The descriptions were the same in each condition, but people could better remember these statements when given a social motivation.
The study also found that when subjects thought about and later recalled descriptions in terms of their informational content, regions associated with factual memory, such as the medial temporal lobe, became active.
Yet in the years following the publication of this study, Steinberg began to believe that this interpretation did not capture the whole picture.
As he and other researchers examined the question of teens were more apt to take risks in the company of other teenagers, they came to suspect that a crowd's influence need not always be negative.
Now some experts are proposing that we should take advantage of the teen brain's keen sensitivity to the presence of friends and leverage it to improve education.
In a 2011 study, Steinberg and his colleagues turned to functional MRI to investigate how the presence of peers affects the activity in the adolescent brain.
In his latest experiment, published online in August, Steinberg and his colleagues used a computerized version of a card game called the Iowa Gambling Task to investigate how the presence of peers affects the way young people gather and apply information.
In this variant on the game, a computer would indicate a card from one of four decks, and players could decide to reveal that card or pass.
Such findings, he says, suggest that “this network can be called on to process and store the kind of information taught in school—potentially giving students access to a range of untapped mental powers.” If humans are generally geared to recall details about one another, this pattern is probably even more powerful among teenagers who are hyperattentive to social minutiae: who is in, who is out, who likes whom, who is mad at whom.
Their penchant for social drama is not—or not —a way of distracting themselves from their schoolwork or of driving adults crazy.