The adolescent invulnerability hypothesis proposes that adolescents perceive themselves as uniquely invulnerability to negative outcomes. This hypothesis arose from Piaget's theory of cognitive development and has a great deal of intuitive appeal. To that effect, the invulnerability hypothesis is often treated as a truism in undergraduate textbooks, popular and widely accepted among the lay public, and may partially explain why society restricts adolescent freedoms. At best, however, the invulnerability hypothesis has received mixed support in research. Indeed, the balance of research suggests that the hypothesis is inaccurate. Thus, popular conceptions and empirical research now stand in conflict. The outcomes of present research will help resolve this conflict. Specifically, despite the negative findings of prior researchers, recent empirical findings in social psychology and neurobiology provide a new basis for reexamining the adolescent invulnerability hypothesis. Adding to that basis are numerous limitations evident in previous research. For example, the theoretical concept of invulnerability has been operationalized differently by different researchers, research has often focused on adolescents' perceptions of invulnerability to events that occur rarely, has not included objective indicators of risk, has selected questionable comparison groups of adults, and has not included comparison groups of preadolescents. These serious limitations may undermine claims that the invulnerability hypothesis is inaccurate. The proposed research addresses these limitations in order to answer two questions. First, do adolescents display an illusion of invulnerability? That is, do adolescents underestimate their risk relative to objective indices of risk (i.e., actual base rates, actual experience)? Second, are adolescents unique in their perceptions of invulnerability? That is, do adolescents rate themselves as less at risk for negative events than pre-adolescents and adults? The PI will survey risk perceptions for 720 preadolescents, adolescents, adults to examine how the risk perceptions of each group compare with each other and with population base rates. This research will control for shortcomings in prior research and, more definitively than previous research, provide a more definitive test of the adolescent invulnerability.

Youth seems to be a time of heightened risky behavior, and some risks seem particularly higher among adolescents than other groups. To the extent that these risk behaviors arise from an illusion of personal invulnerability, this research can help explain high rates of risk behavior and provide the first step in developing intervention and prevention programs aimed at improving adolescent reducing such risky behaviors as smoking, driving recklessly, and driving under the influence of alcohol and other substances. In addition, public policy directed toward curtailing the freedoms and behaviors of young people (e.g., setting minimum ages for purchasing tobacco and alcohol use) is based in part on the belief that young people fail to adequately evaluate, understand, and appreciate the risks associated with these behaviors. To the extent that adolescents perceive themselves as invulnerable and thus fail to appreciate the risk, they may unwittingly place themselves at greater harm and such restrictions may indeed be necessary. Interesting policy questions arise, however, if adolescents do not, in fact, perceive themselves as any more risk invulnerable to risks than adults.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Amy L. Sussman
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University of Florida
United States
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