In this writing, I want to show how common psychological biases lead to the (largely incorrect) belief that young people in their adolescent years are incompetent, immature, and incapable of responsibly making decisions for themselves. In particular, it is evident that, while very young children are naturally incapacitated, at some point people become competent to make decisions for themselves, enter into contracts, and work, however, most of the world draws the line at an inappropriately high age. The way I conclude that the age of (most commonly) 18 is in fact too high an age, can be found here, here, and here, so I will not focus on that here. Instead, I will explain why the vast majority of the world incorrectly believes that young people are incompetent until the age of 18, and continues to discriminate against youth ages 13-17 by using both laws and social norms. (This article is written from mostly a US perspective. In the EU, the term "lacking capacity" or "incapacitated" is normally used, rather than "incompetent", for a person who lacks or is assumed to lack the mental capacity to make informed decisions for legal purposes.)
It has long been known by psychologists that when people are uncertain of a quantity or number, they become extremely susceptible to external suggestions, though they may deny it. In “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”, Daniel Kahneman et al. describe a simple experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon. Volunteers were given a “wheel of fortune” to spin in order to give them a number from 0 to 100. In fact the wheel was set up so that it gave some of the subjects the number 10 and the other subjects the number 65. Subjects were then asked whether the number on the wheel was higher than, or lower than, the percentage of African countries belonging to the United Nations. Then the subjects were asked to estimate the percentage of African countries belonging to the United Nations. Those who received the number “10” estimated 25% on average, while those that received the number 65 estimated 45% on average. In other words, the number they were asked to compare to the percentage of African countries belonging to the United Nations acted as an “anchor”, or reference point, for the study subjects’ estimate of this number. The mere suggestion of a number, even when the subjects were not deliberately led to believe it was an estimate, acted to move the subjects’ estimate towards the given number.
In the case of the age of majority, the relevance of anchoring bias should be fairly obvious – people in general do not, as a rule, make an independent judgment of when persons are developed enough to make decisions for themselves. Instead of using their own judgment, they “anchor” onto the already-established age of majority. In other words, while they may think, and even vocally insist, that they are using their own judgment, we should not assume that they in fact are doing so. Instead, the “anchor” of the pre-existing age of majority causes them to bias their thinking so that their answer is pulled towards it. The age limits of 18 and 21 which are common to the modern world originate not from any detailed discussion of psychological development, rather, they come from military traditions. The age of 21 is often said to come from the Middle Ages - in guidelines of regarding when men are physically strong enough to carry body armor, whereas previously the age had been set at 14 when armor was not required in battle and thus less physical strength was needed. (“Studying Children in Context: Theories, Methods, and Ethics” by M. Elizabeth Graue, Daniel J. Walsh). The age of 21 remained in place for most of the Western world up until around 1970 or so. In other words, people’s beliefs became “anchored” to the age of 21. Then due to (in the US) a shortage of soldiers during the Vietnam War, the US government began conscripting young men down to age 18 into the armed forces to fight in the war. Because it seemed greatly unjust for people to be forced into the military and yet not be able to vote for the very leaders that decided to put them into the war, the voting age was lowered to 18 in the U.S. and most states followed shortly by lowering their ages of majority from 21 to 18. What we see is that 14, 21, and 18 have been at various points in time considered the most appropriate age of majority, but that the shifts had nothing to do with development or maturity, rather, they had to do with the needs of that country’s military at the time. Once that number acted as the “anchor”, people’s opinions shifted to match the “accepted” age. We can clearly see how the same anchoring bias that is described by Kahneman has caused most people to unwittingly almost totally suspend their own judgment – and that traditional ages of majority may persist for hundreds of years without being questioned!
