"What were you thinking?" — Helping adolescents recover from poor decisions

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Photo courtesy of drivefaraway under a Creative Commns license.

Parents all over are hard-pressed to respond to a teen or young adult who has made a poor choice. Why drop out of school when the returns are so high? Why smoke when the future health risks are well known?  Why have unprotected sex when the risks of contracting HIV/AIDs or some other STD are so high and one is not psychologically or economically ready to start a family? Why not wear a helmet when traffic accidents are the highest leading cause of death in many Asian countries? These seem such rational choices. It’s not rocket science. Or is it?

It is, at least, neuroscience. Scientists have found that, to some extent, young people can’t help themselves. Technological advances have allowed scientists to map brain impulses which they think partly determine behavior. Contrary to an earlier view that the brain stops developing at an early age, recent research shows that the frontal lobe, where most ‘executive’ decisions are made, is not fully connected to the rest of the brain until the mid-20s (I know some parents and several young women who think this is a gross underestimate in the case of young men). While I am unaware of similar research in Asian and Pacific countries (please let me know if I’ve missed something), these biological findings almost certainly hold for everybody.

Should governments do something about this? After all, shouldn’t people be made to face the consequences of their action, even if it means a lost opportunity to invest in themselves? In a blog post a few weeks ago, I argued that foregoing the development of human capital of young people has enormous costs, not only to individuals, but to the economy and to society at large. So, governments do have a role. The more important question is what can they do?

In that earlier post, I pointed to programs that help young women be better decision makers – by providing them with income, information and incentives. These actions could help young men too and prevent underinvestment in, and sometimes the destruction of, human capital. 

But if one believes the brain research I describe above, these actions may not be enough. Preventive policies alone would not be sufficient if human beings are hard-wired to be more impulsive, less risk averse and thrill seeking than they ought to be. Inevitably, poor decisions will be made. Doing something about those is rather more difficult….and controversial.

Analysts argue that prevention is almost always more cost-effective than remediation. That may be for most people – but remediation may still be cost-effective for the young precisely because their behaviors can still change and because they have so much longer to live. This argues for investments, such as in ‘second-chance’ education and training for dropouts, who could account for a whole generation of school-age kids in post-conflict countries. Latin America’s Joven Programs, described in Box 4.7 of the 2007 World Development report, provide training and remedial education through life skills as well as academic curricula for out-of-school and out-of work youth.  

East Asian and Pacific countries are only beginning to embark on such activities. PNG, where youth unemployment and drop out is extremely high, is considering the expansion of its flexible and open distance education program to help out-of-school youth obtain grade equivalent certificates. Such programs neatly complement attempts to improve quality to lower dropouts in the first place. In health, Thailand was able to afford a more extensive coverage of anti-retrovirals for HIV treatment because it was so successful in earlier prevention efforts.

If you have other examples of ‘second-chance’ programs for young people, I’m sure many of us would be interested in knowing about them. After all, when you and I were young, we thought we deserved (and many of us probably got) a break or two. Now we know the scientific basis for it!


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