nizing and assessing risk since the time of Aristotle. Adolescents typically are viewed as being unable to judge risk appropriately, and as having strong beliefs in their invulnerability to harm. In recent years, the question of adolescents’ competence has emerged as a result of efforts to regulate the legal rights of adolescents to make decisions in the realms of medical and mental health treatment, including their rights to refuse treatment or to obtain treatment without parental knowledge and/or consent, as well as their rights to participate in research, including experimental clinical trials. Additionally, adolescents’ capacity to exercise existing rights is of fundamental interest to the juvenile justice system (Butterfield, 1996).

Much of the interest in adolescents’ perceptions of risk and vulnerability is motivated by the desire to understand why youth engage in potentially threatening behaviors, with an aim toward guiding the development of interventions that will be successful in preventing their onset. Relevant questions for gaining such understanding include the following:

  • What skills are needed for assessing risk?

  • Do adolescents have these skills?

  • How competent are adolescents in identifying and assessing risk?

  • What kinds of factors influence adolescents’ ability to judge risk?

  • How do adolescents’ perceptions compare to those of adults?

  • Do adolescents’ perceptions of risk influence their decisions?

In this paper, we review existing data to address these questions. We acknowledge that answers to these questions will not give a complete picture of why adolescents engage in risky behavior—other crucial questions remain, such as whether adolescents are competent decision makers or able to apply their decision-making skills in all situations. Nevertheless, a focus on risk perception is a reasonable vantage point from which to consider adolescent risk and vulnerability. We will begin our discussion by giving the reader a sense of the size of the risks themselves. That is, how big are the risks that adolescents face? This will provide a context for later assessing the adequacy of adolescents’ judgments concerning those risks.

How Big Are the Risks?

Some of the threats to adolescents’ well-being pose sizable risks. For example, 40 percent of Latino youth fail to complete high school or the equivalent, such as the General Education Development Tests (GED) (Fed-

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