Adolescent Egocentrism and Cognitive Functioning during Late Adolescence

Article excerpt

According to Elkind (1967), adolescent egocentrism, which includes a belief by teenagers that they are special and unique, accompanies the attainment of new mental abilities. Specifically, Elkind proposed that adolescents construct an "imaginary audience," giving rise to heightened self-consciousness. Adolescents believe that others, especially peers, are watching them, thinking about them, and interested in all their thoughts and behaviors. Elkind suggested that this is due, in part, to emerging formal operational thought, which allows adolescents to think about their own thinking and that of others. Adolescent egocentrism actually represents a flaw in their thinking that is characteristic of early formal operations. Adolescents assume that since they spend a considerable amount of time thinking about themselves, others must be doing the same thing, namely, thinking about and monitoring them. They fail to realize that while they may be preoccupied with themselves, others are not so inclined.

Previous studies (e.g., Elkind & Bowen, 1979) have generally found that adolescent egocentrism is more prevalent in females and that it increases during early adolescence, peaks at about 14 to 16 years of age, and then decreases during later adolescence. However, a study by Peterson and Roscoe (1991) found egocentrism in female college freshmen to be at a level higher than is typically found in some high school students. This result is somewhat surprising, given the expectation that adolescent egocentrism should have been declining.

A number of studies have examined the relationship between formal operations and adolescent egocentrism, with mixed results. Hudson and Gray (1986) and Riley, Adams, and Nielsen (1984) found significant relationships between formal operations and adolescent egocentrism, while studies by Jahnke and Blanchard-Fields (1993) and Lapsley, Milsread, Quintana, Flannery, and Buss (1986) did not. All of these studies used traditional measures of formal operations to examine the relationship between adolescent egocentrism and cognitive development. This may have been problematic, since adolescents and adults often do poorly on formal operational tasks due to reasons other than their competency.

The present study was designed to examine the relationship between adolescent egocentrism and cognitive level in college students. A post-formal operational assessment (Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldston, 1992) that is not task based, but does discriminate between formistic (early formal to formal operations), mechanistic (formal to late formal operations), relativistic (early post-formal operations), and dialectical (post-formal operations) thinking, was used. It was felt that this measure would be more appropriate for a college-aged population than would traditional tests of formal operations. If there is a relationship between adolescent egocentrism and formal operational thought, then the lower forms of reasoning (formistic and mechanistic) should show greater egocentrism as compared with higher forms of reasoning (relativistic and dialectical).


Participants were 163 undergraduate students (53 males and 110 females), ranging in age from 17 to 24 (mean age = 19.6), recruited from introductory psychology classes at a medium-sized midwestern university. They were administered a version of Elkind and Bowen's (1979) Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS) that had been slightly modified for college-aged individuals (similar to the adjustment made by Peterson & Roscoe, 1991). The IAS, which measures adolescent egocentrism, is a 12-item paper-and-pencil self-report instrument. Potentially self-revealing or embarrassing situations are presented, and respondents choose from three possible reactions. The IAS includes two subscales - the Abiding Self (AS), which reflects long-lived characteristics such as mental ability and personality traits, and the Transient Self (TS), which reflects momentary or temporary appearance and behavior such as verbal mistakes and physical mishaps. …


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