Campaigns to get youngsters to stop smoking might be more successful if they highlighted the benefits of quitting, rather than focusing on the dangers of the habit.
A new study has found that even when youngsters appreciate the risks of activities like smoking, they still respond more to positive information and less to negative stories.
The prospect of having better skin and more money in their pockets, for instance, is more likely to resonate with them than warnings about increased disease risk.
A team of researchers at University College London quizzed volunteers between the ages of nine and 26 to find out how likely they thought they would be to experience a range of “adverse life events”, such as getting lung disease or being involved in a car accident.
The researchers then showed them the actual statistics for events like these, noting how they adjusted their views when they heard the risk was either higher or lower than their own estimate.
The results showed that younger people were more likely to ignore negative information when making decisions. The ability to learn from good news, however, was consistent across all ages.
“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 behaviours,” explained Dr Christina Moutsiana, the report’s lead author.
She and her colleagues reckon that highlighting the beneficial outcomes of desired behaviour, rather than the dangers of undesired behaviour, could have a significant impact on young people.
“We think we’re invincible when we’re young and any parent will tell you that warnings often go unheeded,” said Dr Tali Sharot, a Wellcome Trust research fellow and the paper’s senior author.
“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.”
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.