Forensic Psych

Redefining an Imaginary Line: Affirmation of the APA Contradiction

This is my first paper of the Spring semester. Basically the paper revolves around an article called “Are Adolescents Less Mature Than Adults? Minors’ Access to Abortion, the Juvenile Death Penalty, and the Alleged APA ‘Flip-Flop'” which you can read here if you want:

The topic of this paper does deal with abortion and adolescent death penalty in the US, so just be aware of that going into this paper. (And, just so this is clear up front, I would like it to be known that I do not support abortion which may be clear in how I wrote my argument). As always, please be kind and remember this is my work, so please do not steal. Thank you and hope you enjoy/find it interesting! Feel free to comment with opinions, questions, etc.

Redefining an Imaginary Line: Affirmation of the APA Contradiction

            Controversial issues often occur in the court system, and this is no different when dealing with the juvenile realm. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), Justice Antonin Scalia questioned the American Psychological Association (APA) in regards to two juvenile cases. He is quoted as stating that the APA, “…claims in this case that scientific evidence shows persons under 18 lack the ability to take moral responsibility for their decisions, has previously taken precisely the opposite position before this very Court.” Steinberg, Cauffman, Woolard, Graham, and Banich (2009) discuss this so-called “flip-flop” where the APA used different evidence in two cases that were fundamentally the same. However, they disagree with Justice Scalia and instead argue that the APA did not flip-flop anything.

Steinberg et al. (2009) developed a study in which they could test whether or not the death penalty and abortion issues that were labeled as separate matters by the APA were actually any different. They argue that the Hodgson v. Minnesota (1995) abortion case, in which adolescents were labeled as competent to make decisions regarding abortion without parental consent, dealt with the cognitive maturity of juveniles, such as logical reasoning and information-processing abilities. They also argue that the Roper (2005) death penalty case, in which it was deemed inappropriate to have a death penalty for juveniles, involved the juvenile’s psychosocial maturity, such as impulsivity, risk perception, future orientation, resistance to peer pressure, and sensation seeking. With this distinction in mind they designed a study using self report measures and Likert-scale-type measures to investigate the psychosocial maturity variables and tests of basic cognitive skills, such as digit-span memory tests and verbal fluency tests, to examine the cognitive maturity variables. They found that there was a significant age effect for psychosocial maturity, with a difference between 16 and 17 year-olds and young adults above the age of 22. This would suggest that the same psychosocial maturity level, such as impulsivity, risk perception, sensation seeking, and the like, exists for older adolescents and young adults under the age of 21, and therefore that one matures psychosocially into his or her 20s rather than as a teenager. After age 16 there were no differences in age for cognitive maturity, which suggests that cognitive maturity occurs much earlier than psychosocial maturity. Steinberg et al. (2009) therefore argue that the 16 year old juvenile brain is just as mature as an adult in their mid 20s when the case involves information processing, logical reasoning, and deliberative decision-making, such as taking time to decide if an abortion is the correct decision for their circumstances. However, a juvenile is less mature when the situation involves impulsivity, peer influence, and/or high levels of emotion, like when committing a crime. Steinberg et al. therefore believe that the APA did not flip-flop between the Hodgson (1995) abortion and Roper (2005) death penalty cases, but instead presented relevant information in two seemingly similar cases that involve different types of maturity, which is consistent with their own research findings.

Indeed, Steinberg et al. (2009) make a respectable argument on behalf of the APA, but it leaves one with many unanswered questions. They accurately state that juveniles appear to have the same cognitive skills as adults do, but psychosocially they are less mature. However, based on other research the author would suggest that the APA did in fact flip-flop, particularly because the cognitive approach, which was used in the Hodgson (1995) abortion case, is too narrow. In addition, psychosocial maturity should be considered as well in abortion decision cases, just as they were considered in the Roper (2005) case that ultimately decided against a juvenile death penalty. Moreover, the adolescent brain has not physically matured to the point of being able to reason logically in comparison to an adult brain, particularly when considering counterfactual reasoning. There is not a significant difference between the reasoning involved in committing a crime and the reasoning involved in choosing whether or not to have an abortion without parental consent.

