Adolescents' Reactions to Hypothetical Peer Group Conversations: Evidence for an Imaginary Audience?

By Vartanian, Lesa Rae | Adolescence, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Adolescents' Reactions to Hypothetical Peer Group Conversations: Evidence for an Imaginary Audience?


Vartanian, Lesa Rae, Adolescence


ABSTRACT

The theory of adolescent egocentrism holds that early adolescents have a distorted understanding of self-other relations; because of flaws in the traditional methods used to assess adolescent egocentrism, this notion has never received adequate empirical scrutiny. In the present research, the nature of early adolescent social cognition as characterized by that theory was investigated by examining age differences in judgments of hypothetical peer group conversations. In Study 1, children and early adolescents (N = 264) rated the attentiveness, criticalness, and admiration expressed in three conversations, in which the subject or a peer was mentioned in either an admiring, critical, or nonevaluative manner. In Study 2, a similar procedure was used with middle and late adolescents, as well as children and early adolescents (N = 187); two memory tasks were also administered to visit the issue of distortion in social cognition. In Study 3, a new sample (N = 1,019) representing the four age groups from Study 2 was presented with an ambiguous conversation and then asked to interpret who was the target (object of focus) and how that target was regarded. The findings from the three studies do not support the notion that adolescents believe others are attentive to and critical of their every move, or that their social cognition and perception is egocentric and distorted. Conceptual and methodological contributions are discussed, along with directions for additional research.

Study 1 was based on the author's doctoral dissertation; it was supported in part by a Dissertation Completion Fellowship awarded by the Graduate School at Northern Illinois University, and its results were presented at the 1998 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, San Diego, California. Studies 2 and 3 were supported in part by IPFW Summer Research Grants, and their results were presented at the 1999 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the 2000 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Chicago, Illinois, respectively. The author would like to thank the students, parents, teachers, and school administrators who either participated in or otherwise facilitated this research, and Bonnie Marlowe, Rhonda Passino, Suzie Gilbert, Audrey Gotch, Kathy Vorndran, Jody Ringenberg, Renee Maldeney, and Jennifer Marlow for their assistance with data collection, scoring, and entry. The author especially thanks Kimberly K. P owlishta and Daniel K. Lapsley for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

Are adolescents egocentric? That is, do they mistakenly believe that their peers are always watching and criticizing them? For years, the answer has been "yes": An egocentric bias in understanding self-other relations (Elkind, 1967, 1978, 1985) has been viewed as a normative, temporary hitch in social-cognitive growth during adolescence. Early adolescents, preoccupied with themselves, distort what is presumed to be the reality that others are not watching and evaluating their every move, into a fantasy that others are always watching and evaluating them. Thus, adolescents are said to create and react to an imaginary audience (Elkind, 1967, 1978, 1985). This pattern of distorted thinking can lead to another collection of distorted beliefs about the self--the personal fable (Elkind, 1967, 1978, 1985). That is, believing that one is the target of constant attention from and evaluation by others, one also comes to believe that he or she is special, unique, and very different from others. These particular manifest ations of "adolescent egocentrism" are thought to diminish by late adolescence. Because these ideations intuitively explain self-consciousness, concern with physical appearance, conformity to peer group norms, and risk-taking during the second decade of life, the theory of adolescent egocentrism, and its twin constructs of the imaginary audience and personal fable, have been extremely popular and widely cited. …

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