The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.
While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.
In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.
This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Topic A is under discussion.
- Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
- Topic A is abandoned.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
- The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.
While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).
This fallacy has the following pattern:
- Bad thing A is under discussion.
- Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
- Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
- Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
- The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”
What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”
Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).
As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”
Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.
Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.
Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.
While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.
Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.
One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.
One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.
While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.
It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.
“The unquantified life is not worth living.”
While the idea of quantifying one’s life is an old idea, one growing tech trend is the use of devices and apps to quantify the self. As a runner, I started quantifying my running life back in 1987—that is when I started keeping a daily running log. Back then, the smartest wearable was probably a Casio calculator watch, so I kept all my records on paper. In fact, I still do—as a matter of tradition.
I use my running log to track my distance, running route, time, conditions, how I felt during the run, the number of time I have run in the shoes and other data I feel like noting at the time. I also keep a race log and a log of my yearly mileage. So, like Ben Franklin, I was quantifying before it became cool. Like Ben, I have found this rather useful—looking at my records allows me to form hypotheses regarding what factors contribute to injury (high mileage, hill work and lots of racing) and what results in better race times (rest and speed work). As such, I am sold on the value of quantification—at least in running.
In addition to my ORD (Obsessive Running/Racing Disorder) I am also a nerdcore gamer—I started with the original D&D basic set and still have shelves (and now hard drive space) devoted to games. In the sort of games I play the most, such as Pathfinder, Call of Cthulu and World of Warcraft the characters are fully quantified. That is, the character is a set of stats such as strength, constitution, dexterity, hit points, and sanity. Such games also feature sets of rules for the effects of the numbers as well as clear optimization paths. Given this background in gaming, it is not surprising that I see the quantified self as an attempt by a person to create, in effect, a character sheet for herself. That is, to see all her stats and to look for ways to optimize this character that is a model of the self. As such, I get the appeal. Naturally, as a philosopher I do have some concerns about the quantified self and how that relates to the qualities of life—but that is a matter for another time. For now, I will focus on a brief critical look at the quantified self.
Two obvious concerns about the quantified data regarding the self (or whatever is being measured) are questions regarding the accuracy of the data and questions regarding the usefulness of the data. To use an obvious example about accuracy, there is the question of how well a wearable really measures sleep. In regards to usefulness, I wonder what I would garner from knowing how long I chew my food or the frequency of my urination.
The accuracy of the data is primarily a technical or engineering problem. As such, accuracy problems can be addressed with improvements in the hardware and software. Of course, until the data is known to be reasonably accurate, then it should be regarded with due skepticism.
The usefulness of the data is partially a subjective matter. That is, what counts as useful data will vary from person to person based on their needs and goals. For example, knowing how many steps I have taken at work is probably not useful data for me—since I run about 60 miles per week, that little amount of walking is most likely insignificant in regards to my fitness. However, someone who has no other exercise might find such data very useful. As might be suspected, it is easy to be buried under an avalanche of data and a serious challenge for anyone who wants to make use of the slew of apps and devices is to sort out the data that would actually be useful from the thousands or millions of data bits that would not be useful.
Another area of obvious concern is the reasoning applied to the data. Some devices and apps supply raw data, such as miles run or average heartrate. Others purport to offer an analysis of the data—that is, to engage in automated reasoning regarding the data. In any case, the user will need to engage in some form of reasoning to use the data.
In philosophy, the two main basic tools in regards to personal causal reasoning are derived from Mill’s classic methods. One method is commonly known as the method of agreement (or common thread reasoning). Using this method involves considering an effect (such as poor sleep or a knee injury) that has occurred multiple times (at least twice). The basic idea is to consider the factor or factors that are present each time the effect occurs and to sort through them to find the likely cause (or causes). For example, a runner might find that all her knee issues follow times when she takes up extensive hill work, thus suggesting the hill work as a causal factor.
The second method is commonly known as the method of difference. Using this method requires at least two situations: one in which the effect in question has occurred and one in which it has not. The reasoning process involves considering the differences between the two situations and sorting out which factor (or factors) is the likely cause. For example, a runner might find that when he does well in a race, he always gets plenty of rest the week before. When he does poorly, he is always poorly rested due to lack of sleep. This would indicate that there is a connection between the rest and race performance.
There are, of course, many classic causal fallacies that serve as traps for such reasoning. One of the best known is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that A causes B simply because A is followed by B. For example, a person might note that her device showed that she walked more stairs during the week before doing well at a 5K and simply infer that walking more stairs caused her to run better. There could be a connection, but it would take more evidence to support that conclusion.
