Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Teens don't "do drugs" they "smoke joints"

Teens don't "do drugs" they "smoke joints."

The middle-school where one of my kids goes finally sent around the dreaded email that every parent fears. A couple of kids had been caught with drugs at school and the appropriate authorities had been notified. I much preferred the notifications we got when the kids were in elementary school telling us that a child had lice or strep.

Middle school kids are between 11 and 14 years old in general. They can all tell you the dangers of using drugs. They have had messages drilled into them in school. Many kids have parents who also tell them to avoid drugs, particularly while their bodies and brains are still developing. And yet, plenty of smart kids with plenty of knowledge about the dangers of drugs are still using them.

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Right about the time that I got this email, I got the May, 2008 issue of Psychological Science. In order to avoid thinking about teens and drugs, I decided to read it. In it, I came across a paper by Mills, Reyna and Estrada. They surveyed teenagers about perceptions of risks about sexual behavior asking for both specific risks (like how likely they are to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant in the next six months) and general attitudes about risk (how important is it to avoid risk in general). These assessments of risk were correlated against answers to questions past sexual behavior and likelihood of future sexual behavior.

Of interest, these researchers found that specific perceptions of risky behavior (how likely you believe you are to get pregnant or get an STD) correlated positively with the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. In contrast, general perceptions of risk (Avoid risk) correlated negatively with the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. That is, teens who stated that there was a high risk in specific behaviors were also more likely to state that they have or would engage in those behaviors. Teens who had an aversion to risk in general were less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

I think this finding is related to the classic delay of gratification research started by Walter Mischel. In delay of gratification studies, young children are shown a plate of cookies and told that the experimenter is going to leave the room for a while. If they children don't eat any of the cookies while the experimenter is out, the child gets even more cookies when the experimenter returns. If you think it is easy to do this, you should try sitting in front of a plate of cookies or M&M's without eating them. (Most of us can't do that, which is why you need to get all of the sweets out of your house if you are trying to diet.)Plate of Cookies

The children who were successful at avoiding this temptation were the ones who somehow disengaged from the environment. Some simply closed their eyes or looked away. Others thought about the cookies abstractly as food rather than specifically as delicious, yummy cookies (excuse me while I go get a cookie myself...)

So, one interpretation of Mills, Reyna, and Estrada's work is that if teens think specifically about sexual behaviors (and presumably drug-taking behaviors as well), then they will be more drawn into thinking about engaging in these behaviors, despite an understanding of the risks involved.

In the end, all behavior is specific. A teen does not "use" a "drug." A teen smokes a joint in the park with three friends in the afternoon after school. The more specific the situation, the more difficult it is to disengage from that situation. The more specifically a situation is represented, the more tempting it may be. If we want kids to avoid risky behaviors, we need to do more to teach them how to disengage from their environments in the face of potential risks. They have to think about the risks in their lives abstractly to avoid being drawn in by them. They have to learn to take specific tempting situations and turn them into more abstract ones.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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