Over the next few weeks, I am teaching two separate cohort classes. So I am going to take the time to answer questions from the Monday Open Thread since I am tight for time on writing a original pieces. Luckily, the questions have been amazing!
I have young kids, and as they get older they will face some very high stakes decisions that could result in all the known ways kids mess up their lives (drunk driving, unwanted pregnancy, drugs, etc). What’s your recommendation for how to give teenagers a framework for how to make the right decisions when the pressure is on in some of these situations that can have this high impact negative outcomes? -Chris
This is a great question, Chris, and it feels like unlocking this puzzle would create so much good in the world. This is, in fact, why I co-founded The Alliance for Decision Education. We are a non-profit dedicated to bringing decision education to every K-12 student in the country (an around the world!).
So many of the issues that kids have (and, frankly, adults as well) have to do with temporal discounting, the tendency to discount the future to get immediate gratification. The Marshmallow Test pioneered by Walter Mischel is a fantastic demonstration of temporal discounting.
Young children are put in a room with a single marshmallow on the table in front of them. They are told that if they wait 15 minutes before eating the marshmallow, they will get a second marshmallow. The question the researchers were asking is whether the children wait or go for the immediate gratification of eating the marshmallow right away. It turns out that only about 15% of kids are able to delay their gratification and wait for the second marshmallow.
The ones who do manage to wait don’t wait easily. The videos of them are pretty funny!
Obviously, the marshmallow test is a good analog to exactly the types of decisions you are asking about. If you do drugs now, you are sacrificing future gains…health, well-being, friendships, success in school, etc. Same for teen pregnancy. Same for using social media instead of studying. these are all temporal discounting problems.
Whether it is drug use, drunk driving, or teen pregnancy, kids are making choices because they, to quote Veruca Salt, “want it now!” And we all know what happened to her!
So how to mitigate this problem? First, some kids are naturally in that 15% who do wait. That has to do with temperament and some kids (and parents) are just lucky that way. But we can apply some decision tools to increase the chances that we won’t discount the future so much even if we aren’t in that lucky 15%. One of the best of these types of tools is a precommitment contract.
Simply put, a precommitment contract precommits you to take certain actions in the future. One of the strongest forms of a precommitment contract creates a barrier to taking an action. For example, some cars have a breathalyzer attachment where the car won’t start if someone is above the legal limit. Some birth control, like an IUD, acts a strong precommitment device.
A weaker from of such a contract just has you imagine the actions you want to take (or not take) in the future and then has you commit to taking positive path and avoiding the negative one, most effectively with some accountability to another human. We can ask kids to imagine a goal they want to achieve in the future and then have them write down what things they might do to help them achieve that goal and what things they might do that would get in the way of that goal. We can then have them precommit to doing the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff.
Guiding kids to get in touch with their future selves is generally helpful in getting them to make better decisions. Waiting for the marshmallow is hard when you are trying to satisfy a person who doesn’t yet exist (you, fifteen minutes in the future). It is even harder when you are a teenager and you are trying to take care of a version of you that will exist a decade from now. Making sure we encourage regular conversations with future versions of ourselves, versions that have achieved the things we want to achieve, will help us stick to the commitments we make now.