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Social Influence About Risk Differs for Teens and Adults

Teens beliefs about risk are strongly influenced by other people.

Lyngenfjord Bungee via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Lyngenfjord Bungee via Wikimedia Commons

Life is full of risky decisions. Some involve physical risks like crossing the street against the light. Others involve social risks like expressing an opinion that differs from those of peers. Still others involve financial risks like investing in the stock of a new company.

People’s behavior in risky situations depends in part on their beliefs about the potential benefit of the action as well as the potential risks associated with failure. For some actions, the risks can be drawn from personal experience. Falling off a bicycle gives you clear sense of how much it hurts to fall. For others, though, we must learn about the risks from the people around us.

A paper by Lisa Knoll, Lucia Magis-Weinberg, Maarten Seekenbrink, and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in the May 2015 issue of Psychological Science examined how people of different ages are affected by other people’s beliefs about risks.

They surveyed over 500 people who went to a science museum in London about a variety of moderately risk behaviors like cycling without a helmet, eating raw eggs, or crossing a railroad track. The participants ranged in age from 8 to 59.

At the start of the study, participants entered their age. Then, they were shown an item and rated how risky they thought it was. After making their rating, participants were shown what they were told was the average rating for adults taking the survey, the average rating for teens taking the survey, or their own rating (which served as a control) and were asked to rate the item again.

The pattern of risk ratings was interesting. The young children thought behaviors were more risky than any of the other groups. As kids got older, their ratings of risk went down through young adulthood. The adults over age 25 thought the behaviors were moderately risky (though less risky than the youngest children).

If people’s ratings are influenced by the beliefs of others, then the rating of risk should change after being shown the risk ratings of a group. The authors were interested in how strongly people’s beliefs were changed by seeing the ratings of others as well as the effects of age on this social influence.

Overall, as participants got older, their ratings tended to change less based on the opinions of others. So, the youngest participants (ages 8-11) changed most, while the older adults (26 and older) changed least.

An interesting analysis was how people’s beliefs changed depending on the age group whose ratings were shown. Young children, older adolescents, and adults were affected more by the average ratings of adults than by the average ratings of teens. The young adolescents (ages 12-14) were more influenced by the ratings of other teens than by the ratings of adults.

What does this mean?

There is social influence on beliefs about risk. People modify their judgments in the direction of a social norm, though this happens less strongly for adults than for children and teens. Second, most people are more strongly affected by judgments of adults than by judgments of teens, except for young adolescents. They are more strongly affected by teens than by adults. Because teens tend to find a set of potentially dangerous behaviors less risky than adults do, this suggests that young teens may ultimately be more likely to engage in risky behavior because of the social influence of other teens.

To help keep teens from engaging in risky behaviors, it is valuable to find teens who can serve as visible positive role models. These role models can have a significant influence on young adolescents who look up to older teens as they start to assert their independence from the adults around them.

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