Stop scaring teenagers. Start talking to them.

Why do teachers think scaring teenagers is the best way to get their attention? Scare tactics are common for sex, crime, parenthood, and alcohol and drug abuse. For years, schools have tried to warn students about the dangers of drunk driving by hauling in smashed cars (or smashing them on school property), using fake blood and stage make-up to recreate the effects of accident injuries, or having a teacher dress in costume as the Grim Reaper and pull students out of class who have “died” in an auto accident. This week, El Camino High School in San Diego, California, is defending a routine that involved local cops delivering some tragic news.

From the Associated Press report:

Highway patrol officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to announce some horrible news: Students had been killed in car wrecks over the weekend.

Classmates wept. Some became hysterical. A few hours and many tears later, though, the pain turned to fury when the teenagers learned that it was all a hoax — a scared-straight exercise designed by school officials to dramatize the consequences of drinking and driving.

At PyschCentral, Renée M. Grinnell thinks these stunts work better on reporters than they do on teens. He cites an op-ed by Michael Haines, a member of the National Social Norms Institute (NSNI), that reported increased drinking after a 1989 “scare-tactic” campaign at Northern Illinois University. At the Nudge blog, we think harnessing social norms is an underutilized strategy for changing behavior. NSNI has embarked on a number of innovative and successful experiments to reduce drinking, smoking, and drug use, and increase seat belt usage and tax compliance in states around the country.

One such strategy was a 15-month DWI awareness campaign in Montana targeted at 21-34-year-olds. Using a controlled randomized experiment approach, researchers communicated their messages through many of the standard channels (radio, TV, posters and billboards), most of which used the sentence, “MOST Montana Young Adults (4 out of 5) Don’t Drink and Drive” At the end of the campaign, researched reported changes in behavior and even higher acceptance of tougher drunk driving laws.

  • A 14% relative decrease in the percentage who reported personally driving after drinking.
  • A 17% relative increase in the percentage who supported passing a law to decrease the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) legal limit for driving to .08%.
  • A 15% relative increase in the percentage always using non-drinking designated drivers.

NSNI has adapted these sorts of social norms campaigns to individual schools, including an alcohol and tobacco awareness program at the high school in Evanston, just north of Chicago, that used posters like this one to mix romantic angst with smoker’s breath. These types of campaigns are particularly flexible in that they can incorporate not only age specific codes or language, but school specific ones as well. Maybe next year El Camino High School will trying something different.

Addendum: Be sure to read the Drug Education Forum post referenced in the comment below for an interesting finding on Scared Straight programs to prevent crime. A great find!

5 Responses to “Stop scaring teenagers. Start talking to them.”

  1. drugeducationforum Says:

    I was reading about scared-straight initiatives yesterday. They weren’t quite as extreme as the ones you point to, but the evidence for their effectiveness doesn’t seem good.

  2. nobody.really Says:

    Testimonial: In Minnesota, a billboard declares that MOST parents do not permit minors to consume alcohol in their homes. 20 years ago I attended a pre-prom party where a parent was serving champagne (we were then driven to prom), and I internalized the idea that this was appropriate behavior for formal, inter-generational social occasions. The billboard has definitely caused me to reconsider.

  3. Nate Stearns Says:

    I’ve just finished Nudge and I’ve been thinking about how Nudges might be used in classrooms. The most obvious would be to publish how much and often students do homework or pass a class. Assuming that info is high it migt cause struggling students to work harder. Still, it might cause those students who are doing fine to slack.

    The other idea would be to ban homework. Homework is especially difficult to control because it’s at home and outside of the classroom environment. If all work got done in a controlled place where other people were doing the same thing it might be more successful.

  4. Erel Avineri Says:

    I came across an interesting paper, recently published at “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin”. The authors explored the effects of providing mortality-related health-risk information from a “terror management
    theory” perspective. They argue that “health promotion campaigns that focus solely on mortality-related risks might actually trigger increased performance of the very behaviors they aim to deter, and hence have negative health repercussions for some recipients”.
    This finding is very much in line with research by Taubman Ben-Ari and colleagues that has shown that mortality salience manipulations, in which individuals were asked to respond to open-ended questions about their own death, generate increased intentions to take driving risks.

  5. Dan everyman Says:

    In my area the officers and teachers that did one of these “fake accidents” were charged criminally and civily. It turns out their brochure about “maximising fear, terror and grief” put them thoroughly in violation of the new domestic terrorism law.

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