The human brain changes a lot throughout adolescence (Reyna & Farley, 2006). The frontal lobe of an adolescent brain is a key part of development because this is the area of the brain that is associated with planning, reasoning, impulse control, and executive function. Two of its subparts are known as the dorsolateral and the ventromedial areas, which deal specifically with the inhibition of impulsivity, thinking ahead, the ability to learn from experience, the ability to weigh risks and rewards, and the ability to regulate emotions. The frontal lobe and its subparts continue to develop into one’s mid 20s according to Reyna and Farley (2006). While these areas are developing, so are the aforementioned decision-making factors associated with these physical areas of the brain. This suggests that human beings are still developing decision-making factors such as learning from experience, thinking ahead, and the ability to weigh risks and rewards well into their 20s. Steinberg et al. (2009) make a strict distinction between the decision-making factors and types of maturity used in the Hodgson (1995) abortion case and the Roper (2005) death penalty case when the decisions both involve essentially the same decision-making factors. Frontal lobe development, as discussed by Reyna and Farley (2006), is associated with all of the factors from the cognitive and psychosocial maturity categories discussed by Steinberg et al., namely, impulsivity, risk perception (which corresponds with the ability to weigh risks and rewards), information processing (which involves reasoning), future orientation (which corresponds with thinking ahead and planning), logical reasoning, resistance to peer pressure (which involves weighing risks and rewards), and sensation seeking (which involves regulation of emotions and also impulsivity). If all of these factors are developing into the mid 20s, adolescents are not necessarily able to make comparable decisions to adults. Steinberg et al. claim that abortion decisions involve cognitive capacity alone, but this is not the case. The cognitive factors such as reasoning and information processing are developing directly alongside the psychosocial factors as the adolescent brain develops (Reyna & Farley, 2006). Decisions that adolescents make cannot be separated into two distinct categories when both are developing at the same point in time within the frontal lobe.

In fact, other research does suggest that the cognitive approach taken by Steinberg et al. (2009) in describing the Hodgson (1995) case is too narrow, and additional factors should also be considered (Ehrlich, 2003). It has been suggested that psychosocial factors in areas such as responsibility, perspective, and temperance should be considered when discussing adolescent decision-making. This call for the consideration of factors other than the cognitive approach has been suggested because adolescents are more likely to be influenced by their peers, are more likely to think lightly of the future and weigh short-term consequences more heavily than long-term consequences, and they are still developing temporal perspectives (Fried & Reppucci, 2001). These are things that must be taken into consideration in all cases of adolescent decision-making. Indeed, the same Cauffman and Steinberg (1995) of the Steinberg et al. (2009) article in question also seem to agree that there is more to an adolescent’s maturity and decision-making skills than cognitive abilities. They said themselves that, “While studies have generally found few cognitive differences between adolescents and adults, this should not be taken as evidence that adolescents are as capable as adults of making consistently mature decisions” (Cauffman & Steinberg, 1995, p. 1788).

Adolescents may seem as cognitively mature as adults; however this is only true in certain situations (Baird & Fugelsang, 2004). Juveniles are more likely to use adult-like thoughts in situations where they have experience (Wolff & Crockett, 2011; Baird & Fugelsang, 2004). They also lack counterfactual reasoning, according to Baird and Fugelsang (2004), which is the ability to imagine different outcomes in a situation and be able to understand the consequences of each of those outcomes. This is another ability that develops with time along with the physical development of the adolescent’s brain. With this being the case, one must consider whether or not adolescents will be able to make good decisions by themselves in important situations such as having an abortion. If experience is the key to abstract reasoning in adolescents, and they have never had the experience before, then how can they truly “try on” an experience and understand the outcomes and consequences of that imagined situation? Adolescents have not likely personally experienced abortion situations before and they are not likely able to imagine the different outcomes and consequences in those situations. Therefore, they may not be as likely to use thoughts that are comparable to adults. Simply because an adolescent appears to be cognitively mature and can process information and practice logical reasoning does not necessarily mean that he or she is ready or capable of making acceptable decisions for him or herself. This lack of counterfactual reasoning paired with a developing brain and the knowledge that adolescents are notorious for being impulsive, having poor judgment, lacking a future orientation, and being inconsistent suggests that adolescents should have parental involvement in order to help them make the most informed decision possible. Adolescents are not likely to be capable of making well, thought-out decisions in important life events, especially, one would argue, in decisions such as choosing to have an abortion, or even choosing to commit a crime. (Steinberg et al., 2009; Cauffman & Steinberg, 1995).

