Tweens sensitive to others’ perceptions of them

Young adolescents care a lot about what others think about them. A new study confirms this using brain-mapping techniques that shed new light on this complex period of social development.

The study, published in the July/August 2009 issue of the journal Child Development, is authored by researchers at the University of Oregon and the University of California Los Angeles.

Previous research into this area has relied on reports by teenagers themselves. This study eliminated the potential bias of self-reports by using brain scans to look at the neural systems that support individuals’ perceptions of themselves. During the brain scans, 12 early adolescents (11- to 13-year-olds) and 12 young adults (22- to 30-year-olds) responded to researchers’ questions about whether short phrases (such as “I am popular”) described them, and whether they believed others (mothers, best friends, classmates) thought these phrases described them, too. The researchers then examined activity in the brain that occurred when the participants gave their responses.

In comparison to the young adults, the tweens see themselves in ways that may depend more on what they believe others think about their abilities and attributes. And these others — including parents and friends — may have more influence in some areas than in other areas, with moms having more sway over how the tweens view their academic abilities but best friends exerting influence over how they see their social skills.

“These findings provide a novel form of evidence confirming the sensitivity of adolescents to what they believe others think of them, especially parents and peers,” suggests Jennifer H. Pfeifer, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the lead author.

“More importantly, they suggest that being able to see others’ perspectives on oneself may be particularly critical to development in adolescence. As a result, individuals who lack this social cognitive skill (including those with autism spectrum disorders) may face significant obstacles.”

The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for Research Resources, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 4, Neural Correlates of Direct and Reflected Self-Appraisals in Adolescents and Adults: When Social Perspective-Taking Informs Self-Perception by Pfeifer, JH (University of Oregon), Masten, CL, Borofsky, LA, Dapretto, M, Fuligni, AJ, and Lieberman, MD (University of California Los Angeles). Copyright 2009 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.