Brain Development and Voting Age

In an article in October for New Scientist entitled ‘Let Science Decide the Voting Age‘, Laurence Steinberg makes a convincing case that individuals wishing to change the voting age in their country should look to neuroscience to make their case:

Research on adolescent brain development does not point to an obvious age at which a sharp legal distinction between adolescents and adults should be drawn for all purposes, but it is very informative. People reach various kinds of maturity between the ages of roughly 15 and 22. Adolescents’ judgement in situations that permit unhurried decision-making and consultation with others – what psychologists call “cold cognition” – is likely to be as mature as that of adults by 16. In contrast, adolescents’ judgement in situations characterised by heightened emotions, time pressure or the potential for social coercion – “hot cognition” – is unlikely to be as mature as that of adults until they are older, certainly no younger than 18 and perhaps not until they are 21. This distinction is partly related to our understanding of changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which usually continue for the first 20 years of life.

He concludes that voting is much like medical decision-making in that it falls within the classification of ‘cold cognition’. This leads Steinberg to conclude:

I see no reason why a pregnant 16-year-old, given adequate time and the opportunity to discuss the decision with an adult, shouldn’t be able to get an abortion or contraception without her parents’ involvement, or why we shouldn’t let 16-year-olds vote. Indeed, they can vote in Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

For a more in-depth look on adolescent brain development, decision making and its potential impact on public policy, there  a great summary of the science in this article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.


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