Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Facts of Life and Rational Decision Making

A Washington Post blog entry caught my attention yesterday. The entry was titled, "Do teens know the facts of life?"  The fact that we would even have to address this question in the year 2012 is somewhat concerning.  A variety of beliefs exists about whether education about these matters is appropriate in the home, in the school, or in some type of faith-based education setting.  Regardless, the key is that there are many risks for teens that include pregnancy and all its consequences and sexually transmitted infections.  So, even if a parent or adult member of the community hopes the teens in whom they have an interest will remain abstinent until marriage, the teens still need information about the "facts of life" to make decisions about avoiding those risks.

In economics, we assume that people make rational decisions with complete information.  Or at least information that will give them the capacity to make a well reasoned decision.  While it could be debated whether anything related to teens in sexual relations is rational, the key is that we can't even expect teens to have an opportunity to make rational decisions if they don't have information (other than perhaps abstinence because they have been taught that is the right thing to do, though many teens are not known for doing the right thing in all cases).  The Washington Post blog is not written from an economic perspective but does point out that the most rational teens (among those who chose to have sex) may have been the ones who claimed not to use contraception because they would not have minded getting pregnant.  While we may go on to question whether the teens understood everything about pregnancy and raising a child, at least within the context of the decision about contraception, the choice seems rational.

I could certainly see where at least some may question whether we should try to use economics to think about teens and the facts of life.  However, while I realize that at the moment at which a teen would have to make a decision about contraception rationality may not be present, teens do make choices about whether to even put themselves in situations that may lead to such a moment.  If it is an appropriate societal role and use of societal resources to provide more information about the facts of life (and I realize even that is debatable), then we should think about how the information can be used best to improve the rationality of decision making for teens and which decisions are most likely to be affected by rationality.


  1. You've hit on a hot topic in pediatrics. The frustration of health care providers, when addressing issues of health promotion and maintenance, is that it isn't always about how much you teach. We may talk and talk and talk but information doesn't always lead to knowledge and knowledge doesn't translate to intention and, thereafter, to behavior. As Ajzen says, if a person views the outcome of a behavior positively, s/he may view doing that behavior positively. If the outcome is viewed negatively, the person may avoid the behavior. That is why there is more emphasis on peer to peer counseling, shows on teen moms, taking home a "baby" to care for, etc. Society needs to see if more money toward simply more information has desired outcomes vs. a new approach. JM

  2. JM--Good point. It seems like more information in the correct social context. Some people claim that if we look far enough back there was a stronger sense of norms in this country about what was right and what was wrong. (I wouldn't know as I was not obviously not alive before I was born.) As our sense of shared norms has diminished, I think that has allowed some behaviors to be viewed as less unacceptable. I think that it matches quite well with your comment about whether people feel that something is a positive behavior or negative behavior. If everyone could agree (through cultural norms) on what was good or bad, then we would all tend to have the same sense of right and wrong and that peer pressure might work better. When everyone "just does their own thing" there is little sense of norms. Not to say that we should all live with 1950's norms. Just to say that peer pressure for positive health behaviors probably has a stronger influence if all peers have a similar message.