Adolescents Perception of Risk: Understanding and Preventing High Risk Behavior

ABSTRACT - This paper describes a method for measuring risk perception in adolescents. The psychometric paradigm used in the work provides a rating across a wide range of activities and evaluates dimensions of an adolescent's perception of risk. Results show that adolescents who engage in high risk activities differ significantly on a wide range of perceptions from adolescents who do not engage in frequent high risk activities. When scales of risk are entered into a step-wise regression, the prediction of engagement in high risk activities is .78 (p<.001). The methodology of risk perception can provide a useful instrument for assessing an adolescent's view of risk taking and as a dependent measure of response to preventive interventions.


Herbert H. Severson, Paul Slovic, and Sarah Hampson (1993) ,"Adolescents Perception of Risk: Understanding and Preventing High Risk Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 177-182.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 177-182


Herbert H. Severson, Oregon Research Institute

Paul Slovic, Decision Research

Sarah Hampson, Oregon Research Institute


This paper describes a method for measuring risk perception in adolescents. The psychometric paradigm used in the work provides a rating across a wide range of activities and evaluates dimensions of an adolescent's perception of risk. Results show that adolescents who engage in high risk activities differ significantly on a wide range of perceptions from adolescents who do not engage in frequent high risk activities. When scales of risk are entered into a step-wise regression, the prediction of engagement in high risk activities is .78 (p<.001). The methodology of risk perception can provide a useful instrument for assessing an adolescent's view of risk taking and as a dependent measure of response to preventive interventions.

Adolescence is the only age group for which mortality rates have risen between 1960 and 1990. The three primary causes of death during adolescence are accidents, homicide and suicide, all of which are associated with preventable social, environmental, and behavioral factors (Irwin & Milstein, 1986). A diversity of theoretical development and empirical work has emerged to understand the idealogy of these high risk behaviors by adolescents. Our work is targeting, specifically, the engagement of adolescents in drug use and trying to understand and predict their involvement in this behavior. Theories have been postulated and explored which include factors such as family and peer models (Newcomb, Huba, & Bentler, 1983) tolerance of deviance or lack of conformity (Jessor & Jessor, 1977), low self-esteem (Huba, Newcomb & Bentler, 1986), and stressful events of situations (Newcomb & Harlow, 1986). Teen drug use can be viewed as a product of complex biosocial processes which involve cultural, situational, familial, peer based, and intra-individual differences. These influences may be placed on a distal proximal dimension. Toward the distal extreme, lie biological factors such as genetic pre-dispositions (e.g., alcoholism). Familial and cultural influences lie somewhere mid-range, and situational and peer influences are more proximal. Risk perceptions represent an aspect of the belief structure and cognition of an individual that enter into decisions about drug use and are among the more proximal influences to be studied.

Risk Perception

The cornerstone of our approach to understanding adolescent drug use is the construct of risk perception (e.g., Slovic, 1987). The approach to studying risk perception that we are following, has evolved over the past twenty years. During this time, researchers have been examining the opinions that people express when they are asked to evaluate hazardous activities, substances, and technologies. This research has attempted to develop techniques for assessing the complex and subtle opinions that people hold about risk. With these techniques, researchers have sought to discover what people mean when they say something is or is not "risky". The basic assumption underlining these efforts is that we need to understand the ways that people think about and respond to risk in order to promote or regulate health and safety for the population. We have applied this psychometric methodology to adolescent risk perception to better understand their engaging in high risk activities. We have conducted a number of studies involving teenagers, in grades 6-12, who were asked to make judgments about the riskiness of various activities. These activities include smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, engaging in unprotected sex, smoking cigarettes, using smokeless tobacco, and the use of other drugs. These judgments have been related to ratings of these same activities on scales assessing other characteristics, such as perceived benefit, avoidability, and social approval for participation. This methodology has been used to analyze the differences in perception between teens who participate in high risk activities, and compare them to those that do not. Additionally, a broad strategy for studying perceived risk has been to develop a taxonomy for hazards, which can be used to understand and predict responses to risks. A taxonomic scheme might explain, for example, people's extreme aversion to some hazards, their indifference to others, and the discrepancies between the reactions and expert opinions. This psychometric paradigm or psychophysical scaling uses multi-varied analysis techniques to produce quantitative representations of risk attitudes and perceptions. Within this psychometric paradigm, people then make quantitative judgments about the current and desired riskiness of diverse hazards and the desired level of regulation of each.

