In Defense of Teenagers

A Cornell University study asks, ‘Why do teens do stupid things?’ This same study also purports to answer that question.

First of all, I have a problem with the premise of the question. Not all teens do stupid things, nor is there anything about being a teenager that makes stupidity inevitable. It’s true that teenagers, generally speaking, don’t have the level of wisdom or knowledge they will likely possess later in life. But this doesn’t mean that they are ‘stupid’ or irrational. I don’t think all teenagers should be lumped together in this way. The premise of the question is offensive to all teenagers who are rational and whose only weakness might be a lack of understanding and experience that can only come with time.

Having said this, let’s take a look at the findings. Science Daily summarizes them as follows: ‘Teens smoke, take drugs, have unprotected sex and ride with drunk drivers, not because they think they are invulnerable or haven’t thought about the risks… In fact, they are more likely to ponder the risks, take longer (about 170 milliseconds more) weighing the pros and cons of engaging in high-risk behavior than adults [do]—and actually overestimate the risks. It’s just that they often decide the benefits—the immediate gratification or peer acceptance—outweigh the risks, says Valerie F. Reyna, professor of human development at Cornell.’

I see several things implied here. First, it’s not how much thinking you put into decision-making that’s important, so much as the underlying premises on which you operate. If a teenager operates on the premise that immediate and short-range gratification is what matters most, then he can think and reason all he wants about how best to attain this goal—it’s still a flawed premise. If teenagers are found to make overall poorer decisions than adults, then this suggests a fundamental error in thinking—indeed, a flawed premise—that needs to be checked and corrected.

The other thing implied by this study has to do with parents. Most people assume, with some justification, that if a teenager makes poor decisions, it must at least partially be the parents’ fault. Yes, but what exactly has the parent done wrong? In the cases I have encountered regarding teenagers who made poor decisions, some of these teens’ parents also turned out to be poor decision-makers.

But, interestingly enough, a significant number of these teens had very rational and bright parents. So where did these parents go wrong? One likely possibility is that the parents
failed to instill sufficient confidence in their children to value their lives and trust in their reasoning and logic.

Some of this (especially the second factor) can stem from inadequate schooling as well. Parents, often frustrated over their teenagers’ bad decisions, will say things like, ‘He knows better. I taught him differently.’ Sometimes this is true. But what good does it do to teach a young child to ‘not take drugs’ or ‘not have sex too soon’ without instilling, on a deeper level, the sacred importance of living a happy life? They need to know that living a happy life includes sound decision-making and occasionally delaying gratification to get something better for oneself. Children don’t need lectures and directives so much as rational principles and thinking tools to guide them into adulthood.

Not everyone will interpret this study the way I am doing now. Consider Science Daily’s take on the Cornell findings: ‘The findings on teenagers imply that interventions that use risk data regarding smoking or unprotected sex, for example, may actually backfire if young people overestimate their risks anyway. Instead, interventions should help young people develop ‘gist-based’ thinking in which dangerous risks are categorically avoided rather than weighed in a rational, deliberative way.’

‘Gist-based thinking’ refers to quickly discerning the ‘essence’ of right or wrong before making a decision, rather than weighing the pros and cons of each individual decision. Researchers at Temple University found that, while adults scarcely think about engaging in many high-risk behaviors because they intuitively grasp the risks, adolescents take the time to mull over the risks and benefits. To some, this implies that teens make bad decisions because they overanalyze, while adults make more mature decisions because they go on vague and quick ‘intuition.’

The experts at Science Daily, and elsewhere, are suggesting that teens think too much and this is the cause of their immature actions. If they didn’t think so much, and thought more in terms of the ‘gist’ of a situation like adults do, they’d experience better outcomes.

Now this strikes me as absolutely preposterous. To suggest that deliberative thinking is the cause of immature or personally irresponsible behavior, rather than its opposite, is completely wrong-headed. It’s not thinking itself that is to blame; it’s the premises underlying the thinking that are to blame.

If adults are, in fact, found to make overall better decisions than teens with ‘gist-based’ thinking, this means that their premises—better formed and more seasoned—require less time to reach a solid conclusion. A woman in her 30s, for example, recognizes that just because a man shows interest in her sexually does not automatically mean that they will make great long-term romantic partners. When she was 16, she probably wasn’t quite so wise and might have spent more time weighing the pros and cons of having sex with a man who showed interest.

However, she never would have challenged the premise that his sexual interest translated into long-term romantic affection as well. Consequently, she never considered the idea that it might not have been wise for her to move that quickly into sex. Of course it might have taken her more time to make even a wrong decision because of her lack of experience and the flawed nature of many of her underlying premises.

If you fast-forward into her 30s, it’s a whole different story. Her premises are more solidly developed and her conclusions are not only quicker, but better.

Thinking isn’t the problem. It is always the solution. Don’t blame mistakes, bad decisions or erroneous premises on thinking itself. Thinking teens, like thinking adults, simply have to make sure their underlying assumptions are grounded firmly in reality.