Teenagers and Risk Assessment

In an article on auto-asphyxiation, there's commentary on teens and risk:

But the new debate also coincides with a reassessment of how teenagers think about risk. Conventional wisdom said adolescents often flirted with the edges of danger because they felt invulnerable.

Newer studies have dismissed that notion. They say that most teenagers are quite cool-headed in assessing risk and reward -- and that is what sometimes gets them in trouble. Adults, by contrast, are more likely to rely on experience or gut feelings than rational calculation.

Asked whether it would ever make sense to play Russian roulette for a million dollars, for example, most adults immediately say no, said Valerie F. Reyna, a professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University.

But when Professor Reyna asks teenagers the same question in intervention sessions to teach smarter risk-taking behavior, they often stop to calculate or debate, she said -- what exactly would the odds be of getting the chamber with the bullet?

"I use the example to try to get them to see that thinking rationally like that doesn't always lead to rational choices," she said.

Of course, reality is always more complicated. We can invent fictional scenarios where it makes sense to play that game of Russian roulette. Imagine you have terminal cancer, and that million dollars would make a huge difference to your survivors. You might very well take the risk.

Posted on March 29, 2007 at 6:48 AM • 47 Comments

Comments

ZakMarch 29, 2007 8:14 AM

I remember when taking risks as a teenager that adults would assume that I wasn't aware of the risks I was taking. I was acutely aware of them, though. I and my peers were just less risk-averse.

There is a big difference between not knowing the risks and knowing but deciding to take them anyway. I think most adults forget that what most young people do is the latter.

asceticMarch 29, 2007 8:30 AM

"Cool-headed" doesn't mean rational or accurate.

Clearly any teen who would accept a 13% or 17% risk of instant death for a paltry $1M has vastly undervalued their young life.

AnonymousMarch 29, 2007 8:41 AM

@zak

If a teen has to figure the odds to decide whether to play russian roulette, there may be a reason why the surviving adults are more risk-averse.

ZakMarch 29, 2007 8:44 AM

Well, I am talking about risks somewhat less than Russian Roulette. And, I suspect that even the teens who paused to think about the risks of RR in the article would almost uniformly as a group NOT pull the trigger even if the opportunity were presented to them.

AnonymousMarch 29, 2007 8:46 AM

"Imagine you have terminal cancer, and that million dollars would make a huge difference to your survivors. You might very well take the risk."

Bruce,

It is clear you also underestimate the value of life. From the perspective of a scientist, you should know "terminal" is not always terminal. That is but a medical diagnosis of man that have a history of making mistakes about a system (the human body) they do not fully understand.

From man's point of view, you have no way of knowing whether there is a purpose to the rest of your life, however short it may seem to be. Perhaps a child or grandchild needs some time with you instead of some cash from you. Perhaps there is a God that has further plans for you.

SteveJMarch 29, 2007 8:52 AM

> any teen who would accept a 13% or 17% risk of instant death for a paltry $1M has vastly undervalued their young life.

So what's the "rational, accurate" value of a teenage life, then, if $1M for a 1/6 risk of death is irrational and/or inaccurate? The current going rate paid to prevent loss of a human life varies wildly according to what country you're in, and whether the person you ask is in health-and-safety, anti-terrorism, or medicine.

You can't work out the value of someone's own life to themselves, or to anyone else, solely by the application of abstract logic. Rationality only takes over once you've established the values of the various outcomes, at which point it can advise you whether or not to take the risk. Even then, different people are differently risk-averse: some would pay $11 for a 10% chance of $100, and others wouldn't pay $9. Both choices can be rational.

Most teenagers have very little chance of ever seeing $1M at once, and many have little chance of seeing that much, total, in their lives. So I'm not sure one can necessarily say that it's "irrational" to take a large risk in order to get it.

I find amusing the idea that "thinking rationally doesn't always lead to rational choices". To put it another way "hang on a minute, we don't *want* you to make a rational choice, we want you to agree with us. So stop all this 'thinking' nonsense at once".

aikimarkMarch 29, 2007 8:52 AM

Did you ever consider that life might be over-valued?

The number of folks in the second world and third world countries accepting the risk would be extremely high. I think this decision research conclusions might be skewed.

SteveJMarch 29, 2007 8:55 AM

> Perhaps there is a God that has further plans for you.

