The social influence on beliefs about risk

Posted on June 2, 2015

Our lives are full of decisions, and sometimes they include risky ones. People's risky behaviours are often dependent on their beliefs about the potential benefit and failure of the action. For some actions, the beliefs about potential risks can be drawn from personal experience. For others, though, beliefs about potential risks are learnt from the people around us.

A paper by Lisa Knoll, Lucia Magis-Weinberg, Maarten Seekenbrink, and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in the May 2015 issue of Psychological Science (link is external)examined how people of different ages are affected by other people’s beliefs about risks.

They surveyed over 500 people who went to a science museum in London about a variety of moderately risk behaviors like cycling without a helmet, eating raw eggs, or crossing a railroad track. The participants ranged in age from 8 to 59.

At the start of the study, participants entered their age. Then, they were shown an item and rated how risky they thought it was. After making their rating, participants were shown what they were told was the average rating for adults taking the survey, the average rating for teens taking the survey, or their own rating (which served as a control) and were asked to rate the item again.

Overall, as participants got older, their ratings tended to change less based on the opinions of others. So, the youngest participants (ages 8-11) changed most, while the older adults (26 and older) changed least.

An interesting analysis was how people’s beliefs changed depending on the age group whose ratings were shown. Young children, older adolescents, and adults were affected more by the average ratings of adults than by the average ratings of teens. The young adolescents (ages 12-14) were more influenced by the ratings of other teens than by the ratings of adults.

The results indicate that there is social influence on beliefs about risk.

People modify their judgments in the direction of a social norm, though this happens less strongly for adults than for children and teens. Additionally, most people were more strongly affected by judgments of adults than by judgments of teens, except for young adolescents. Young adolescents were more strongly affected by teens than by adults as teens tended to find a set of potentially dangerous behaviors less risky than adults do, suggesting that young teens may ultimately be more likely to engage in risky behavior because of the social influence of other teens.

These results also suggest that to help keep teens from engaging in risky behaviors, it is valuable to find teens who can serve as visible positive role models. These role models can have a significant influence on young adolescents who look up to older teens as they start to assert their independence from the adults around them.

To read the full article, click on the link below.

Category(s):Child and/or Adolescent Issues

Source material from Psychology Today