Why Teens Don’t Learn From Bad News



Sometime, you don’t know why, but you can’t accept the truth. Even when you know it is. I’m sure that has happened to you, denial is a normal stage of grief. It’s also a normal stance to take when someone disagrees with something you believe to be true. Many people, though in the face of factual information, prefer to hold onto outdated beliefs. Human beings are sentimental creatures and we have some trouble letting go of things we think are true. There are many examples of this phenomenon throughout history, from thinking the world was flat, to the belief the sun revolved revolved around the earth . And that keeps going on…

A study published late last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, entitled “Human Development of the Ability to Learn from Bad News” explained that human beings have “a natural tendency to discount bad news while incorporating good news into beliefs.”

This has been previously studied and even comes with its own name: the “good news-bad news effect.” This study, carried out by Moutsiana, et al., showed a striking contrast between the ability to incorporate bad news into beliefs depending on the age of the subject. Tweens and teens show a reduced ability to learn from warnings, disagreements, or negatively interpreted pieces of information compared to adults.

No one likes to hear bad news. No one likes to hear that they’re wrong. We have a hard time incorporating it because, it changes our perception of the world around us. For tweens and teens, it’s even harder to learn from bad news. As kids, people are protected from the consequences of their actions. As they get older, sometimes it’s challenging to accept that the consequences for actions are real (since they were previously protected from it by parents or guardians).

Adolescents have more trouble learning from bad news than those either older or younger. Teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior than younger children or adults. They are, unfortunately, less likely to learn from bad news (or notions of personal vulnerability or mortality). This tells something crucial about how the mind of a teenager functions. Educating teens about risky behavior is important but if we frame it in the light of bad news, they’re more likely to discount the information they’re given. This could be one important factor in why teens and tweens tend to discount or marginalize warnings they’re given about risky behavior. When you plan to live forever and you’re still alive, so far you’re not wrong. As a teenager, coming to terms with one’s own mortality can be especially hard to accept. When you think you’re impervious to consequences or invulnerable from the results of risky behavior, you’re more likely to engage in them, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, or unsafe sexual activity.

Assessing this information from the viewpoint of those who want to communicate with teens sheds a new light on the effects of bad news. Relying on posing a problem or a negative piece of information to lead to a self-improvement won’t help.

A funny point is that most of the marketers have understood it as campaigns aimed at teens focus in great majority on positive messages. In acting that way, they know they will have a much easier time resonating with beliefs held by their target.

Parents and educators must understand this and apply it as well. I know, it’s not always easy. . . .

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  1. Teens Brain Shuts Down When Mom Is Scolding | Valerie Grison Blog - December 17, 2014

    […] Does this mean that, as parents, we should save the energy and stop reprimanding them? No. What this study reminds us, or teaches us, is that the more positive and less critical you are in your discussions with your teens, the more information will reach their brains. I wrote a piece about this specific subject: “Why Teens Don’t Learn From Bad News” […]

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