Puberty May Affect Facial Recognition in Adolescents

Facial Recognition

A small study has come out that suggests the process of puberty affects the way adolescents handle facial recognition by shifting preferences towards faces that match their own developmental stage. This, according to the researchers, suggests that age is less of a governing factor in how adolescent social behaviors develop.

In Brief: Facial Biases

Pre-pubescent children have an easier time remembering the faces of adult women, which is known as the “caretaker bias”. Adolescents, meanwhile, are known to experience a sort of “dip” in this ability, which the researchers propose happens as the face processing system “recalibrates” to a more peer-focused bias. This is done, it is posited, to help prepare the person for sexual reproduction and makes considering peers as romantic partners easier.

The Study

The researchers recruited 116 adolescents and separated them into four groups based on which stage of puberty they were in. The groups were: pre-pubescent, early puberty, later puberty, and sexually mature young adults. Where this approach differed from past studies is that all participants were also the same age, which made puberty stage the main variable.

The participants were presented with 120 male and female faces in the form of a memory game. The adolescents were shown 10 neutral faces that covered all four puberty groups, then were shown another set of 20 faces with happy expressions and asked which ones they had previously seen.

As expected, the pre-pubescent children had an easier time remembering the adult female faces. Meanwhile, the other adolescents began showing a peer bias. Specifically, they had an easier time remembering the faces that matched their own personal stage in puberty. This suggests that there are distinct clues to a person’s puberty stage in their face, which adolescents start to pick up on during their own development.

The findings help inform the development of the brain during puberty and the timetable of different brain and behavior changes. It also might explain why adolescents are known to form peer groups based more on puberty stage than age.

Picci, G., et. al., “From Caregivers to Peers, Puberty Shapes Human Face Perception.” Psychological SCIENCE, 2016; 10.1177/0956797616663142.
Auman-Bauer, K., “What’s in a face?,” Penn State University web site, September 26, 2016;, last accessed September 28, 2016.

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