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.

We are optimistic that gist-based thinking will one day be widely incorporated into risk-intervention programs, where it could help young people pass unscathed through their dangerous teenage years. For now, we offer the following empirically supported recommendations for guiding adolescents and helping them avoid taking unhealthy risks:

  • Offer risky deliberators well-reasoned arguments for resisting risky behaviors as well as factual information about social norms (The notion that everyone your age is having sex just isnt true). Focus on reducing the perceived benefits of risky behaviors--and on increasing the perceived benefits of safer, alternative behaviors.
  • Teens may not grasp the concept of harmful consequences because of their lack of relevant experience (which can also make them prone to repeated risk taking, if they have so far managed to dodge the bullets of negative consequences). Help them to understand the meaning of risk-related truths (the fact that HIV is not treatable with antibiotics means that AIDS cannot be cured) and to derive the gist, or bottom line, of messages that will endure in memory longer than verbatim facts.
  • Reduce risk by retaining or implementing higher drinking ages, eliminating or lowering the number of peers who can accompany young drivers, and reducing exposure to potentially addictive substances (rather than trying to teach minors to drink responsibly, for example).
  • Monitor and supervise younger adolescents rather than relying on them to make reasoned choices or to learn from the school of hard knocks; remove opportunities for them to engage in risky behavior.
  • Encourage teens to develop positive gists or images of healthy behaviors and negative images of unhealthy behaviors by exposing them to films, novels, serial dramas or other emotionally evocative media.
  • Identify and encourage teenagers to adopt so-called self-binding strategies (I will not attend unsupervised parties) and help them to practice recognizing cues that signal danger before it is too late to act (I will not ride with a drinking driver).

(The Authors)
VALERIE F. REYNA and FRANK FARLEY have studied risk for a quarter of a century. Reyna is co-director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research and professor of human development and of psychology at Cornell University. Farley is L. H. Carnell Professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association.

(Further Reading)

  • How People Make Decisions That Involve Risk: A Dual-Processes Approach. Valerie F. Reyna in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 2, pages 6066; 2004.
  • The Development of Judgment and Decision Making in Children and Adolescents. Edited by Janis E. Jacobs and Paul A. Klaczynski. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.
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