Teens struggle with others’ perspectives

30 June 2009

Teenagers have difficulty incorporating other people’s points of view, according to a new study published in the journal Developmental Science. The findings imply that our brains continue to evolve ‘theory of mind’ until our late teens or earlier twenties, says UCL (University College London) researcher Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. The research is being presented at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition which opens today (30 June 2009), where members of the public can try out the experiment for themselves.

In the study, which was carried out by Dr Iroise Dumontheil at UCL, scientists asked child (aged to 7 to 11), teenage (aged 12 to 18) and adult volunteers to look at a set of shelves containing objects. Volunteers were asked to move one of the objects by a ‘director’ who could see some, but not all, of the objects. Correct interpretation of the instructions required participants to use the director’s perspective and only move objects that the director could see. Surprisingly, adults were found to get the experiment wrong around 45% of the time but teenagers aged 14 to 18 did so even more frequently, around 60% of the time.

Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says: “Our study shows that teenagers have even more of a bias towards their own view than adults do, probably because the parts of the brain involved in taking another person’s perspective are still developing during adolescence. Although small children are known to hold some theory of mind (the ability to understand others’ perspectives) to a certain degree, our findings suggest that this continues to evolve during adolescence and possibly early adulthood.”

Scientists from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience will be on hand at the exhibition, which runs from 30 June to 4 July 2009 in London.

Notes for Editors

1. Journalists seeking more information on the study or exhibit should contact Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, on +44 (0)20 7679 1131 or email s.blakemore@ucl.ac.uk or Dr Iroise Dumontheil, on +44 (0)20 7679 1168 or email i.dumontheil@ucl.ac.uk

2. Alternatively, please contact Jenny Gimpel in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk.

3. Copies of the paper ‘Online usage of theory of mind continues to develop in late adolescence’, by Iroise Dumontheil, Ian Apperly and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, will be published in the journal Developmental Science. Journalists can obtain copies of the paper from the UCL Media Relations Office.

4. The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition runs from Tuesday 30 June to Saturday 4 July 2009. The event is free and open to the public. The Royal Society can be found at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG. Nearest tube stations are Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross. Further information can be found at www.summerscience.org.