Adolescence, Winter 2000 v35 i140 p639


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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. A common thread emerges from this theoretical and empirical review: Although various developmental mechanisms have been offered regarding adolescents' imaginative tendencies, the dominant theoretical theme has been that early adolescent thinking is biased or distorted, and that view has not been substantiated with empirical data. The second section considers how the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs have been measured. It is argued that the typical paper-and-pencil instruments do not necessarily measure distorted or biased thinking, nor do they ass ess all possible varieties of imaginary audience and personal fable ideation. The inherent difficulties associated with assessment are discussed. The third section attempts to integrate and summarize what is known and what is not known about these popular constructs, and suggests means by which a better understanding of the imaginary audience and personal fable, and their roles in adolescent behavior and development, might be achieved.


The Original Adolescent Egocentrism Perspective

Adolescence is a time of great transitions--both in number and in magnitude. Adolescents undergo a host of physical, cognitive, and socioemotional changes. Understandably, such changes often occupy center stage in their personal thoughts. However, adolescents are thought to believe, mistakenly, that their own appearance and behavior are of as much concern to others as they are to themselves (Elkind, 1967, 1978, 1985), and also to assume that others' evaluations of them match their self-evaluations. Thus, adolescents are said to construct and react to an imaginary audience (Elkind, 1967, 1978), which is always watching and evaluating them.

What sort of person is always watched and evaluated by others? One who is special, one who is not like everyone else. Hence, another misguided notion emerges-the personal fable. The personal fable reflects the mistaken belief that one's feelings and experiences are uniquely different from those of others (Elkind, 1967, 1978, 1985). The adolescent may therefore come to believe that "others cannot understand what I'm going through," "that won't happen to me," and "I can handle anything."

The imaginary audience and personal fable seem to capture what have been viewed as typical facets of adolescent behavior. For example, self-consciousness and conformity to the peer group in regard to appearance can be understood as resulting from the belief that others (i.e., the imaginary audience) are always watching and judging. Feelings of isolation and risk-taking behavior can be viewed as outcomes of a personal fable--believing that one is unique and invulnerable.

Originally, both constructs were conceptualized as manifestations of self-other differentiation errors or egocentrism, emerging as a result of the transition to Piaget's formal operational stage of cognitive development (Elkind, 1967). Attaining this developmental stage means that one can think abstractly and about possibilities; for example, one can think about what other people may be thinking. However, the adolescent's new command of formal operational skills is still shaky, leading to the error that results in imaginary audience ideation: The adolescent fails to differentiate the contents of his or her thoughts from those of others. At the same time (and due in part to the construction of an imaginary audience), the differentiation error swings to the apposite extreme: The adolescent fails to realize the commonality of experiences and emotions among peers, instead considering himself or herself unique and omnipotent. This "overdifferentiation" is the egocentric essence of personal fable ideation.

Individuals experience different forms of egocentricism as they pass through each stage of Piagetian cognitive development. Younger children do not experience "adolescent egocentrism" because they have not yet reached the level of formal operational thought: They have not acquired the prerequisite skill that underlies imaginary audience and personal fable ideation-the ability to think abstractly and about possibilities. Elkind (1967) posited that adolescent egocentrism is overcome with continued intellectual development and social interactions. As formal thinking abilities are mastered or consolidated, and the adolescent engages in mutual disclosure with others, he or she comes to see that those objects of thought that are of keen interest to himself or herself are not the objects of others' thinking, and, subsequently, imaginary audience ideation is reduced. He or she also comes to the realization that others have many of the same feelings, fears, and experiences, leading to a reduction in personal fable id eation. Although social/interpersonal experiences play a clear role in reducing distorted ideations, the mastering of formal operational abilities is the chief ingredient in bringing about a more accurate, refined understanding of self-other relations. Hence, the imaginary audience and personal fable are thought to occur rarely, if at all, among late adolescents and adults. According to this theoretical perspective, a curvilinear relationship exists between both ideation patterns and level of cognitive development, with concrete operational thinkers (who typically are children) and consolidated formal operational thinkers (who typically are late adolescents and adults) engaging in significantly less imaginary audience and personal fable ideation than do early formal thinkers (who typically are early adolescents).

