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Illusion of Invulnerability: The source of actions, both great and crazy

Text Box: George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  But what if some young whipper-snapper quips, “Experience and knowledge are wasted on the old”?  In youth, there is an “Illusion of Invulnerability” that is the source of things both great and crazy.  While not entirely “owned” by youth, many varieties of irrational behavior are largely dominated by youth (e.g., drunk driving, speeding, use of illegal drugs, excessive gambling, unprotected sex, bar-room brawls, etc.).

Similarly, some varieties of wonderful behavior are largely dominated by youth, such as starting a new business and getting married.  All other things being equal, a 70-year-old is much less likely than a 30-year-old to marry or start a new business.  Even though starting a new business and getting married are generally considered good things to do, they remain statistically “risky” (e.g., both are major, life-altering decisions that have only a 50% chance of succeeding).  Why, then, do youth continue to engage in these behaviors?

The answer according to psychologists can be found in the concept of the “Illusion of Invulnerability.”  Simply stated, youth usually have an especially optimistic perception about their skills and their future, and they usually do not make realistic appraisals of risk and the possibility/prospect of failure.  This works out well when the “Illusion of Invulnerability” leads to risk-taking behavior that has good results (e.g., succeeding in business, having a happy marriage, and exploring, discovering, and inventing something wonderful), however the “Illusion of Invulnerability” can also sometimes lead to risk-taking behavior that has unpleasant or even tragic results.

Among very young children we also see great evidence of the “Illusion of Invulnerability.”  The 18-month-old baby who climbs onto the kitchen counter gives no consideration to the fact that he is precariously perched over ceramic tile at twice his own height (which would be like the average adult tenuously hovering 11 feet in the air!).

The frustrated 2-year-old who strikes out and hits an adult stranger in the supermarket is oblivious to the fact that the “victim” he “attacked” is 5 times his size (which would be like the average adult randomly choosing and hitting a 750-pound giant).  The defiant 5-year-old who mischievously “steals” and eats a single cookie from the cookie jar and truly believes that he will not get caught (which would be like stealing your neighbor’s car, and then denying the accusation as the stolen car sits in your driveway).

Parents often find themselves exasperated and shaking their heads in disbelief as they ask their children, “Why would you do that?!”  Well, now you know exactly why.  Without a doubt, the “Illusion of Invulnerability” lies at the heart of actions great (and crazy), and the “Illusion of Invulnerability” is especially prominent among youth.

That said, when kids demonstrate “crazy,” risky, and/or defiant behavior, “Maximum Strength Parents” could use their knowledge and understanding of the “Illusion of Invulnerability” to (1) respect their child’s “courage,” (2) remain calm and free of frustration, and (3) stay strongly committed to the great need to decrease the negative behavior while increasing the positive behavior through firm, loving discipline.