Social Perspective Taking Is Associated With Self-Reported Prosocial Behavior and Regional Cortical Thickness Across Adolescence

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Abstract

Basic perspective taking and mentalizing abilities develop in childhood, but recent studies indicate that the use of social perspective taking to guide decisions and actions has a prolonged development that continues throughout adolescence. Here, we aimed to replicate this research and investigate the hypotheses that individual differences in social perspective taking in adolescence are associated with real-life prosocial and antisocial behavior and differences in brain structure. We used an experimental approach and a large cross-sectional sample (n = 293) of participants aged 7–26 years old to assess age-related improvement in social perspective taking usage during performance of a version of the director task. In subsamples, we then tested how individual differences in social perspective taking were related to self-reported prosocial behavior and peer relationship problems on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (n = 184) and to MRI measures of regional cortical thickness and surface area (n = 226). The pattern of results in the director task replicated previous findings by demonstrating continued improvement in use of social perspective taking across adolescence. The study also showed that better social perspective taking usage is associated with more self-reported prosocial behavior, as well as to thinner cerebral cortex in regions in the left hemisphere encompassing parts of the caudal middle frontal and precentral gyri and lateral parietal regions. These associations were observed independently of age and might partly reflect individual developmental variability. The relevance of cortical development was additionally supported by indirect effects of age on social perspective taking usage via cortical thickness.

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