Every day, we compare ourselves to others, both in person and increasingly online. Am I smarter than my friend? Am I nicer or friendlier? Such judgments require a type of “social reasoning” – first rating yourself and your friends and then making a comparison. Among adolescents, this type of thinking is even more common, with constant influence on their actions from peers. Yet social reasoning has been understudied relative to typical relational reasoning that’s involved in solving puzzles and completing sequences and patterns. In a new paper, researchers found that the development of reasoning in the brain applies to both social and non-social information in adolescents and adults alike.
“Social cognition and reasoning development are typically studied in separate experiments,” says Lucia Magis-Weinberg of University College London. “Dr. Iroise Dumontheil, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and I wanted to combine both approaches in the same study and investigate whether these general improvements in childhood and adolescence also extend to cases when people reason about social information.”
In one study, the researchers tested 325 participants, ages 11 to 39 years old, asking them to rate and compare themselves and a friend on a certain characteristic (such as quiet). They then did the same ratings and comparisons for their hometown and a different town as the non-social condition. The researchers measured how long it took participants to answer each question and how consistent they were. In a second study, the research team scanned 39 participants, ages 10 to 31 years old, using fMRI while they completed the same task, identifying key brain regions involved in comparing both the social and non-social information.
As published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, both adolescents and adults recruit the brain networks responsible for social and relational reasoning in parallel. Magis-Weinberg spoke with CNS about these results and the importance of understanding brain development in adolescents.
CNS: How did you become interested in this research area and why is it important to you?
Magis-Weinberg: I was once tutoring a group of young people in a room with glass walls facing the hallway. They were very engaged in the subject until nearby classes were dismissed and other students started walking down the hall. The students’ attention was immediately and intensely redirected to the social information out there: Who is that? Are they staring at me? Why are they laughing? Did they see me? As an adult, it was much easier for me to avoid the distraction and concentrate on the class. For the adolescents, it was nearly impossible. In adolescence, peers and friends become very important and exert a considerable influence on decisions, competing with young people’s ability to effectively regulate behaviour.
In recent years, developmental cognitive neuroscience has started to explain some of the mechanisms driving this social reorientation, which is fundamental for adolescent development and well-being, but can have some negative consequences, such as increased peer pressure and propensity to take risks.
CNS: What have we known previously about social cognitive development in adolescence?
Magis-Weinberg: Adolescence is a period of change in social cognitive abilities and sensitivity to the social environment. Mentalizing – the ability to think about another’s intention or take their perspective – continues to develop during adolescence and is associated with decreased recruitment of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and other social brain regions (TPJ and pSTS). Face and emotional processing also develop during adolescence, with associated changes in various brain regions, including fusiform face area and amygdala.
Adolescents are hypersensitive to the negative consequences of social exclusion, and their decision-making is markedly influenced by the presence of peers, associated with increased activity in areas of the brain that process emotion and reward. In a previous study of social influences on risk perception, we found that children, adolescents, and adults adjust risk ratings in line with other people, but this influence decreases with age. Only young adolescents were more strongly influenced by the opinion of other adolescents than that of adults. Motivated by this background, we were interested to focus on how children, adolescents and adults process social information.
CNS: What have we known previously about reasoning in adolescents v. adults?
Magis-Weinberg: Reasoning is one of the main building blocks for our capacity to think and solve problems. Reasoning has been studied with tasks such as solving analogies, choosing a missing item in a sequence or completing puzzles in a logical way. This area of research has found strong evidence that the ability to reason emerges during infancy, develops dramatically during childhood, and continues to improve during adolescence. Interestingly, this improvement, which can be seen in behaviour in tasks in the lab or performance in school, is associated with maturation of the structure and function of two key regions of the brain: the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC), and the posterior parietal cortex (PPC).
CNS: So, what was the new insight you were seeking?
Magis-Weinberg: In this case, we wanted to know how people performed when they judged traits of individuals (“I am smart”, “My friend is very smart”) and when they considered both at the same time to make a comparison, a process called relational integration (“My friend is smarter than me”). In addition, we examined which brain areas are associated with this ability, and whether there are differences when information is social or not.
We hope that future studies can build on these findings in order to increase our understanding of how social and non-social cognition develops during adolescence.
CNS: What were your most excited to find?
Magis-Weinberg: In the behavioural study, we found that integrating relations improved during adolescence. We did not find any differences between social and non-social information. In general, older participants were quicker and more consistent when making comparisons than younger participants, as has been demonstrated in other relational reasoning studies. In the fMRI study, we found that making comparisons of both people and towns was associated with the frontoparietal network (including the RLPFC and PPC). In parallel, processing social information, making both single judgements and comparisons, was associated with the social brain network (including the MPFC). We were surprised to find a lot of similarity in activation between adolescents and adults, as these regions, particularly the RLPFC and MPFC, develop considerably during adolescence.
CNS: What do you most want people to understand about this work?
Magis-Weinberg: We found evidence that the general development of reasoning that has been previously described using non-social tasks, extends to information of social nature, using an experimental design that allows for a direct comparison between the two. In addition, we found that both reasoning and social brain regions underlie this capacity for adolescents and adults. In this study, we focus on relational reasoning, just one of the many abilities required to navigate the complexities of the social world. We hope that future studies can build on these findings in order to increase our understanding of how social and non-social cognition develops during adolescence.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz