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The Role of Sleep, Stress, and Peers on Emerging Adult Risk Behavior: A Dual Systems Model Perspective

Alexander Michael Wasserman, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The dual systems model is a theory that posits risk behavior is a manifestation of the earlier development of reward sensitivity relative to the protracted development of cognitive control during adolescence. Traditionally, the dual systems model has been applied to adolescent risk behavior, but the present study aims to apply the theory to emerging adulthood risk behavior. While the discrepancy between reward sensitivity and cognitive control is greatest during adolescence, some degree of discrepancy may continue to exist during emerging adulthood. Thus, the primary aim of the present study was to investigate if sleep problems and/or subjective stress increased reward sensitivity or dampened cognitive control to create a more “adolescent-like” discrepancy among emerging adults. Additionally, the presence of peers has been found to exacerbate risky decision-making in adolescent samples and the present study extended to the peer manipulation to an emerging adult sample. The primary hypothesis was that poor sleep and heightened subjective stress would directly and indirectly (through increased reward sensitivity and poor cognitive control) predict risk behavior and risky decision-making. It was also hypothesized that the effects of sleep and stress on risky decision-making would be exacerbated in the presence of an anonymous peer. Participants were 180 university students (82.2% female) ages 19–22. Results from structural path analyses revealed that high levels of subjective stress predicted lower reward responsiveness and both high levels of subjective stress and more sleep problems predicted poorer cognitive control. Results also revealed that both high levels of fun seeking and poor cognitive control predicted more frequent engagement in risk behavior. However, neither stress nor sleep problems indirectly predicted risk behavior through reward sensitivity or cognitive control. None of the study variables predicted risky decision-making and the presence of an anonymous peer did not exacerbate risky decision-making. Results are discussed in the context of the dual systems model and the developmental stage of emerging adulthood. Implications for the prevention of risk behavior among emerging adults are discussed as well.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Wasserman, Alexander Michael, "The Role of Sleep, Stress, and Peers on Emerging Adult Risk Behavior: A Dual Systems Model Perspective" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10844345.