Adolescents Aren’t That Stupid After All
By Debra Lau Whelan -- 1/1/2007Teens actually weigh the pros and cons of bad decisions and decide it’s worth the riskThe next time you hear about one of your students getting arrested, knocked up, or caught taking drugs, don’t just chalk it up to stupid teen behavior. Contrary to popular belief, most adolescents make unwise choices after heavily weighing the pros and cons, says a new study from Cornell University. They just engage in high-risk behavior because they think the benefits—such as immediate gratification or peer acceptance—outweigh the risks.
In fact, teens don’t think they’re invulnerable and take more time than adults pondering the risks—about 170 milliseconds longer. Most kids actually overestimate the important dangers of, say, smoking and having unprotected sex, says Valerie Reyna, professor of human development at Cornell and coauthor of the study with Professor Frank Farley of Temple University.“The short-term analysis often favors engaging in the risky behaviors with teens because they see the benefits as pretty high,” says Reyna. “Having sex outweighs the risk of, for example, getting pregnant or developing a sexually transmitted disease.”
Adults, on the other hand, don’t engage in much conscious deliberation about bad decisions because they “intuitively grasp the gists (the essence of their actions) of risky situations, retrieve appropriate risk-avoidant values, and never proceed down the slippery slope of actually contemplating trade-offs between risks and benefits,” says the report, recently published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In other words, more experienced decision makers “tend to rely more on fuzzy reasoning, processing situations and problems as gists rather than weighing multiple factors,” Reyna says.Why is adolescent risky decision making important? Because, the study says, scientific literature confirms the commonsense belief that the teenage years are a period of inordinate risk taking. For example, three million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. are identified in adolescents every year. And more than half of all new cases of HIV infection occur in people younger than 25, with an average of two new young people in the U.S. infected with HIV every hour, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study only proves that teens have developmental needs unique to their age group, says Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association. “This means that it is critical for libraries to have young adult librarians on staff, as they’re specially trained to provide services tailored to the singular needs of this important and growing segment of the community,” Yoke adds.
After analyzing existing scientific literature and interviewing hundreds of kids over the last three years, the researchers say that although brain maturation in adolescence is incomplete, teens are “developmentally competent” to make decisions about risks. And that’s why certain interventions could help them do the right thing more often.
“It’s a rational decision from their point of view, but that doesn’t mean society shouldn’t discourage it because the long-term consequences are often unhealthy from, say, getting pregnant and not going on and getting a college education,” Reyna says.
Pointing out the dangers of doing something dumb—and other obvious ways that parents try to stop kids from engaging in risky behavior—is likely to be ineffective and could backfire because “young people already feel vulnerable and overestimate their risk.”
Instead, interventions should help young people develop “gist-based” thinking in which dangerous risks are categorically avoided rather than weighed in a rational, deliberative way.
Of course, growing up and maturing beyond the teenage years is the ultimate solution. For a full copy of the report, visit www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/.
Just because they think about it doesn't mean they REALLY THINK about it. So they do consider the risks and decide the risk is worth it, but do they really understand what that consequence is? I think not.
So i get pregnant. Pregnancy lasts a hell of a lot longer than nine months. A baby isn't a sweet cuddly bundle of unconditional love. It's at least eighteen years of all kinds of expense (emotional, spiritual, fiscal, and physical).
AIDS isn't some romantic instant death. It's a long, long battle.
Considering risks doesn't always equal weighing consequences. (i know, i remember ;)