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2 Development of Appraisals: Affective Theory of Mind and a Two-Level Emotion Theory

2 Development of Appraisals: Affective Theory of Mind and a Two-Level Emotion Theory

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Development of Coping during Adolescence …

beliefs and intentions, versus affective mentalizing, which focuses on the more

complex functioning of emotions.

Few studies have examined theory of mind after early childhood, and fewer still

have examined affective, rather than cognitive, aspects of theory of mind (Pfeifer

and Blakemore 2012). Nevertheless, a small group of studies have recently traced

the continued development of affective mentalizing across adolescence (Vetter et al.

2013a, b). Patterns are not completely clear but, so far, this work suggests that

performances on tasks that tap affective mentalizing lag behind those on tasks

tapping cognitive mentalizing during adolescence, and each capacity seems to be

supported by a different neural network (Blakemore 2008; Burnett et al. 2011;

Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2006).

Normatively, adolescents improve in their capacity to recognize and label more

complex and subtle emotions in others all across adolescence (and into early

adulthood; Nelson et al. 2014). At the same time, however, the neural networks

adolescents use to accomplish these tasks differ from the ones that they will

eventually use as adults; adolescents seem to depend more on the ventromedial

prefrontal cortex (vmPFC; Burnett et al. 2011; Vetter et al. 2013a, b). In fact, some

researchers suggest that affective “mind reading” builds on two separate sets of

developments—advances in perspective taking and other cognitive skills that

enable cognitive mentalizing, on the one hand, and advances in “emotion”

understanding and empathy, on the other hand. This implies that it is the increasing

integration of these skills that underlies improvements in affective mentalizing

during adolescence (Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2006).

In general, these advances are supported by changing activation of regions that

have been referred to together as “the social brain” (Blakemore 2008, 2010). The

social brain includes the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), temporoparietal

junction, and superior temporal sulcus, among other regions (Somerville 2013).

These regions are active during tasks in which social stimuli are salient, that is,

tasks that involve reading others’ thoughts and feelings (van den Bos et al. 2009),

invoke social emotions, such as embarrassment (Burnett et al. 2009), or call for

moral reasoning (Blakemore et al. 2007). In multiple fMRI studies, adolescents

have been found to engage the DMPFC more than adults during these tasks

(Blakemore 2008, 2010; Gunther Moor et al. 2010). In fact, the general pattern of

age differences in brain activation observed during mentalizing tasks has led Pfeifer

and Blakemore (2012) to refer to this as an anterior-to-posterior shift with age. Such

a shift suggests that improvements in mentalizing capacity may be supported by

structural brain development during adolescence. Others have argued, however, that

age differences might instead (or also) reflect the fact that compared to adults,

adolescents are more focused on and concerned about the thoughts and feelings of

others (Somerville, 2013).

A two-level theory of emotion: Emotional understanding and regulation. The

increases found in performance on tasks tapping mentalizing in the affective domain

parallel developments in “emotion” understanding, processing, and regulation that

also unfold during adolescence (Casey 2015; Nelson et al. 2014; Pfeifer and


Development of Appraisals: Affective Theory of Mind …


Blakemore 2012; Stegge and Meerum Terwogt 2007; Thompson 2015; Zeman et al.

2006). Early in the adolescent years, youth typically have an elaborated and refined

vocabulary for describing emotions (Baron-Cohen et al. 2010), accompanied by

greater awareness of one’s own emotional experience and sense of worth (Harter

2012), greater understanding of the causes and consequences of emotions (Izard

et al. 1984), and greater ability to deploy effective emotional regulation strategies,

especially cognitive reappraisal (McRae et al. 2012; Silver et al. 2012). At the same

time, however, adolescents still do not perform as well as adults on tasks requiring

some of these emotional competencies, even by the end of the teen years (Vetter

et al. 2013b).

Perhaps one of the most important developments during adolescence is making

progress on the construction of a two-level theory of emotion, in which adolescents

increasingly come to view emotions the same way that researchers currently do, that

is, as incorporating both a core reactive system and a regulatory system (Stegge and

Meerum Terwogt 2007). Adolescents come to appreciate that the core system has a

life of its own, in that it operates relatively quickly and autonomously to create a

powerful emotional experience of “apparent reality” that is compelling—but may or

may not have any basis in fact. The regulatory system is viewed as more cognitive

and reflective, and can both help the core system sort out the various causes and

contributors to the emotional experiences it generates and, at the same time, work

with the system to intentionally shift its feeling states or expressions.

It may be that the intense emotional experiences and reactivity characteristic of

early adolescence can be considered a double-edged sword. On the one hand, and in

the short term, the challenges of elevated stress and immature coping may lead to

increased incidence of acting out, impulsive or aggressive behavior, self-harm, or

other forms of emotional maladjustment (Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner 2016). On

the other hand, and in the longer term, these powerful bottom-up experiences may

provide important opportunities for adolescents, with the support of (calmer) adults

and caring peers, to exercise and expand developing regulatory systems, helping

them learn to listen to and work with the core emotional and motivational reactivity

system constructively, perhaps especially during coping transactions, or if these are

overwhelming, perhaps in a period of reappraisal after they are concluded.

Affective mentalizing, “emotion” understanding, and coping. These developing capacities should contribute to transformations in the coping system, through

their potential effects on both appraisals of stressful transaction and on coping. When

adolescents’ appraisals incorporate improved understandings of the actual emotions

of others and of their own emotional experiences, youth should be increasingly able

to build more accurate depictions of the complex causes of stressful transactions and

of the kinds of strategies likely to help defuse and resolve them satisfactorily. These

complex internal working models may also aid older adolescents and young adults

in more intentionally avoiding stressful situations as they become more skilled at

antecedent-focused “emotion regulation” (Gross and Thompson 2007).

