Adolescents and Social Cognition

Although Piaget primarily limited his research of adolescent reasoning to mathematical and scientific concepts, he did consider the role that formal operations play in the adolescent's social life. David Elkind continued research in this area by noting that features of formal thinking are reflected in adolescent personality characteristics. According to Elkind, the ability to think abstractly and hypothetically enables adolescents to develop their own idealistic, theoretical views of the world. The ability to distinguish between reality and theory, however, can lead to disillusionment and the recognition that adolescents' idols have "feet of clay." Elkind identified an adolescent egocentrism that he equates with the heightened self-consciousness of adolescence. This egocentrism demonstrates itself in two types of social thinking—personal fable and imaginary audience.

In personal fable, young adolescents see themselves as unique and special. Personal fable may lead adolescents to take unnecessary risks because they believe they are so different from others: "I can drink and drive." "Only other people get pregnant." Personal fable also makes adolescents believe that no one else can understand how they feel or offer any useful suggestions: "No one has ever had a problem like mine." In imaginary audience, adolescents believe that "everyone" is watching them. Elkind sees this self-consciousness as an application of hypothetical thinking: "If my characteristics are so obvious to me, they must also be obvious to everyone else."

Neural Basis of Adolescent Cognition

Interest has been growing in the prospect of uniting brain and cognitive development during adolescence. With the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers now have a better understanding of how the adolescent brain actually functions. A surprising discovery is the fact that there are changes in the structure of the brain that appear relatively late in child development. Of special note during the teenage years is the second wave of synapse formation just before puberty, along with a pruning back during adolescence. It had already been known that prior to birth and during the first months after birth there was an overproduction of connections, but it was not known that a second spurt occurred. This time of rapid development of synapses followed by the pruning of connections determines the cells and connections that will be "hardwired." From studies of growth patterns of the developing brain, it has also been found that fiber systems which influence language learning and associative thinking develop more rapidly just before puberty and for a short period of time just after puberty. Changes in the prefrontal cortex increase the adolescent's potential to reason with more accuracy, show more control over impulses, and make more effective judgments. Even the cerebellum is still developing into adolescence. Although commonly associated with physical coordination, the cerebellum also plays a role in processing mental tasks, such as higher thought, decision making, and social skills. In summary, it is now known that an important part of the growth of the brain is happening just before puberty and well into adolescence.

Lillian J. Breckenridge

Cognitive changes also affect social behavior by inducing changes in social cognitive development. Social cognition refers to an individual's understanding of people and of interactions among people. According to Piaget, changes in cognition are reflected in the way people think about themselves and other people. The thinking of preadolescents (seven to eleven years) begins to focus less on the obvious features of objects, events, and people. They are better able to translate patterns of behavior into psychological characteristics, such as concluding that a particular person is "nice" or "rude." They are becoming less egocentric, better able to appreciate that people have different points of view. It is not surprising, then, that they are better able to see the world from the perspective of another person. As they enter formal operations (eleven or twelve years and older), adolescents are able to think in more logical and abstract ways. These changes are reflected in their ability to describe people in abstract terms, such as "cooperative" or "uncoordinated," and compare people along psychological dimensions.

Robert Selman has observed that changes in social cognition occur in stages that closely parallel Piaget's stages of cognitive development. Accord ing to Selman's research, most concrete operational preadolescents (ages ten to twelve) recognize the existence of different points of view. Many of them, however, have difficulty evaluating conflicting perspectives or understanding how perspectives relate to membership in different social groups. As adolescents become more fully formal operational (twelve to fifteen years and older), they become able to understand the relationship between another person's perspective and their membership in social systems. For example, the difference between two people's points of view may reflect their membership in different racial or ethnic groups. Progress through Selman's stages also is influenced by social experiences. In other words, it is possible for a person to mature intellectually and to become less egocentric without becoming skillful at adopting others' points of view.

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