Adolescents' Perceived Risk of Dying

Published In: Journal of Adolescent Health, v. 46, no. 3, Mar. 2010, p. 265-269

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2010

by Baruch Fischhoff, Wandi Bruine de Bruin, Andrew M. Parker, Susan G. Millstein, Bonnie L. Halpern-Felsher

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PURPOSE: Although adolescents' expectations are accurate or moderately optimistic for many significant life events, they greatly overestimate their chances of dying soon. The authors examine here whether adolescents' mortality judgments are correlated with their perceptions of direct threats to their survival. Such sensitivity would indicate the importance of ensuring that adolescents have accurate information about those threats, as well as the psychological support needed to deal with them. METHODS: Data from two separate studies were used: a national sample of 3,436 14-18-year-old adolescents and a regional sample of 124 seventh graders and 132 ninth graders, 12-16 years old. Participants were asked about their chance of dying in the next year and before age 20, and about the extent of various threats to their physical well-being. RESULTS: Adolescents in both samples greatly overestimated their chance of dying. Those mortality estimates were higher for adolescents who reported direct threats (e.g., an unsafe neighborhood). Thus, adolescents were sensitive to the relative size of threats to their survival, but not to the implications for absolute risk levels. CONCLUSIONS: Contrary to the folk wisdom that adolescents have a unique sense of invulnerability, the individuals studied here reported an exaggerated sense of mortality, which was highest among those reporting greater threats in their lives. Such fears could affect adolescents' short-term well-being and future planning.

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