In 1951, researcher Solomon Asch performed an experiment to test the degree to which people tend to conform, under social pressure, to the prevailing views of their peers – even against their better judgment. Three vertical bars of various heights were placed in a box labeled “A”, “B”, and “C”, and a fourth bar was placed outside the box. Participants of the experiment were asked which bar – A, B, or C, matched the height of the bar outside the box. Participants tested alone almost unanimously agreed since the bar lengths were different enough that a normal observer could easily see the correct answer. However, when other, “pretend” subjects were brought into the room and told to all give the same incorrect answer, and the actual subject was led to believe they were equal participants, nearly 40% of the experimental subjects gave into the social pressure and chose an answer that should obviously have been incorrect and the truth was staring them in the face!
[Source: Asch, S.E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men(pp. 177–190). Pittsburgh, PA:Carnegie Press.]
Conformity also allows for social traditions to persist and for prevailing attitudes to conform to traditions so that cultural variation can swamp individual variation in determining what people believe about fashion, beauty, family values, and of course, religion. But when it comes to beliefs about matters such as the age of majority, the effect of conformity is to further reinforce and strengthen the effect of anchoring bias, and suppress independent thought and judgment in favor of simply agreeing with the law of the land, without questioning it.
Obedience to authority
Stanley Milgram is another person that has conducted famous experiments in psychology that inform us of the factors that influence human thought and behavior. Experiments were conducted at Yale. In his experiments, subjects were told that they would be used to assist in an experiment on another subject (who was actually an actor) stationed in a chair that could deliver varying voltages of electricity to the (fake) subject, with the higher voltages able to produce a painful shock. The (fake) subject was supposedly involved in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on the memorization of words. Subjects were told to administer higher voltages when the (fake) subject “learner” made an error. Most of the actual subjects hesitated when it became clear that the (fake) subject was experiencing painfully powerful electric shocks. They wanted to stop pressing the button. However, whenever this occurred, Milgram instructed them to continue, and told them that it is absolutely essential to the experiment that they continue to press the button, and that it is not optional that they press the button. Many of them went back to pressing the button, and continuing to increase the voltage as the “test subject” made errors. This continued to the point that the subjects of the experiment were willing to deliver amazingly brutal and dangerous shocking voltages to the “test subject” who pretended to be yelling in pain. Many of the volunteers in the study delivered the maximum voltage – 450 volts (Typical household electrical sockets are only 120 volts)! Of course the actual electricity was not real and while participants suffered no physical harm or death, many of the actual subjects later experienced disturbing emotional consequences and regret regarding the way they behaved during the experiment.
[Surce: Milgram, Stanley (1963)."Behavioral Study of Obedience" Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. ]
The obedience to authority is another powerful effect that causes people to suspend their better judgment and - in effect – do what they are told, no matter the cost. Hence it is yet another factor that combines with the others to suppress what would otherwise be disagreement with a socially and legally accepted age of majority.
According to Dictionary.com, prejudice is “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.” The word has two parts in the stem, “pre-“ which means “before”, and “judice”, which is from the same word root as “judgment”, “judge”, and “judicial”. So literally, prejudice is judgment before the fact or facts. Prejudice is, of course, related to discrimination, bias, and stereotyping but is not exactly identical to those. It is usually used to refer to an attitude or thoughts about people belonging to a category that is, often unconsciously and unwittingly, perceived as inferior, for example a minority race, sex, or sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic/financial status or, yes, age.
Prejudice against young people, specifically against teenagers /adolescents, can take a variety of forms but there are quite close parallels between prejudice against youth and other prejudices against groups of people that have in the past been legally discriminated against even in “progressive” and “democratic” countries such as the US, and many of these prejudices were almost universally accepted along with the prejudice against youth. The thought process behind those prejudices was very similar. For instance John Adams, in the 18th century, explained it this way (QUOTE IS between the two rows of asterisks):
“It is certain in theory, that the only moral foundation of government is the consent of the people, but to what an extent shall we carry this principle? Shall we say, that every individual of the community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every act of legislation?...
…Why exclude women? …Because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience, in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides, their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children, that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares. And children have not judgment or will of their own…
Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open [such a] source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to [change] the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a [dime], will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and [surrender] all ranks, to one common level.”. (SOURCE: John Adams to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776; from Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854). Accessed on web site: John Adams, “John Adams Explains Why Women Should Not Be Able to Vote,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed June 9, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1646.
