Adolescent decision making: an overview

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Date: Apr. 2009
From: The Prevention Researcher(Vol. 16, Issue 2)
Publisher: Integrated Research Services, Inc.
Document Type: Report
Length: 3,881 words

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"Adolescence is a time of great and rapid cognitive, psychological, social, emotional, and physical changes. These changes result in a more adult-like appearance, an increased ability to think abstractly, greater need for autonomy and independence, increased social and peer comparison, and greater peer affiliation. These changes typically translate into adolescents' desire to participate in, and eventually lead, their decision making. Learning to make decisions, experiencing related positive and negative consequences, and learning from these outcomes is an important developmental task."

In general, with some cultural variation, adolescents are afforded opportunities to make decisions in a wide range of areas such as friendship, academics, extracurricular involvement, and consumer choices. Simultaneously, their ability to make competent decisions is sometimes called into question because adolescence is also often a time of engagement in risky behaviors, such as using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, or engaging in risky sexual activity. Often these behaviors represent simple adolescent experimentation; while for a few adolescents these early behaviors represent the first in a line of more harmful behaviors.

This article will provide an overview of adolescent decision making, including definitions of competent decision making, descriptions of decision-making models, and the physical, cognitive, social and emotional influences on adolescent decision making. This article will also discuss implications of adolescent decision making that are relevant to health educators, healthcare providers, policy makers, and adolescent researchers.


Definitions of what constitutes a competent decision vary widely. It is important to note that competent decision making refers to the process of how the decision was made. Competent decision making is not determined by the actual behavior or outcome. For example, while adults might disagree with an adolescent's decision to have sex, an adolescent can still demonstrate decision-making competence by showing that he or she has considered and weighed all of the options (e.g., have sex, not have sex, just kiss), risks (e.g., getting pregnant, feeling guilty), benefits (e.g., pleasure), and other key components involved in the decision-making process, as described next.

Since adults are generally considered competent in the eyes of the law, many have used adults as the gold standard against which to compare adolescents. Other definitions of decisionmaking competence employ a model against which to compare individuals. For example, the legal standards of informed consent stipulate that decisions must be made knowingly; that one must understand all procedures, related risks, and alternative courses of action; and that a person's choice must be made without substantial input or control from others (e.g., Gittler, QuigleyRick, & Saks, 1990; Poythress, Lexcen, Grisso, & Steinberg, 2006).

Models of Decision Making

Normative models of decision making are commonly used in theory, empirical investigation, and policy to describe competent decision making. These models describe the most common steps that one should take in order to make the most rational decision for the individual. As noted above, competent decision making is defined as the process, not the ultimate decision. Normative models encompass elements similar to the legal definition, with the components articulated...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A198715069