Teenage Virgins II

In my last post, I argued that (the truly excellent show) Friday Night Lights might unwittingly be exacerbating the mistaken idea that the vast majority of high-schoolers have sex. I worried that this discrepancy between what adolescents believe (virgins are rare) and the truth (high-school virgins are the norm) is a dangerous combination.

Here’s why I’m concerned (and what it means for public service messages with regard not only to abstinence but a host of other issues).

Robert Cialdini has shown time and again that people like to conform their behavior to that of others. His new book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, is chock full of examples. Want to get hotel guests to forego daily towel cleaning? Include a message telling them that most other guests reuse their towels. Want them to recycle even more? Tell them that most people using their very room recycle.

One of my favorite examples of the powerful urge to conform with the majority comes from an experiment he ran at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Conformity theory suggests the park service was sending exactly the wrong message when it posted signs saying:

Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.

Here’s how his paper describes the experiment:

We gained permission from Petrified Forest National Park officials to place secretly marked pieces of petrified wood along visitor pathways.

Over five consecutive weekends, Cialdini and coauthors varied the signs seen at the entrance to each path. Some weekends, visitors saw a sign that, like the original park-service sign, emphasized the wrong norm:

Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

This wording was accompanied by pictures of three visitors taking wood.

Other weekends, visitors saw:

Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

This wording was accompanied by a picture of a lone visitor stealing a piece of wood, with a red circle-and-bar symbol superimposed over his hand.

Sure enough the “many past visitors” framing led to more than four times the amount of pilfering of petrified wood (7.92 percent vs. 1.67 percent). But what’s truly amazing is that putting up no sign at all did a better job than putting up a sign suggesting that “everybody does it”:

In a finding that should petrify the National Park’s management, compared with a no-sign control condition in which 2.92 percent of the pieces were stolen, the social-proof message resulted in more theft (7.92 percent). In essence, it almost tripled theft. Thus, theirs was not a crime prevention strategy; it was a crime promotion strategy. (Yes!, p. 22)

I’m not calling for the writers of Friday Night Lights to change the story arc. But Cialdini’s simple idea is that public service messages would do well to implicitly tell high-schoolers: “Be like most of your peers — don’t have sex while you’re in high school.”

Indeed, Cialdini has me thinking that all those “Above the Influence” commercials are seriously off base:

These commercials implicitly suggest that most of your peers are going to be using drugs and that you have to gird yourself to be above their influence. They are too close to the signs in the Petrified Forest. Instead of saying “Don’t do what most kids your age do,” they might say “Do what most kids your age do: just say no.”

We might want to start by finding out what high-schoolers think and correct misperceptions. These spots might be a lot more effective if they change their message to implicitly say: Most high-schoolers don’t use meth. Most high-schoolers don’t binge drink. In fact, most high-schoolers don’t use drugs at all.


"Is there any justifyable interst in highschoolers not having sex?"
The justifiable interest is always teaching those things that result in the fewest teens practicing unsafe sex.

ISTR that the older someone is when they first have sex, the more likely they are to actually practice safe sex. If that is indeed true, it would be a very good reason to not try to 'normalize' (promote, statistically speaking) teen sex.

Morally, I would find it abhorrent to misrepresent the occurrence of sex either way. Just as we shouldn't demonize sex and the teens that have sex, we also shouldn't suggest that it's 'normal' to have sex in high school if, in actuality, it isn't.


#5 - The book says that the cleaning ladies reported how many towels were reused per each room. The numbers weren't based on self-reporting.


In junior high school, I remember a poster stating that "only 25% of Americans smoke." At 12-years old, I knew very few smokers and I got the message that it's more popular than I thought it was. Two years later, I was a smoker.


I have to say that all of the messages out there - positive or negative, TV-show or public service announcement - were never as influential on me as my parents' messages of responsibility. We are not hyper-religious and it wasn't like I didn't have the chance to do drugs, drink or have sex - I simply possessed the tools to know what was right for me and how to keep from ruining my future.

Parents don't realize the influence they have over their children, instead ceding it away to teachers, television shows and general public opinion. If some of them took the time to talk to their children and set positive examples, we might not have to seek other ways of influencing children.


Your original post started by saying the character in the TV show "lost" her virginity. In the words of George Carlin, lost would imply looking around to find something or that some value of a product had decreased.

While admittedly there can be risks, just as 16 year-olds driving motor vehicles, when safe practices are observed it's not a big deal. Birth control and infection control have made boogeymen (and women) obsolete. They live only in our minds as a vaguely superstitious homage to antiquity and religion.


Where I work (program for recovering addicts) there has been a big to-do recently about bathrooms being left in a terrible state. Someone put up a sign in big block letters saying, "THE RESTROOM IS HERE FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE, PLEASE HELP KEEP IT CLEAN."

