Adolescent Decision Making: Implications for Prevention Programs . Issues for Youth Programs

01/01/1999

Although the focus of successful youth programs has not been on decision-making skills per se, participants noted that aspects of decision making appear in many of the programs.  Research has yet to answer how best to incorporate decision making into prevention programs, what decision-making skills should be taught and in what context, and how these skills should be taught.  Although many questions remain to be answered, a number of issues surfaced during the workshop that may be relevant to designing and implementing programs for young people.

One theme concerned dealing with emotions.  As Larson pointed out, adolescents experience frequent strong emotions.  Adolescents could be taught about the ways in which emotions can affect their thinking and therefore their behavior.  Learning to recognize the effects of emotion might help some young people make better decisions.  Conversely, helping adolescents to think their way through to better decisions might reduce their reliance on emotion.

Another theme related to the promotion of self-esteem in programs for young people.  Some participants warned that there may be a negative side to increasing young people's sense of self-esteem.  Adolescents (like adults) can get into trouble if they overestimate their capabilities and knowledge.  People who are confident that they know something (whether they actually do or not) are unlikely to seek more information and therefore may not have the information they need to make good decisions.  Increasing one's self-esteem may increase one's sense of confidence in one's knowledge, thereby limiting the search for new information — an important component of good decision making.

Several themes emerged about the kinds of messages that need to be delivered to young people, both in prevention and youth development programs and in media messages.  A number of participants noted that adolescents often believe that more of their peers are engaging in drugs, smoking, and sex than really are doing so.  This misperception may encourage some youngsters to try risky behaviors because they perceive that everyone is doing it.  Providing accurate information about the number of young people who are engaging in risky behaviors (which is usually much smaller than adolescents think) may be important both in prevention programs and in prevention-oriented media messages.  A related theme is the importance of the consequences of avoiding risky behaviors to young people themselves, not just the consequences of engaging in such behaviors.  Young people may fear the social consequences of saying no more than they fear the long-range health risks.  Several participants stressed the importance of knowing the context surrounding the risky behavior and targeting programs and messages to the meaning of the behavior for different groups of young people.

Programs and messages also may need to take into account the fact that adolescents distinguish between experimental substance use or risky behavior and regular substance use or risky behavior.  Even though they may be aware of the dangers inherent in regular use or behavior, they may make decisions about engaging in a behavior as if it were a one-time thing.  Messages may need to be tailored to teaching young people about the real dangers inherent in experimental use or one-time behaviors.

Many participants questioned the options available to adolescents and suggested that it may not be adolescents who are the problem, but the social context in which they live.  Presenter Ann Masten, professor of child psychology at the University of Minnesota, discussed the need to understand what makes some young people more resilient than others in adverse situations and why these resilient individuals seem to make choices that improve their options.  Studying these individuals might help program developers better understand protective factors.  Decision-making skills may well be one of those factors.

In his closing comments, Baruch Fischhoff returned to the issue of looking at adolescent decision making through the lens of behavioral decision theory.  He noted that this primarily cognitive approach needs to be supplemented with the sort of social and affective perspectives represented at the workshop.  Nonetheless, a decision theory perspective can help teenagers to make better decisions and give them better decisions to make.  This perspective can help identify the information that is most relevant to teenagers' decisions.  A behavioral decision-making perspective also provides a way to characterize the difficulty of the decisions that teenagers face and to identify cases in which they need better options — not just better information or inspiration.  Good decision-making skills should provide teenagers with the sort of general protective skill that was emphasized by many workshop presenters.  Moreover, it is a skill that respects teenagers, honoring their desire for growth and independence.