Imaginary Audience: An In Depth Look

As you’ll remember from my previous article defining egocentrismthe imaginary audience is a term used to describe human fascination in what others think of them. Like actors in a play, each person in society believing they are playing out a role to their adoring audience. Choosing the perfect clothing, make up, hairstyle, dialogue; all in an attempt to be viewed by the imaginary audience in a favourable light. But if everyone’s performing this same play simultaneously, who is there to watch?

The Imaginary Audience

This term was first coined by David Elkind in 1967 in his study titled, “Egocentrism in Adolescence”, where he explored egocentric traits leading up to adulthood. He hypothesized that what appeared on the outside as quite self critical behaviour from teenagers was actually them trying to find their place in the world through a persona that was liked by their peers. Now able to conceptualize how others perceive their behaviours, teens are often very critical of their themselves in order to stay in favour with their peer group. Although he admits that his own and other studies show similar results that more work needed to be done in this area as to better understand the role the imaginary audience fully plays in one’s life.

Adulthood Marking the End

Elkind further hypothesized that as people get older, the egocentric behaviours that had so enveloped them as teens, would reduce and eventually go away entirely. In my bachelors, I was fortunate to be a research assistant on a team of psychologists in New York, Canada, and Colorado that were testing this hypothesis. We tested 87 university aged students average aged about 20 using the Personal Fable Inventory and the Imaginary Audience Scales. Despite breaking them up into groups by age, we found no significant difference in reported behaviour between any of the groups.

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Was this because we were solely testing students right out of adolescence? Are their other factors weighing in that we haven’t accounted for? Did Elkind get it wrong?

The result of our study offered more questions than answers. Puzzled by this, I expanded my research on this subject when I went to graduate school. I repeated the same test, but this time, the students were older and had more life experience. The oldest student tested was well into her 50’s. Again, I found no significant difference between age groups. Even comparing the data from the first study, to the second, still there was no significant difference.

Does university invoke the imaginary audience in older, non traditional students? Was it always there? Do people out in the workforce score the same?

Again the results of my study begged more questions than provided answers. But one thing was for certain- Elkind was wrong about egocentric behaviours weening into the beginning of adulthood.

Social Media and The Imaginary Audience

The rise of the internet and social media has meant that the imaginary audience can run amok 24/7. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok, Snapchat, Tinder, and the list goes on and on. On all these platforms, a small margin of people find fame. Most others find disappointment.

Looking up to unrealistic images and lifestyles that are not achievable by 99% of the population. Yet, teens and adults alike emulate these celebrities, posting videos and photos of themselves searching for the likes, fame, and glory. But at what cost? Again, if everyone is in the same play, who’s actually watching?

Not many.

For some, this prompts even more outlandish behaviour for the sake of striving for more external validation of your worth from the imaginary audience. Take those stories of YouTubers doing vile and disgusting things to sacred places while traveling. Do you think if it weren’t for the potential fame and praise their stunt would have brought in, that people would be so openly disrespectful?

What does that mean for us?

If we inherit the imaginary audience when we reach adolescence, and it doesn’t fade for all when we get older, what does that mean for us? What can we do with this information? We can use it to learn from others and not fall into fallacy traps in thinking.


This means looking inward when everyone else is looking outward for validation. It means doing the work to learn to love yourself, as is, and not as someone else sees you. But how do we do this? How do we know when we are acting for the imaginary audience or truly being ourselves?

This is best answered by asking the questions: If I could do this task or act this way all the time with no one else around to see me, would I still be happy? Does this evoke pride in myself, irregardless of if others are also proud? If you can confidently say that yes, it would continue to make you happy and it’s something that brings internal validation, then you are being genuinely yourself. Do more of this. More of this and less social media.

If art makes you happy, do art! Making music? Make it! Find your purpose through your passions and don’t allow others’ potential opinions stop you.

Chances are, they aren’t even paying attention!

Final Statements

Being genuine to oneself helps promote wellness by lifting the burden of other people’s opinions off your shoulders. Accepting ourselves for who we are rather than how others view us frees our minds to focus on more important topics at hand, such as life purpose, raising a family, exploring the world, and our health. As this year’s pandemic has taught us, we value the people who make our lives better. Spend more time on genuine happiness and less time worried about what others might think of your choices.

If you enjoyed this information and this article, please let me know in the comments below. I have provided more information on this topic in other articles, specifically my article on Egocentrism which you can access via the hyperlink here.

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