After reading this, I've replaced it with a cartoon face saying, "Good thing most people clean up when they're done in here! Maybe you could, too?" (The face is because people tend to "do the right thing" when faced with faces - thus their popularity on tip jars.)


The problem is that most teenagers want to have sex regardless of what their peers are doing. Most are virgins not out of choice.


This specific example and study was discussed in "Nudge: Improving Decision About Health, Wealth and Happiness." If a great read if you found this post of interest or are a business owner, salesman, any activity you do that might require you to persuade or nudge folks in a direction you'd like to see them go.


I don't see the problem with teenagers having sex. Virginity doesn't really have a value, as #25 says. You're much less likely to catch something or impregnate/be impregnated using modern technology like condoms.

mike in Texas

I would love to know which high schools ur taking about. I only knew like 2 people that were virgins by junior year and I knew lots of people.

And I gotta say. ALV, your post is absurd. Parents have limited influence that is further limited by their busy schedule. The implication that u "didnt ruin ur future" by not having sex, smoking, and doing drugs is alarmist and naive. I had great experiences through high school and college often as a result of smoking, drinking, having sex, and/or doing drugs. Now im perfectly successful and happyand wouldnt change my experience for the world.


Any survey regarding drugs or sex, taken by teens, is going to be really irrelevant. I remember taking those surveys once a year and quickly filling out 'no' for each answer. What would I possibly gain by filling in yes if it were true? Compared to what I could lose?

I would say that in an average high-school, by senior year probably 50% of the kids have had sex at least once. However, the 'cool' group of kids are perceived to be having more sex and out of that you get this show. It's about kids on the football team in Texas where football is god. If they're not having sex, then who is? The show would have no credibility to teens (or most viewers, for that matter) if the characters weren't having sex.

Matthew R.

Are disease and unwanted pregnancy the only potential negative consequences of making mistakes in sex? One doesn't need to be a Christian in order to understand that sex has an emotional component (even for males). There are completely secular reasons for wanting to reduce the likelihood of children making mistakes with their sexuality.

Julien Couvreur

Hi Ian,

Along the same lines, have you noticed that most (if not all) TV shows involving sexual behavior do not seem to practice safe sex?

When was the last time you saw a love scene on TV (or in a movie)?
When was the last time you saw a condom or the mention of a condom on TV? Never?


Matthew (#32), exploring emotions and emotional situations is a necessary part of growth. Suppressing that among teenagers will just result in future adults being as immature as today's teenagers.

Furthermore, *relationships* have emotional components, whether or not sex is involved. Suppressing sex won't get rid of the emotional complications. You'd have to go beyond "don't have sex" and start saying "don't date at all"!


Binge drinking as five or more drinks at a time has always killed me. Five drinks? That's it? Sheesh.


I find your way of thinking rather strange.

Of course we could censure media and tell them what to show and what not, but who would set those rules and the norms for "normal"?

The sensible thing would be to give children the knowledge and competence to deal responsible with tv and other media and to understand that such shows almost always have to exaggerate, because they need an exciting plot.
Of course that takes a little more time and thought than just asking the media to change what they do, but it will work much better.

And if teens are raised that responsible and sensible, they can decide when to have safe sex themselves.


I agree with Hal, Jessica, Roc, PsychoHistorian, etc...of course it's important to accurately represent the realities of adolescent sexual practices so that the huge number of misconceptions can be cleared, but if the sole purpose of this is to stop our precious children from 'doin' it', then your time may be better spent simply teaching them about safe sex, and letting them decide for themselves.

But what makes it ironic (or perhaps cleverly convincing) is that by implicitly assuming that High Schoolers shouldn't be having sex, Ayres is using the same tactic that he describes: subtly swaying the readers opinion by implicitly including the message that most people hold this position. What this points to is that this described tactic is one used unconsciously by most writers, and believed unconsciously by most readers.


Wow! That was an anti-drug video? I thought it was "ways to express your individuality"!


I just add one late comment: it is also a moral and psychological issue to ease the frustration of teenagers, who already stress out too much about when their life will really start (in all dimensions). Most are "behind" the average in some sense, and almost everybody must be "behind" somebody in at least one dimension (excellence, life goals, hobbies, sports, boyfriend-girlfriend, sex).

Let us relieve our young, especially if they are not even behind in reality.

(And you can still them that the race to sex is secondary at best among more important goals.)


well, in an adulterated world, and when people used to breed at 12, both males and females, becoming adult and 'professional' at age 8 with cigarettes and gin.

i think that teenagers are lying. unless tests are devised there is really no way to know.