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Boston bombing probe: What Tsarnaev's friends tell us about adolescents (+video)

The arrests of three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be a chance for adults to help young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as moral and legal obligations.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2013

Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston Field Office, departs after the arraignment of three college friends of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the federal courthouse in Boston Wednesday, May 1. Dias Kadyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov, and Robel Phillipos were arrested and charged with removing a backpack containing hollowed-out fireworks from Tsarnaev's dorm room.

Charles Krupa / AP

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As the public focuses on allegations that three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took his laptop and backpack containing fireworks out of his dorm room, many people may be asking, “What were they thinking?”

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It’s an oft-repeated question when it comes to adolescent behavior. And yes, psychology experts say, 19 (the age of all four) can still be considered adolescent – with poor judgment, impulsivity, and sense of invulnerability all too common as they’re still developing.

The arrests of Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev, and Robel Phillipos can become a sort of  “teachable moment” – a chance for adults to realize the importance of helping young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as the moral and legal obligations they have to broader society when they are aware of people at risk of harming themselves or others.

“Often at that age, people do things inconsistent with what they know to be right or wrong ... [and] they show especially poor judgment when they are with their peers,” says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He’s not surprised the allegations include, for instance, that they collectively decided to throw out the backpack after discovering it contained fireworks that had been emptied of gunpowder.

Research has shown that when adolescents are with their peers, they “pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the potential rewards of a decision and not to the cost,” Professor Steinberg says. Often, he says, they don’t believe they’ll be caught, or they aren’t thinking about what the consequences could be if they are. 

An FBI affidavit says that the three friends, who at one point were all students at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, had seen images of Mr. Tsarnaev as a suspect in the bombing, had texted with him, and then put the backpack in the garbage “because they did not want Tsarnaev to get into trouble.” It does not specify what happened to the laptop. The FBI account also says Messrs. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov had heard Tsarnaev say a month before that he knew how to make a bomb.

The three suspects’ lawyers have denied the charges and said the young men didn’t know that their friend was one of the bomb suspects.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

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