Numerous studies have been carried out within this psychometric paradigm, and they have shown that perceived risk is both quantifiable and predictable. Studies have indicated that people are willing to tolerate higher risks where activities are seen as beneficial. Further studies have also shown that characteristics such as familiarity, control, catastrophic potential, equity, and level of knowledge all seem to influence the relationship between the perceived risk, perceived benefit, and the acceptance of this risk (Fishoff, Slovic, Lichtenstein, (1978); Slovic, Fishoff, & Lichtenstein, 1980). We have been conducting a series of studies which examine the perceptions of risk and benefit from activities that put young people at risk. The emphasis of these studies have been on problem behaviors which involve drugs and alcohol. Some participation in risky activities is a part of normal psychological development for a healthy adolescent. Our effort is to assess factors which may influence these perceptions of risk and benefit and use this knowledge to reduce the adolescent's participation in high risk activities. Our preliminary studies indicate that from an adolescent user's perspective, the perceived benefits of drug and alcohol far outweigh the perceived risk.

Multiple Risk Behavior

Adolescent risk taking is usually not confined to one activity, but usually involves multiple risk taking. Recent research has underscored the fact that adolescents who engage in one class of high risk activities, often engage in multiple risk activities (Metzler, Noell, & Biglan, 1992). The causes for adolescents' enthusiasm for multiple risk taking are not well understood. Some authors have postulated psychosocial variables such as peer pressure and family/environmental variables, and others have postulated for personality factors such as sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1979). Previous research in drug use has generally concluded that peer influence is the preeminent predictor of drug use, despite accounting for only a small portion of the variance (Kandel, 1982). Moreover, prevention programs that are usually aimed at specific high risk behaviors, such as cigarette smoking or drug use, have reported only modest success rates; although, they are usually targeted on altering peer influence (Severson & Zoref, 1991). We believe that it is necessary to investigate the adolescents' perspectives on risk taking in order to gain insights into the motivation and rewards for these behaviors.





Studies on Risk Perception

We have conducted four studies of adolescents' perception or risk taking among middle school, and college students, using the same methodology. In each case, we asked them to rate a range of activities on a variety of scales. An example of the scale is shown in Figure 1. Hence, the person is asked to rate the same risk behaviors for each of the given scales. While the specific behaviors rated in these scales have varied from study to study, the results have been similar across all studies. We have found that adolescents who engage in specific high risk activities, report greater knowledge of its risks, less fear of risks, less personal risk to self and others, less serious effects, more personal control over risk, less ability to avoid the activity, and high participation in the activity by others. Adolescents who participate in high risk activities also report that they perceive greater peer influence, less desire for regulation of the activity by authorities, and greater benefits relative to the risks. A summary of these findings is shown in Figure 2. Individuals who engage in destructive behaviors such as using drugs, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcoholic beverages, also tend to obtain a higher score on scales such as sensation seeking.

A principal components factor analysis of the intercorrelations of fourteen risk scales results in two factors accounting for 68% and 15% of the variance, respectively. These factors have been identified as risk and admiration, respectively. Many of the most dangerous activities are highly admired as more socially approved forms of risk taking and this admiration may be an important motivator reinforcer for these behaviors. We have also found that adolescents that participate in high risk activities see these activities as hard to avoid doing, but also more likely to see the risks are easy to control once the activity is engaged in. This latter result is consistent with Weinstein's (1980) finding of unrealistic optimism in adolescents' reactions to negative events. The risk activities in our studies can be placed in a two dimensional factor space relative to the dimensions of risky vs. not risky and admired vs. not admired (Benthin, Slovic and Severson, in press). An example of this factor plot is shown in Figure 3.

In addition to our measurement of risk perception, we also have measured the participation of adolescents in these actual activities. Table 1, below, shows the distribution of participation in these activities for one high school study we completed. As you can see, the use of tobacco was fairly prevalent with 33% reporting smoking at least once in the past six months and the use of smokeless tobacco, chewing tobacco or snuff is as common as cigarette use for males. Marijuana use is reported by more older students (31%), than younger ones, that is 9th and 10th grade (17%), but only a few students in either age group reported using methamphetamines over that past six months (5%). An examination by gender reveals that similar numbers of boys and girls are smoking marijuana (24% and 22%, respectively) and using methamphetamines (6% and 4%, respectively). Cigarette smoking was more common among boys than girls (34% vs. 26%). This result is not consistent with most other surveys that find that girls smoke at a higher rate than boys for most adolescent samples. The clearest effect for gender was observed in the use of smokeless or chewing tobacco which was four times as likely to be reported by boys (41%), than for girls (10%).





