The study included participants aged 9 to 26 who were asked to estimate their risk of experiencing different kinds of bad events, such as being in a car crash or getting lung disease. They were then shown the actual statistics for such events.
Younger participants were less likely to learn from negative information, while the ability to learn from positive information was the same across all ages in the study, according to the researchers at University College London, in England.
The results -- published in the Sept. 9-13 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- might help shed light on why health warnings and graphic images of diseased lungs on cigarette packaging appear to have had little effect at reducing the number of teens who start smoking, the researchers said.
"The findings could help to explain the limited impact of campaigns targeted at young people to highlight the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risky behaviors," lead author Dr. Christina Moutsiana said in a Wellcome Trust news release.
The researchers suggested that health and safety campaigns that highlight the positive effects of desired behaviors could have a greater impact.
"We think we're invincible when we're young and any parent will tell you that warnings often go unheeded," study senior author Dr. Tali Sharot said in the news release. "Our findings show that if you want to get young people to better learn about the risks associated with their choices, you might want to focus on the benefits that a positive change would bring rather than hounding them with horror stories."
The study was funded by Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.
"It's important that we understand how young people interpret risk to make lifestyle choices that will impact their future health if we are to stem the rise in preventable diseases," Dr. John Williams, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust, said in the news release.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for a healthy life.