Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rational Teens, Crazy Adults

It's one of those things everybody knows: teenagers engage in risky behaviors because they have a feeling of invulnerability -- an emotive, but incorrect, sense that the odds are in their favor.

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran of those "everybody knows this, but it's false" stories (link here). In fact, the data show that teenagers generally overestimate the risks involved in their activities. Even more than adults, they tend to say that something bad is bound to happen, even more than it actually is.

The reason kids do risky things, it turns out, isn't that they don't know the risks, but rather that to them, the benefits simply outweigh the risks. They quite rationally judge that since the risk of pregnancy with unprotected sex is quite small, even when overestimated, and the thrill associated with the (possibly fleeting) opportunity is high, the rational action is to go ahead, get it on.

Ergo: reminding teens the activities are risky isn't going to work.

OK, fine. But then the story gets weird. The risk-prevention specialist featured in the article explains that where teens are actually going wrong isn't in judging risk, its in understanding "gist."

The “gist" of a situation is an overall sense of what is the best course of action. It's an intuitive judgment about what to do.

The Times quotes the specialist as saying, “Young people don’t get it. They don’t get the gist of a situation. Gist is based on one’s culture, background and experiences, and experience is what teens lack.”

Oh. I see. So if teenagers are making rational risk-assessment choices, and we're making intuitive judgments that reflect cultural expectations, they're the ones who are supposed to change their decision-making?

This strikes me as bullshit. Look, older people don't want teenagers doing risky things. And for good reasons. But that doesn't mean the teenagers themselves aren't thinking clearly.

The most you could say, I think, is that teenagers may be less capable than adults of predicting what things it will make them happy to have done in five years, as opposed to what things are going to make them happy now. But it's dumb to say they aren't accurately judging what they want now. They are. They just want more fun and excitement than adults do. And they want it more.

The "gist" of a situation is just a fancy way of talking about the fact that adults want certain things, and they want their children to want those things too.

My own opinion is that adults should just be honest here. Speaking for myself, I don't want young people to drive drunk, take too many drugs, have sex without condoms, etc. But the reason is just that I care about them, and it makes me feel bad if bad things happen to them. These are selfish motives, but they're the good kind of selfish motives -- the kind that say, "If you suffer I will suffer. So take care of yourself! Please!" Do it for me.

The "gist" specialist says the right approach is rather to train kids in strategies. From The Times: "In helping a teenage girl resist spontaneous, unprotected sex, a gist-based approach has her practicing ways to say “no” and not worry about losing her boyfriend.

Ohhh brother. Don't even get me started.


Daniel said...

Ha! I, too, feel sort of repulsed from the practicing saying "no" school of thought. I've met a lot of people who seem to have been deeply immersed in that milieu, and find them frightful. Not for saying no itself, mind you, but for the shallowness of the smugfest that accompanies that "no."

Noko Marie said...

Totally. The smugfest, of course, is only possible when you are certain that "no" is the "right" answer -- a certainty that the people described in the article are desperate to hold on to despite the fact that the rest of the article presents evidence completely to the contrary. !