Poor decision making during adolescence occurs most frequently when situations are emotionally charged. However, relatively few studies have measured the development of cognitive control in response to emotional stimuli in this population. This study used both affective (emotional faces) and non-affective (letter) stimuli in two different flanker tasks to assess the ability to ignore task-irrelevant but distracting information, in 25 adults and 25 adolescents. On the non-emotional (letter) flanker task, the presence of incongruent flanking letters increased the number of errors, and also slowed participants’ ability to identify a central letter. Adolescents committed more errors than adults, but there were no age-related differences for the reaction time interference effect in the letter condition. Post-hoc testing revealed that age-related differences on the task were driven by the younger adolescents (11-14 years); adults and older adolescents (15-17 years) were equally accurate in the letter condition. In contrast, on the emotional face flanker task, not only were adolescents less accurate than adults but they were also more distracted by task-irrelevant fearful faces as evidenced by greater reaction time interference effects. Our findings suggest that the ability to self-regulate in adolescents, as evidenced by the ability to suppress irrelevant information on a flanker task, is more difficult when stimuli are affective in nature. The ability to ignore irrelevant flankers appears to mature earlier for non-affective stimuli than for affective stimuli.
Grose-Fifer, J., Rodrigues, A., Hoover, S. & Zottoli, T. (2013). Attentional capture by emotional faces in adolescence. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 9(2), 81-91. doi:10.2478/v10053-008-0134-9.