Empirical evidence supporting the theoretical link between imaginary audience and personal fable ideation and formal operational thinking has emerged only infrequently, and has been tenuous at best. For example, some studies have found what appears to be heightened imaginary audience and personal fable ideation among middle school students (Enright, Lapsley, & Shukla, 1979; Enright, Shukla, & Lapsley, 1980), but the exclusion of younger participants makes it difficult to assess the predicted curvilinear pattern. Some support for the notion that these ideations decline by late adolescence has been found in the form of negative correlations with age (Enright et al., 1979, 1980; Hudson & Gray, 1986), but other studies have found no age differences in samples with reasonably broad age ranges (Goossens, 1984, studies 1 and 2; Gray & Hudson, 1984; Hudson & Gray, 1986; Lapsley, Milstead, Quintana, Flannery, & Buss, 1986; Peterson, 1982). Some studies have even found greater levels of imaginary audience and personal fable ideation among older adolescents (Adams & Jones, 1981; Peterson & Roscoe, 1991), a group for whom both ideation patterns theoretically should be declining due to the consolidation of formal operations. Elkind and Bowen (1979) did find the predicted, inverted U-shaped pattern for imaginary audience ideation in relation to grade level (the sample contained 4th, 6th, 8th, and 12th graders). However, level of cognitive development was not assessed (which was also the case in all of the studies mentioned above) and can only be inferred imperfectly from grade level. As such, these findings lend only indirect support to the theoretical model, and certainly not in any consistent fashion.

Studies in which participants' level of cognitive development was measured directly have provided little clarity. Peak imaginary audience/personal fable ideation has been found among concrete operational thinkers, who theoretically do not yet have the requisite cognitive ability (Gray & Hudson, 1984; Pesce & Harding, 1986; Peterson, 1982; Riley, Adams, & Nielsen, 1984). A number of studies have not found any relation between level of cognitive development and imaginary audience or personal fable ideation (Goossens, 1984, study 3; Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields, 1993; O'Connor & Nikolic, 1990), or have found a negative association between these ideation patterns and formal operational ability even among early adolescents-an age group for whom the theory predicts a positive relation (e.g., Lapsley et al., 1986). Finally, recurrent gender differences in both ideation patterns are somewhat problematic, as cognitive development should proceed independently of gender. The most common pattern is that females demonstrate greater adolescent egocentrism than do males (Anolik, 1981; Elkind & Bowen, 1979; Goossens, 1984; Gray & Hudson, 1984; Markstrom & Mullis, 1986; Pesce & Harding, 1986; Riley et al., 1984), although the reverse has also been found (Lechner & Rosenthal, 1984), as well as null results for gender and imaginary audience and/ or personal fable ideation (Adams & Jones, 1981; Enright et al., 1979; Peterson, 1982; Vartanian & Powlishta, 1996). From these results, it would appear reasonable to conclude that the role of cognitive development (specifically, that of formal operational thought) in adolescents' imaginary audience and personal fable ideation has been overemphasized. Nevertheless, this conclusion has not often appeared in contemporary textbooks that discuss the imaginary audience and personal fable (cf. Berk, 1999; Feldman, 1999; Kaplan, 2000; Santrock, 1998).

A Social-Cognitive Alternative

Aside from the lack of consistent empirical support for the theory of adolescent egocentrism as originally outlined, it has also been argued that the theory lacks logical and internal consistency (Lapsley & Murphy, 1985). Lapsley and Murphy noted that it seems odd to suggest that reaching the final and most advanced level of cognitive development (formal operations) would cause adolescents to make the sorts of self-other differentiation errors that should be obviated by the very definition or nature of that level. That is, if one is able to think logically, abstractly, and hypothetically, how can imaginary audience and personal fable ideation be possible? Lapsley and Murphy also noted that the mechanism by which preceding forms of egocentrism diminish (i.e., moving to the next stage of development) could not account for the diminution of adolescent egocentrism, as formal operations is the final stage of development in Piaget's theory. Hence, a new mechanism (which, in Lapsley and Murphy's view, entailed a th eoretical inconsistency) had to be introduced as the means by which imaginary audience and personal fable ideations decrease by late adolescence.