Well if He's got anything in mind, then as far as I'm aware He's perfectly at liberty to determine which chamber the bullet is in.

To look at it another way, you personally might well not play Russian Roulette because you think God has a plan for you. That's perfectly rational, but it doesn't make it irrational for those who believe no such thing to reason differently.

BMMarch 29, 2007 9:07 AM

> Perhaps there is a God that has further plans for you.

Perhaps his plan for you IS to pull that trigger and be unlucky....

SaxonMarch 29, 2007 9:09 AM

@Stu: You do know that "revolver" is a sub-category of "pistol", right? I assume you mean "semiautomatic".

stacyMarch 29, 2007 9:13 AM

@zak

"aware of" != "accurately assessed"

If my children are anything to go by, they often do not see threats that I see and they often confuse "improbable" with "impossible"

merkelcellcancerMarch 29, 2007 9:17 AM

@Imagine you have terminal cancer, and that million dollars would make a huge difference to your survivors. You might very well take the risk.

Imagine that I am the survivor of an incurable rare cancer (1973 - 2002 only 1,667 cases in the SEER database of cancer at National Cancer Institute). No the money does not make a difference and no I would not take the risk. This cancer will return, no doubt, and kill me soon enough.

Myself and 123 worldwide survivors of this cancer discuss this every day that we continue to survive. In the last eighteen months ten of our members have not survived.

JoeMarch 29, 2007 9:28 AM

Oh for god's sake, he said "you might very well take that risk". He didn't say "if you have cancer, you should kill yourself". Try to keep it on topic.

CarlMarch 29, 2007 9:35 AM

@Saxon: As a kid, I learned that revolver is not a subcategory of pistol.

Wikipedia agrees:

'The word "pistol" in laypersons' usage is often synonymous with the word "handgun". However, handgun experts make a technical distinction that views pistols as a subset of handguns. Technically, a pistol is a handgun whose chamber is integral with the barrel, while the other main type of handgun, the revolver, has a revolving chamber (that is—to speak with technical precision—a revolving cylinder containing multiple chambers).'

supersnailMarch 29, 2007 9:47 AM

@saxon

"a pistol is a handgun whose chamber is integral with the barrel,"

i.e. a pistol is any handgun which is "not a revolver".
So with the exception of rare antique multibarrel handguns playing Russian Roulette with a pistol carries no risk at all ( of suriviving that is!).

RodMarch 29, 2007 9:51 AM

Guys, seriously.

He simply used russian roulette and cancer as OBVIOUS EXAMPLES to get the point across in immediate terms that everyone can relate to. We all know the point is meant to get us thinking about terror-related risks, which have a probability way lower than russian roulette, and why the very risk-adverse adults in our society tend to blatently overreact to fictional movie plot threats. That would be far more in line with the Bruce we've all come to know and love, (instead of promoting teenage cancer patient suicide by revolver) wouldn't it?

Enough with the holier-than-thou over these obviously exaggerated examples already.

AlMarch 29, 2007 9:53 AM

@ascetic
(and SteveJ and aikimark)

What about for $1 billion. Would you do it? Would Bill Gates do it? Would Bill Gates do it for $100 billion?

SteveJ and aikimark make the wise observation that life is valued differently in different places. Or rather, it is not so much that life is valued less, it is just that other things cost [relatively] more.

AnonymousMarch 29, 2007 10:17 AM

"Clearly any teen who would accept a 13% or 17% risk of instant death for a paltry $1M has vastly undervalued their young life."

Such a kid, he has valued his life at about 6-8 million dollars. Random googling pulls up:

http://neumann.hec.ca/gestiondesrisques/02-02.pdf

which comes up with a comparable figure ($5 million, Canadian). According to many other hits, standard actuarial practice is in the same ballpark (lowish single digit millions).

So if the kids and everyone else agrees, it must be you who are _over_ valuing a human life.

AnonymousMarch 29, 2007 10:25 AM

"I think this decision research conclusions might be skewed."
- aikimark

Thats putting it mildly. I think this researcher is just stating that she knows better then everybody else. This is plain arrogance. She is not a good scientist.

VidKidMarch 29, 2007 10:29 AM

I think that teens are perfectly capable of assessing risk. They are often intelligent and sophisticated thinkers.

