The Unintended Consequences of Obsessing Over Consequences (or why to support youth risk-taking)

Developmental psychologists love to remind us that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until humans are in their mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to assess the consequences of our decisions, our ability to understand how what we do will play out into the future. This is often used to explain why teens (and, increasingly, college-aged people) lack the cognitive ability to be wise. Following from this logic, there’s a belief that we must protect the vulnerable young people from their actions because they don’t understand their consequences.

This logic assumes that understanding future consequences is *better* than not understanding them. I’m not sure that I believe this to be true.

Certainly, when we send young people off to fight our wars, we don’t want them to think about the consequences of what they have to do to survive (and, thus, help us survive). It’s not that we want them to shoot first and ask questions later, but we don’t want them to overthink their survival instincts when they’re being shot at.

Reproduction is an interesting counter-example. There’s no doubt that teens moms do little in the way of thinking about the consequence of getting pregnant. But folks in their 30s spend an obscene amount of time thinking about what it means to reproduce. Intensive parenting is clearly the product of constantly thinking about consequences, but I’m not sure that it’s actually healthier for kids or parents. I would hypothesize that biology wins when we don’t overthink parenting while the planet (as a delicate environmental ecosystem that can barely support the population) wins when we do overthink these things. Just a guess.

Creativity is another interesting area. We often talk about how older people are more rigid in their thinking. I love listening to mathematicians discuss whether or not someone who has not had a breakthrough insight in their 20s can have one in their 40s/50s. Certainly in the tech industry, we’re obsessed with youth. But our obsession in many ways is rooted in risk-taking, in not thinking too much about the future.

As I get older, I’m painfully aware of my brain getting more ‘conservative’ (not in a political sense). I am more strategic in my thinking, more judgmental of people who just try something radical. I spend a lot more time telling the little voice of fear and anxiety and neuroticism to STFU. I look back at my younger years and reflect on how stupid I was and then I laugh when I think about how well some of my more ridiculous ideas paid off. I find myself actually thinking about consequences before taking risks and then I get really annoyed at myself because I’ve always prided myself on my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants quality. In short, I can feel myself getting old and I think it’s really weird.

Most people judge from their current mental mindset, unable to remember a different mindset. Thus, I totally get why most people, if they’re undergoing the cognitive transition that I’ve watched myself do, would see young people’s risk-taking as inherently horrible. Sure, old folks respect the outcomes of some youth who change the world. But since most people don’t become Mark Zuckerberg, there’s more pressure to protect (and, often, confine) youth than to encourage their radical risk taking. And, of course, most risk-taking doesn’t result in a billion dollar valuation. Hell, most risk-taking has no chance of paying off. But it’s a weird, connected package. The same mindset that propelled me to do some seriously reckless, outright dangerous, and sometimes illegal things also prompted me to never say no to other institutional authorities in ways that allowed me to succeed professionally. This is why I don’t regret even the stupidist of things that I did as a youth. Of course, I’m also damn lucky that I never got caught.

I’m worried about our societal assumption that risk-taking without thinking of the consequences is an inherently bad thing. We need some radical thinking to solve many of the world’s biggest problems. And I don’t believe that it’s so easy to separate out what adults perceive as ‘good’ risk-taking from what they think is ‘bad’ risk-taking. But how many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing their radical acts of defying authority? How many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing them for ‘being stupid’? It’s easy to get caught up in a binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when all that you can think about is the consequences. But change has never happened when people simply play by the rules. You have to break the rules to create a better society. And I don’t think that it’s easy to do this when you’re always thinking about the consequences of your actions.

I’m not arguing for anarchy. I’m too old for that. But I am arguing that we should question our assumption that people are better off when they have the cognitive capacity to think through consequences. Or that society is better off when all individuals have that mental capability. From my perspective, there are definitely pros and cons to overthinking and while there are certainly cases where future-aware thought is helpful, there are also cases where it’s not. And I also think that there are some serious consequences of imprisoning youth until they grow up.

