Positives vs. Negatives

Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) announced that their “Tips From Former Smokers” ad campaign helped 100,000 smokers kick the habit. The ads featured people with stomas, artificial voice boxes, and other negative outcomes of smoking. 

While it helped get current smokers to quit, new research suggests its impact won’t keep younger people from lighting up. According to a new study, positivity may be more effective.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that emphasizing the benefits of not smoking, rather than showing the possible negative outcomes, may be more effective at keeping teens from smoking.

Researchers from the Wellcome Trust, an international health research institute, and University College London say teens are more likely to make good health decisions when presented with information about the positive outcomes of those choices.

“It's important that we understand how young people interpret risk to make lifestyle choices that will impact on their future health if we are to stem the rise in preventable diseases,” Dr. John Williams, head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said.

How Young Minds Assess Risk

Researchers asked volunteers between the ages of nine and 26 how likely they believed it was that they would experience certain negative health events, including car accidents and lung disease. They then presented statistics on the real likelihood of those events happening and asked participants to adjust their views.

Overall, researchers found that younger study participants were less likely to take the risks of negative information into account. However, positive learning from good news remained constant for people of all ages.

“We think we're invincible when we're young and any parent will tell you that warnings often go unheeded,” senior author Dr. Tali Sharot said in a statement accompanying the study. “Our findings show that if you want to get young people to better learn about the risks associated with their choices, you might want to focus on the benefits that a positive change would bring, rather than hounding them with horror stories.”

The authors say this kind of messaging should extend beyond smoking to address other risky teen behaviors, such as reckless driving, unsafe sex, and alcohol and drug use.

The new research coincides with a study from the University of Stirling involving 2,800 children. That study found that graphic images on tobacco packaging had no effect on deterring smoking in 11- to 16-year-olds. One in 10 of the children studied were smokers.

Talking to Your Children About Not Smoking

It’s not surprising that teens often don’t consider the consequences of their actions, but using their youthful optimism to help them create a better future may be more effective than stern warnings.

Based on this new research, parents should consider not only discussing the negative effects of risky behavior, but also touting the advantages of making positive health decisions.

As the researchers note, talking about the positive effects of not smoking—having more money and looking younger longer—may have a greater effect than statistics and scare tactics.

Here’s another example from researchers: teens may be less likely to drink heavily when they are presented with information on how reduced drinking leads to better performance in sports, instead of the dangers of drinking and driving.

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