The theoretical critique by Lapsley and Murphy ultimately produced an alternative, social-cognitive theoretical framework for the imaginary audience and personal fable--one in which the two ideation patterns were reconceptualized as "problems in interpersonal understanding." Lapsley and Murphy proposed that Selman's (1980) theory of social perspective-taking and interpersonal understanding could better account for the rise and fall of imaginary audience and personal fable ideations. They argued that Selman's theory, which charts the developmental course by which children come to consider and coordinate the social perspectives of self and others, provides a better conceptual lens for viewing both constructs. They suggested that both the imaginary audience and personal fable might be outcomes of Level 3 social perspective-taking ability. Level 3 coincides with the age period during which both ideation patterns typically peak (10 to 15 years), and is marked by the ability to consider self and other perspectives simultaneously from a third-party (or "observing ego") perspective. Whereas the Level 2 child is limited to considering self and other perspectives one at a time (sequentially), the Level 3 adolescent is able to step outside of the dyad and view self and other from an "observing ego" point of view. This new awareness of the self as both the agent and an object in social interaction is thought to account for imaginary audience ideation, as such awareness heightens self-consciousness (Damon & Hart, 1982; Lapsley & Murphy, 1985) and throws the adolescent's imagination of others' reactions to the self into high gear (Lapsley & Murphy, 1985). Personal fable ideation is also an outcome of the Level 3 conception of the mind as ever-conscious and self-aware, which can increase feelings of personal uniqueness and omnipotence. The acquisition of Level 4 social perspective-taking ability (12 years to adult) is thought to decrease imaginary audience and personal fable ideations. Upon reaching this final stage of develop ment, the older adolescent or young adult can consider and coordinate multiple third-party perspectives to form a "generalized societal perspective" (Selman, 1980). This perspective alleviates self-consciousness, as the adolescent can better see the self in relation to the "larger matrix of social perspectives" (Lapsley & Murphy, 1985, p. 214). The Level 4 appreciation of unconscious mental processes that limit one's powers of self-reflection reduces personal fable ideation.

This model of the imaginary audience and personal fable has received far less empirical attention. Jahnke and Blanchard-Fields (1993) compared formal operations and level of social perspective-taking ability as predictors of imaginary audience and personal fable ideation among a sample of 87 individuals ranging in age from 11 to 21 years. Neither formal operations nor level of social perspective-taking significantly predicted imaginary audience, and there were no effects of age or gender on imaginary audience. However, personal fable ideation was significantly related to Level 3 social perspective-taking ability.

Similarly, the findings of Vartanian and Powlishta (1996) did not support the hypothesis that Level 3 is associated with heightened imaginary audience ideation (their sample consisted of 96 middle school students in grades 6, 7 and 8). Once again, grade and gender effects for imaginary audience ideation were absent, and personal fable ideation was highest among Level 3 youth (see Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields, 1993). However, the latter finding was qualified by grade level. Specifically, only grade 6 students who had Level 3 social perspective-taking ability showed higher personal fable ideation than did other students. Although a number of grade-related factors might be implicated, the authors favored the possibility that the 6th graders' recent transition from elementary to middle school, combined with their Level 3 social perspective-taking ability, was responsible for the feelings of uniqueness and isolation that are associated with the personal fable. Other researchers have similarly speculated that a disru ption in one's social context might increase egocentrism among adolescents and even young adults (Pesce & Harding, 1986; Peterson & Roscoe, 1991). Furthermore, personal fable ideation among that group of students had declined one year later, even though none of them had reached Level 4. There was no evidence of developmental change for the imaginary audience. Thus, although Lapsley and Murphy's (1985) social-cognitive model of adolescent egocentrism has been offered as a conceptually attractive alternative to Elkind's strictly cognitive approach and has been partially supported for the personal fable component, it has yet to receive any measure of empirical validation for the imaginary audience.

Imaginary Audience, Personal Fable, and Separation-Individuation: The "New Look"

Adolescents' search for a sense of personal identity has also been offered as an explanation for their seemingly egocentric thought processes, particularly for their construction of an imaginary audience (e.g., O'Connor, 1995; O'Connor & Nikolic, 1990; Protinsky & Wilkerson, 1986). This third theoretical perspective on the imaginary audience and personal fable suggests that adolescents become self-conscious and concerned with what others think of them when they themselves begin to question who they are, how they fit in, and what they will do with their lives.

Parents and teachers expect adolescents to begin to develop their own identities (Violata & Holden, 1988; Williamson & Campbell, 1985), and young adolescents may look to others for signs of individuality and identity achievement. According to O'Connor (1995), "the self-concerns and social demands of the identity development process may lead adolescents to confuse their own concerns with the concerns of others" (p. 207). Thus, adolescents wrestling with identity issues would be expected to have higher imaginary audience sensitivity than those who are not experiencing identity concerns. This notion has received some empirical support: The experience of identity crisis tends to be accompanied by increased imaginary audience ideation (O'Connor, 1995; O'Connor & Nikolic, 1990; Vartanian & Saarnio, 1995).

