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It Won't Happen To Me: Optimistic Bias About School Violence

Post-Columbine, children and adolescents’ knowledge about school violence has increased. But they believe it won’t happen at their school, and not to them personally. This demonstrates a health psychology theory called optimistic bias. In lay terms, optimistic bias translates to “bad things happen to other people.” People who believe they won’t get cancer, continue to smoke and don’t use sun screen. Only poor students with loose morals get STDs, so, “I don’t have to worry about safe sex.” My findings show this also holds true for school violence. Adolescents exhibit optimistic bias and fail to take precautions or notice red flags. Zero tolerance policies make this worse: If my friend is upset about being bullied in school and says “I’m going to do something about it,” I know if I report it, my friend will be suspended or expelled from school.

This gets compounded online. Third-person perception is a communications theory that says the media influences others more than me. This is well-documented in advertising, news media, even fake news. Like optimistic bias, people act on their perceptions, not reality. Students who believe they are not affected by social media become more passive consumers, less critical thinkers. While most students have experienced some form of cyber bullying, only 14% ever tell a parent. Very few take any precautions, like restricting their social media accounts or blocking peers who harass them.

The domestic violence program I work with has been really successful at reducing optimistic bias using peer-to-peer programs. Doing applied research that directly impacts violence prevention programs has been incredibly rewarding. As new social media platforms become popular, it’s important that our understanding also evolves. Future generations and their safety depend on it.


(Audio recording by Gary Miller, WBVP, Beaver Falls).


John Chapin is a professor of communications at Penn State University and the Communications Discipline Coordinator at Penn State Beaver. He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1998.

Dr. Chapin conducts applied community-based research in violence prevention education. He has authored over 50 journal articles, including recent publications in The Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma and The Journal of Peace Psychology.

Dr. Chapin is the recipient of the Stephen Schafer National Research Award for significant contributions to the field of crime victim rights from the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) and the Governor’s Victim Service Pathfinder Allied Professional Award from Pennsylvania Governor Rendell.

Chapin recently served as the President of the Board of Directors of the Women’s Center of Beaver County and is an active volunteer at multiple domestic violence and sexual assault centers throughout the western region of Pennsylvania.


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