Adolescent Decision Making: Implications for Prevention Programs . Preface


Risk taking is a natural part of teenagers' lives.  They need to take some risks in order to grow, trying new activities, generating new ideas, experimenting with new roles.  However, they can also get into trouble with their risk taking, when it involves behaviors such as sex, drinking, smoking, and violence, and drug use.  Concern over such "risk behaviors" has led to the creation of many interventions, based to varying degrees on the growing scientific literature on adolescent development.  Some of these interventions have attempted to manipulate teenagers' beliefs, values, and behaviors, hoping to get them to act more cautiously.  Other interventions have attempted to improve their ability to make sensible decisions, hoping to get them to make wise choices on their own.  Having general decision-making skills might enable teenagers to protect themselves in many situations.

Interest in the role that decision making plays in adolescents' involvement in high-risk behaviors led the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services to request the Board on Children, Youth, and Families to convene a workshop on adolescent decision making.  The Board on Children, Youth, and Families is a joint activity of the National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute on Medicine.  A workshop was held on January 6-7, 1998, to examine what is known about adolescents' decision-making skills and the implications of that knowledge for programs to further their healthy development.

The workshop was designed to pull together the diverse perspectives that researchers and practitioners have adopted, when looking at adolescent decision making.  In order to provide a common frame of reference, the workshop used a decision-theory perspective as an organizing device.  The many distinguished presenters described their evidence in terms of teenagers' ability to make effective decisions.  Some presenters focused on decision making as a cognitive process.  Others considered social, affective, and institutional barriers to sound decision making.  Still others dealt with concurrent individual and cultural changes that affect teenagers' ability to act in their own best interests.

The ensuing discussions revealed the need to integrate these different perspectives, as a necessary step to helping teenagers to deal with the many difficult choices that they face.  This necessity also creates opportunities for novel research collaborations, both among basic researchers and between scientists and practitioners.  A common lament was the frequent gap between research and practice: programs don't always reflect current research, and they often aren't evaluated at all, or at least not in terms that will inform theory.  Perhaps the workshop encouraged some of the dialogue needed to bridge research and practice, giving teenagers all the help that we, collectively, can muster.

As this activity was getting under way, the Forum on Adolescence was being launched by the Board on Children, Youth, and Families.  The forum provides an interdisciplinary, nonpartisan focal point for taking stock of what is known about adolescent health and development, applying this knowledge base to pressing issues facing adolescents, and stimulating new directions for innovation and scientific inquiry.  Forum members, several of whom were instrumental in the planning of the workshop, include:

  • David Hamburg (Chair), President Emeritus, Carnegie Corporation of New York;
  • Huda Akil, Mental Health Research Institute, University of Michigan;
  • Cheryl Alexander, School of Hygiene and Public Health, The Johns Hopkins University;
  • Claire Brindis, Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California, San Francisco;
  • Camille Zubrinsky Charles, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania;
  • Greg Duncan, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University;
  • Jacquelynne Eccles, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan;
  • Abigail English, Adolescent Health Care Project, National Center for Youth Law, Chapel Hill, NC;
  • Eugene Garcia, School of Education, University of California, Berkeley;
  • Helene L. Kaplan, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom, New York, NY;
  • Iris Litt, School of Medicine, Stanford University;
  • John Merrow, The Merrow Report, New York, NY;
  • Anne Petersen, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, MI;
  • Karen Pittman, International Youth Foundation, Takoma Park, MD;
  • Anne Pusey, Jane Goodall Institute's Center, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota;
  • Michael Rutter, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London;
  • Stephen Small, Department of Child and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and
  • Beverly Daniel Tatum, Dean, Mount Holyoke College.

This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the NRC's Report Review Committee.  The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making the published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge.  The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.

We thank the following individuals for their participation in the review of this report:  John H. Flavell, Department of Psychology, Stanford University; Iris Litt, School of Medicine, Stanford University; Eugene Oetting, Triethnic Center, Colorado State University; Cheryl L. Perry, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota; and Stephen Small, Department of Child and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Although the individuals listed above have provided constructive comments and suggestions, it must be emphasized that responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.

Many individuals deserve recognition for their contributions to the workshop and report.  Michele Kipke, Director of the Forum on Adolescence at the time of the workshop (she has since assumed the position of director of the Board on Children, Youth, and Families), and Nancy Crowell, staff officer for this workshop, spent long hours discussing the workshop agenda and potential presenters with experts in the field.  The workshop would not have taken place without their efforts.  The workshop presenters provided the basis of this report; their names are listed in the appendix.  Many thanks are owed to editor Christine McShane for making the report more readable.

The workshop and this report were funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  We are grateful to Ann Segal, Elisa Koff, Emily Novick, and Matt Stagner within ASPE for their support and contributions to this effort.

Baruch Fischhoff
Carnegie Mellon University
Chair, Workshop on Adolescent Decision Making
Member, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education