But how might identity concerns be related to personal fable ideation, and what specifically is it about experiencing such concerns that leads to either imaginary audience or personal fable ideation? Recently, Lapsley and colleagues offered a new model of the adolescent imaginary audience and personal fable that is grounded in the general theoretical context of identity development. This "new look" (Lapsley, 1993; Lapsley, FitzGerald, Rice, & Jackson, 1989; Lapsley & Rice, 1988) proposes that the imaginary audience and personal fable aid the adolescent's psychological separation from parents (see Blos, 1962). In this model, both imaginary audience and personal fable ideation are not so much instances of egocentrism per se; in fact, imaginary audience ideation is simply the tendency to daydream about the self in interpersonal interactions and situations or engage in what is termed "object-relational ideation" (Blos, 1962; Lapsley, 1993).

Separation-individuation is perhaps the task of adolescence (Lapsley, 1993), and is a necessary step toward acquiring a mature sense of identity. The goal of separation-individuation is to maintain a sense of connectedness with family members while establishing the self outside of family relationships. Imaginary audience and personal fable ideations aid the process of separation-individuation as it occurs on the psychological front. As this normal process moves forward, adolescents become increasingly concerned with their nonfamilial relationships, and begin to think or fantasize about themselves in various social/interpersonal scenarios in which they are the focus. Such interpersonally-oriented daydreaming allows them to maintain feelings of connectedness with others as they renegotiate relationships with parents. Emphasizing feelings of uniqueness, omnipotence, and invulnerability (i.e., engaging in personal fable ideation) helps the adolescent to conceive of the self individualistically, that is, apart fr om family ties.

The basis of the "new look" model has been supported empirically; engaging in object-relational ideation (i.e., the interpersonally-oriented daydreaming that is equated with imaginary audience ideation in the "new look" model) has been found to be positively correlated with interpersonal concerns relevant to the separation-individuation process that emphasize or indicate a felt need for connection (Docherty & Lapsley, 1995; Lapsley et al., 1989; Vartanian, 1997). As the model predicts, an imaginary audience seems to be invoked when interpersonal threat or loss is perceived. Similarly, separation-individuation concerns that reflect individuation needs have been positively correlated with aspects of personal fable ideation (Docherty & Lapsley, 1995; Lapsley et al., 1989; Vartanian, 1997).

Further, the "new look" model holds promise in terms of integrative power, which has been sorely lacking in the literature. Gender and family issues are illustrative. Gender differences in separation-individuation concerns have been noted; for example, females tend to emphasize connection more than do males (Moore, 1987), perhaps due to typical gender role socialization (Gilligan, 1982). Thus, to the extent that imaginary audience and personal fable ideations reflect separation-individuation concerns, the gender patterns that were problematic for the previous theoretical models would be expected and easily explained by this model. In addition, previous studies indicate that adolescents who perceive their parents as less supportive tend to display more imaginary audience ideation (Anolik, 1981; Riley et al., 1984; Vartanian & Saarnio, 1995), findings that are not easily understood from the perspective of either Elkind's or Lapsley and Murphy's models. However, the "new look" model can accommodate such pattern s rather easily: Those adolescents whose parents are perceived to be more supportive would likely experience fewer concerns about maintaining connectedness during separation-individuation, and thus have less of a need to engage in imaginary audience ideation as a coping mechanism.

Like its predecessors, this newest model regards personal fable ideation as involving exaggerated feelings of personal uniqueness, invulnerability, and omnipotence. However, the "new look" conceives of imaginary audience ideation much more broadly than either the original adolescent egocentrism perspective or the social-cognitive model. In the two earlier models, the focus is clearly on the "imaginary" nature of the audience. In other words, both view the adolescent as imagining that other people regularly think about and evaluate him or her. In contrast, the "new look" model suggests that adolescents imagine themselves in situations where they might be the focus of attention, rather than suggesting that, in general, adolescents' everyday thinking about self and others is fundamentally faulty. The idea is that adolescents call upon fantasy as a way of coping with a major developmental task-simply stated, they are motivated to engage in interpersonally-oriented daydreaming. This is an important divergence in conceptualization.

To summarize, much emphasis has been placed on delineating the theoretical foundations of the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs, but a more fundamental, overarching question has received far less attention: Is the typical adolescent's understanding of self-other relations faulty? Do adolescents routinely feel that others are always watching and evaluating them, and that they are wholly different from other people? At present, the answer that seems to emerge from textbooks that deal with adolescence is "yes," although the evidence for that answer is questionable, and extant measures of the constructs leave little hope that the evidence will become any clearer.


