The Social Reality of the Imaginary Audience: A Grounded Theory Approach

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It has been argued that the traditional understanding of the adolescent experience is outdated (Hendry et al., 1993). A large part of this argument stems from the recognition that traditional research methods have tended to present young people as a homogeneous group, with little feel for the variety of their views and experiences (Shucksmith & Hendry, 1998). Such research tends to be dominated by "adultist" ideas about the problems faced by adolescents, with an implicit assumption that young people's opinions and feelings are peripheral to the understanding of issues which fundamentally affect them. Arnett (1997), for example, argues that research has tended to focus on transition events such as finishing education, entering the employment market, marriage, and parenthood, yet these events have very little salience for young people in their own conceptions of the transition to adulthood. Accordingly, existing health education messages and intervention programs aimed at young people are increasingly shown to have little impact on large segments of the population. These findings indicate that there may be a disparity between the way the experience is conceptualized by theorists and researchers in the field, and the way it is perceived by adolescents themselves. In the present study, Elkind's (1967) theory of adolescent egocentrism is critically evaluated.

Adolescent Egocentrism

Elkind (1967), on the basis of Piagetian theory and clinical experience, developed a theory to explain why young adolescents seem to be preoccupied with "what other people think" about them. Since then, the concept of "adolescent egocentricism" has become an increasingly popular construct for understanding features of adolescent cognition and their relationship to such common characteristics as adolescent angst, self-consciousness, and susceptibility to peer pressure.

According to Elkind (1967), from a strictly cognitive point of view, the major task of early adolescence can be regarded as having to do with the conquest of thought. The emergence of formal operational thought not only enables the adolescent to conceptualize his or her own thought, it also permits him or her to conceptualize the thought of other people. Elkind suggests that it is this capacity to take account of other people's thought which is the crux of adolescent egocentrism. He argues that while adolescents can now cognize the thoughts of others, they fail to differentiate between the objects toward which the thoughts of others are directed and those which are the focus of their own concern. Accordingly, they assume that other people are as obsessed with them (i.e., their behavior and appearance) as they are themselves: "It is this belief that others are preoccupied with his appearance and behavior that constitutes the egocentrism of the adolescent" (Elkind, 1967, p. 1030).

The Imaginary Audience

Elkind goes on to suggest that one consequence of this egocentrism is that, in actual or impending social situations, the young person anticipates the reactions of other people to himself or herself. However, as these anticipations are based on the premise that others are as admiring or as critical of the young person as they are themselves, the adolescent is continually constructing, or reacting to, an imaginary audience: "It is an audience because the young person believes that he or she will be the focus of attention; and it is imaginary because, in actual social situations, this is not usually the case (unless he or she contrives to make it so)" (Elkind, 1967, p. 1031). The crux of Elkind's (1985) argument about the imaginary audience is that it is imaginary, not real. Where the young adolescent has difficulty is in recognizing the subjectivity of his or her own mental constructions. The imaginary audience is seen as a mental construction and not a social reality.

According to Elkind, when formal operations become rarely established (lay the age of 15 or 16), the egocentrism of early adolescence tends to diminish. …