Is the Teen Brain Too Rational? [Preview]

With the decision-making areas of their brains still developing, teenagers show poor judgment in risky situations. Thinking less logically may be the answer.

Some programs based on these theories have helped reduce risky actions taken by teens. For the most part, however, they have achieved only limited success. In addition to the modest percentage of teens influenced by these intervention efforts, the positive effects of these programs--many of which involve 10 to 20 hours of instruction--typically fade away in a matter of months.

In our view, intervention programs appealing to teen rationality are inherently flawed--and not because teens fail to weigh risks against benefits; as we will see, most teens do so conscientiously. Part of the problem may be that the "unfinished" architecture of their brains hinders adolescents from thinking like adults. Recent studies, for example, show that teens tend to weight benefits more heavily than risks when making decisions. So, after carefully considering the risks and benefits of a situation, the teenage brain all too often comes down on the side of the benefits--and chooses the risky action.

Just as important, traditional intervention programs are flawed because they are based on the notion that teens consider themselves invulnerable--despite evidence now pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

The Invulnerability Myth
For decades, a seductive explanation for risky teen behavior has reigned supreme among both the public and health professionals alike: teens drive too fast, binge drink and have unprotected sex because they feel they are invulnerable. They must therefore be underestimating their risks, or otherwise they would not take such chances. But studies uniformly dispute the widespread belief that adolescents consider themselves more invulnerable than adults (who, it turns out, are more likely to consider themselves invulnerable when compared with teens). And when it comes to risk, studies over the past five years show that teens actually tend to overestimate rather than underestimate the true risks of potential actions.

For example, a 2002 study by Susan Millstein and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California, San Francisco, found that adolescents were more likely than adults to overestimate risks for every outcome that could be evaluated, including low-probability events (earthquakes and HIV transmission from unprotected sex, for instance) as well as higher-probability events (acquiring sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia).

Another study, published in 2000 by Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University and his colleagues, reported on risk predictions assessed in a nationally representative sample of 3,544 adolescents from the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Adolescents risk estimates for "die from any cause--crime, illness, accident and so on" in the next year or by age 20 were much higher than shown by statistical data. Recent data collected by one of us (Reyna) underline these differences between perceived and actual risks when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.

Interestingly, teens overestimation of risk appears to decline after early adolescence, and evidence suggests that experience may be responsible: engaging in risk taking without incurring immediate consequences may encourage complacency.

If adolescents often overestimate risks and do not think of themselves as being invulnerable, then why do they engage in risky behaviors? A number of studies indicate that when adolescents are mulling over risk taking, the perceived benefits of the action tend to outweigh and offset the perceived risks. For example, in a 2002 study of young (fifth to ninth grade) adolescents, Julie H. Goldberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago and her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, found that the perceived benefits of alcohol outweighed perceived risks in predicting the students drinking behavior six months later.

It now becomes clearer why traditional intervention programs fail to help many teenagers. Although the programs stress the importance of accurate risk perception, young people already feel vulnerable and overestimate their risks. And programs fail to alert teens about the allure of benefits, even though the teenage mind emphasizes the benefits of a potentially dangerous situation over its risks.

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