I also think that when they are out driving in their cars, hanging with their friends, and otherwise having a good time this ability is put on hold.

Ie: it's not that they can't think, it's that they don't think.

V.
(reflecting on his own youth)

Joe PattersonMarch 29, 2007 10:32 AM

The question is whether it ever would make sense to play russian roulette for a million dollars. To me, the answer is obviously yes. The terminal cancer scenario is possible, but what if you have *treatable* cancer, and the treatment will cost a million dollars that you don't have? A 1-in-6 chance of instant death vs, say 90% chance of a painful death after a year. That sounds kind of tempting to me...

Of course, chances are, you'll never be in a situation of needing a million dollars to cure your cancer. However, that certainly seems more likely to me than the chances of someone offering me a million dollars to play russian roulette. If you're going to posit an unrealistic question, I'm going to think of unlikely situations in which to frame my response.

To me, it makes perfect sense to think rationally about this sort of question, and I hate that these researchers seem to think of it as a flaw rather than a virtue. Maybe I'm just a 35 year old teenager...

Erik NMarch 29, 2007 10:32 AM

@Rod:

Would you play Russian roulette with a terrorist? Now that's the question!

Ok, actually, I found a "documentary" (I still won't believe it is actually a documentary) on zudeo.com about three guys playing Russian roulette, "The Great Unwashed". Each put $100, last man standing won.

Now, you ask a teenager, what is the probability of running off with $200? (oh and by the way, you have to clean up the mess also).

And to help, you say: The change of loosing in the first round is only 33%, the chance of loosing in the second is 50%.

I bet they will do a lot of calculations not getting the right answer and even believing numbers such as 17% or 83% chance of loosing, and it will never occur to them just to think - in the end two of three has lost.

I think that when teenagers consider risk, they really think: how much is the adrenalin kick worth compared to the risk of loosing?

Matthew SkalaMarch 29, 2007 10:43 AM

A significant number of teenagers kill themselves for free. If you're already thinking seriously of suicide, what's not to like about a plan under which you either die (which you were considering anyway) with the added bonus of not having to take full responsibility for it because random chance was involved, or else you get the million dollars and retain the ability to kill yourself later should you decide you still want to? It's win-win.

What I'm getting at is that "the value of your life, to you" may not only be less than $6 million, at times it may actually be negative; and risk aversion may rarely be negative too. In such cases, it's irrational *not* to play.

derfMarch 29, 2007 11:42 AM

Can't make the rational decision without knowing all of the facts - is the money tax free?

vedaalMarch 29, 2007 12:07 PM

" Asked whether it would ever make sense to play Russian roulette for a million dollars, for example, most adults immediately say no, said Valerie F. Reyna, a professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University."

it depends on the type of Russian roulette,

if it is the type where the barrel is spun before each round,
then it _might_ make sense...

(*disclaimer*
DON'T try this at home ;-) )

have heard/read that if the revolver is held normally (level, barrel parallel with floor),
then a single bullet freely spun in a 6-chambered wheel has a high probability of settling in a lower position of the wheel, rather than in the firing chamber, which is the topmost ...

any probability assessments on this from the small arms experts ?

vedaal

rodrigoMarch 29, 2007 1:03 PM

"A million dollars is not that much money in the real world."

A million dollars is enough to comfortably support two people *for life* in, say, Mexico. It'd probably be enough for six in Bolivia. So, say you have the cancer, are jobless and have kids ...

Which, as others have said, only goes to show there's always a situation where any unrealistic scenario makes sense.

Clive RobinsonMarch 29, 2007 1:10 PM

Perhaps the problem is not actualy calculated risk but "monkey risk" in adults.

The part of the human brain that is responsible for "fight or flight" type activities is sometimes called the Lizard brain or more correctly the amygdala.

It has some interesting properties that Bruce has noted just a few days ago.

However one thing that does happen is that as a developing human pushes their boundries the amygdala learns from the hurt, and reacts instinctivly to what it now considers a risk.

In young people that have not found their envelope at an early age (6-10) they tend to take more excesive risks in their teens in "finding their envelope".

It may be simply that the teen amygdala has no previous hurt to react instinctivly to therefore the teen reasons the risk. The adult on the other hand has an amygdala with a learned hurt response and behaves instinctivly or "on gut instinct".

