Developmental Changes and Individual Differences in Trust and Reciprocity in Adolescence

Background

Adolescence, the period between 10 -22 years, is a period in which there are profound social changes, making this a period in which other-oriented behaviors are likely to emerge and become more complex. Two important types of other‐oriented behavior that enable adolescents to successfully navigate their changing social world are trust and reciprocity. Reciprocity (i.e., repaying trust) can be seen as a pro-social behavior, whereas trust refers to transferring something of value to someone else, without expectation of, but no guarantee of reciprocity. As previous studies how conflicting results regarding developmental patterns of trust and reciprocity in adolescence, this study aimed to examine this development in adolescents aged 12-18 years. Furthermore, this study tested the role of gender, risk (a contextual factor) and individual differences in empathy, impulsivity, and antisocial tendencies, in trust and reciprocity.

Method

A large sample of adolescents (N = 496) played multiple Trust Games with anonymous others. In the Trust Game, two players are involved in dividing valuable resources, such as a number of coins or tokens. In the current study, the first player was given two options: either to divide the coins in certain way between him/herself and the second player, or to give the share to the second player. If the first player chooses to trust, the coins they give to the second player are multiplied by the experimenter. The second player, then, also has two options: either to keep most of the money to themselves, or to equally divide the coins (reciprocate). Participants played as both player 1 and player 2 such that both trust and reciprocity could be measured. Trusting involves a risk (i.e., losing the coins you give to the second player). In this study, we manipulated the risk by varying the number of coins that could be lost. We also measured individual differences in empathy, impulsivity, and antisocial tendencies with questionnaires to relate them to the development of trust and reciprocity in adolescent boys and girls.

Results

We found that the amount of trust remained constant and the amount of reciprocity decreased over the course of adolescence. On average, participants  trusted others 61% of the time and reciprocated trust 72% of the time. Adolescents were less likely to trust others if this entailed a larger risk, and showed that they could take others’ perspective by being more likely to reciprocate if others’ took a large risk by trusting them. On average, males trusted more than females, but no gender differences were found with regard to reciprocity. Furthermore, we found no associations between individual differences in empathy, impulsivity, and antisocial tendencies, and trust; but we found empathy to be associated with the age-related decrease in reciprocity over the course of adolescence.

Conclusion

To conclude, this study shows the importance of considering individual differences (e.g. in empathy) and adolescents’ sensitivities to varying contexts (e.g. with regard to risk) in explaining trust and reciprocity development in adolescence. The ability to incorporate the social context in their decisions is important for adolescents to acquire, as they are exposed (and even actively seek out) more diverse social environments and relationships, which they, respectively, have to successfully navigate and maintain.

Contact: s.w.van.de.groep@fsw.leidenuniv.nl

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