Other causal reasoning errors include the aptly named ignoring a common cause (thinking that A must cause B without considering that A and B might both be the effects of C), ignoring the possibility of coincidence (thinking A causes B without considering that it is merely coincidence) and reversing causation (taking A to cause B without considering that B might have caused A). There are, of course, the various sayings that warn about poor causal thinking, such as “correlation is not causation” and these tend to correlate with named errors in causal reasoning.
People obviously vary in their ability to engage in causal reasoning and this would also apply to the design of the various apps and devices that purport to inform their users about the data they gather. Obviously, the better a person is at philosophical (in this case causal) reasoning, the better she will be able to use the data.
The takeaway, then, is that there are at least three important considerations regarding the quantification of the self in regards to the data. These are the accuracy of the data, the usefulness of the data, and the quality of the reasoning (be it automated or done by the person) applied to the data.
Interested in playing a Fallacy game? My 42 Fallacies have been transformed into a game. The link is http://dontfallacy.me/
I’m not associated with the game, other than their use of my fallacies.
While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.
One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).
One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.
This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.
In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.
While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.
This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.
One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.
Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.
The United States recently saw an outbreak of the measles (644 cases in 27 states) with the overwhelming majority of victims being people who had not been vaccinated. Critics of the anti-vaccination movement have pointed to this as clear proof that the movement is not only misinformed but also actually dangerous. Not surprisingly, those who take the anti-vaccination position are often derided as stupid. After all, there is no evidence that vaccines cause the harms that the anti-vaccination people refer to when justifying their position. For example, one common claim is that vaccines cause autism, but this seems to be clearly untrue. There is also the fact that vaccinations have been rather conclusively shown to prevent diseases (though not perfectly, of course).
It is, of course, tempting for those who disagree with the anti-vaccination people to dismiss them uniformly as stupid people who lack the brains to understand science. This, however, is a mistake. One reason it is a mistake is purely pragmatic: those who are pro-vaccination want the anti-vaccination people to change their minds and calling them stupid, mocking and insulting them will merely cause them to entrench. Another reason it is a mistake is that the anti-vaccination people are not, in general, stupid. There are, in fact, grounds for people to be skeptical or concerned about matters of health and science. To show this, I will briefly present some points of concern.
One point of rational concern is the fact that scientific research has been plagued with a disturbing amount of corruption, fraud and errors. For example, the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies. As such, it is hardly stupid to be concerned that scientific research might not be accurate. Somewhat ironically, the study that started the belief that vaccines cause autism is a paradigm example of bad science. However, it is not stupid to consider that the studies that show vaccines are safe might have flaws as well.
Another matter of concern is the influence of corporate lobbyists on matters relating to health. For example, the dietary guidelines and recommendations set forth by the United States Government should be set on the basis of the best science. However, the reality is that these matters are influenced quite strongly by industry lobbyists, such as the dairy industry. Given the influence of the corporate lobbyists, it is not foolish to think that the recommendations and guidelines given by the state might not be quite right.
A third point of concern is the fact that the dietary and health guidelines and recommendations undo what seems to be relentless and unwarranted change. For example, the government has warned us of the dangers of cholesterol for decades, but this recommendation is being changed. It would, of course, be one thing if the changes were the result of steady improvements in knowledge. However, the recommendations often seem to lack a proper foundation. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford, has noted “Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” Given such criticism from experts in the field, it hardly seems stupid of people to have doubts and concerns.
There is also the fact that people do suffer adverse drug reactions that can lead to serious medical issues and even death. While the reported numbers vary (one FDA page puts the number of deaths at 100,000 per year) this is certainly a matter of concern. In an interesting coincidence, I was thinking about this essay while watching the Daily Show on Hulu this morning and one of my “ad experiences” was for Januvia, a diabetes drug. As required by law, the ad mentioned all the side effects of the drug and these include some rather serious things, including death. Given that the FDA has approved drugs with dangerous side effects, it is hardly stupid to be concerned about the potential side effects from any medicine or vaccine.
Given the above points, it would certainly not be stupid to be concerned about vaccines. At this point, the reader might suspect that I am about to defend an anti-vaccine position. I will not—in fact, I am a pro-vaccination person. This might seem somewhat surprising given the points I just made. However, I can rationally reconcile these points with my position on vaccines.
