Decoding The Teen Brain: New Research Explains Their Confusing Social Cues

The teenage years are often seen as an awkward rite of passage on the way to becoming a fully mature adult. Indeed, the brain undergoes massive renovation during this time, laying the neural circuitry for adult social functioning. But new research shows that this doesn’t happen overnight at 18 or even 21. Rather, key social competencies linked to understanding oneself and others unfold gradually throughout the late teens and 20s.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, focused on two interwoven facets of social cognition: mentalizing and psychological mindedness. Mentalizing refers to the ability to recognize and reason about people’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and beliefs behind their actions. It allows us to make sense of each other through this “mindreading” capacity. Psychological mindedness involves self-examination and a willingness to introspect and share inner experiences. Both require blending rational and emotional intelligence.

Researchers at the University College London measured these dual capacities in 432 youth aged 14-30 via questionnaires. They found an upward swing through adolescence, with the trajectory plateauing in the mid-20s. This mirrors the extended timeframe for executive functioning and emotional regulation to fully mature.

Study authors believe that various cognitive systems develop at different rates in the still-developing adolescent brain. The asynchronous pace likely contributes to the moodiness and poor decision-making reputation of teenagers who, cognitively, have more brakes than steering wheel during this phase.

Gender Differences In Teen Social Development

Gender socialization also left its imprint. At younger ages, girls bested boys on ratings of mentalizing and psychological mindedness, which aligns with research on faster social brain development in females. This gap closed in the late teens, suggesting boys catch up once developmental delays even out.

However, women still scored higher on mentalizing in their 20s. This fits with the observation that their social intelligence tends to emphasize intuitive, non-conscious capacities more. In contrast, psychological mindedness became gender-neutral for young adults, indicating comparable skills for explicit processing.

It seems that males improve their capacity to mentalize earlier than their psychological mindedness, the study shows. The multilayered model underscores how adolescents move from instinctive social adjustments to more abstract, verbal examinations of their own emotions over time.

Personality & Social Smarts

Personality traits also corresponded with social savvy. Mentalizing and psychological mindedness both linked to higher Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience. The affiliative tone of the first two and curiosity underlying the latter provide congruent building blocks. And since these personality dimensions cement by the late teens, they may scaffold developing social cognition into adulthood.

Overall, the research headlines the protracted trajectory for key competencies underlying human relationships—and the interplay of gender, age and personality in getting there. So next time you are baffled by a brooding teen or flustered 20-something, remember: their social GPS is still mapping uncharted neural territory.

This study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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