Ask the Experts: Chipper Dean on Adolescent Risk Taking
April 26, 2012
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Assistant Professor of Psychology Chipper Dean discusses predicting condom use, high-risk drinking among young adults.
Question: You conduct research on the risk and protective behaviors of adolescents and young adults. What's your approach?
Answer: My undergraduate research assistants and I are assessing the attitudes, norms and self-efficacy related to behaviors and intent surrounding condom use and high-risk drinking, which we call party drinking. Using a model called the Integrative Model of Behavioral Prediction, we should be able to predict whether someone is actually going to engage in certain behaviors.
Condom use is a great example. If you intend to use a condom, but there's not one available in the heat of the moment, you might not use one. Or if you intend to use condoms but your partner doesn't want to, you might not have the skills necessary to negotiate condom use.
Q: Describe the work you're doing in local school districts.
A: The Centers for Disease Control conducts youth risk behavior surveillance in middle and high schools across the country, identifying and giving us a periodic snapshot of adolescent behavior. My team is going to survey local students about their behaviors, but we'll also go further and assess how social and psychological factors, skills and abilities affect behavior. Using the Integrative Model as our theoretical basis, we'll ask questions about attitudes, norms, behavioral control, sensation seeking and impulsiveness, personality characteristics, environmental factors and social factors — things like social support and school connectedness. We're basically trying to investigate the relationships of these different variables, see how they impact behavior and determine if they operate through these model variables. || Related link: faculty page
We have approval so far from the Lewisburg and Milton school districts. I'm really interested in taking a look at the differences between Union County and Northumberland County. Union County has some of the best health outcomes in the state; Northumberland County has some of the worst. We need more schools to participate so we can start to identify what it is about Union County that seems to be protective. What is it about those two counties that are right next to each other that influences risk behavior?
When we have the results, they'll contribute to the science of adolescent health and development. We'll also provide the information to the districts so they have a better idea of what's happening in their schools.
Q: You've also done some research within the Bucknell student population. What are you examining?
A: We have asked a set of open-ended questions to determine Bucknell students' most frequent beliefs regarding the advantages and disadvantages of party drinking and condom use.
Students are going to drink. Students are going to have sex. Those behaviors are part of development. Engaging in risk behavior is evolutionarily adaptive, and it's useful to us as a species. The problem is there are some negative outcomes, and we have to help students negotiate risk behavior in such a way that they're not permanently harmed.
So our questions are related to outcomes. Think about it from the high-risk drinking perspective: What do you see as the advantages of party drinking? What do you see as the disadvantages?
Some other questions addressed normative beliefs, such as: Who are the individuals or groups who would approve or think you should party drink? Who do you think would disapprove or think you shouldn't party drink? Who are the people who are most likely to party drink? Who are the people who are least likely to party drink? Then we assess control beliefs, which are beliefs about your perceived ability to control your own behavior: What are the things that make it easier for you or prevent you from party drinking?
We also asked about some factors that might influence how an individual responds — things like personality characteristics and individual differences like impulsiveness and sensation seeking.
Q: What have you found and what do you hope to do with your results?
A: In a study this year of 165 Bucknell students (which we are currently writing up for publication), almost 60 percent of our sample cited improved social interaction as a primary advantage of party drinking. The approval of peers, the role of the Greek system in social life on campus, and a perception that alcohol is widely available to students also seem to be associated with party drinking. When considering condom use, we see similar trends regarding the role of peers (they're pretty influential), as well as an association with alcohol use (which students associate with less consistent condom use).
Students report that increasing the availability of condoms on campus would improve condom use. We've also found that students seem to respect the opinions of Bucknell faculty and staff for both behaviors — which, I believe, points to a need for us to be vocal about these issues. If there are some beliefs that people have that aren't accurate, we can try to change those beliefs in order to change behavior.
Interviewed by Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
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