The above points do show that there are rational grounds for taking a general critical and skeptical approach to matters of health, medicine and science. However, this general skepticism needs to be properly rational. That is, it should not be a rejection of science but rather the adoption of a critical approach to these matters in which one considers the best available evidence, assesses experts by the proper standards (those of a good argument from authority), and so on. Also, it is rather important to note that the general skepticism does not automatically justify accepting or rejecting specific claims. For example, the fact that there have been flawed studies does not prove that the specific studies about vaccines as flawed. As another example, the fact that lobbyists influence the dietary recommendations does not prove that vaccines are harmful drugs being pushed on Americans by greedy corporations. As a final example, the fact that some medicines have serious and dangerous side effects does not prove that the measles vaccine is dangerous or causes autism. Just as one should be rationally skeptical about pro-vaccination claims one should also be rationally skeptical about anti-vaccination claims.
To use an obvious analogy, it is rational to have a general skepticism about the honesty and goodness of people. After all, people do lie and there are bad people. However, this general skepticism does not automatically prove that a specific person is dishonest or evil—that is a matter that must be addressed on the individual level.
To use another analogy, it is rational to have a general concern about engineering. After all, there have been plenty of engineering disasters. However, this general concern does not warrant believing that a specific engineering project is defective or that engineering itself is defective. The specific project would need to be examined and engineering is, in general, the most rational approach to building stuff.
So, the people who are anti-vaccine are not, in general, stupid. However, they do seem to be making the mistake of not rationally considering the specific vaccines and the evidence for their safety and efficacy. It is quite rational to be concerned about medicine in general, just as it is rational to be concerned about the honesty of people in general. However, just as one should not infer that a friend is a liar because there are people who lie, one should not infer that a vaccine must be bad because there is bad science and bad medicine.
Convincing anti-vaccination people to accept vaccination is certainly challenging. One reason is that the issue has become politicized into a battle of values and identity. This is partially due to the fact that the anti-vaccine people have been mocked and attacked, thus leading them to entrench and double down. Another reason is that, as argued above, they do have well-founded concerns about the trustworthiness of the state, the accuracy of scientific studies, and the goodness of corporations. A third reason is that people tend to give more weight to the negative and also tend to weigh potential loss more than potential gain. As such, people would tend to give more weight to negative reasons against vaccines and fear the alleged dangers of vaccines more than they would value their benefits.
Given the importance of vaccinations, it is rather critical that the anti-vaccination movement be addressed. Calling people stupid, mocking them and attacking them are certainly not effective ways of convincing people that vaccines are generally safe and effective. A more rational and hopefully more effective approach is to address their legitimate concerns and consider their fears. After all, the goal should be the health of people and not scoring points.
With the start of a new semester, I have gotten a bit behind on my blogging. But, since I am working on a book on rhetorical devices, I have an easy solution; here is an example from the book:
When I was a kid, people bought used cars. These days, people buy fine pre-owned vehicles. There is (usually) no difference between the meanings of “used car” and “pre-owned” car—both refer to the same thing, namely a car someone else has owned and used. However, “used” sounds a bit nasty, perhaps suggesting that the car might be a bit sticky in places. By substituting “pre-owned” for “used”, the car sounds somehow better, although it is the same car whether it is described as used or pre-owned.
If you need to make something that is negative sound positive without actually making it better, then a euphemism would be your tool of choice. A euphemism is a pleasant or at least inoffensive word or phrase that is substituted for a word or phrase that means the same thing but is unpleasant, offensive otherwise negative in terms of its connotation. To use an analogy, using a euphemism is like coating a bitter pill with sugar, making it easier to swallow.
Euphemisms and some other rhetorical devices make use of the fact that words or phrases have connotations as well as denotations. Put a bit simply, the denotation of a term is the literal meaning of the term. The connotation of the term is its emotional association. Terms can have the same denotation but very different connotations. For example “child” and “rug rat” have rather different emotional associations.
The way to use a euphemism is to replace the key words or phrases that are negative in their connotation with those that are positive (or at least neutral). Naturally, it helps to know what the target audience regards as positive words, but generically positive words can do the trick quite well.
The defense against a euphemism is to replace the positive term with a neutral term that has the same meaning. For example, for “an American citizen was inadvertently neutralized during a drone strike”, the neutral presentation would be “An American citizen was killed during a drone strike.” While “killed” does have a negative connotation, it does describe the situation with more neutrality.
In some cases, euphemisms are used for commendable reasons, such as being polite in social situations or to avoid exposing children to “adult” concepts. For example, at a funeral it is considered polite to refer the dead person as “the departed” rather than “the corpse.”
“Pre-owned” for “used.”
“Neutralization” for “killing.”
“Freedom fighter” for “terrorist”
“Revenue enhancement” for “tax increase.”
“Down-sized” for “fired.”
