Revisiting the Imaginary Audience and Personal Fable Constructs of Adolescent Egocentrism: A Conceptual Review

Article excerpt


Adolescents are thought to believe that others are always watching and evaluating them, and that they are special and unique, labeled the imaginary audience and the personal fable, respectively. These two constructs have been fixtures in textbooks on adolescent development, and have been offered as explanations for self-consciousness and risk-taking. However, their characterization of adolescent social cognition as biased has not been supported empirically, the measures used to assess them lack construct validity, and alternative explanations for both ideation patterns have not been explored. Despite these issues, the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs continue to be considered prototypical representations of social cognitive processes during adolescence. This paper (1) reviews theoretical models of the imaginary audience and the personal fable, and the empirical data pertaining to each model, (2) highlights problems surrounding the two most commonly used measures, and (3) outlines directions fo r future research, so that a better understanding of the imaginary audience and personal fable, and their roles in adolescent development, may be achieved.


The long-standing and often-cited theory of adolescent egocentrism (Elkind, 1967) delineates two distinct but related ideation patterns--the imaginary audience and the personal fable. The imaginary audience refers to adolescents' tendency to believe that others are always watching and evaluating them; the personal fable refers to the belief that the self is unique, invulnerable, and omnipotent. The patterns of thinking reflected by both constructs seem to capture and explain feelings and behaviors typically associated with early adolescence, such as self-consciousness, conformity to peer group norms, and risk-taking. Further, they have substantial intuitive appeal.

These twin constructs have appeared in textbook discussions of adolescent behavior and development for over thirty years. However, the theoretical grounding of the constructs has been the subject of much debate, and the empirical literature is in need of integration. The measurement of adolescent egocentrism has been another source of controversy and, at present, there are at least three operational definitions of the imaginary audience. Given these issues, some have questioned whether the imaginary audience and personal fable really exist (e.g., Lerner, 1988).

Exactly where in a given textbook one might find the imaginary audience and personal fable has changed a bit from when the constructs were first delineated as by-products of cognitive development (see Elkind, 1967). Two major reformulations of the imaginary audience and personal fable have been proposed since then, shifting emphasis first from cognitive to social-cognitive development (Lapsley & Murphy, 1985) and, more recently, to aspects of identity development (Lapsley, 1993). Thus, today one may find the constructs in chapters dealing with social-cognitive or identity development as opposed to cognitive development; however, one will still find the imaginary audience and personal fable discussed in concert with self-consciousness, peer group conformity, and unplanned teen pregnancy. Regardless of the particular domain of development in which they appear, one feature has remained constant: The imaginary audience and personal fable constructs characterize adolescents' thinking about self and others as faul ty, biased, and/or fantastical.

This paper revisits the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism. Of primary focus is how both have traditionally characterized adolescent social cognition, and the extent to which that characterization has been supported empirically. This review is organized into three sections. The first traces the various theoretical models that have been proposed for the constructs, and reviews research pertaining to each model. …


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