The gist of it

We think we know the problem with teenagers; for instance, they don’t properly weigh or appreciate the risks of a particular activity and so they drive too fast, have unprotected sex, drink, do drugs, etc. On the contrary, in an article in The International Herald Tribune, Dr. Valerie Reyna of Cornell claims, “adolescents are very well aware of their vulnerability and . . . they actually overestimate their risk of suffering negative effects from activities like drinking and unprotected sex.” In fact, she says, “We found that teenagers quite rationally weigh benefits and risks. But when they do that, the equation delivers the message to go ahead and do that, because to the teen the benefits outweigh the risks.” So, the basic problem is that “teens tend to weight benefits more heavily than risks when making decisions.”

Therefore, she argues, traditional approaches to curbing dangerous behavior in teenagers is counter-productive because trying to alter their behavior by emphasizing the actual risk involved in a particular activity may do nothing more than demonstrate to the teenager that it is in fact not as risky as he or she had believed. Dr. Reyna advocates a different approach, one that teaches teenagers how to grasp the “gist” of a situation.

She explained that as people grew older and more experienced, they became more intuitive, and more of their decisions were based on what she calls “gist,” an overall sense of what is the best course of action. This approach, in which “one sees the forest more than the trees,” enables adults to reach the bottom line more quickly and, in the process, reduce their risky behaviors.

For example, while an adolescent might consider playing Russian roulette for a $1 million payoff, a normal adult would not give it a moment’s thought. Cutting directly to the chase, the adult would be more inclined to think: “No way! No amount of money is worth a one in six chance of dying.” “Young people don’t get it,” Reyna said. “They don’t get the gist of a situation.” A gist-based approach to decision making results in simple, black-and-white conclusions of good or bad, safe or dangerous.

A word of advice to the parents of adolescents concludes the article.

Reyna warned: “Younger adolescents don’t learn from consequences as well as older adolescents do. So rather than relying on them to make reasoned choices or to learn from the school of hard knocks, a better approach is to supervise them.”

In other words, young teenagers need to be protected from themselves by removing opportunities for risk-taking — for example, by filling their time with positive activities and protecting them from risky situations that are likely to be tempting or that require “behavioral inhibition.”

A young teenage girl should not be left alone in the house with her boyfriend, and responsible adults should be omnipresent and alcohol absent when teenagers have parties.


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