A simple question for you to determin where good and bad reason might be,

-> If you are close to a large explosion after the blast wave has passed which way do you run?

The majority will run away either from learned response or heard instinct, those that think the explosion is not of accidental consiquences may well run towards the explosion figuring that it is actually safer.

Why, well they reason that a terorist may well have planted a larger more dangerous bomb in an area that the unwary are running to (as seen in a number of terrorist bombings of recent times).

Clive RobinsonMarch 29, 2007 1:18 PM

@vedaal

"a single bullet freely spun in a 6-chambered wheel has a high probability of settling in a lower position of the wheel"

Not quite true, if you think about it as the chambers revolves inertia and friction come into play, the chamber with the bullet in it will pass through the bottom most position and start to rise.

The stratagy then appears to be to tip the revolver over to around 40-60 degrees from vertical in the direction of the chamber spin.

That being said the way portraied for Russian roulet to be played is to spin the chamber whilst it is out of the gun, and slap it into the gun whilst it is still spinning, in which case the odds are probably back to that of throwing a one on a normal unbalanced dice.

GodMarch 29, 2007 3:19 PM

@ Anonymous

{Q} Perhaps there is a God that has further plans for you. {/Q}

Oh me fucking God!!!!!!

Filias CupioMarch 29, 2007 4:35 PM

>If you are close to a large explosion after the blast wave has passed which way do you run?

Given that my current location has the very rare property of proven ability to protect me from a nearby large explosion, staying put has got to be a strong candidate.

BradMarch 29, 2007 5:00 PM

@ Bruce: I find your premise unsupported and ridiculous because in order for there to be a million dollar prize, some callous ingrate has to pose the challenge.

Watching a russian roullete suicide death for sport or entertainment? Where's the economic logic in that? It is barbaric that violence is valued for spectacle.

foggMarch 30, 2007 1:34 AM

“I use the example to try to get them to see that thinking rationally like that doesn't always lead to rational choices,��? she said.

These are teens -- they're old enough to start meaningfully questioning the social norms and the conventional wisdom that they previously relied upon, but they're not old enough to have a large body of experience to draw upon for accurate 'gut reactions'. It seems to me that lively discussion and dispassionate reasoning are good signs, even if they sometimes lead the kids astray.

AnonymousMarch 30, 2007 1:57 AM

@VidKid

I think you're closest to the mark with regard to teen behavior. Additionally, this doesn't just apply to teenagers, but also some adults.

There are plenty of people who are intelligent and capable of rational analysis, but are simply incapable of applying that to their actual behavior.

This is usually apparent in that they manage to create plenty of problems for themselves in their lives, and specifically make the kinds of mistakes that are usually attributed to teenagers.

markMarch 30, 2007 12:14 PM

At this point you also see a movement towards things like harm reduction among adult communities. The assumption is that some adults will decide to take risks that may end up in harm to them. Rather than focus on warning them of risks that they already are well aware of, instead you focus on ways to reduce the harm caused when things go wrong. So for the scenario in the NY Times article the strategy changes from, "Don't play the choking game because it is dangerous and you could die," to "If you are going to take these risks, don't do this alone and try to have someone that knows CPR around."

When you translate this to the realm of security it is still interesting. It says assume security breaches will happen, don't assume you can prevent them all through defense. Instead, spend time making sure that you can respond to mitigate damage when an incident occurs.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harm_reduction

Clive RobinsonMarch 30, 2007 12:34 PM

@mark,

"It says assume security breaches will happen, don't assume you can prevent them all through defense."

The assumption in all physical security is that you cannot prevent intrusion at any time, you can only delay it sufficiently to get an appropriate response into the area.

It is mostlikley why UL (amongst others) rate the security of safes / strong boxes etc in minutes and hours to penetrate.

Which incidently is also true of Fire preventative systems such as A60 insulation etc.

markMarch 30, 2007 2:52 PM

@Clive Robinson,
"The assumption in all physical security is that you cannot prevent intrusion at any time, you can only delay it sufficiently to get an appropriate response into the area."

And, of course, this is no less true in IT systems.

The interesting thing is that often the attitude about security in the executive suite is that it's an either/or proposition: if you've put your measures in and passed an audit you are secure. If there is a breech, often the urge is to deny that something happened (just as there is a veil of secrecy and stigma around the public health issues addressed by harm reduction). By shifting from this denial mindset, we allow people to really help focus efforts that make sure that the least harm is caused when something bad does happen.