As one might suspect in light of the multiple theoretical models that have been proposed, multiple operational definitions of the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs also have been offered. The majority of empirical work has relied on two paper-and-pencil self-report surveys, the Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS; Elkind & Bowen, 1979) and the Adolescent Egocentrism Scale (AES; Enright et al., 1979). The "new look" model also brought with it two new measures--the New Imaginary Audience Scale (NIAS) and the New Personal Fable Scale (NPFS; Lapsley et al., 1988, 1989). The resulting lack of consensus, particularly for the imaginary audience, has made for considerable difficulty when trying to compare and integrate findings across studies (O'Connor, 1995; Vartanian, 1997). Even before the addition of the NIAS and NPFS to the mix, researchers noted that the LAS and AES were not to be viewed as interchangeable measures (e.g., Cohn et al., 1988; Goossens, Seiffge-Krenke, & Marcoen, 1992). The results of a recent investigation extend that caution to the newer measures, especially for the imaginary audience: Vartanian (1997) found that the "new look" model's predictions regarding separation-individuation concerns and imaginary audience ideation were not supported when using the LAS or AES. The "new look" truly is a new look, as it has redefined the nature of imaginary audience ideation as well as why it occurs during adolescence.

Because the traditional conceptualization of the constructs, which treats them as patterns of biased thinking, predominates in textbooks, and because the majority of the literature is based on the LAS and AES, the following discussion focuses on these two measures. Although the LAS and AES have been viewed as reliable and valid, it is suggested here that they are questionable in terms of construct validity, particularly for the imaginary audience. That is, one can receive a high score on either measure without necessarily engaging in biased thinking. Furthermore, because imaginary audience ideation has been equated with feeling uncomfortable around others, or expecting criticism from them, it is possible to receive a low score on the LAS or AES when one has actually created an admiring imaginary audience. Other general issues relevant to assessing imaginary audience and personal fable ideation are also discussed.

The Imaginary Audience Scale (Elkind & Bowen, 1979) presents 12 brief scenarios in which respondents are faced with revealing either fleeting or lasting characteristics of themselves to others. For example, one item asks respondents to imagine that they just got a terrible haircut (a fleeting, or transient, aspect of the sell); another item asks respondents how they feel when someone watches them work (a more stable, or abiding, aspect of the sell). Respondents indicate how they would feel or what they would do in each situation by choosing from three options. For the bad haircut situation, response options are "going out and not worrying about my hair," "sitting where people won't notice me much," and "staying home" altogether. Response options for the item asking how one feels when being watched while working are "not minding at all," "a little nervous," and "very nervous." Thus, imaginary audience ideation is equated with feeling uncomfortable and/or hesitant to reveal aspects of oneself to others, or sta ted more simply, as self-consciousness. The IAS does not assess personal fable ideation.

The Adolescent Egocentrism Scale consists of 15 items drawn from the larger Adolescent Egocentrism-Sociocentrism Scale (Enright et al., 1979). The AES contains imaginary audience and personal fable sub-scales (five items each), as well as a subscale measuring self-focused ideation. Respondents are asked to rate the importance of self-descriptive statements using a five-point scale (1 = no importance to 5 = great importance). For example, "Trying and being able to figure out if two people are talking about me when they are looking my way" is an item from the imaginary audience subscale. "Trying to get other people to better understand why I do things the way I do" is an item from the personal fable subscale. Higher ratings of importance are taken to reflect greater ideation with respect to both constructs. Thus, the AES emphasizes feelings of uniqueness in its operationalization of the personal fable, and it considers imaginary audience ideation to be the extent to which one thinks it important to anticipate the reactions of others.

Both measures have demonstrated adequate psychometric properties. For example, internal consistency estimates for both measures tend to hover in the .60 to .77 range (e.g., Elkind & Bowen, 1979; Mullis & Markstrom, 1986; Lapsley et al., 1986), and as has been noted, relatively low estimates of reliability might account for the puzzbng and/or inconsistent findings that are not uncommon in the literature (e.g., Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields, 1993).

Aside from the issue of internal consistency, do the items on each measure assess distorted thinking--do they possess construct validity? The argument offered here is that they do not. In the hypothetical vignettes of the IAS, the "audience" to whom the adolescent is asked to respond is real and likely to be paying attention to the adolescent. Consider the item that begins, "When someone watches me work..."; the presence and attentiveness of an audience is clear. Another item asks what the respondent would do if he or she "fell and noticeably scraped his or her face the day before a class picture was to be taken"; if one has noticeably scraped his or her face, then, by definition, people will notice. As others have noted, the IAS essentially is a measure of self-consciousness (Cohn et al., 1988; Lapsley & Murphy, 1985), but one can be self-conscious without imagining incorrectly that he or she is being scrutinized by others. In fact, one might be self-conscious because others typically are watching and evalu ating. This certainly would seem to be the typical state of affairs for children and adolescents who are very popular, or, instead, unpopular.