“Between jobs” for “unemployed.”
“Passed” for “dead.”
“Office manager” for “secretary.”
“Custodian” for “janitor.”
“Detainee” for “prisoner.”
“Enhanced interrogation” for “torture.”
“Self-injurious behavior incidents” for “suicide attempts.”
“Adult entertainment” or “adult material” for “pornography.”
“Sanitation engineer” for “garbage man.”
“Escort”, “call girl”, or “lady of the evening” for “prostitute.”
“Gentlemen’s club” for “strip club.”
“Exotic dancer” for “stripper”
“A little thin on top” for “bald.”
“In a family way” for “pregnant.”
“Sleeping with” for “having sex with.”
“Police action” for “undeclared war.”
“Downsized” for “fired.”
“Wardrobe malfunction” for “exposure.”
“Commandeer” for “steal.”
“Modify the odds in my favor” for “cheat.”
One of the stereotypes regarding teenagers is that they are poor decision makers and engage in risky behavior. This stereotype is usually explained in terms of the teenage brain (or mind) being immature and lacking the reasoning abilities of adults. Of course, adults often engage in poor decision-making and risky behavior.
Interestingly enough, there is research that shows teenagers use basically the same sort of reasoning as adults and that they even overestimate risks (that is, regard something as more risky than it is). So, if kids use the same processes as adults and also overestimate risk, then what needs to be determined is how teenagers differ, in general, from adults.
Currently, one plausible hypothesis is that teenagers differ from adults in terms of how they evaluate the value of a reward. The main difference, or so the theory goes, is that teenagers place higher value on rewards (at least certain rewards) than adults. If this is correct, it certainly makes sense that teenagers are more willing than adults to engage in risk taking. After all, the rationality of taking a risk is typically a matter of weighing the (perceived) risk against the (perceived) value of the reward. So, a teenager who places higher value on a reward than an adult would be acting rationally (to a degree) if she was willing to take more risk to achieve that reward.
Obviously enough, adults also vary in their willingness to take risks and some of this difference is, presumably, a matter of the value the adults place on the rewards relative to the risks. So, for example, if Sam values the enjoyment of sex more than Sally, then Sam will (somewhat) rationally accept more risks in regards to sex than Sally. Assuming that teenagers generally value rewards more than adults do, then the greater risk taking behavior of teens relative to adults makes considerable sense.
It might be wondered why teenagers place more value on rewards relative to adults. One current theory is based in the workings of the brain. On this view, the sensitivity of the human brain to dopamine and oxytocin peaks during the teenage years. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is supposed to trigger the “reward” mechanisms of the brain. Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter, one that is also linked with the “reward” mechanisms as well as social activity. Assuming that the teenage brain is more sensitive to the reward triggering chemicals, then it makes sense that teenagers would place more value on rewards. This is because they do, in fact, get a greater reward than adults. Or, more accurately, they feel more rewarded. This, of course, might be one and the same thing—perhaps the value of a reward is a matter of how rewarded a person feels. This does raise an interesting subject, namely whether the value of a reward is a subjective or objective matter.
Adults are often critical of what they regard as irrationally risk behavior by teens. While my teen years are well behind me, I have looked back on some of my decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time. They really did seem like good ideas, yet my adult assessment is that they were not good decisions. However, I am weighing these decisions in terms of my adult perspective and in terms of the later consequences of these actions. I also must consider that the rewards that I felt in the past are now naught but faded memories. To use the obvious analogy, it is rather like eating an entire good cake. At the time, that sugar rush and taste are quite rewarding and it seems like a good idea while one is eating that cake. But once the sugar rush gives way to the sugar crash and the cake, as my mother would say, “went right to the hips”, then the assessment might be rather different. The food analogy is especially apt: as you might well recall from your own youth, candy and other junk food tasted so good then. Now it is mostly just…junk. This also raises an interesting subject worthy of additional exploration, namely the assessment of value over time.
Going back to the cake, eating the whole thing was enjoyable and seemed like a great idea at the time. Yes, I have eaten an entire cake. With ice cream. But, in my defense, I used to run 95-100 miles per week. Looking back from the perspective of my older self, that seems to have been a bad idea and I certainly would not do that (or really enjoy doing so) today. But, does this change of perspective show that it was a poor choice at the time? I am tempted to think that, at the time, it was a good choice for the kid I was. But, my adult self now judges my kid self rather harshly and perhaps unfairly. After all, there does seem to be considerable relativity to value and it seems to be mere prejudice to say that my current evaluation should be automatically taken as being better than the evaluations of the past.