Alcohol Therapy, the Fast Food “Man,” and Core Values

02.02.2018 |

Episode #7 of the course How to talk to teenagers by Andy Earle


During my first semester of college, I was sentenced to weekly meetings with a therapist. This was the standard “first offense” punishment for underage students caught with alcohol on campus. I don’t remember much of what we talked about in those sessions. But there was one thing she said that really impacted me.

“From what you’ve been telling me,” she said during one of our last meetings, “it sounds like being in control of your own life is really important to you. Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “absolutely.”

She thought for a moment. “So, how does that work when you’re drinking?” she asked. “Doesn’t being intoxicated make you less in control of your own behavior?”

Whoa. She was totally right.

This woman had taken the time to identify what was important to me. Then she pointed out in a non-confrontational way that my behavior was inconsistent with my values.

Of course, I didn’t understand this at the time, but the therapist was employing some powerful psychology that has been confirmed by decades of persuasion research.


The Science of Core Values

In one study, researchers gave college students two different messages designed to convince them to get more exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables. The first message, given to half the participants, included a large number of facts about the body and about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. The second message was the same length as the first message and contained the same basic information but was framed differently. It was specifically designed to appeal to two values commonly held by college students: autonomy/independence and social justice.

These students were told that fast food companies are getting rich by keeping them and people like them unhealthy. And these companies are polluting the environment and exploiting the resources of our planet. So, by exercising and eating more vegetables, these students would be able to make a positive impact and stick it to the fast food “man.”

Students who got the second message were significantly more likely to eat their vegetables and complete the recommended exercises during the coming weeks.


Making Your Message Self-Relevant

This technique is effective because when you frame your message in terms of your teen’s core values, they will be much more likely to see it as self-relevant.

Way back in Lesson 2, we saw that lasting behavioral change is much more likely to occur when you convince your teen of something through the central route as opposed to the peripheral route. And studies show that self-relevance is one of the most effective ways to get someone to process something through the central route.

When you frame your message in terms of your teen’s core value, you will help them see that what you are saying actually fits in perfectly with their own desires. Take a moment right now to identify your teen’s core value.

Here are a few of the most common possibilities:

admiration: being looked up to

creativity: doing things in novel ways

independence: being free and not getting bossed around

power: having control over others

social justice: making a difference

success: winning in sports or academics


Implementing This with Your Teenager

So, after you explain the brain science, establish empathy, and remove the blame, it’s time to put that core value you identified into practice.

Say something like, “Listen, I know how important [value] is to you. From what I’ve seen, it’s one of your most important values. To you, it probably seems like I’m making it harder for you to obtain [value] by bringing this topic up. But believe me, that’s not my intention at all.”

Finally, explain to your teen that your job as a parent is to make sure they are able to live a life consistent with this core value in the long run, not just during high school.

In the next lesson, we will discover how to flip this value and subtly show your teen that their behavior is inconsistent with this value when you adopt a more long-term perspective.

See you tomorrow!

Warm regards,



Recommended reading

In my experience, there are ten values that are, by far, the most common among teenagers today, and I put together this guide to help you figure out which one your teen most likely holds: “Identifying Your Teen’s Core Value.”


Recommended book

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and‎ Ashley Merryman


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