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Buffering social influence

In: Journal of cognitive neuroscience. Vol. 27, No. 1 (January 2015), pages 83-95.


Adolescence is a period characterized by increased sensitivity to social cues, as well as increased risk-taking in the presence of peers. For example, automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for adolescents, and driving with peers increases the risk of a fatal crash. Growing evidence points to an interaction between neural systems implicated in cognitive control and social and emotional context in predicting adolescent risk. We tested such a relationship in recently licensed teen drivers. Participants completed an fMRI session in which neural activity was measured during a response inhibition task, followed by a separate driving simulator session 1 week later. Participants drove alone and with a peer who was randomly assigned to express risk-promoting or risk-averse social norms. The experimentally manipulated social context during the simulated drive moderated the relationship between individual differences in neural activity in the hypothesized cognitive control network (right inferior frontal gyrus, BG) and risk-taking in the driving context a week later. Increased activity in the response inhibition network was not associated with risk-taking in the presence of a risky peer but was significantly predictive of safer driving in the presence of a cautious peer, above and beyond self-reported susceptibility to peer pressure. Individual differences in recruitment of the response inhibition network may allow those with stronger inhibitory control to override risky tendencies when in the presence of cautious peers. This relationship between social context and individual differences in brain function expands our understanding of neural systems involved in top–down cognitive control during adolescent development.