The typical developmental trajectory of social and executive functions in late adolescence and early adulthood

Dev Psychol. 2013 Jul;49(7):1253-65. doi: 10.1037/a0029871. Epub 2012 Sep 3.


Executive functions and social cognition develop through childhood into adolescence and early adulthood and are important for adaptive goal-oriented behavior (Apperly, Samson, & Humphreys, 2009; Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). These functions are attributed to frontal networks known to undergo protracted maturation into early adulthood (Barker, Andrade, Morton, Romanowski, & Bowles, 2010; Lebel, Walker, Leemans, Phillips, & Beaulieu, 2008), although social cognition functions are also associated with widely distributed networks. Previously, nonlinear development has been reported around puberty on an emotion match-to-sample task (McGivern, Andersen, Byrd, Mutter, & Reilly, 2002) and for IQ in midadolescence (Ramsden et al., 2011). However, there are currently little data on the typical development of social and executive functions in late adolescence and early adulthood. In a cross-sectional design, 98 participants completed tests of social cognition and executive function, Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (Wechsler, 1999), Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (Zigmond & Snaith, 1983), and measures of pubertal development and demographics at ages 17, 18, and 19. Nonlinear age differences for letter fluency and concept formation executive functions were found, with a trough in functional ability in 18-year-olds compared with other groups. There were no age group differences on social cognition measures. Gender accounted for differences on 1 scale of concept formation, 1 dynamic social interaction scale, and 2 empathy scales. The clinical, developmental, and educational implications of these findings are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development*
  • Concept Formation
  • Executive Function*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Social Adjustment*
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult