Making Sense of Society: David Pollard

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “The Forgotten Decade,” from David Pollard of the University of Birmingham.

For more on the competition, click here.

The Forgotten Decade

David Pollard
David Pollard

By David Pollard
17th February 2015. Kadiza Sultana, Amara Abase and Shamima Begum board a flight at Gatwick airport and begin their journey to Raqqa hoping to join ISIS’s conquest to revive the caliphate – none have returned. Why did three school girls aged no older than 16 feel compelled to leave the safety of London for the death and destruction promised by the putative Islamic State? While the answer is no doubt a complex and nuanced one, three critical components must surely be their age, sense of adventure and naivety. Indeed, many journalistic analyses have fixated on the girls’ desire to find purpose, and to escape from the suffocating ennui they find at home. While the sense of purpose hypothesis gives shape to the problem at hand, the field of adolescent psychology can add flesh to the urgent societal problem of jihadi teenage recruitment.

It is the pivot from parents towards our friends that makes adolescence such a distinctive age. Teenagers want to make friends, but their social environments are often complex, and their brains are still developing. Not only have their social goals changed but so too does their social cognition and behaviour. Teenagers’ moods are more volatile; they feel higher highs and lower lows, become more sensitive to the evaluations and influence of their peers, and take greater risks in the presence of their friends. It is not difficult to see how this cocktail of cognitive change might lead to a developmental period marked by substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, suicide and accidental death.

One can see many of society’s problems reflected in the story of adolescent brain development. Brain regions associated with socialisation and self-control are not fully mature until the third decade of life, whereas areas associated with pleasure-seeking are highly active during adolescence. Believe it or not, studies have even shown that teenagers enjoy chocolate more than adults. The reader’s dissent is practically audible. The dark side of pleasure-seeking manifests itself in the acts of excessive drinking and risk-taking in teenagers, particularly with friends. In short, an overactive pleasure-seeking impulse meets an underdeveloped capacity for self-control. It is no wonder that teenagers crash cars in extraordinarily high numbers. They just love to take risks, especially with friends. They want to fit in. It makes them feel good. But to what extent do they need to fit in?

Darragh O’Reilly MYP in his now virally disseminated speech arguing for greater participation and voting powers for 16 year olds demands that teenagers get “the freedom to achieve freedom”. One armed with knowledge of the teenage brain might ask whether there are too many developmental impediments to entrust them with political decisions. Past research has shown that teenagers might be particularly susceptible to social influence from peers when making decisions about issues as important as risk-taking and as benign as musical taste. When to award freedom to teenagers is a question that has plagued societies across the globe. In the UK you may have sex at 16 but not watch pornography until 18. In the US you may drive at 16 but not drink alcohol until you are 21. We and many others legislate without understanding, which creates more societal tension and fewer effective solutions.

Understanding the mechanisms of the teenage brain can help us shed light on the problem of why three young girls would take the treacherous journey to Syria. They left as a group of friends seeking greater meaning as they gambled their lives on glory in Raqqa. We can reflect on why Jihadi ‘groomers’ have had such success in recruiting the young, as was the case with at least one of these girls. We are seeing the actions we might expect from those whose brains are risk-taking, seeking group acceptance and susceptible to social influence. As stated in the opening, the reasons for joining ISIS must be numerous and complex, but our analysis would be incomplete without the ever-changing teenager at the heart of the story.

With a greater understanding of the adolescent brain we can tackle the problems of the forgotten decade. These development patterns are not going to be stopped nor should we try to stop them. The risk-taking teen is a teenager that decides they will attend university or that they will try to make a friend. Many of our heroes were risk-taking teenagers once. Not only in the obvious realms of pop music and sport, but in politics. It was a tremendous risk for Malala Yousafzai to stand up to the Taliban at age 17 for the educational rights of girls in Pakistan. She and in fact most other teenagers are living proof that teenage impulses can be channelled for the greater good. We as a society would do well to at least try and understand this often misunderstood decade of human life.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

“Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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