Research: Cognitive ability

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The perceived incompetence of the modern minor is exaggerated and culture-bound.


  • Epstein, Robert (2010). "Adultness," Teen 2.0, 148-157.
    "After reviewing the relevant scientific literature, interviewing many adults, and consulting with three other psychologists and two psychiatrists with expertise in adult development issues, we concluded that there are fourteen different skill-sets or "competencies" [love, sex, leadership, problem solving, physical abilities, verbal and math, interpersonal skills, responsibility, managing high-risk behaviors, work, education, personal care, self-management, and citizenship] that distinguish adults from non-adults. [...] For three of the competencies--love, leadership and problem solving--we did find statistically significant differences between the mean scores of teens and adults, with adults outscoring the teens. But the absolute differences were small. [...] On two other scales--work and self-management--the differences between the adult scores and teen scores were marginally significant (at the .05 level), again in the adults' favor, but the absolute differences were less than 4 percent. On the other nine scales, we found no significant differences at all between the adult and teen scores. [...] fifty five of the adults in our sample were college graduates--more than double the rate of college graduates in the United States."
  • Epstein, Robert (2007). "The Myth of the Teen Brain," Scientific American Mind, April/May, 57-63.
    "Visual acuity, for example, peaks around the time of puberty. "Incidental memory"—the kind of memory that occurs automatically, without any mnemonic effort, peaks at about age 12 and declines through life. [...] In the 1940s pioneering intelligence researchers J. C. Raven and David Wechsler, relying on radically different kinds of intelligence tests, each showed that raw scores on intelligence tests peak between ages 13 and 15 and decline after that throughout life. Although verbal expertise and some forms of judgment can remain strong throughout life, the extraordinary cognitive abilities of teens, and especially their ability to learn new things rapidly, is beyond question. And whereas brain size is not necessarily a good indication of processing ability, it is notable that recent scanning data collected by Eric Courchesne and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, show that brain volume peaks at about age 14."
  • Waber, D.P., et al. (2007). "The NIH MRI Study of Normal Brain Development: Performance of a Population Based Sample of Healthy Children Aged 6 to 18 Years on a Neuropsychological Battery," Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 13(5), 729-746.
    "Perhaps most intriguing are the age-related trajectories for raw score performance. For most tasks, proficiency improved dramatically between 6 and 10 years of age, leveling off during early adolescence (approximately 10 to 12 years of age), suggesting that for many neurocognitive tasks, children approach adult levels of performance at that age. For a few measures, scores increased linearly throughout the age range. These were tasks that assessed basic information processing, such as Coding, Digit Span, and Spatial Span. Still others were associated with a non-linear component during adolescence. Some showed a flattening of the curve followed by another period of acceleration, suggesting another spurt in mid-adolescence. Verbal learning actually reversed direction with performance declining in later adolescence."
  • Adler, N.E., & Matthews, K. (1994). "Why do some people get sick and some stay well?," Annual Review of Psychology, 45, 229-259.
    "However, empirical tests show that adolescents are no less rational than adults. Applications of rational models to adolescent decision-making show that adolescents are consistent in their reasoning and behavior after the salient set of beliefs is assessed (Adler et al 1990). Quadrel et al (1993) demonstrated that adolescents are no more biased in their estimates of vulnerability to adverse health outcomes than are their parents."
  • Weithorn, L. A. & Campbell, S. B. (1982). "The competency of children and adolescents to make informed treatment decisions," Child Development, 53(6), 1589-1598.
    "In general, minors aged fourteen were found to demonstrate a level of competence equivalent to that of adults. [...] The ages of eighteen or twenty-one as the "cutoffs" below which individuals are presumed to be incompetent to make determinations about their own welfare do not reflect the psychological capabilities of most adolescents."
  • Offer, D. (1987). "In defense of adolescents," Journal of the American Medical Association, 257, 3407-3408.
    Mike Males describes this study: "Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer, the nation’s leading researcher on adolescents, studied 30,000 teenagers and adults from the 1960s to the 1990s. He and his colleagues found 85% to 90% of teens held attitudes and risk perceptions similar to that of their parents, were not alienated, did think about the future, were coping well with their lives, and did not display psychological disturbances. "Decision making for adults is no different than decision making among teenagers,” Offer reported in 1987 in the Journal of the American Medical Association."
  • Offer, D., and Schonert Reichl, K.A. (1992). "Debunking the myths of adolescence: Findings from recent research," Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 31, 1003 1014.
    "[T]he effects of pubertal hormones are neither potent nor pervasive (Brooks-Gunn and Reiter, 1990). [...] Adolescence does not occur in a vacuum and is significantly affected by the sociocultural context in which it occurs. A recent investigation by Enright et al. (1987) illustrates this point. This study was based on the careful reading of 89 articles in the Journal of Genetic Psychology for the past 100 years. The articles were rated for their conceptions about the nature of adolescence. Enright et al. demonstrated ideological bias in approaches to understanding adolescent psychology, specifically in relation to economic conditions. Specifically, in times of economic depression, theories emerged in the literature that portrayed adolescents as "immature, psychologically unstable, and in need of prolonged participation in the education system" (p. 553). In contrast, during wartime, the psychological competence of adolescents was accentuated. The authors point out, "The field of adolescent psychology is not free from the societal influences that impinge upon legislators, educators, and parents in shaping American adolescents" (p. 554)."
  • Quadrel, M. J., Fischhoff, B., & Davis, W. (1993). "Adolescent (in)vulnerability," American Psychologist, 48, 102-116.
    "Three groups of subjects were asked to judge the probability that they and several target others (a friend, an acquaintance, a parent, a child) would experience various risks. Subjects were middle-class adults, their teenage children, and high-risk adolescents from treatment homes. All three groups saw themselves as facing somewhat less risk than the target others. However, this perception of relative invulnerability was no more pronounced for adolescents than for adults. Indeed, the parents were viewed as less vulnerable than their teenage children by both the adults and those teens. These results are consistent with others showing small differences in the cognitive decision-making processes of adolescents and adults. Underestimating teens' competence can mean misdiagnosing the sources of their risk behaviors, denying them deserved freedoms, and failing to provide needed assistance."

Moral reasoning

  • Haidt, J. (2001). "The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment," Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.
    "Turiel (1983) has shown that young children do not believe [that actions are wrong just because they are punished]. They say that harmful acts, such as hitting and pulling hair, are wrong whether they are punished or not. They even say that such acts would be wrong if adults ordered them to be done."