Publication Type:Journal Article
Empathy and prosocial behaviors toward peers promote successful social development and creation of significant long-term relationships, but surprisingly little is known about the maturation of these skills during the period of adolescence. As the majority of studies have used questionnaires or pain observation paradigms, it remains unknown whether the empathic response of adolescents differs from that of adults in a paradigm that is closer to everyday life. In the current study, fMRI was used to examine the neural correlates of social exclusion observation and subsequent prosocial behavior in 20 adolescents (aged 12-17 years) and 20 adults (aged 22-30 years) while playing a ball-tossing game with what they believed to be real individuals. Observing someone being excluded compared to observing equal inclusion of all players elicited a significantly higher activation of the IFG (pars triangularis) in adults compared to adolescents. When given the opportunity to directly help the excluded player during the game, adolescents showed significantly less prosocial behavior than adults, which was underpinned by a significantly lower activity in the right temporoparietal junction, medial/dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and fusiform face area. These findings might indicate that adolescents have a lower propensity to take the victim's perspective and share his or her distress when witnessing social exclusion, which leads to a lower altruistic motivation to help. The factors that could generate what can be interpreted as a downward modulation of empathy during adolescence are discussed.