This same issue of construct validity applies to the imaginary audience subscale of the AES. Consider the following items: "When walking in late to a group meeting, trying not to distract everyone's attention" and "Trying to figure out if two people are talking about me when they are looking my way." Thinking that it is relatively important to try not to distract others when arriving late to a meeting may be simply an acknowledgment of social norms (i.e., politeness), rather than a reaction to an imagined audience of critical peers. Indeed, most people of any age would note the entrance of a tardy attendee. On the other item, it could be argued that a higher score might indicate less imaginary audience sensitivity, for one would not think it important to figure out just whom the two people are talking about if he or she already knows (or assumes) that others are engrossed in his or her affairs. Thus, the imaginary audience subscale does not seem to tap adolescents' misperception of the attentiveness of the s ocial group. As noted by Vartanian and Powlishta (1996), being able to anticipate others' reactions to oneself could be adaptive. Therefore, higher scores on the AES might signal progress toward social-cognitive maturity.

Social-cognitive maturity in and of itself may present another problem for the accurate interpretation of age-related differences in scores on the measures. That is, the age-related declines in scores that have been predicted (based on theory) and found may not reflect true declines in the ideation patterns. Instead, it is possible that advances in cognitive and social-cognitive abilities allow those who are older to respond in ways that present them in a favorable light. Of course, the tendency to give socially desirable responses is a common issue, but it presents a particularly large problem for self-report measures of imaginary audience and personal fable ideation, as both involve some assessment of oneself in relation to others. Thus, older adolescents or young adults might in fact believe others are always watching and critiquing them, and/or that they are special and unique, but be more motivated and able to disguise those beliefs to enhance self-presentation. Simply put, with gains in social perspect ive-taking, older adolescents may become adept at selecting responses that lower their scores.

Another problem specific to the way imaginary audience ideation is operationally defined on the IAS and the AES is that both ignore a particular type of imaginary audience that was allowed under the original theoretical model-an admiring imaginary audience. Elkind's (1967) original formulation of the imaginary audience construct specified that adolescents would perceive the audience to be as critical or as admiring as they were of themselves. Yet, in practice, the focus has been on adolescents' mistaken belief that others' attention, which is not really directed at them anyway, is critical in nature. For example, response options on the IAS that indicate low or no imaginary audience sensitivity typically reflect nonnegative or nonavoidant reactions to the portrayed social situations. Such reactions might be expected if an admiring imaginary audience has been created. Similarly, on the AES, one might not think it important to anticipate others' reactions if one has imagined that others think one is wonderful. Thus, the traditional measures do not tap one of the original facets of the imaginary audience -- the adolescent's possible creation of an admiring audience. Admiring imaginary audiences would seem to be of at least as much interest as critical ones, and perhaps even more so in light of the "new look" model's perspective that such ideation serves as a coping mechanism.

Similarly, one could conceivably receive a low score on the personal fable subscale of the AES even if one does have a personal fable. For example, adolescents who believe that others can never understand them because they are so totally different might rate the following item, "Trying to get other people to better understand why I do things the way I do," as being of little importance -- why waste the time? Measures of personal fable ideation (even the New Personal Fable Scale) also do not distinguish between feelings of personal uniqueness that might be positive in nature (e.g., aspects of narcissism) and those that would be more negative (e.g., feelings of alienation). Adolescent mental health workers, educators, and parents would want youth to believe they are special and different from peers who use drugs, whereas they would not want adolescents who might be contemplating suicide to believe talking to others is a waste of time.

Because neither measure (or either of the two newer measures developed along with the "new look" model) asks adolescents to indicate how they think other adolescents would respond, it is difficult to ascertain just how much "overdifferentiating" (i.e., in the case of personal fable ideation) or "underdifferenting" (i.e., in the case of imaginary audience ideation) is going on. Perhaps early adolescents who would cringe at the thought of going to their middle school on a bad hair day would also say that any typical student at that middle school would feel the same. Even if this belief was not shared by elementary or high. school students, the middle school students' belief would not seem to entail the same sort of faulty thinking that the imaginary audience construct has always been held to represent. There is no differentiation error if perception of reality is shared. Finally, in addition to the possibility the early adolescents may believe others are always watching and evaluating everyone, as opposed to j ust oneself, there exists the possibility that this belief is not only shared but also is accurate.

