Adolescents overestimate their chances of dying in the next year, using a response mode that produced generally accurate (and, where appropriate, small) probabilities for other significant life events. That result, originally observed in NLSY97, a large, nationally representative sample of adolescents, was replicated in a regional convenience sample, drawn from longitudinal studies. Although the statistical death rate is 0.08%, adolescents’ median estimates were 5% and 10%. The means were even higher, 17% and 19%. In part, that reflects the roughly 20% of adolescents who said that they have a “50%” chance of dying. A curve-fitting procedure suggested that most of these 50s were not numeric probabilities, but expressions of epistemic uncertainty, as though adolescents did not know what to think or say about their chances of dying.
In addition to replicating the exaggerated mortality judgments, the current study revealed that mortality estimates were correlated with adolescents’ judgments of several direct threats to their survival. For example, adolescents who gave higher probabilities of dying also tended to report feeling less safe, having been the victim of violent crime, expecting to be a victim, and seeing more gang activity in their neighborhoods, among other threats. These judgments of direct threats were also correlated with whether respondents gave 50% as their probability of dying, correlations that typically remained after partialing out the actual probability judgment.
The strongest correlations were with the crime expectations measure, which used the same probability scale as the mortality question, suggesting a contribution of method variance. In the UCSF study, perceived threats and crime expectations correlated strongly with mortality judgments, while reports of actual violent events and health threats did not. Violent events were rare, reducing that test’s statistical power. However, many adolescents reported serious health threats, making correlations with that measure possible. Perhaps adolescents’ actual health experiences are less related to their perceived mortality than are the fears expressed in their summary judgments.
Like any correlational analyses, ours allow different causal interpretations. For example, the correlation between mortality judgments and crime expectations could mean that adolescents believe that crime threatens their lives or that they engage in crime because they do not expect to live long anyway. Living in unsafe neighborhoods could increase both mortality judgments and crime expectations. The social dysfunction that is a root cause of many threats might also induce fear for the future. The epistemic uncertainty captured in 50 responses is thought to reflect some combination of affective and inchoate cognitive responses to events that individuals find it hard to analyze or contemplate.
These correlations support the construct validity of these probability judgments, which are predictably related to adolescents’ experiences and perceptions, as were the other NLSY97 probability judgments. Thus, the mortality judgments appear to capture adolescents’ relative
feelings of vulnerability. Accounting for the exaggerated absolute
mortality judgments requires an additional inference. Namely, adolescents are not just differentially sensitive to these threats, but unduly sensitive to them. Thus, for example, adolescents who see greater neighborhood violence not only perceive higher
mortality judgments, but also perceive a high
sense of mortality. That seems plausible, given the cognitive and emotional power of such intense, salient events [22
]. However, it requires an inferential step, beyond our analyses.
Other than the mortality and crime expectation questions, the measures used in our analyses were developed by other researchers, specialists in those topics and blind to our hypotheses. This arrangement should reduce spurious correlations due to shared method variance or biased wording – at the possible price of making them imperfect measures of our focal concerns.
Despite their imperfections, the present results seem sufficiently robust and sufficiently troubling to bear attention. If adolescents really have the sense of foreboding seen here, then its sources and remedies should be important to adults concerned with adolescents’ wellbeing. Adolescents need faith in their future in order to invest in their own human capital, by studying, working, and avoiding risky behaviors [27
]. That faith may require both the belief that specific threats are low and the feeling that their world will protect them from unnamed threats.