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Adolescents Found No Less Likely To Recognize Risks

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Contrary to the popular view that adolescents are uniquely reckless in ignoring risks, young people are no more likely than adults to perceive themselves as less vulnerable to life risks than others, a new study concludes.

Moreover, the study by psychologists at Carnegie-Mellon University finds, both adolescents and adults consider adults to be less vulnerable than teenagers to adverse events.

The research was published last week in a special edition of the American Psychological Association's journal, American Psychologist, that was devoted to adolescence.

The way in which society treats--and makes policy decisions about--adolescents depends, in part, on how it interprets risk behaviors among adolescents and their ability to manage their own affairs, write the study's authors.

Thus, understanding those abilities may help policymakers make better decisions, the authors say.

If, as the study seems to indicate, "kids are no different than ourselves, then we've got to treat them with more respect,'' Baruch Fischhoff, one of the authors, said last week.

Three Groups Studied

The study examined the ability of teenagers and adults to judge the likelihood that certain adverse events would happen to themselves and to others. The authors wanted to study the tendency of individuals to underestimate their own exposure to risk compared with the risk faced by others.

The authors asked three groups of subjects to judge the probability that they and certain others (a friend, an acquaintance, a child, a parent) would experience various risks.

The three groups were 86 "low risk,'' middle-class teenagers recruited from student organizations at public high schools; the parents of those adolescents; and a group of 95 "high risk'' teenagers recruited from group homes for adolescents with legal and chemical-abuse problems.

The adolescents in both groups ranged in age from 11 to 18.

Each person assessed the probabilities of eight bad events occurring to him or her and to the target others.

Four of the events were chosen because they were relatively high in perceived "controllability''--auto-accident injury, alcohol dependency, unplanned pregnancy, and mugging.

The other four events were ones the subjects would think they had little control over: sickness from air pollution, injury in a fire explosion, sickness from pesticides, and sickness from radiation poisoning.

The most common response for subjects of all ages, the researchers found, was that the subject saw no difference between his or her own risk levels and those of others. When they did see a difference, they were twice as likely to see the other individual as facing greater risk.

Expressions of invulnerability were much more likely across all groups when the events in question were ones the subjects felt they could control, such as auto-accident injury.

Both the low-risk teenagers and their parents saw the adolescents facing more risk than the adults from auto accidents and unwanted pregnancy, according to the study.

There were no overall differences between the perceptions of the high- and low-risk teenagers, the study found.

Other Findings

The results of the study appear to be consistent with other research showing small differences in the decisionmaking processes of adolescents and adults, the authors write.

"Underestimating teens' competence can mean misdiagnosing the sources of their risk behaviors, denying them deserved freedoms, and failing to provide needed assistance,'' they conclude.

Since teenagers are probably aware of risks they should avoid, one type of assistance might be giving them alternatives to "hanging out'' on the streets, such as recreation centers, said Mr. Fischhoff.

"Give them a better situation and they'll know what to do with it,'' Mr. Fischhoff said.

In the same issue of American Psychologist, two other research articles concluded that:

  • Curriculum-based suicide-prevention programs for adolescents have not demonstrated their effectiveness and "may contain potentially deleterious components.''

The report found that many curriculum-based programs play down or deny the fact that adolescents who commit suicide are mentally ill, in effect "normalizing'' the behavior. In addition, programs sometimes exaggerate the rate of adolescent suicide.

  • Young adolescents entering junior high need school and home environments that provide opportunities for the individual's increasing desires for autonomy and self-determination, but they do not often find them.


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