A new study published this month in Psychological Science shows the importance of how researchers ask a question.
The researchers were puzzled by the literature’s contradictory findings between perceived risk and behavior in teens. Risk-taking behavior — such as smoking, having unprotected sex, and unsafe driving — can result in life long consequences that adolescents don’t always accurately gauge beforehand. The researchers wanted to better understand why the research showed different results when assessing risk perception and subsequent risk taking behavior. This has real-world consequences in how to reduce this kind of behavior: What kinds of messages should you put out there to teens, and what kinds of questions can you ask them to help them better perceive the risks to their own lives?
The researchers found that when they exposed teens to specific risks verbatim (e.g., “I am likely to have an STD by age 25,” or “I an likely to get pregnant in the next 6 months”), it elicited judgments from the teens that reflected more risky behavior.
In contrast, when the researchers had the teens think about risk categorically and endorsing simple values relating to risk, it helped reduce risk-taking responses. For instance, the teens may have been told, “It only takes once to get pregnant or an STD (sexually transmitted disease)” to think about these kinds of risks as categorically “bad.” Then the endorsement of a simple value, “Avoid risk” or “Better to be safe than sorry,” appears to make it easier for a person to forgo risk-taking responses (especially if the person already believed they were at high risk for the behaviors).
This data suggests that when teens think that taking risks is a bad option, they perceive those risks more acutely and tend to avoid them, according to the researchers. But when you ask a teen about their own personal risk-taking behaviors, it tends to pull the person back to their own memories and can increase risk taking cues.
The study showed how teens can hold contradictory views about risk-taking that can only be properly understood and assessed by asking the right questions and understanding the context of the answers given.
This study helped rectify previous studies’ contradictory findings in adolescent risk-taking behavior, by showing how the researchers asked the questions could generate two seemingly-contradictory answers.
Mills, B., Reyna, V.F. & Estrada, S. (2008). Explaining contradictory relations between risk perception and risk taking. Psychological Science, 19(5), 429-433.