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, 1 (3), 165-74

Social Cognitive Development During Adolescence


Social Cognitive Development During Adolescence

Suparna Choudhury et al. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci.


Social relationships are particularly important during adolescence. In recent years, histological and MRI studies have shown that the brain is subject to considerable structural development during adolescence. Brain regions that are implicated in social cognition, including parts of prefrontal, parietal and superior temporal cortex, undergo the most pronounced and prolonged change. However, the development of social cognition during adolescence and its neural underpinnings remains poorly understood. Here, we begin by outlining how the brain changes between childhood and adulthood. We then describe findings that have emerged from behavioural and neuroimaging studies of the recognition of facial expression during adolescence. Finally, we present new data that demonstrate development of emotional perspective taking during adolescence. In this study, 112 participants, aged 8-36 years, performed a computerised task that involved taking an emotional perspective either from the participant's own point of view or from that of another person. The results showed that average difference in reaction time (RT) to answer questions in the first person perspective (1PP) and third person perspective (3PP) significantly decreased with age. The RT difference of adults tended to cluster close to the zero line (3PP = 1PP), while a greater proportion of pre-adolescents had higher difference values in both the positive (3PP > 1PP) and negative direction (1PP > 3PP) of the scale. The data suggest that the efficiency, and possibly strategy, of perspective taking develop in parallel with brain maturation and psychosocial development during adolescence.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Development of perspective taking during adolescence. Total of 120 stimuli, each of which consisted of a one-line sentence describing an everyday scenario, were presented on a laptop computer screen together with a question concerning how the participant himself or herself (for 1PP scenarios), or how a protagonist (for 3PP scenarios), would feel in such circumstances. The participant pressed the space bar after reading the question at his or her own pace. This elicited the presentation of two possible response choices in the form of simple cartoon faces, each representing one of five possible emotions: very happy, happy, neutral, sad, afraid and angry. Faces were used so that verbal ability did not affect response time. The participant was asked to choose one of the two possible faces in answer to each question, as quickly and accurately as possible. The questions were delivered in four blocks of 30 question and answer stimuli, in a pseudorandom order that was counterbalanced between participants. Each block of questions lasted approximately 2 min. Reaction times (RT), taken as the time in milliseconds (ms) between the presentation of the answer screen (two faces) and the key press for the chosen answer, were recorded. A practice condition was included and instructions emphasised that the participant should pay careful attention to the person whose perspective they were required to take.
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Difference between 3PP and 1PP (ΔRT) against age, showing direction of ΔRT. Differences are larger and more scattered in both directions for the younger participants. With increasing age, differences get closer to zero. The data indicate that children and young adolescents may have a less systematic processing strategy.

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