One example of an adolescent’s inability to make good decisions can be found in their risky sexual behaviors, which may ultimately lead to abortions. Adolescents are becoming sexually active at younger ages and younger adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors (Wolff & Crockett, 2011; Reyna & Farley, 2006). According to Foster and Sprinthall (1992), 60 percent of women who have abortions are under the age of 25. The author would suggest the obvious observation that those adolescents participating in risky sexual behavior are probably more likely to be the ones who get pregnant, and therefore probably the ones who have to make a decision regarding abortion. This choice to engage in risky sexual behavior is impulsive, and often there is peer pressure involved along with weighing the rewards higher than the risks (Reyna & Farley, 2006). However, as the brain develops the adolescent’s ability to make safer, less impulsive choices will develop as well. In fact, research has shown that “…older adolescents bring a more developed brain, as well as greater social and emotional maturity, to risky situations” (Reyna & Farley, 2006, p. 7). Therefore, once again it is suggested that due to all of the cognitive and psychosocial factors, the adolescent will not be able to consistently make adult-like decisions and should therefore be required to have parental consultation and/or consent to ensure that the adolescent makes an informed decision for important decisions such as abortion (Steinberg et al., 2009; Baird & Fugelsang, 2004).

Adolescents appear to have the cognitive maturity levels of adults, but the problem is that their level of cognitive maturity is inconsistent and subject to change based on experience and on their stage of brain development (Wolff & Crockett, 2011; Reyna & Farley, 2006; Baird & Fugelsang, 2004). These problems suggest that adolescents are not as capable of making important decisions as adults over the age of 22, especially ones that are important decisions that will affect their lives (Steinberg et al., 2009). Steinberg et al. (2009) argued that the research presented by the APA was not contradictory, but it actually was. They made a strict distinction between cognitive maturity and psychosocial maturity, but with the knowledge that both are developing at the same time while the frontal lobe is developing, the two should be considered together when discussing adolescent decision-making (Reyna & Farley, 2006). Adolescents are not allowed to receive the death penalty because they are impulsive; they are easily influenced by peers; they think lightly of the future; they weigh short-term consequences more heavily than long-term consequences; and many other factors (Steinberg et al., 2009; Fried & Reppucci, 2001). These same factors can and do influence abortion as well. Adolescents may be pressured into having unprotected sex; they may do it on a whim; and they may engage in these risky sexual behaviors without really considering or being able to consider the long-term consequences, like pregnancy and what to do about pregnancy if it were to occur. If adolescents are not as able to consider consequences and outcomes, but instead engage in an activity where the immediate rewards seem to outweigh the future costs, such as abortion, they should have parental consent or at least counseling with a parent before making a decision that will impact their lives. Whether the decision is to commit an abortion or to deny the death penalty, juveniles are not psychosocially mature enough to make adult-like decisions in most cases. Adolescents fall prey to all these psychosocial and cognitive immaturities and that will cause problems within their decision-making abilities, just as Steinberg et al. (2009) stated:

In situations that elicit impulsivity, that are typically characterized by high levels of emotional arousal or social coercion, or that do not encourage or permit consultation with an expert who is more knowledgeable or experienced, adolescents’ decision-making, at least until they have turned 18, is likely to be less mature than adults’. This set of circumstances…may also be typical of other situations where adolescents are emotionally aroused, in groups, absent adult supervision, and facing choices with apparent immediate rewards and few obvious or immediate costs—the very conditions that are likely to undermine adolescents’ decision-making competence. (p. 592)

Adolescents need the help of adults in order to make informed choices. They are still at an awkward point in their lives, and to be fair they should not be held as accountable as adults in most cases when dealing with the death penalty, and they should also not be held accountable to make a big life decision such as abortion by themselves either.



Baird, A. A., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2004). The emergence of consequential thought: Evidence from neuroscience. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B Biological Sciences, 359, 1797-1804.

Cauffman, E., & Steinberg, L. (1995). The cognitive and affective influences on adolescent decision-making. Temple Law Review, 68, 1763-1789.

Ehrlich, J. S. (2003). Choosing abortion: Teens who make the decision without parental involvement. Gender Issues, 23, 3-39.

Fried, C. S., & Reppucci, N. D. (2001). Criminal decision making: The development of adolescent judgment, criminal responsibility, and culpability. Law and Human Behavior, 25, 45-61.

Hodgson v.Minnesota, 497U.S.417 (1990).

Reyna, V. F., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making: Implications for theory, practice, and public policy. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7, 1-44.

Roper v. Simmons, 543U.S.551 (2005).

Steinberg, L., Cauffman, E., Woolard, J., Graham, S., & Banich, M. (2009). Are adolescents less mature than adults? Minors’ access to abortion, the juvenile death penalty, and the alleged APA “flip-flop.” American Psychologist, 64, 583-594.

Wolff, J. M., & Crockett, L. J. (2011). The role of deliberative decision making, parenting, and friends in adolescent risk behaviors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 1607-1622.

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