Originally used to represent the false belief that one is being watched and evaluated by others, David Elkind proposed that construction of an imaginary audience during early adolescence was a form of “adolescent egocentrism,” which he saw as a natural outgrowth of the transition to Piaget’s formal-operational stage of cognitive development. Adolescent egocentrism is reduced as adolescents’ cognitive capabilities become more refined and as more social experience is acquired.
Research has not supported the theoretical connection between the acquisition of formal-operational abilities and the imaginary audiences. Other developmental theoretical models of the imaginary audience involving identity exploration and the development of social perspective-taking skills have been tested, but have received little empirical support. Nevertheless, the imaginary audience construct has remained of interest to developmental and clinical psychologists for its presumed connection to what appear to be common facets of adolescents’ experiences, such as feelings of self-consciousness and susceptibility to peer pressure.
Currently, the best-supported theoretical approach to the imaginary audience construct is the “New Look” model, which states that adolescents experience a heightened tendency to think about themselves and others in social scenarios to cope with concerns resulting from the process of separation-individuation. During this process, adolescents must balance their competing needs to pull away from and stay connected to parents. Multiple studies have shown a positive relation between imaginary audience ideation and separation-individuation concerns, particularly those reflecting concern regarding interpersonal connection. The New Look model has relocated the imaginary audience construct within a new developmental framework, and has redefined its basic nature. The belief that others are attending to and evaluating one’s every move would be just one possible example or variety of imaginary audience thinking under this newest model.
In fact, how to measure the imaginary audience has been a major obstacle in its study. The two most commonly used survey measures do not assess the original crux of the construct—that is, that adolescents incorrectly believe others attend to and evaluate them. The two classic operational definitions— feelings of self-consciousness and the belief that it is important to anticipate how others will react to oneself—do not require the misperception of others’ attention and evaluation. Both could result from the correct perception of others’ attention and evaluation; their relative absence could reflect a false belief that others attend to oneself in an admiring fashion.
Recently, alternative methods have been used: When asked to rate the attentiveness, criticalness, and admiration of hypothetical peer group conversations in which another peer was mentioned in a critical, admiring, or nonevaluative manner, adolescents’ and early adults’ ratings were not significantly different. Performance on memory tests for conversation content did not support the classic notion of the imaginary audience as indicative of an adolescent tendency toward distorted social cognition. When given an ambiguous peer group conversation, in which the evaluative tone and target of the group’s comments were unclear, roughly one out of five participants across four age groups (children, early, middle, and late adolescents/early adults) said the group was talking about them. The best predictor of perception of self-as-target was the interpretation of the group’s comments as admiring in nature.
While references to the imaginary audience continue to appear in textbooks discussing early adolescence, the use of newer methodological approaches continues to challenge the information typically presented. Much about the imaginary audience remains to be discovered. In particular, what is the normative developmental trajectory for the imaginary audience, and what role does it play in adolescent development? Are there cultural differences in imaginary audience ideation? Longitudinal and cross-cultural studies would provide answers to these as-of-yet unanswered questions.
- Elkind, (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38, 1025–1034.
- Goossens, , Beyers, W., Emmen, M., & van Aken, M. A. G. (2002). The imaginary audience and personal fable: Factor analyses and concurrent validity of the “New Look” measures. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 12, 193–215.
- Lapsley, D. K. (1993). Toward an integrated theory of adolescent ego development: The “new look” at adolescent e American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 562–571.
- Vartanian, R. (2000). Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism: A conceptual review. Adolescence, 35, 639–661.
- Vartanian, L. R. (2001). Adolescents’ reactions to hypothetical peer group conversations: Evidence for an imaginary audience? Adolescence, 36, 347–380.