Anyhow, fun thoughts to munch on this weekend…

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17 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of Obsessing Over Consequences (or why to support youth risk-taking)

  1. john troll

    Your thought provoking article made me chuckle. After reading it my thoughts went in a much different direction. Imagine a world where everyone, regardless of age, fully thought through the consequences of their actions. Would that world be better than our world? To me the answer is self evident.

    So much of the disarray that we confront is the result of consequences willfully ignored, consequences never considered, consequences never fully considered or unintended consequences.

    Imagine a world where we would challenge those younger brains to penetrate into the darkness so that they can describe for us a more detailed or more complex set of consequences than our feeble brains can comprehend. Put more humbly: I’ll take overthinking over not thinking any day.

  2. Tom West

    There has been changes in society that have changed some of the calculus of teen-age risk taking on a number of levels.

    One is that people are having vastly fewer children. The child who kills or permanently injures themselves in a risk-taking endeavor may well be the sole focus of his or her parent’s world. In many ways, the relatively light losses in recent wars (compared to previous conflicts) have inflicted far *more* family devastation than before.

    Even on less lethal grounds, a child who decides to become a musician or gamble everything on an internet venture will very likely become a source of financial disaster for the whole family in a society where parents are expected to ensure that their child has a decent lifestyle. (This was simply not possible 50 years ago when we were a lot less wealthy and had a lot fewer children.)

    Secondly, society is now expected to step in where family cannot or will not, meaning that we all bear the cost of what used to be private risk.

    Thus I suspect that oddly enough, there is vastly *higher* pressure towards conservatism by both family and society. Is this a good thing? It depends on whether one considers the benefits that society obtains from those few young people who pursue their dreams and succeed is worth the cost of the vast majority who pursue their dreams and fail.

  3. Mylne Karimov

    An interesting, provocative post.

    However I’m not sure your two counter-examples are that convincing. Sending kids into battle, who are too young to understand the consequences of their decision, sounds rather exploitative to me. It’s an example of older politicians using their capacity for foresight to take advantage of their younger compatriots who lack that capacity. Extending the argument ad absurdum, when African warlords use child soldiers (for exactly the same purpose) we find this detestable.

    In a different way, I don’t we can argue that we win whenever “biology” wins. Since when are we on the side of biology – in the narrow sense of reproducing as much as possible? There is no morality in biology, and (as Richard Dawkins has argued) we are not necessarily on the same side as our genes.

    In fact capabilities like foresight might be crucial in enabling us to resist the entrapments of cynical politicians and fickle genetic impulses, who would use us for their own ends.

  4. miker

    As an individual, one of my great faults has always been over-thinking and an excessive focus on risk avoidance – even in my youth. Knowing that this approach has cost me a great deal throughout the course of my life, I can’t help being appalled to see our society going down the same path. What’s missing today is the realization that no matter how perfectly we manage to avoid risk, we’re still not getting out of here alive. Taking risks, maybe even occasionally some dumb risks, is a large part of what makes life worth living. There can even be unforeseen positive consequences to irresponsible behavior, e.g. a teen gets unintentionally pregnant and the fact of being responsible for a child’s well-being causes the young parents to get serious about developing viable careers and providing a stable home.

    The further out you go from an event, the harder the future consequences become to predict. If I jump in front of a speeding bus, I’m almost certainly going to die. But if I do a variety of other things that might seem unwise but are not immediately life-threatening, predicting the eventual outcome becomes a vastly more difficult endeavor. We should all be guided by a set of basic principles, but life is far too complex to be reduced to two discrete buckets of right and wrong choices.

  5. Artoo

    I guess that’s why if you’re not a risky person from start, you have even smaller chance to benefit from unpredicted life turn.
    But if we fear the unwanted consequences, yet it makes even more challenging for us to break that fear and just step in.
    Thank you for this post.

  6. James

    I think we need a better understanding of risks. I strongly suspect we can do a reasonable job of distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable sorts of risks.