Another problem with the assessment of imaginary audience ideation on the IAS and AES is that the measures ask respondents about hypothetical situations while providing very few details about those situations. Respondents likely draw upon their experiences within typical social contexts, which surely differ among individuals (e.g., based on sociometric status) as well as age groups. In fact, there is empirical evidence from other areas of inquiry suggesting that early adolescent peer groups are more attentive and critical than are the peer groups of young children. That the peer group becomes highly salient during adolescence has been well-established (Corsaro & Eder, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Gullone & King, 1993; O'Brien & Bierman, 1988; Palmonari, Pombeni, & Kirchler, 1990; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986), as has the fact that adolescents pay close attention to peers' clothing and hairstyles, activities and interests, and even level of academic achievement, and group each other accordingly (Bro wn, 1990; Brown, Mounts, Lamborn, & Steinberg, 1993; Eicher, Baizerman, & Michelman, 1991; Filkins, 1995). Early adolescents tend to make more critical judgments about hypothetical story characters than do children (Darby & Schlenker, 1986), and a typical feature of adolescent peer disclosure is negative gossip about other peers (Parker & Gottman, 1989). Yet, the IAS and AES do not take into account and control for these differences in the typical peer groups of children and adolescents, and those "real" audiences are the ones to which respondents may be referring when rating the items on these measures.


For decades, the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs have informed our understanding of adolescence by offering parsimonious explanations for a variety of interesting and important phenomena. Adolescents' self-consciousness, concern with appearance, and risk-taking behaviors might emanate from mistaken beliefs or misperceptions about self-other relations. Both constructs have also been used to explain more extreme behaviors, such as eating disorders and acts of vandalism (Elkind, 1978). As is evident from the preceding review, the theoretical foundations of these two ideation patterns have been debated, their origins and developmental courses have been difficult to pinpoint, and their operational definitions are problematic. Nevertheless, the constructs continue to be presented in a manner that characterizes adolescent thinking as fundamentally faulty, as well as implicated in specific adolescent behavioral patterns.

Is this prevailing manner of presentation warranted, that is, supported empirically? The available evidence is hardly convincing; the already substantial literature regarding adolescent risk-taking behaviors suggests that reasons why adolescents take risks are multidimensional (e.g., Arnett, 1990, 1992, 1995; Dolcini et al., 1989; Farber, 1994; Lavery, Siegel, Cousins, & Rubovits, 1993), and personal fable ideations, such as "that can't/won't happen to me," and a general underestimation of risk have not been consistently related to risk-taking behavior (e.g., Ellen, Boyer, Tschann, & Shafer, 1996; Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992; Hermand, Mullet, & Rompteaux, 1999; Shapiro, Siegel, Scovill, & Hays, 1998). As noted earlier, empirical work regarding the nature, features, and importance of peer interactions during adolescence suggests that if adolescents regularly believe that others are taking notice of and evaluating their behavior, those beliefs are likely to be well-grounded in reality.

Thus, one direction for additional research might be to better test the links between imaginary audience and personal fable ideations and specific, relevant outcome variables, such as social anxiety, patterns of disturbed eating, vandalism, or specific types of risk-taking behavior. Relatively few studies of this nature have been conducted; those that have suggest that the ways in which imaginary audience and personal fable ideation impact behavior are complex and possibly indirect (Cabrera, Lavery, & Siegel, 1999; Green, Rubin, & Hale, 1995), and of course need to be replicated using longitudinal designs. In fact, the virtual absence of longitudinal studies is a striking feature of this thirty-year-old literature. Furthermore, regarding the links between the ideations and behavior, prospective studies would be particularly useful. For example, "I didn't think it could happen to me"--a reason that might be given by a teen who has engaged in a risky behavior and has experienced a negative consequence, and a r eason that clearly reflects the invulnerability component of personal fable ideation--might be more of a "post hoc" or retrospective explanation for the behavior, as opposed to a belief that precedes it.

To date, none of the empirical work regarding the imaginary audience and personal fable clearly supports the notion that adolescents' understanding of self-other relations is flawed or biased. As discussed, the traditional measures used to assess the imaginary audience and personal fable may not tap distorted thinking. Even the scales devised to test the "new look" model may suffer from some of the same problems, such as the possibility that adolescents get better at selecting more mature-sounding responses to questions regarding their daydreams, thoughts, and feelings. Perhaps the traditional conceptualization of the imaginary audience (the notion that an adolescent believes he or she is always being watched and evaluated by others) will give way to the "new look" model's more broad conceptualization of it as object-relational ideation (i.e., interpersonally oriented daydreaming). Believing one is on stage before an attentive, critical audience may ultimately be viewed as just one facet of a multidimensiona l construct (Goossens et al., 1992; Vartanian, 1997), one particular type of interpersonally oriented daydream. However, if the original, "everyone is watching me," version of the imaginary audience is to be used to characterize adolescent social cognition, there are ways in which it might be better tested. For example, hypothetical situations could still be used, but attempts should be made to control for or hold constant certain elements, such as how attentive or nonattentive, critical or complimentary people in the scenario actually are. In this way, respondents would have uniform information on which to base their judgments, rather than having to refer to their differing peer group experiences.

