Ethics: How Do Adolescents Feel When Making a Big Decision?

For many adolescents, the first major life decision they will make is about college. More specifically, for increasing numbers of adolescents, this decision concerns which college they will attend. At first blush, a decision such as this may sound relatively easy. But think, for a moment, of all that can be involved. The college one chooses can influence not only the type of work one pursues in life but, more immediately, other aspects of one’s life as well, such as where one lives, the friendships one maintains, and even the extent to which one goes into debt. How do adolescents feel when making such a life-framing decision? In order to find out, one must ask adolescents to talk about how they feel about a potentially difficult, and often personal, process.

What ethical concerns guide such research? The overriding principle governing any research with humans is to protect the dignity and welfare of the subjects who participate in the research. Investigators inform the subjects in their study that their participation is voluntary and can be discontinued at any point. They also inform them of anything that could affect their willingness to participate. Once individuals agree to serve as subjects, investigators assume responsibility for protecting them from physical or psychological distress. After the data have been collected, the investigators debrief the subjects, informing them about the nature of the study and removing any misconceptions that may have arisen. If investigators suspect any undesirable consequences, they have the responsibility to correct them. Any information gained about participants is confidential.

Let’s look at some research that illustrates these principles. Kathleen Galotti and Steven Kozberg (1996) at Carleton College asked high school juniors and seniors to describe, in writing, the process of making a decision about college and how they felt about it. Students initially wrote answers to these questions in the spring of their junior year and twice again as seniors. Prior to beginning the research, however, the investigators obtained written parental consent for students who were less than 18 years old as well as the consent of the students themselves. Notice that in order for participation to be voluntary, participants had to know what it was they were agreeing to. Accordingly, students and parents were informed that the research was about individuals’ college decision making. A second, and related, aspect of voluntary participation is the right of participants to discontinue the research at any point. In fact, a number of the students who completed several of the measures for this study dropped out before the research was finished.

How do high school students feel about the process of choosing a college? In general, these students gave themselves good marks for the way they handled the decision-making process but agreed that the process itself is stressful and at times even overwhelming. As one student put it:

Choosing what you’re going to do for a living and going to college are really big decisions that are going to affect the rest of your life and if you don't choose what’s best then you have screwed up your life! . . . It’s a rather confusing and bewildering decision. There are many colleges to choose from and they all seem alike. The brochures for colleges tend to seem similar to any other college brochure. It’s one of the first large decisions in a person’s life and it can affect the rest of life. That prospect is daunting. (Galotti & Kozberg, 1996, pp. 11–12)



K. M. Galotti & S. F. Kozberg. (1996). Adolescents’ experience of a life-framing decision. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 25: 3–16.