A recent paper published by Stephanie Burnett Heyes (pictured right) et al. in Child Development uses a combination of social network mapping and experimental social cognition tasks to investigate teenage social behaviour in real-world networks.

Stephanie Burnett Heyes

Adolescence is marked by profound changes in social behaviour, including greater emphasis on peer relationships. These can be a source of great joy as well as stress. From a social cognitive development perspective, adolescent peer relationships are thought to provide an important context for practicing and refining high-level social skills, such as cooperation, competition, and compromise. This study investigated cooperative investment in real-world adolescent peer networks.

A Social Network Questionnaire (Harrison, Sciberras & James, 2011) was used to map peer relationships in adolescent school classes (six classes, age range 13-17 years). This method enabled the researchers to quantify the self-perceived strength of each relationship linking a participant to their classmates (eg, how much does Ayesha like Ben? …Chuka? …Dan?). Crucially, the method gave a measure of the extent to which each relationship was reciprocated (eg, does Ben like Ayesha as much as Ayesha likes Ben?). These two relationship features – social tie strength and reciprocation – were used to predict levels of cooperation with peers in a simple Dictator Game that involved dividing a pot of money between self and classmates.

As expected, participants gave more Dictator Game money to classmates to whom they reported stronger social ties. In addition, the researchers found an age group difference in the impact of relationship reciprocation on giving: In late adolescence, but not in mid-adolescence, participants invested more in peers who reciprocated their feelings of friendship. That is, whereas the investment decisions of mid-adolescents were predominantly driven by their own feelings of friendship (eg, Ayesha likes Ben; therefore, Ayesha invests in Ben), older adolescent investment patterns also took into account the extent to which those feelings were reciprocated (eg, Ayesha likes Ben, but Ben likes Ayesha less; therefore, late adolescent Ayesha gives less to Ben than would mid-adolescent Ayesha). This result is interpreted as potentially reflecting continuing development of social cognitive perspective-taking during adolescence.

In adolescence, the mastery of sophisticated social strategies may be critical for navigating an increasingly complex social world.  This study’s method of combining social network mapping with an experimental measure of social behaviour enabled the researchers to study the development of such social strategies in an innovative and ecologically valid way.  In future, this methodology may help reveal further insights into adolescent social development, its basis in the maturing brain, and its contribution to wellbeing and resilience across the lifespan.

Burnett et al.: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12396/abstract
Harrison et al.: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0018338