A paradigm that has been used extensively by Dodge and associates to examine social information-processing biases in children and adolescents (e.g., Dodge & Crick, 1990) might be useful in this regard. Participants are typically given brief scenarios in which a student behaves in an ambiguous fashion toward a target peer. They are then asked to interpret the situation (i.e., assess, via ratings, the intentions of the student regarding the target). This method could be easily extended to the constructs examined here. For example, adolescents might be asked to rate the amount of attention a peer group appears to be directing toward a target peer during a conversation.

In addition, comparing the reactions of children, early adolescents, and late adolescents would seem to yield better information regarding bias or exaggeration in social cognition. In the above hypothetical situation, one might expect early adolescents to give higher ratings (i.e., indicate greater attentiveness) than would children or young adults, if early adolescents do in fact have a tendency to imagine attention from others. A procedure such as this, in which participants rate others rather than themselves in hypothetical situations, might combat the tendency to try to give socially desirable responses. This method also might allow a look at admiring imaginary audience ideation, and might even be adapted to assess personal fable ideation.

Finally, regardless of the particular design and measures employed, future research on the imaginary audience and personal fable should attend to the differences among individuals. For example, researchers have noted that imaginary audience and personal fable ideation may better characterize the social-cognitive tendencies of troubled adolescents than nontroubled adolescents (Elkind, 1967, 1985; Vartanian & Powlishta, 1996). Even if a basic developmental process such as separation-individuation is at the heart of both ideation patterns, there is often considerable variability with respect to these transitions or developmental tasks for individual adolescents. There are also likely to be a number of individual variables that would affect the extent to which the adolescent engages in imaginary audience and/or personal fable ideation patterns, as well as the specific nature of their manifestation (e.g., critical versus admiring imaginary audiences, narcissistic versus alienated personal fable ideations). Some i mportant individual variables to consider are peer status, socioeconomic status, pubertal timing, and quality of parent-adolescent and/or peer attachments.

The role that culture plays in these ideation patterns also deserves greater empirical attention. It would be interesting and informative to explore whether such patterns of thinking (regardless of their nature as distorted or veridical) have anything to do with the relative value a culture places on individualism. For example, feeling that one is uniquely different from others (personal fable ideation) may be more characteristic of youth in Western societies, where individualism is typically valued and fostered (Arnett & Taber, 1994). It may be relatively rare in cultures that value and foster collectivism, or group harmony.

A more complete examination of gender patterns in imaginary audience and personal fable ideation is also needed. In addition, although the imaginary audience and personal fable have been viewed as defining features of early adolescence, they may not be as intimately associated with, or unique to, that age group as believed.

The heuristic value and intuitive appeal of the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs cannot and should not be overlooked, but the time has come to reconsider them and, in particular, their characterization of adolescent social cognition. Of course, psychological constructs and theories are not always independent of their social, cultural, and historical contexts (Elkind, 1996; Enright, Levy, Harris, & Lapsley, 1987). Perhaps the original versions of the imaginary audience and personal fable (i.e., distortions in self-other understanding) better reflect the issues of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the ideas theorists had about the youth of that period, as opposed to reflecting universal aspects of adolescent social-cognitive development and behavior. But then, too, the measures devised to test both of those constructs have not truly assessed distortions in thinking.

The development and testing of the "new look" model (Lapsley, 1993) represents an important step in the reexamination of imaginary audience and personal fable ideation. That work holds promise for rejuvenating both constructs' ability to contribute further to our understanding of adolescence. It should be noted, however, that the "new look" offers a very broadly defined imaginary audience construct.

At present, it is the traditional version of both constructs and their concomitant theme that adolescent social cognition is biased that continue to receive the most coverage in textbooks. The manner in which these original imaginary audience and personal fable constructs characterize adolescent social cognition needs to be reevaluated, and their role in adolescent behavior and development reexamined. This paper has attempted to achieve those ends on a conceptual level; the same is now required at the empirical level.

The author gratefully acknowledges Kimberly K. Powlishta for her insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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