    Some quick thoughts. People seem to consider things as too risky when they don’t fit into what they think they already know *but don’t actually*. Things that go against the status-quo or “what everyone knows”. Things that are unproven, different, hard to articulate. These things are not as risky as they seem. Or aren’t the bad sorts of risks (unless there is some *other* reason why they’re bad risks).

    I’d imagine behavioral economics and other areas that study cognitive bias would have a lot of interesting things to say about the ways we’re poor at making certain types of risk judgements (and where we might be better at it).

    History should provide a lot of data for forming hypotheses.

  7. chris Jangelov

    I think over parenting is a problem. If life is that we tend to focus on possibilities in our younger years and become more risk avoiding later on, it is really a good thing that younger people know how to have secrets for parents 🙂
    I would also dare to argue that many of us are more idealistic in beginning of life and for example accept to make some sacrifices to keep the planet healthy. Later on responsibility says: First I have to fix my own life (which by then include cars, houses, holidays, children, design kitchens and more) and then I’ll think about the common goods.
    But, we get older still, and a time comes when we say that we did wrong – but then we really can’t change so much because our arguments are easily labeled as being against progress…

  8. Beverley Eyre

    Barbara Tuchman, in her book ‘A Distant Mirror’, said that part of the reason that the 14th century looked so much like gang warfare among immature adolescents was because that’s exactly what it was. Life expectancy was short, and most decisions were made, most battles were fought, most marriages were made by teens and tweens.

    There have been historical periods, Dr. Boyd, when the not-fully-developed pre-fontal lobes of the young have played quite a large role in shaping that society, and I have yet to hear of one that was stable or peaceful. They were universally bloody, corrupt, unjust, and ruled by the whimsy of the immature.

    All this is to say that I can’t agree with your conclusions in this particular post.

  9. Fred

    I’ve often wondered if consciousness was a good evolutionary move. I see your point, though, and it reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s observation about progress.

  10. Miranda

    Your post reminded me of a little snippet from one of Robert Fulghum’s books, and I probably slightly mis)quote:

    “There is really nothing you must be
    and there is really nothing you must do
    It helps to know that fire burns
    and when it rains, the earth gets wet.

    Whatever you do, there are consequences. No one is exempt.”

    That is not to say that I think risk-taking should be avoided at all cost (like Miker, I suspect the ‘ideal’ is somewhere in the middle). Rather, it’s about accepting that whatever choice we make (and it’s not necessarily a right or wrong one), there are consequences. To some, that knowledge might mean staying on the safe, straight-and-narrow path. To others, it migh mean ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

  11. Adrian

    Great write! Reminds me of the opening chapter of Paul Graham’s “Hackers & Painters.” He compares the way to raise teenagers to prison as well, and makes the case that the whole of America of discovered and settled and built by teenagers. In fact the median age used to be 16 or below, and it was not like the 50% below 16 was feed by some social warfare state, no they kept the economy running! As a man of action he puts is money where his mouth is and founds teenage start-ups with his Y Combinator (awesome name, btw) incubator. With success.

  12. Xira

    Interesting article. While society as a whole does benefit from risk-taking, even dumb-risk-taking, the individual does not.

    What has changed concerning risk in the last 100 years is that records are kept better and longer, society has become more Conservative because the population as a whole has aged, and people have become less tolerant because we now know about a person’s dark side before we get to know them, due to better records being kept and society being more conservative.

    All of this added together means that risk taking is much less rewarding for the individual than ever before, and this trend seems to be continuing on all 3 fronts.

    Risk taking is probably genetic to some extent, simply because it would appear that societies with more risk takers advance faster than conformist societies.(RE individualistic and rebellious western societies seem to advance faster than structurally conformist eastern ones.) This happens because sometimes risks pay off.

    So: Societal good, individual bad, with the bad being increased as time goes on.

