Adolescent Perceptions of Their Risk-Taking Behavior

By Gonzalez, Jeanette; Field, Tiffany et al. | Adolescence, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Perceptions of Their Risk-Taking Behavior


Gonzalez, Jeanette, Field, Tiffany, Yando, Regina, Gonzalez, Ketty, Lasko, David, Bendell, Debra, Adolescence


Biological, psychological, and social stresses during adolescence often lead to "problem" and health-endangering behaviors as adolescents try to cope with these stresses (Ingersoll & Orr, 1989). According to Alexander et al., the health-compromising behaviors that initially occur during the adolescent years have long-term health and social consequences. These include the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs as well as "problem" behaviors that are either criminal or deviate from social norms (Lipsitt & Mitnick, 1991). However, another set of more positive risk-taking behaviors are sports related, which are more socially acceptable. Definitions of socially acceptable behaviors are usually based on adult norms. Behaviors defined by adults as "risky" are not necessarily interpreted by adolescents in the same way (Alexander et al., 1990; Tonkins, 1987). For example, driving behaviors labeled risky by adults (driving fast, close to the vehicle in front of them, running yellow lights) are often labeled "good" by young drivers. Differences in interpretation may not, however, explain why adolescents engage in risk-taking behaviors. In their study, Alexander et al. (1990) found that adolescents described both physically daring activities and rule breaking as risky behaviors, as did adults. These findings suggest that although their perceptions may differ from those of adults, adolescents can discriminate risky behaviors.

Many studies have tried to determine why adolescents engage in risk-taking behaviors. If, as Wilde and Murdock (1982) have suggested, adolescents are aware of the risks, they must be either purposely seeking them out or prevented from perceiving their severity by what Elkind (1967) and Elkind and Bowen (1979) describe as a "personal fable" (belief in one's immunity from negative consequences). According to Jessor and Jessor (1977), adolescents purposely seek out risks. They suggest that such behaviors permit adolescents to: (1) take control of their lives; (2) express opposition to adult authority and conventional society; (3) deal with anxiety, frustration, inadequacy, and failure; (4) gain admission to peer groups and demonstrate identification with a youth subculture; (5) confirm personal identity; and (6) affirm maturity and mark a developmental transition into young adulthood. Based on Farley (1971) and Zuckerman's (1964) theory of stimulus adjustment, labeled "sensation seeking," Jessor and Jessor (1977) also explain the need for risk taking as a function of pleasure-or fun-seeking behaviors. The need for change, variety, and intensity of stimulation manifests itself in sensory, social, and thrill-seeking behaviors. The assumption that adolescents seek out new and exciting experiences has generated considerable research. In general, results indicate that adolescents who engage in one high-risk behavior are likely to engage in other such behaviors (Donovan & Jessor, 1985; Ingersoll & Orr, 1989; Lipsitt & Mitnick, 1991). In a series of longitudinal studies, Jessor and Jessor (1977) demonstrated that substance abuse, precocious sexual intercourse, minor delinquency, aggressiveness, and a trait which they labeled unconventionality (social risk taking) were consistently interrelated.

The purpose of the present study was to examine students' perceptions of their risk-taking behaviors (sports and danger) and how those relate to other risk and protective factors of adolescence including their relationships with parents and peers, social support, family responsibilities, self-esteem, depression, and drug use. In addition, we were interested in whether adolescents' desire to engage in high-risk sports activities is related to their involvement in other more traditionally defined risk-taking behaviors. Contrary to traditionally defined categories of risk, sports represent a socially acceptable outlet for the need to engage in sensation seeking. Thus we would expect a low positive relationship between the two types of risk taking. …

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