In terms of coping, these more multifaceted and grounded appraisals, including

information about others’ beliefs, intentions, goals, and affective states, should not

only strengthen emotion-focused coping, they should also improve problem-focused



Development of Coping during Adolescence …

efforts. They should have the potential to bolster the feasibility of strategies that

adolescents generate to solve problems, augment their processes of negotiation, and

refine the ways in which they assert or concede their claims. Even when adolescents

cannot make sense of their own or others’ emotions in a particular situation, they

remain aware that such affective and motivational processes are always in play

during stressful transactions, and so they can start coping episodes by seeking

information or by reflecting on their own feelings and intentions. As emotions

become better integrated with cognitive control strategies over the course of adolescence and into early adulthood, heightened emotional reactions can more fully

reveal their adaptive functions—in notifying the coping system of both potential

external dangers and more subtle internal states and reactions. It is likely that this

integration could also allow negative emotions to become more realistic and so

perform essential anchoring and attunement functions for both appraisals and coping. Over time, “negative” emotions may be increasingly accepted as routine and

may even be appreciated for their guidance and informational value.


Development of Regulatory Capacity: Changing

Balance among Multiple Subsystems

Just as in middle childhood, coping during adolescence continues to be strengthened by the growing efficiency of executive functions (EF) and neurological

developments (Pfeifer and Blakemore 2012; Rubia 2013) involved in skills such as

inhibitory control, working memory, problem-solving, updating, planning, logic,

reasoning ability, and understanding consequences (Best and Miller 2010; Casey

2015; Fields and Prinz 1997; Luna et al. 2010; Reyna and Farley 2006; Silver et al.

2012). These skills generally show linear increases over adolescence, even if the

pace of development slows somewhat compared to earlier ages; notable improvements are seen in the ability to use these tools in combination and to deploy them

selectively in situations when and where they are needed (Casey 2015; Chevalier

2015; Luna et al. 2010). As explained by Zelazo and Carlson (2012),

Although the preschool years may be an especially sensitive period for EF, there is also

considerable reorganization of pre-frontal systems during the transition to adolescence,

when gray matter volume in prefrontal cortex reaches a peak (Giedd et al. 1999). This

reorganization is likely to be sensitive not only to events in the internal environment (e.g., a

shift in dopamine receptors from mesolimbic toward mesocortical systems; Spear 2000) but

also to events in the external environment, and … it is associated with another increase in

the rate at which EF develops. Indeed, several studies have found that EF can also be

trained in older children and adolescents (e.g., Duckworth et al. in press; Jaeggi et al. 2011).

(p. 357)

It is easy to imagine that the development of cool EF could contribute to the

increases that have been found in the use of problem-solving coping during adolescence (Compas et al. 2001; Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner 2011), and could also


Development of Regulatory Capacity …


contribute to its growing sophistication. Increases in working memory capacity

would allow for improvements in proactive coping, enabling adolescents to consider more relevant factors and more alternative and complex strategies, as well as

their likely consequences. Greater inhibition would allow adolescents to carry out

strategies more effectively, with better attentional focus and less distraction.

Improved updating and shifting skills would allow youth to more effectively

monitor the consequences of coping efforts as episodes unfold, all the while

incorporating new evidence, and so changing direction (or maintaining course) as

appropriate. Even if EF cannot always keep pace with quickly moving coping

transactions, adolescents should still find these skills useful in conducting a

thoughtful postmortem of where things went wrong (and right).

The development of hot executive functions. Recent research suggests that

lagging behind the refinement of these cool cognitive skills is the development of

hot EF, that is, the capacity to use the tools of cognitive self-control in situations

where emotional or motivational arousal are high (Albert et al. 2013; Casey 2015;

Peterson and Welsh 2014; Pfeifer and Blakemore 2012; Zelazo and Carlson 2012).

In general, hot EF shows a protracted developmental course over late childhood and

all during adolescence and early adulthood. As with cool EF, researchers debate the

components of hot EF, pointing out that different tasks have been found to show

different developmental trajectories. For example, adolescents tend to perform as

well as adults on delay-discounting tasks (i.e., delay of gratification) and

decision-making tasks when in the laboratory (Albert et al. 2013; Reyna and Farley

2006), whereas negative emotions (e.g., induced by task failure) still interfere more

with adolescents’ complex task performance than they do with the performances of

adults (Lewis et al. 2004).

Especially interesting are the mechanisms responsible for deficits in the performance of adolescents on hot EF tasks, some of which have been identified in

studies that compare adolescents and adults in terms of both task performance and

neural activation. Active debate and investigation center on several overlapping

possibilities, examining whether adolescents use different neural networks than do

adults when processing the demands of hot EF tasks (Peterson and Welsh 2014), or

if they are working with more active reward-processing circuitry (Steinberg 2010),

or are more reactive to social stimulation or less able to inhibit its effects (Burnett

et al. 2011), or are less able to update WM with hot representations about potential

risks and punishments (Harms et al. 2014; Hostinar and Gunnar 2013).

Balance between reactivity and regulation. As mentioned in the previous

chapter on middle childhood, productive coping relies on skills of both hot and cool

EF, and especially on the capacity to integrate them constructively during stressful

transactions—which by definition typically involve complex problem-solving

in situations that elicit high levels of emotional and motivational arousal. The

question of how adolescents are increasingly able to accomplish this feat (and what

happens to them until they are competent to do so) is of central concern to adolescent researchers. They have proposed several models to account for both the

risky and worrisome behaviors of early adolescence, which seem to peak at about

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