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New Study Shows How Teens Can Be Taught to Act More Rationally
The trouble with teenagers is well-known to many parents: they are hormone-driven, thrill-seeking bundles of eros with a shocking inability to think through the consequences of their actions. Adolescents don’t just procrastinate and spend too much time playing video games. They endanger themselves by driving too fast and too recklessly, sometimes while under the influence of alcohol. They take drugs that threaten their health and well-being. And they engage in unprotected sex at alarming (if now somewhat lower) rates, resulting in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). David Dobbs summarized the science of teenage risk-taking a few years ago in National Geographic:
We court risk more avidly as teens than at any other time. This shows reliably in the lab, where teens take more chances in controlled experiments involving everything from card games to simulated driving. And it shows in real life, where the period from roughly 15 to 25 brings peaks in all sorts of risky ventures and ugly outcomes. This age group dies of accidents of almost every sort (other than work accidents) at high rates. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens. Especially in cultures where teenage driving is common, this takes a gory toll: In the U.S., one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol.
This is why car rental agency are so reluctant to rent to drivers under the age of 25 and demand a steep premium when they do. It’s why insurance rates are higher for younger drivers, especially young men. One might conclude that the brains of teens are wired poorly, leading them to act on instinct without appreciating the risks of their behavior. That assumption is as widely held as it is deeply and curiously mistaken.
It’s not that teens lack the capacity for rationality or think of themselves as immune to mortality. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist quoted by Dobbs, says teens are just as capable of judiciously contemplating benefits and risks as adults; they “actually overestimate risk,” he says. Teens do understand the risks they take. They just ignore those risks too often, sometimes with tragic results.
In a new study investigating alternative interventions to nudge adolescents toward safer behavior, psychologists Valerie Reyna of Cornell and Britain Mills of the University of Texas argue that teaching students the “gist” of how to act in a given situation is significantly more effective than just giving them the tools to weigh risks using their own powers of rationality. Reyna and Mills’ experiment exposed 734 teens from Arizona, Texas and New York to one of three different curricula to determine which is the most successful at promoting safer sex. One-third of the 14-19 year olds were assigned to a sexual education program model known as Reducing the Risk (RTR), one third to an enhanced model, RTR+, and the final third to a control curriculum with no sexual education content.
Both the RTR and RTR+ classes emphasized the risks of sexual behavior and, in particular, the risks of pregnancy and infection from unprotected sex. Here, for example, is how the educators drove home the idea that sex will eventually lead to pregnancy:
Given the probability of becoming pregnant for one act of unprotected sex, and assuming one such act per month, participants in the class drew cards from a hat representing whether they became pregnant. Participants who “become pregnant” stand, and the activity continues for one simulated year (12 draws), at which point the entire class is typically standing. In other words, the activity was structured so that by the end of the simulated year, virtually all of the participants became pregnant (or had gotten someone pregnant). The activity was accompanied by an interactive class discussion about when exactly they became pregnant in the exercise, when they would have the baby, and what the pregnancy would mean to the participant. For example, participants discuss how the pregnancy and baby would affect their own plans for the future (such as going to college) and how it would affect their life in the short term (such as involvement in extracurricular activities). Comparable discussions and activities were presented for STI infections.
That’s pretty powerful stuff, and it did have an impact on the teenagers’ sex practices over the ensuing months compared to those receiving no sex education at all. But this approach was not as effective as that used in RTR+ classrooms, where the exercise was summed up at the end with a “gist” statement, what the authors also call “the pragmatic bottom line”:
“Even low risks add up to 100% if you keep doing it.”
“Pregnancy might occur the 1st month, at 6 months, or at 13 months,” Reyna and Mills write, “but the gist is that it ‘would happen’ in about a year.” Such a “categorical contrast between an event occurring and not occurring (all-or-none),” coupled with repeated attention to the adolescents’ own values, resulted in impressive results over mere recitation, or demonstration, of the risk. The authors’ bottom line—yes, the gist of their article—is found in this graph. Follow the solid black line:
Simply walking teenagers through the risks of unprotected sex (the dashed line) helps to lower the degree to which they take risks with sexual partners—it does improve their “Hazard” profile over a curriculum with no sexual education (the dotted line). But drilling the moral of the story into their heads after walking them through the risks (the solid black line) is even more effective. What holds for sex ed should hold for drinking, driving, drugs and more: adolescents need to hear the bottom line, and hear it loud and clear. Being suggestive isn’t enough.
Image credit: Shutterstock
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.