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The Unintended Consequences of Obsessing Over Consequences (or why to support youth risk-taking)

July 29, 2011

Developmental psychologists love to remind us that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until humans are in their mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to assess the consequences of our decisions, our ability to understand how what we do will play out into the future. This is often used to explain why teens (and, increasingly, college-aged people) lack the cognitive ability to be wise. Following from this logic, there’s a belief that we must protect the vulnerable young people from their actions because they don’t understand their consequences.

This logic assumes that understanding future consequences is *better* than not understanding them. I’m not sure that I believe this to be true.

Certainly, when we send young people off to fight our wars, we don’t want them to think about the consequences of what they have to do to survive (and, thus, help us survive). It’s not that we want them to shoot first and ask questions later, but we don’t want them to overthink their survival instincts when they’re being shot at.

Reproduction is an interesting counter-example. There’s no doubt that teens moms do little in the way of thinking about the consequence of getting pregnant. But folks in their 30s spend an obscene amount of time thinking about what it means to reproduce. Intensive parenting is clearly the product of constantly thinking about consequences, but I’m not sure that it’s actually healthier for kids or parents. I would hypothesize that biology wins when we don’t overthink parenting while the planet (as a delicate environmental ecosystem that can barely support the population) wins when we do overthink these things. Just a guess.

Creativity is another interesting area. We often talk about how older people are more rigid in their thinking. I love listening to mathematicians discuss whether or not someone who has not had a breakthrough insight in their 20s can have one in their 40s/50s. Certainly in the tech industry, we’re obsessed with youth. But our obsession in many ways is rooted in risk-taking, in not thinking too much about the future.

As I get older, I’m painfully aware of my brain getting more ‘conservative’ (not in a political sense). I am more strategic in my thinking, more judgmental of people who just try something radical. I spend a lot more time telling the little voice of fear and anxiety and neuroticism to STFU. I look back at my younger years and reflect on how stupid I was and then I laugh when I think about how well some of my more ridiculous ideas paid off. I find myself actually thinking about consequences before taking risks and then I get really annoyed at myself because I’ve always prided myself on my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants quality. In short, I can feel myself getting old and I think it’s really weird.

Most people judge from their current mental mindset, unable to remember a different mindset. Thus, I totally get why most people, if they’re undergoing the cognitive transition that I’ve watched myself do, would see young people’s risk-taking as inherently horrible. Sure, old folks respect the outcomes of some youth who change the world. But since most people don’t become Mark Zuckerberg, there’s more pressure to protect (and, often, confine) youth than to encourage their radical risk taking. And, of course, most risk-taking doesn’t result in a billion dollar valuation. Hell, most risk-taking has no chance of paying off. But it’s a weird, connected package. The same mindset that propelled me to do some seriously reckless, outright dangerous, and sometimes illegal things also prompted me to never say no to other institutional authorities in ways that allowed me to succeed professionally. This is why I don’t regret even the stupidist of things that I did as a youth. Of course, I’m also damn lucky that I never got caught.

I’m worried about our societal assumption that risk-taking without thinking of the consequences is an inherently bad thing. We need some radical thinking to solve many of the world’s biggest problems. And I don’t believe that it’s so easy to separate out what adults perceive as ‘good’ risk-taking from what they think is ‘bad’ risk-taking. But how many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing their radical acts of defying authority? How many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing them for ‘being stupid’? It’s easy to get caught up in a binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when all that you can think about is the consequences. But change has never happened when people simply play by the rules. You have to break the rules to create a better society. And I don’t think that it’s easy to do this when you’re always thinking about the consequences of your actions.

I’m not arguing for anarchy. I’m too old for that. But I am arguing that we should question our assumption that people are better off when they have the cognitive capacity to think through consequences. Or that society is better off when all individuals have that mental capability. From my perspective, there are definitely pros and cons to overthinking and while there are certainly cases where future-aware thought is helpful, there are also cases where it’s not. And I also think that there are some serious consequences of imprisoning youth until they grow up.

Anyhow, fun thoughts to munch on this weekend…

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 29, 2011 8:14 pm

    Good points! I teach in the Humanities and Social Sciences so I’m glad I found your blog.

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