Teenagers are famously self-conscious, acutely aware and concerned about what their peers think of them.
A new study reveals that this self-consciousness is linked with specific physiological and brain responses that seem to emerge and peak in adolescence.
“Our study identifies adolescence as a unique period of the lifespan in which self-conscious emotion, physiological reactivity, and activity in specific brain areas converge and peak in response to being evaluated by others,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Leah Somerville of Harvard University.
The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science suggest that teens’ sensitivity to social evaluation might be explained by shifts in physiological and brain function during adolescence, in addition to the numerous sociocultural changes that take place during the teen years.
The consistency and strength of the research results took the researchers by surprise:
“We were concerned about whether simply being looked at was a strong enough ‘social evaluation’ to evoke emotional, physiological and neural responses,” says Somerville. “Our findings suggest that being watched, and to some extent anticipating being watched, were sufficient to elicit self-conscious emotional responses at each level of measurement.”
Specifically, participants’ self-reported embarrassment, physiological arousal, and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activation showed reactivity to social evaluation that seemed to converge and peak during adolescence.