Laws Won’t Prevent Against Risky Behavior Says Monmouth Psychology Prof
The summer heat hasn’t let up, but the rate of fatal drowning has significantly fallen off from early in the season when lifeguards weren’t on duty.
This has prompted some to call for stricter penalties for those that knowingly swim in dangerous waters, but a psychology expert believes there is no legislating against the risk taking behavior some people are naturally prone to.
In response to the troubling number of drowning deaths in the first few weeks of summer, all of them from you men, Joe Bongiovanni Asbury Park’s beach safety supervisor, has stated he wants the State to pass laws imposing stiff fines on anyone caught swimming after lifeguards have gone home.
However Dr. Janice C. Stapley, Associate Professor of Psychology at Monmouth University believes a law like that “wouldn’t affect adolescents in the slightest.”
“I don’t mean to be glib about it but it’s not the kind of thing that would have an effect on adolescents or emerging adults.”
Stapley says the five fatal drowning deaths’s this summer all are connected by a unified thread, those who fell victim were all in the “adolescent” (12 to late teens) or ” emerging adult” (18 to 25) age range. She notes much of the knowingly risky behavior, such as swimming in the ocean without a lifeguard present, is often committed by people who are still in this developmental age which research shows can go up into the mid twenties.
“The problem is in adolescent and emerging adulthood there is a disconnect between one knows cognitively and what one chooses to do emotionally.”
She cites the work of David Elkind who coined the term “personal fable”, which states that many young adults and adolescents cannot imagine a world that does not contain them in it.
“It’s an idea that they can’t imagine a world that doesn’t contain them in it. And even though they understand probability, they might have studied probability in high school they don’t see the statistics as applying to them.”
Similar to why adolescents smoke cigarettes.
Stapley says research shows that there is a biological basis for much of the behavior that is observed.
“What you see is that the sub-cortical of the brain, the ones responsible for emotion develop before prefrontal cortex that control and helps you in making good decisions.” Which means “emerging adults and adolescents can know and be told ‘yes this is dangerous, yes I know that’ but they will still make a decision on emotion or their feelings.”
With so much biological evidence to support why the behavior goes one, what can be done to prevent people?
Stapley says the best thing possible method is by providing more guidance, supervision, and structure.
“You can’t on them to make good decisions.”
She explains that simply having some kind of responsible presence, even one lifeguard patrolling the beach will ultimately do more than any kind of law.
“The more stories can be personalized and the kids can hear about it in terms of somebody they know, and is much more real, then they’re much more likely to internalize it that it can happen to them.”