Over 53 million students attend high school in the United States. Although most trends in youth violence have decreased over the past years (see Table 1), each year 17.4 million high school students are in physical fights, 2.3 million seek treatment for related injuries, 8.9 million carry weapons for their protection, 24 million have sex (about half used condoms the most recent time), 5 million are assaulted by a date, and 4.1 million are raped (CDC, 2001). School systems throughout the country confront the youth violence problem with interventions created internally or via community partnerships. While many indicators of youth violence have decreased, Table 1 illustrates that students consistenty fail to take precautions to avoid the existing risks. They fail to actively or passively protect themselves; they fail to report potential threats to authorities; they fail to seek help when confronted by an abusive partner; they fail to believe it can happen to them.
Optimistic bias (Weinstein, 1980) provides a useful theoretical framework for this dilemma. Optimistic bias is relevant to health-risk perception and it has been demonstrated in over 100 published studies that people believe "bad things happen to other people" (see Weinstein, 1987, for a review). The current study is a report of data from a youth violence intervention program offered by Crisis Center North, a nonprofit domestic violence center serving the northern regions of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. As Table 1 indicates, youth violence indicators are higher in Pennsylvania than the national average. The program itself is theoretically grounded, and is the first of its type to integrate optimistic bias into its curriculum. Optimistic bias is widely documented in a number of youth-oriented contexts including smoking (Arnett, 2000; Baker, Dye, Denniston, & Ainsworth, 2001; Hampson, Andrews, Lee, Foster, Glasgow, & Lichenstein, 1998), drinking (Chapin, 2001; Job, Fleming, & Morgan, 1992; Miller, 1991) and reckless sexual activities (Chapin, 2000; Gold & Aucote, 2003; Smith, Gerrard, & Gibbons, 1997), but much is left to be understood about how optimistic bias is developed and maintained.
A few studies have previously linked optimistic bias to violence. Most recently, Chapin (2001) found optimistic bias among 158 college students, believing they were less likely than other students their age across the U.S. to become the victim of a crime on campus. Optimistic bias was best predicted by previous victimization, but was also linked with consumption of violent media. Martin, Berenson, Griffing, Sage, Madry, Bingham, and Primm (2000) found similar results with 70 adult women in a domestic violence center. Despite their current situation, the women maintained optimistic bias when asked to predict their own chances of being abused further, compared with other battered women. Most importantly, optimistic bias was linked with the women's intentions of returning to their abusive partners, underscoring the relationship between perceptual bias and failure to take appropriate precautions. In another small-scale study, Miller (1991) found that adult female alcoholics exhibited optimistic bias regarding their chances for recovery and the likelihood they could avoid abusing their children. Those who experienced personal abuse victimization as children were the most optimistic, despite knowledge of the documented cycle of violence: abused children are more likely to abuse their own children as adults.
Purposes of the Study
The current study seeks to further the understanding of optimistic bias regarding youth violence among high school students. The study also explores the development and maintenance of optimistic bias by exploring the relative contributions of demographics, knowledge, experience, and attitudes toward the perceptual bias.
Although optimistic bias is well documented and early links have been made to actual risk behaviors, findings have been inconsistent as to why some people believe themselves to be less prone to harmful outcomes than do others. …