A recent study suggests that focusing on positive results, such as having better skin and more money by not smoking, rather than negative consequences (lung cancer and mortality risks) may be more effective when trying to send warnings to young people.
In light of recent studies suggesting that graphic cigarette pack warnings have little impact on teens, the new findings help explain why kids are not able to learn from bad news in order to apply it to future events.
The results were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For the study, researchers from University College London in the UK analyzed participants who were between the ages of 9 and 26, who answered questions about how likely they thought they were to experience certain negative life events, like getting lung disease or being in a car accident.
Then, the participants were shown the real statistics for those events, while researchers noted how each one changed his or her beliefs after learning the risk was higher or lower than they previously thought.
Even when they became aware of the risks, the younger participants were less likely to learn from the information showing that the future could be worse than expected.
However, the ability to learn from good news was evident across all age groups.
Lead author Dr. Christina Moutsiana says:
"The findings could help to explain the limited impact of campaigns targeted at young people to highlight the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risky behaviors."
The study authors say that this "good news-bad news effect" - the tendency to discount bad news while incorporating good news - could explain why some young people tend to take risks irrationally.
"We think we're invincible when we're young," says Dr. Tali Sharot, senior author.
The team suggests that focusing on the "beneficial outcomes of desired behaviors," like how reduced alcohol consumption can improve sports performance, could have a better impact than focusing on the dangers of undesired behaviors.
Dr. Sharot continues:
"Our findings show that if you want to get young people to better learn about the risks associated with their choices, you might want to focus on the benefits that a positive change would bring rather than hounding them with horror stories."
Dr. Christina Moutsiana explained to Medical News Today that though positive messages about not smoking might be more effective than negative messages, other factors, such as social pressure, need to be considered in why teenagers smoke.
"We used events related more to physical danger," she continued. "It is possible that events that relate more to social pressure might have a different effect. Therefore it needs to be examined in control experiments."