Published October 2020

Developmental Science Supports Lowering the Voting Age to 16

Two years ago, we saw high schoolers in Parkland, Florida, lead efforts calling for gun control reform in the wake of the mass shooting. Last year, sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg as well as other youth led climate change protests around the globe. And this year, teenagers are at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, organizing protests, educating their peers and parents, and using digital media platforms to share their voices.

While these activists have demonstrated their political power through the various movements outlined above, many do not have the fundamental right to vote, because they are under 18. We should lower the voting age to 16 so that no one with the capacity to vote is left without the right to elect people to represent their views.

Why 16, you ask? To answer the question, we can turn to developmental science. Scientists distinguish between two kinds of cognition: “hot” cognition (psychosocial) and “cold” cognition (cognitive). Hot cognition occurs in decisions which are made under the influence of a group, under stress, or in a hurry. Cold cognition, in contrast, occurs in decisions which are made in the opposite conditions, where people have time and resources to make a deliberate, reasoned judgment. While sixteen-year-olds are not very good at making decisions which require “hot” cognition, they are, perhaps surprisingly, just as good as adults at making decisions which require “cold” cognition. The graphs below illustrate this.

If you have not heard of this distinction before, that is because there are not many researchers who have studied these two different forms of cognition side by side in the same study since they utilize different types of skills. The first study which examined both forms of cognition with an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse sample which spans preadolescence to young adulthood was not published until 2009. That paper, called “Are Adolescents Less Mature Than Adults?” by Laurence Steinberg and others, found the results illustrated by the graphs in Figure 1 and 2.

What types of decisions fall into each category of cognition? Steinberg and his team developed their measure of “hot” cognition around five different criteria: risk perception, sensation seeking, impulsivity, resistance to peer influence, and future orientation. Their measure of “cold” cognition, on the other hand, is based on widely used tests of basic cognitive skills. Based on their findings, the researchers state: “When it comes to decisions that permit more deliberative, reasoned decision making, where emotional and social influences on judgment are minimized or can be mitigated, and where there are consultants who can provide objective information about the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action, adolescents are likely to be just as capable of mature decision making as adults, at least by the time they are 16.” Based on this claim, three domains of decision making are highlighted as ones in which adolescents are just as capable of mature decision making as adults: medical decision making, legal decision making, and decisions about participating in research studies. Voting should be included in that list, as well (and Steinberg agrees with us, writing about lowering the voting age in this NYTimes opinion piece).

Some critics of our proposal argue that lowering the voting age would also necessitate lowering the age limits for other laws, such as those pertaining to crime, alcohol, or smoking. However, there is no legal requirement that the threshold of adulthood, known as the “age of majority,” must be the same across all laws. In the US, sixteen-year-olds can drive, for example, but cannot vote until age 18. As Steinberg et al write: “It is entirely reasonable to assert that adolescents possess the necessary skills to make an informed choice about terminating a pregnancy but are nevertheless less mature than adults in ways that mitigate criminal responsibility. The notion that a single line can be drawn between adolescence and adulthood for different purposes under the law is at odds with developmental science.”

Therefore, we should provide sixteen-year-olds with the right to vote, since research indicates that they are just as capable of rational decision making as their older peers. This reform, already implemented around the world in places such as Austria, Scotland, Argentina, and Brazil, will only transform our democracy for the better, by increasing youth civic engagement and voter turnout.