Our everyday conception of egocentrism involves people behaving “selfishly” or failing to be “considerate” of others. While egocentrism does in fact typically manifest itself in failures to take other people’s perspectives, it is more rooted in human cognitive shortcomings than in any motivation to be selfish. In both children and adults, egocentrism arises when we fail to recognize the idiosyncratic nature of our own knowledge or the subjective nature of our own perceptions. Such failures describe the child at play who covers his eyes and joyfully exclaims to his parents, “You can’t see me!” Likewise, they describe the adult physician who provides her patient with a medical diagnosis that only another doctor could understand.

The Swiss psychologist and biologist, Jean Piaget (1896–1980), pioneered the scientific study of egocentrism. He traced the development of cognition in children as they move out of a state of extreme egocentrism and come to recognize that other people (and other minds) have separate perspectives. Within the framework of Piaget’s stage-based theory of cognitive development,  the  infant  in  the  sensorimotor  stage is extremely egocentric. During these first 2 years of development, infants are unaware that alternative perceptual, affective, and conceptual perspectives exist. Once they reach the preoperational stage (2–7 years), children come to recognize the existence of alternative perspectives but usually fail to adopt these viewpoints when necessary. Using a variety of ingenious tasks, Piaget discovered that children in this stage often do not recognize that another person who is also looking at the same nonuniform object as them, but from a different angle, sees it differently. Piaget’s observation that older children stopped displaying such instantiations of egocentrism led him to argue that children overcome egocentrism when they reach the concrete-operational stage and come to appreciate that different perspectives afford different perceptions. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development posits that by age 7, most of us are free of egocentrism. Since Piaget, research within developmental psychology on children’s theory of mind has continued to explore egocentrism in many areas of social and cognitive reasoning, such as perception, communication, and moral judgment. This research has generally maintained its focus on young children’s instantiations of egocentrism and the developmental stages at which these are overcome. Another important tradition in psychology that has also advanced our understanding of egocentrism—though largely in isolation from the theory-of-mind tradition in developmental psychology—is the heuristics and biases tradition in cognitive and social psychology. Research on heuristics and biases that affect human judgment has demonstrated that, even well into adulthood, our perceptions are characterized by various egocentric shortcomings. These include the false consensus effect, whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their own preferences are shared by others; the curse of knowledge, whereby experts in a particular domain fail to adequately take into account the level of knowledge of laypeople with whom they are communicating; the illusion of transparency, whereby people tend to exaggerate the degree to which their internal emotional states (such as anxiety during public speaking) are evident to outside observers; and the spotlight effect, whereby people tend to overestimate the degree to which aspects of their appearance and actions are noticed by others.

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Although egocentric biases are generally more subtle in adulthood than in infancy, the persistence of some forms of egocentrism in adulthood suggests that overcoming egocentrism may be a lifelong process that never fully reaches fruition. Opening channels of communication between developmental psychologists, who study theory-of-mind, and social and cognitive psychologists, who study judgmental biases, is likely to generate a host of new and interesting questions while allowing both fields to make important theoretical advances.


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