    To put this in more personal terms, I know ‘a guy’ who stole a riding lawnmower for a mere joyride when he was 16. He got caught with it, was arrested, tried, and convicted as an adult by a cop, prosecutor, judge, and jury all at least twice his age. He now has a felony on his record that will preclude his meaningful employment by corporate america, will deny him dating and reproductive oppturunities, and will make any interaction between him and authorities much more dangerous for him; for his entire life. It will affect any children he has’s chances of getting a good education, where they can live, who they can be friends with(Bobby’s dad is a WHAT?), and will reduce his changes of success in life for generations through follow-on effects. Everyone forever will know, as the first thing they learn, what Bobby’s dad did and that he’s a Felon.

    That same youthful risk taking that bit him so hard might very well have been channeled into a hacking spree that made society more free, raised public awareness of oppression, and never have hurt him individually had he not gotten caught.

    So no, we aren’t overreacting to youthful indiscretions, I disagree with your conclusions. It is more important than ever for parents to beat the rebellion out of the youth.

  13. Xira

    I’d also say that when considering the cost/benefits to allowing the young to be reckless you really need to consider some other structural changes in society.

    Society, business, and personal relationships are ‘flatter’ than ever. The boss of a mega-corp gives an order and it passes through maybe 4 hands on the way to the janitor.

    Technology, the same reason that records are kept better and longer, is also a major influence in this.

    The result is that there is less ‘middle’ than ever before. Less room for someone to get ahead by being less than super-stellar-ultra-great-perfect, but merely good.

    There are 400 wealthy families in the nearby banana republic. Everyone else is, comparably, poor as dirt. Other, more advanced, societies such as Germany and Canada still have less room for upper-middle class families than they did in the past. Even in enlightened China the benefits to being good but not perfect are lower than ever, as the vast majority of employees there are manual labor positions(due to their intentional under-use of robotics), and the middle ranks of management and science are thinner than ever before.

    So unless you really, truly, deep down, believe that you are hotter than the 400 hottest people, and have more natural advantages(such as early access to high quality education and high-class connections) than they do, you shouldn’t take risks. Even if you do, the payoff will be less than ever before, and the risks will be higher than ever before.

    It is said that the cautious never get ahead in life. In a world where nobody ever gets ahead in life, it pays to be cautious.

  14. Ellen De Money

    The frontal lobe does not develop until later in life, rather than in those pesky early teens, this is a fact. As a parent of three teenagers, this is something one can WITNESS. Here is what I know, those kids with really over protected parents tend to not know how to be safe, how to navigate the world, how far the rope goes before it chokes them. They have had someone telling them to stop, before they can experience the world. The kids who make stupid TEENAGE mistakes, tend to actually learn these lessons and by the time they are “functioning” adults, they actually make smarter decisions. Now you really cannot have children live in a bubble, they need to take risks, find out where their own limits are, I believe this is why their frontal lobe shrinks, for they feel they are fearless and immortal and this is a good thing. They have this great ability to rebound, to recover if the risk taking detrimental. The older we get the harder this is to do, to recover to feel invincible. What is interesting in the replies, is the thought that these children are awful, reckless human beings. They are just living life the way their brains are wired for them to do. If you do not have a very large frontal lope, maybe the only way to develop it correctly is to TAKE RISKS!? They possibly can not be cautious and maybe just maybe their brain development is stunted if they are…as a parent I always hope my children learn these life lessons earlier than later. I would rather have a teenager act like one when they are teens than in their twenties, thirties…and also to find the gusto to enjoy life to push limits to feel strong, brave while they still can!

  15. ripley

    thanks for writing this.

    One thing about being “too old for argue for anarchy.” I am old enough to know that anarchy is a political philosophy and way of organizing people with a long history including many successes at many levels, often failing because of brutal violence from above or outside. (And when the “successes” of non-anarchy include achievements such as the Katrina response, the California prison system, Guantanamo, Hiroshima, Tuskegee experiments, and slavery, we ought to be very serious about the terms on which we define success or failure.) Anyway, my point is that anarchy is not the province of the young, nor of those who don’t think about the future.

    In fact, the people I know who most reliably ask “where will this lead?” are anarchists, who are forever vigilant about demanding that we seriously analyze whether this is the right moment to hand over our autonomy to someone else, or trust in the authority of others. It rarely is.

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