And it also makes it so that when novel and unanticipated scenarios occur, you can react accordingly to reduce the damage - regardless of whether your threat is terrorism or a hurricane.

Matt from CTMarch 30, 2007 5:52 PM

>Clearly any teen who would accept a >13% or 17% risk of instant death for a >paltry $1M has vastly undervalued their >young life.

How on earth do you figure that?

$1M at age 18, invested reasonably conservative to earn an average of 8% per year will provide $4.5M of income by the time he turns 75. Plus you still have the principal.

OTOH, throw the $1M in slightly better investments that you're not looking for current income. Earn 10%, at age of 40 the kid has a $8.1M nest egg that he can now retire on extremely comfortably for the next 35 years...figure he knocks back to the 8% rate, that's another $22M he'll receive.

NOW, the real fault in the article's premise seems to be this --

Kids may be cooly calculating of the odds.

But they miscalculate...because they feel invulnerable. Du'h.

RichMarch 31, 2007 4:13 AM

Could varying attitudes to risk assessment have something to do with the fact that as we get older we tend to become more aware of our mortality? As a teenager, mortality seemed such a distant concept that I didn't really make decisions with it in mind. Leaving the rather false premise of the "Russian Roulette" scenario aside, as we get older we inevitably learn that long odds DO come up; that people can be injured or killed in the most unlikely of circumstances. It seems reasonable to equate increasing awareness of mortality with a more cautious approach to risk assessment. In no way is this a criticism of teenage attitudes. There simply IS no substitute for time. And some lessons have to be learned through experience.

the other GregApril 1, 2007 5:15 AM

Adults live in the world in which they grew up. Teenagers live in the world in which they grow up.

Revolver TesterApril 15, 2007 9:57 AM

@vedaal

I just performed this experiment (10 times, so, small sample set) with a well maintained and lubricated Model 29 S&W .44 magnum 6 chamber revolver, with a 300 grain full charge round. (A heavy bullet in a big round, as .44 magnum rounds go.)

In each instance, holding the firearm 90 degrees from normal firing position, as rotated around the barrel axis, with the revolving cylinder hanging freely from the action, spinning the cylinder counter-clockwise as viewed from the rear of the cylinder (which is the easiest direction in which to spin it, while holding the firearm in one's right hand, as it pushes the cylinder away from the "closed" position, and thus allows the most free spin time), when the cylinder was allowed to stop completely, the round repeatably ended up in the 4'oclock position.

When the cylinder was closed, this placed the loaded round one position counterclockwise from the chamber under the hammer.

When the Model 29 is either manually cocked, or the trigger is pulled, the cylinder rotates counter-clockwise before firing, thus moving the loaded round away from the chamber that the pin will fall on.

I do not, off the top of my head, know if there are any revolvers in which the cylinder rotates clockwise upon firing, though I imagine that throughout the course of firearm history there must be some.

IN THAT CASE the action of pulling the trigger would rotate the loaded round into the firing position.

So,
a.) the results appear to be reproducable.
b.) make sure you know which direction the cylinder rotates on firing.

My recommendation is first, not to play russian roulette; and second, if it somehow becomes neccesary to play russian roulette, to hold the firearm in normal firing position while spinning the chamber, as this will seem to tend to have the effect of placing the round near the bottom of the cylinder, thus putting the round safely out of reach of the firing pin, no matter the direction of travel.

HolgerApril 16, 2007 11:27 AM

@Clive Robinson

> Why, well they reason that a terorist may well have planted a larger more dangerous bomb in an area that the unwary are running to (as seen in a number of terrorist bombings of recent times).

But the scene of the first bombing will soon be swarming with helpers and medics making it a very interesting target. So the best strategy might be to simply run away from groups of people

AzApril 23, 2007 1:25 PM

"I just performed this experiment..."

When I first read that, I thought you meant the whole sequence of RR, including pointing it at your head.

"But the scene of the first bombing will soon be swarming with helpers and medics making it a very interesting target."

The US Army Manual of Improvised Munitions (or Boobytraps, I forget), suggests that as a tactic. Set two devices, a small one to get attention and a large one to kill everyone who showed up for the first one.

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