It’s been a long-standing belief in developmental psychology that teens believe in immortality, or at least act as though they do. There was supposed to be something about the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex, our highest centers for decision-making, that just led teens to behave in ways that were oddly divorced from their inevitable consequences. One of the truly frightening aspects of turning 25 or so is that your parents’ concerns for you suddenly make sense.
This widely held belief about teen immortality has been challenged by Iris Borowsky and her colleagues, who reported that around 15% of a sample of over 20,000 teenagers agreed with a statement that they had at least a 50/50 chance of NOT living to age 35. Although these fatalistic teens were no more likely to die than their more optimistic peers, their fatalism was correlated with more risky behavior. Males, African-Americans, and Native Americans were even more likely to agree with the statement, possibly due to the availability heuristic. If you see young people around you who die, maybe you’re more likely to think the same thing will happen to you.
People’s perception of the risk of dying is not very good–many fear earthquakes and shark attacks, but step into their automobile with great confidence (your odds of being killed in your car are 1 in 84, while the odds of being killed by a shark are less than one in 264 million). We are so ridiculously safety conscious in some respects–children wear helmets to play at the park and my neighbor debates whether it is “safe” for her 11-year-old son and his friend to ride their bicycles a mile to the local ice cream store, fearing that they will be molested or kidnapped in broad daylight in our remarkably rural little town. Then parents turn around a couple of years later and act as if teen drinking, drug use, and promiscuity are “normal” parts of growing up. Teens are not the only ones with a disconnect between behavior and consequences.
I’m not sure how I would answer Borowsky’s question as a teen. I had seen little of death, but the deaths of high school classmates due to automobile accidents and drugs left large impressions on my thinking. I paid my way through college by working as an admitting clerk in the UCLA Emergency Room, where death stalked young and old on a daily basis. The children were the worst. Thirty-five was so far away that one could barely imagine ever being that old, and I remember feeling deep pity for grad students who were still in school as they approached the ripe old age of 30. Events of the Cold War seemed remote, in spite of our neighbor’s elaborate bomb shelter, until I visited the Austria-Hungary border in 1969 and saw the Soviet Army amassed as far as the eye could see. They were so close that you could see the soldiers smoking cigarettes while leaning against their tanks. But did this change the riskiness of my behavior? No. But Borowsky et al. raise an issue that needs further study. Why is it that some teens are fatalistic, others immortal, and others somewhere in between?