A few key observations may be noted here. One of them is that the people who are disqualified tend to be thought of as inferiors – women are described as “delicate” and “unfit”, and “children” (which included everyone under age 21) as “having not judgment or will of their own”. But another phenomenon seems quite interesting – many of the arguments against equal rights are based on an improper generalization of some attribute to a group of people. In short, it is a stereotype. For example, we see here that women, in contrast to men, are “unfit… for the enterprises of war”. But so too are men, if they are sick, old, disabled, etc. or even if they are pacifists/conscientious objectors. In other words, what we see is a “hasty generalization” that improperly neglects variations in individual circumstances. Perhaps an even better example is the comment that women are in charge of the children and thus unfit to participate in the economy. But this would not apply to childless women past menopause, nor to women whose children are grown. Again we see the hasty generalization/stereotype.
One can also gather a similarity from the LGBT debate – specifically some of the common arguments against gay marriage – for instance, that it improperly separates the concept of marriage from childbearing. But this argument would also apply to heterosex marriages involving women who are past menopause or those who have had hysterectomies. Again we have a hasty generalization (which is the stereotype) and a neglect for variations in individual circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that bans on gay marriage violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In other words, they say that it amounts to discrimination. The discrimination we see here against LGBT people can be related to discrimination against women, “children”, and the poor by the common phenomenon we see in all of these threads – that discrimination tends to be associated with two things – first, an implicit assumption that the people worthy of discrimination are in some way inferior, and second, that variations in individual circumstances are improperly ignored. The latter of these two is of course evidence itself of a specific subtype of prejudice, because they amount to “judgment before the fact” – the fact of variations in individuals’ circumstances.
The first of these two quite obviously relates to “children” even within John Adams’ view expressed above. The issue of ignoring individual circumstances, that is, stereotyping, also pertains to young people, though in ways that might be more subtle. For instance, it is often argued that young people don’t work or aren’t required to financially support themselves or contribute to the household. But the same reasoning was behind discrimination against the poor that was evidently rampant in John Adams’ time. Because they don’t contribute to the community via tax dollars, they should not vote, which is remarkably parallel to the argument that “children” should not vote because they don’t support the household, or indeed, the argument against women voting because they are at home taking care of children. There is no more reason to accept this argument for “children” under 21 years of age than there is to accept the argument for women or the poor. To the point, though, this argument neglects variations in individual circumstances, for example, some people actually grow businesses and become wealthy before age 21 or even 18 – resulting in high-profile cases of parents essentially stealing their millionaire children’s money away, an abuse of the legal privilege given to them. If the argument is that people should remain incapable of voting or signing contracts under the age of 18 because they don’t earn their keep – then what do we say of the millionaire young entrepreneurs? Again we have neglect of individual circumstances, which is one of the two big hallmarks of discrimination. Of course one could argue that these minors have the option of emancipation, but this is a very lengthy, costly and difficult legal process and in any case in most states is not available to those under age 16.
Consider also the case of the divorcee claiming alimony or an adult who is temporarily not working due to an injury, for example a broken leg. This adult is not acting as a breadwinner either, so by the financial argument, they should be stripped of their liberties. Yet again a failure to consider individual circumstances, and thus a hasty generalization/stereotype. How about orphaned youth or abandoned youth who are actually, even if only marginally, earning their keep? Neglect of circumstances yet again. And it is, in virtue of being a stereotype, related to prejudice against youth. The similarities described here between ageism against youth on the one hand and sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. on the other, are such striking similarities that we should be very suspicious of claims that ageism against youth is somehow rational while the other prejudices are not.
It is, of course, impossible for the government to account for everyone’s individual circumstances. But this is one of the big advantages of freedom of the individual. For it is only by giving the individual the freedom over his or her own life that the fullness of the person’s circumstances, and wishes, values, and desires, may be accounted for and respected. Without individual freedom of choice, there is no way to account for these factors. This is true for women, minority races, the poor, the LGBT, and – yes – young people.
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