries, from highly developed ones like Sweden to developing countries like Kenya and everything in between.

It will help us answer a question people have asked since scientists first started studying adolescence: How much of adolescence is determined by the biology of the period and how much is cultural? Of course the answer is some interaction between the two. But this allows us to look at patterns of normative adolescence in cultures that are quite different in terms of how they treat people at this age. It will be really interesting to see if there are patterns of age differences in these adolescent capacities and capabilities in various cultures.

How about your plans for the rest of the prize?

I haven’t decided. For the last several years, I’ve studied the downside of making an impulsive decision in the face of a large reward, so I think I wouldn’t set a good example if I make a hasty decision.

There are lots of possibilities, though. We’re doing great imaging work at Temple. My colleague Jason Chein and I are trying to understand why teens — but not adults — tend to make riskier decisions when they are in the presence of their peers. We have a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant that’s allowing us to look at that in an imaging context. Basically, we’ve been administering tasks that we’ve used in our behavioral lab for years, but in this research, we’re administering it inside the fMRI magnet, while two peers are in an adjacent room, sometimes able to observe the subject’s performance and sometimes not. We are comparing their brain activation and performance on the tasks when their peers are able to see them and when their peers are not.

We’ve found that the presence of peers doesn’t change adults’ performance on the task or their brain activation. But when adolescents know their peers are watching, they take greater risks, and we see activation of the brain areas associated with reward. What we think is going on is that the presence of peers may make adolescents focus on the potential rewards of decisions, relative to the potential costs, and that might lead them to make riskier choices.

Tell us about your visit to the Supreme Court in December.

The cases involved the constitutionality of sentencing adolescents to life without parole. I worked with APA to pull together the scientific evidence that we think demonstrates pretty conclusively that adolescents are less mature than adults based on behavioral research and brain research. Therefore, they should be treated differently by the legal system when they commit serious crimes.

I got to go to the oral argument, which is really just sitting in the audience, but it was interesting for a couple of reasons. In this case, the first thing Chief Justice John Roberts said was, “So, adolescents are different from adults.” [There was no debate about that,] whereas in the 2005 juvenile development case, that was still open for discussion. This time, the debate centered on whether we should treat adolescents as a separate class. In other words, should this be a categorical decision — such as the way we prohibit the way kids buy alcohol — or should we look at every instance on a case-by-case basis, taking an individual’s level of maturity and putting that in the mix when deciding how culpable or responsible someone is.

The argument we made is that we’re not very good at making individual predictions about people’s future criminal behavior, so it would be very dicey to do this on a case-by-case basis. Even though there are people under age 18 who are as mature as adults — and there are plenty of adults who behave like teenagers — I think it’s just safer given what we know about development to exclude them as a class from very severe punishment.

How might your research influence policies and programs for adolescents, particularly those that seek to reduce risky behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs or engaging in unprotected sex?

The main implication of our work is that we should be changing the context in which teenagers live to potentially protect them from themselves. Some of our work leads to the conclusion that the risky behavior during adolescence is probably normative. Adolescence is a period in most mammalian species when individuals leave their natal environment and the protection of those who have raised them, go off on their own and reproduce. And that’s risky.

It seems to me, though, that efforts to get kids to not do things that adults don’t want them to do are not likely to succeed alone. Kids are not ignorant about the risks of certain behaviors — there’s a lot of research that shows kids are very well aware of the risk of potentially harmful behaviors, but do them anyway. I think kids do them anyway partly because they have different priorities than adults, but also because their ability to control their behaviors is not yet fully mature and their inclination toward novelty-seeking and sensation-seeking and rewardseeking is highly aroused.

So you’ve got these situations where people’s reward-seeking is aroused, but their ability to put the brakes on it is still maturing. Education is important, but alone it is not going to stop a teenager from driving a car really fast when his friends are in the backseat and they’re having a good time.

Do you have examples of changing the context rather than changing the person?

There are two good ones. One is driver’s licenses. We know that when teens drive with other adolescents in the car, they are significantly more likely to have a crash, but that’s not true for adults. That’s why some states offer graduated driver’s licenses that prohibit kids from driving when other adolescents are in the car until they have a certain number of hours of driving experience or reach a certain age. Now if we compare a graduated driver’s license policy to an educational policy in which we told kids, “When you have your friends in the car, you’re more likely to crash it,” graduated driver’s licenses are more effective.

Another example is smoking. We’ve seen a big decline in cigarette use among American teens, but it’s attributed almost entirely to the increase in cigarette prices, not to any anti-smoking campaign.

How else has your research influenced public policy?

Some of the criminal justice work that we’ve done has had an impact. In a study led by Thomas Grisso, our team studied competence to stand trial, in which we looked at the proportion of people who performed satisfactorily on a competency exam. We found that there was a much greater risk of incompetency to stand trial among people who were younger than 16 than among adults. Under our Constitution, we don’t charge people for the crimes if they can’t understand what’s going on, so this has led several jurisdictions to change policies on the ages when competency exams must be given. Our findings have also led to an increase in practitioners asking for competency exams for teens who are otherwise normal, whereas in the past, they were mainly used for kids who were either delayed or had some kind of mental illness. Our research has made a difference.