Egocentrism: Is it Just for Teens?

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Egocentrism is defined as the inability to differentiate ones self from others or to see a situation from another’s point of view. Piaget used the term in his research on cognitive development in children. Later, Elkind offered an more detailed explanation of egocentrism in adolescents. In this article we are going to talk about what egocentrism is and how it plays a role in your life today.

Egocentrism in Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Sensorimotor Stage


Starting in in sensorimotor stage, the child is preoccupied with getting the things that they need immediately. They do not understand that the object they desire exists unless they are in the presence of the object. Example: A baby crying when the mother leaves the room because the baby cannot comprehend that she will come back.

Pre-operational Stage


Moving on to the pre-operational stage, children now understand and have conquered the first form of egocentrism and are moving on to another. Different from the sensorimotor stage, the child in this stage is predominantly engaging in play. The child cannot differentiate between reality and make believe/pretend. When a child in this stage attempts to communicate to another person, the child will often leave out major parts of the story. They fail to understand why the other person is confused or missing parts of their story. As the child can only focus on one aspect at a time, they fail to realize that the other person is not privy to the child’s thoughts.

Concrete Operational Stage

By the time the child reaches the concrete operational stage, they are able to conceptualize multiple dimensions of an object such as height and width and how they affect the amount of liquid in a container. The child begins to better understand that there are more than one way of looking at a situation or story. This gives them the ability to formulate hypotheses and explanations about concrete matters. Unlike in the pre-operational stage, the child learns to use facts rather than his own thoughts to determine a concept or answer a hypothesis. This is the stage in which a child becomes an adolescent.

For example, if you were to suggest to a child in the pre-operational stage that the grass were purple, the child would respond stating that grass is green. An adolescent having achieved the concrete operational stage would be open and accepting of that statement. The adolescent may even ask more questions to clarify. All while drawing a conclusion about the truth of the statement.

Formal Operational Stage

By the time the child conquers the egocentrism of the concrete operational stage, they are adolescents (teenagers). At about the age of 11-12 years old, teenagers can formulate all the possibilities in a system. They have started to conceptualize their own thoughts and can reason about them (Elkind, 1967). While overcoming the egocentrism of childhood, the teenager falls into a new form of egocentrism outlined by Elkind.

Adolescent Egocentrism

By and large, teenagers are known for being focused on themselves. Their preoccupation with themselves leads them into what Elkind proposed an alternate form of egocentrism. Contrary to Piaget, Elkind describes the selfish behaviours of teenagers as two forms of egocentrism: the imaginary audience and the personal fable.

Imaginary Audience

In this concept, Elkind explains it as the inability to differentiate between what others are thinking and one’s own mental preoccupations. They believe that others are just as obsessed and preoccupied with them as they are with themselves.

Like an actor on a stage, the teenager is performing a play to what they believe is an audience of their peers. The problem with this being that if all teenagers are performing in the play, who’s is the audience? This is what makes this form of egocentrism, the imaginary audience. The audience is fully formulated within the teenager’s brain. Because the audience is a creation of the mind, the audience also knows of all the teenager’s insecurities and is most critical of those. This leads the teenager to become more self-critical. Also in social situations to be more concerned with being the observed than the observer. This creates the egocentric behaviour of being focused on themselves.

Personal Fable

The second of the two forms of egocentrism, the personal fable, refers to the elaborate lies perpetuated by the imaginary audience. Because the teenager believes they are of great importance to the imaginary audience, they fail to differentiate their thoughts from others.  While at the same time over differentiating their feelings because they perceive them to be special and unique. It is this line of thinking that prompts a teen to exclaim, “You don’t know what it feels!” and the like. Snowballing from this line of thought is the idea that they are invincible and that only bad things happen to others. Teenage pregnancy and car accidents are evidence of this idea.

Why does Adolescent Egocentrism Affect Adults?

Adult Years

Elkind theorised that as we age and mature, the levels of adolescent egocentrism reduce until adulthood. Meaning, as an adult you should no longer believe in the imaginary audience or personal fable. But this isn’t true in 2020. With the rise of the internet, swaths of adults are seeking validation online. This is spilling over into their personal lives. Tinder takes the intimacy out of sex. Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are tools for nonsense daily posts to their “audiences”. Adults are more egocentric now than ever before. Elkind could not have predicted how the evolution of technology would change the basic psychology of humans. I believe more formal study needs to be done on this subject so we have a better understanding of how social media and the internet are rewiring how we behave and mature.

Links to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

As discussed in the article, Why is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave Still Relevant? the importance of the metaphor of the cave is that it is still applicable today. There are some people, like those trapped in the cave, who are not strong enough to seek enlightenment. The lack of understanding of the outside world opens the door to becoming stuck. This stuckness breeds the egocentric behaviours of the personal fable and imaginary audience. Education, travel, and reading are just some of the ways people become more enlightened.

How many of you know someone who’s an adult but cannot get their lives together? You know who I mean. Drug abuse, poor decision making, and reckless behaviour are common. Logic and reason are not. It’s almost as though they feel invincible. Lectures don’t work, it’s like they don’t understand or are stuck in their ways. Clearly to everyone around them, their problems are caused by their own poor decision making. Chances are the older you are, the harder it will be for you to think of many people who fit this category. But in the generations preceding the internet, this has become so common that there are hundreds of jokes made about it daily.

Your Thoughts?

What happened? Did the internet make us less mature? Have we always been this egocentric as a population but haven’t known without the internet?

Tell me your opinions in the comments below!

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