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Beliefs About Risk

Although many adults believe that adolescents underestimate the risks of engaging in particular behaviors, most research indicates that adults and adolescents actually give similar estimates of various types of risk taking, including drinking alcohol (e.g., Beyth-Marom et al., 1993; Quadrel et al., 1993). Although sweeping age differences in risk estimates have not typically been found (Millstein and Halpern-Felsher, 2002), individuals’ perceptions of risk vary, and their perceptions have been linked to their behaviors. In general, drinkers of all ages view consuming alcohol as less risky than nondrinkers (Goldberg et al., 2002), although the absolute accuracy of various risk perceptions has been the topic of debate (e.g., Slovic, 2000). Although adolescents generally overestimate their mortality risks for a variety of activities including alcohol (e.g., Fischhoff et al., 2000), recent studies suggest that adolescents who perceive a higher likelihood of negative consequences following alcohol consumption do not drink at all or drink more moderately than others (e.g., Goldberg et al., 2002; Halpern-Felsher and Cauffman, 2001; Small et al., 1993.)

Both adults and adolescents tend to overestimate how many other people are involved in activities in which they, themselves, are engaged (e.g., Kruglanski, 1989). Indeed, adolescents as well as adults who participate in high-risk activities generally believe that the rate of participation by others is higher than do nonparticipants (Benthin et al., 1993); thus, beliefs about normative practices may be related to older adolescents’ decisions to engage in risky behaviors (Basch et al., 1989; Beck and Treiman, 1996; Olds and Thombs, 2001). In one recent study, adolescents who reported higher levels of alcohol consumption and other risk-taking behavior than their peers overestimated how much other adolescents in their school were participating in the same high-risk behaviors (Jacobs, 2000). Extreme overestimaters engaged in significantly more mild and severe deviant behaviors than either the moderate overestimaters or those whose estimates were correct, and they reported poorer self-esteem, lower grade point averages, and less rational decision-making skills. One of the most intriguing implications of the research focusing on individual differences is that some adolescents are more likely than others to perceive drinking as low risk, to overestimate the likelihood of others’ drinking, and to look for sensation-seeking opportunities. This is the group that one would expect to drink the most and take the most risks when drinking.

Prior Experience

Although correlated with age, drinking experiences have a significant and independent effect on alcohol expectancies, which in turn play a role in

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