In sum, the findings for the usefulness of risk perception have been replicated in four studies to date and are consistent across an age range from 12-18 and for males and females. The intercorrelation of all risk characteristics in a factor analysis has been consistently factor analyzed into two uncorrelated factors which account for approximately 83% of the variance. The factor 1 which we have identified as "risk" involves the perceived risk and the fear of consequences, while factor 2 "admiration" is the perception of admiration, knowledge, and peer influence. When these scales are entered into a stepwise multiple regression, which predicts the engagement in the high risk activities (a destructive behavior index for multiple behaviors), the correlation is .78 (p< .001).


One message from the data using this methodology of risk perception is that the results are orderly and meaningful and lead to the general conclusion that we have developed a useful psychometric instrument to investigate how adolescents view risk. It appears that participation in risky activities is related to very distinct cognitive and social factors. From a cognitive perspective, people who engage in these activities report knowledge of the risks, less fear of the risk, more personal control and less ability to avoid the activity, and perceive higher participation in the activity by peers.

From a social perspective, participants report greater peer influence, less desire for regulation of the activity by authorities and greater benefits relative to the risk. It is also notable that results from this study point to a general problem behavior syndrome. In other words, young people who engage in one form of risk taking (e.g., excess use of alcohol) are relatively more likely to engage in other high risk activities (e.g., smoking cigarettes). These results are in line with previous research that suggest that problem behaviors during adolescence tend to be inter-related, rather than being a collection of independent activities (Biglan, Metzler, Wirt, & Ary, et al., 1990; Metzler, Noell, & Biglan, 1992).

The finding that adolescents that engage in risky activities tend to perceive this risks as well known, raises questions about the potential effectiveness of information and educational programs, which are designed to discourage young people from engaging in risk taking behaviors. If adolescents actually have adequate information with regard to the dangerousness of the activity, and are knowledgeable about the specific risks, it appears that they do not apply them to their personal behavior. Do they understand that these risks apply to them personally? And, do they know how to protect themselves from the potential harm, if they engage in this behavior? It is interesting to note that adolescents that engage in high risk activities believe that they can control the risk, but at the same time believe that they are unable to avoid participating in the risks. This personal fable of uniqueness and mortality, which is said to be a typical dimension of adolescent thinking (Seltzer, 1982), implies that this research would have direct relevance with regard to developing effective intervention programs. From a marketing perspective, one could segment the target population. That is, one could identify students whose perception make it likely that they would engage in high risk activities such that they become the target for the intervention. General preventive programs generally have had the greatest effect on students who may experiment or try engaging in risk activities, but are less likely to go for regular use. For example, in the prevention of smoking, while there has been a modest effect on deterring and reducing the onset of cigarette smoking, this effect is generally not been shown on adolescents that engage in multiple risk activities. If the perception of risk is a valuable dimension, it may be useful in designing effective interventions which can then be targeted for adolescents that are already engaging in early risk taking activities. There is evidence from an epidemiological research that adolescents that engage in high risk activities can be identified by their anti-social aggressive non-compliant behavior in early experimentation as early as their grade (Patterson, Dishion, & Bank, (1984).

The risk perception scale may also provide a valuable dependent measure to measure the effectiveness of a brief intervention. For example, if a media message or media campaign were designed and targeted for a specific high risk adolescents, one could first choose adolescents based upon their risk perception as well as participation in activities, and secondly measure the impact on these perceptions after exposure to the media message. A recent study provides support for the usefulness of the risk perception measure as a dependent variable. Virgili, Owen & Severson (1990) report that in a study of 189 Australian adolescents, a brief intervention caused a significant decrease in perceived benefit of smoking and a significant increase in perceived fear of consequences.

In sum, the implications of research on adolescent risk perceptions are:

1. Adolescents who engage in risky activities perceive the risk differently from those who do not participate.

2. Risk perceptions can be measured objectively and can predict subsequent risk taking.

3. Risk perceptions can be assessed early and they remain stable across adolescence.

4. Risk perceptions can be altered by providing information and experience.

5. Risk perceptions can be used to identify high risk youth and target media and prevention to both increase their perceptions of risk and lower the probability of their engaging in high risk behavior.


Benthin, A.C., Slovic, P. and Severson, H.H. (in press). "A Psychometric Study of Adolescent Risk Perception," Journal of Adolescence.

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Herbert H. Severson, Oregon Research Institute
Paul Slovic, Decision Research
Sarah Hampson, Oregon Research Institute


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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