A Matter of Trust: How Trust and Reciprocity Change over the Course of Adolescence

Making And Keeping Friends: Examining Change And Stability In Trust, Reciprocity, And Empathy As Teens Age.

Adolescence, the period between ages 10 – 22, is a phase in life in which the social world becomes increasingly important. Maybe you recall this from your own teenage years: adolescents become more and more preoccupied with questions such as “What do others think about me?”, “How do I become popular?”, and “How can I make sure to make a lot of friends?” The increasingly complex social world of adolescents poses challenges, but also opportunities to develop social skills and work towards mature, long-term social goals. It has been argued that adolescents show a shift from self-oriented behavior towards other-oriented behavior, which helps them to attain the ‘adult goal’ of developing and maintaining stable, close relationships. There are several developmental changes in adolescence, such as increased sensitivity to rewards and improved perspective-taking skills, that make adolescence a period in which other-oriented behaviors are likely to emerge and become more complex.

We examined the development of two important types of other-oriented behavior that enable adolescents to successfully navigate their changing social world: trust and reciprocity. Trust refers to ‘a voluntary transfer of a good or favor to someone else, with future reciprocation expected but not guaranteed’. Trust encompasses multiple processes, including risk-taking and perspective taking. Trusting that a favor will be returned is important for initiating other-oriented behavior and is generally beneficial to others. Trust can benefit others either when it is reciprocated (e.g. it leads to cooperative interactions that are positive for both the trustor and trustee), or unreciprocated (e.g. it results in a larger share for the trustee). Reciprocity (i.e., repaying trust) can be seen as behavior that benefits others (i.e., prosocial behavior) and is critical for maintaining social relationships and increasing the chance of future prosocial interactions, both as recipient and initiator. Previous studies have shown that trust and reciprocity increase from childhood to adolescence, but findings with regard to further development over the course of adolescence are conflicting. That is, some findings show increases over the course of adolescence, whereas others show decreases or no changes.

In the current study, we had participants play a game called the Trust Game, in which two players are involved in dividing an amount of coins or tokens. In the current study, the first player, the trustor, was given two options: either to divide the coins between him/herself and the second player in a certain way, or to give it to the second player, who is then asked to divide the coins. If the trustor chooses to give the coins to the second player (trust), the number of coins they give to the second player is multiplied by the experimenter. The second player, then, also has two options: he/she can equally divide the coins (reciprocate), or keep most of the coins and give the remainder of the stake to player one (exploit). The choice for the first player entails a risk: he/she may gain more coins by deciding to trust the second player, but runs the risk of receiving relatively few coins if the second player decides to exploit.

We found a general stability in trust and a decrease in reciprocity between ages 12 – 18. In other words, the amount of trust remained constant and the amount of reciprocity decreased over the course of adolescence. On average, the 496 adolescents in the study were quite trusting and trustworthy: when they played as the first player they trusted others 61% of the time, when playing as the second player they 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. That is, if other players decided to trust the participant even though this entailed a large risk (i.e., a large potential coin loss by trusting), participants rewarded this by being more likely to repay the trust (i.e., by equally dividing the coins instead of keeping most to themselves). On average, males trusted more that females, but no gender differences were found with regard to reciprocity.

This study also examined how a wide range of adolescents’ personality characteristics (e.g. empathy, impulsivity, bullying) influenced their trust and reciprocity decisions. In this study we found no connection of these characteristics to trust, but we did find a connection of one characteristic, empathy, to reciprocity: decreases in empathy (defined as the intention to comfort others) over the course of adolescence could partially explain why adolescents became less likely to reciprocate over the course of adolescence.

Overall, the results of this study show that it is important to consider adolescents’ sensitivities to varying contexts (e.g., with regard the risk they involve) and personality characteristics (e.g., empathy) in explaining other-oriented behaviors such as trust and reciprocity. Furthermore, the current study suggests that adolescence is an important period for the transition from general reciprocity to more specific reciprocity. That is, as adolescents become older, the (social) context increasingly influences their decisions, suggesting that adolescents may become more selective about the situations in which they reciprocate trust. This ability to incorporate the social context in their decisions is an 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.

Read the complete study here.

Suzanne van de Groep, MSc, is a PhD Candidate in the Brain and Development Research Center at Universiteit Leiden, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the development of prosocial behaviors (i.e., behaviors that benefit someone else, such as helping, giving, and cooperation) and how this is reflected in the brain. She is specifically interested in how the social context and personality characteristics contribute to the behavioural and neural development of prosocial behaviors.

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