Living in a Social World

Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology

Fall, 1996

Miami University


Optimistic Bias in Adolescents and Adults

By: Missy Maxwell

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     One issue to consider while analyzing the effects of the optimistic bias on human health behaviors is the effect that one’s age may have on the processing of health information. Researchers have performed a variety of experiments in order to determine if there exists a difference between the perceived risks of certain behaviors in which adolescents engage versus the same actions of their adult counterparts. Assumptions of the past years have demonstrated the notion that adolescents may engage in more risk related behaviors, such as the consumption of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking, or unprotected sexual intercourse, for a couple of different reasons. First of all, adolescents may harbor feelings of invincibility and invulnerability to harm, thus promoting risky behavior. However, the second assumption is based on the idea that adolescents simply do not perceive their actions as unsafe, thus they engage in risky behaviors out of ignorance of the consequences. Subsequently, the two aforementioned assumptions focus on a third assumption that adults are not prone to the exaggeration of invulnerability towards which adolescents are inclined.

     In a study performed by Cohn, Macfarlane, Yanez, and Imai, the assumptions of the illusion of invulnerability were tested in order to determine the differences in the exaggeration of invulnerability between adults and adolescents, as well as the differences between adolescents and adults to minimize the consequences directly correlated with risk taking behaviors. Within this study, adolescents and adults were presented with a wide spectrum of risk related health behaviors and were asked to assess their likelihood of engaging in such behaviors. The researchers found that adolescents were less likely to rate certain health behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, developing tooth cavities, developing high blood pressure, or becoming addicted to marijuana, etc. as being problematic than their parents. Also, this study demonstrated that parents were more likely to be optimistic about risk related behaviors when evaluating themselves. For instance, parents rated the following health behaviors as more harmful for their children than for themselves: drinking alcohol, getting drunk, using diet pills, drag racing, smoking pot, driving after drinking, smoking cigarettes, and not wearing safety belts (Cohn, 1995). In light of the aforementioned results, it can be observed that adolescents are more optimistic about their behavior than the adults, in terms of the adolescents’ behaviors. Yet, there exists a level of optimism within adults in regards to their own behavior.

     Whereas adults categorize health behaviors as risky because of their own life experiences, adolescents are inclined to classify their behaviors as safe and not risk related due to the fact that they simply do not know better because they have yet to experience the consequences or have not been exposed to the information that provides evidence for harm related with such behaviors as smoking, unprotected sex, and drunk driving. Thus, in comparison with adults, adolescents are underestimating the risk associated with the very activities that they are statistically more likely to pursue (Cohn, 1995). Also, adolescents are more susceptible to the belief that they will not be subjected to one of the leading threats to adolescent health. For example, 90% of accidents involving teens are thought to be alcohol related, yet adolescents continually displayed the common attitude that "It is not going to happen to me!," stating that they would not ride with a drunk driver and, if ever intoxicated themselves, would recognize their own intoxication and would not endanger themselves, or others, by driving. In general, teenagers are perceived as more likely to demonstrate the illusion of invulnerability that stems from a lack of understanding of the risks associated with particular behaviors.

     From a theoretical standpoint, Elkind, the psychologist who developed the concept of adolescent egocentrism, stated that adolescents focus primarily on the benefits of their health behaviors, and not the threats, because of the imaginary audience and the personal fable (Quadrel, Fischhoff, and Davis, 1993). The imaginary audience is based on the desire for conformity. Adolescents engage in risk related health behaviors because their peers are doing so. The underlying belief of this principle is that if a friend is participating in an activity then it must not be harmful because a friend would not willingly put him/herself, or others, in danger. For instance if an teen witnesses a friend smoking marijuana, then that teen is more likely to smoke pot for one of two reasons. Either the teen will smoke pot because the experimental action is not perceived as harmful since friends are doing it and no harm is evident, or the adolescent will smoke the pot in order to not appear different from the other teen. On the other hand, the personal fable specifically deals with the individual’s own need to be an invincible force. The underlying idea of this principle is overdifferentiation from peers, exerting a sense of uniqueness which separates the adolescent from any other teen. In this case, the adolescent separates him/herself from his/her peers by devoutly believing that death, or harm, will only touch his/her peers, but not him/herself. Basically, the adolescent is again demonstrating the attitude that "It is not going to happen to me!"

     Adolescents and adults are both susceptible to the optimistic bias in processing information regarding health. No one, adult or adolescent, wants to believe that the bad will actually happen to them. Unfortunately, the perception of risks, or lack thereof, can often times be responsible for risk related behavior, especially in adolescents (see, for example, Seppa, 1997). The difference between adolescents and adults on this particular scale rests in the notion that adults have the information, therefore the optimistic bias is based on the fact that adults choose to ignore the information. However, adolescents simply do not realize the risks associated with particular behaviors, or do not perceive their health behaviors as risk related. In making any decision about one’s own health, it is important to be well informed on the pros and cons of the decision and to act accordingly.

Learn More About:

Age Factors

Cultural Factors

Gender Factors

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 Cohn, L.D., Macfarlane, Yanez, Imai, W.K. (1995). Risk-Perception: Differences Between Adolescents and Adults. Health Psychology, 14, 217-222.

 O’Brien, W.H., VanEgeren, L., Mumby, P.B. (1995). Predicting Health Behaviors Using Measures of Optimism and Perceived Risk. Health Values, 19, 21-28.

 Seppa, N. (1997). Yound adults and AIDS: 'It can't happen to me.' APA Monitor, January 1997, 38-39.

 Quadrel, M.J., Fischhoff,B., and Davis, W. (1993). Adolescent (In)vulnerability. American Psychologist, 48, 102-116.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 17:06:33. This document has been accessed 1times since April 20, 2002. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman