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Adolescent egocentrism and cognitive functioning during late adolescence.

According to Elkind (1967), adolescent egocentrism, which includes a belief by teenagers that they are special and unique, accompanies the attainment of new mental abilities. Specifically, Elkind proposed that adolescents construct an "imaginary audience," giving rise to heightened self-consciousness. Adolescents believe that others, especially peers, are watching them, thinking about them, and interested in all their thoughts and behaviors. Elkind suggested that this is due, in part, to emerging formal operational thought, which allows adolescents to think about their own thinking and that of others. Adolescent egocentrism actually represents a flaw in their thinking that is characteristic of early formal operations. Adolescents assume that since they spend a considerable amount of time thinking about themselves, others must be doing the same thing, namely, thinking about and monitoring them. They fail to realize that while they may be preoccupied with themselves, others are not so inclined.

Previous studies (e.g., Elkind & Bowen, 1979) have generally found that adolescent egocentrism is more prevalent in females and that it increases during early adolescence, peaks at about 14 to 16 years of age, and then decreases during later adolescence. However, a study by Peterson and Roscoe (1991) found egocentrism in female college freshmen to be at a level higher than is typically found in some high school students. This result is somewhat surprising, given the expectation that adolescent egocentrism should have been declining.

A number of studies have examined the relationship between formal operations and adolescent egocentrism, with mixed results. Hudson and Gray (1986) and Riley, Adams, and Nielsen (1984) found significant relationships between formal operations and adolescent egocentrism, while studies by Jahnke and Blanchard-Fields (1993) and Lapsley, Milsread, Quintana, Flannery, and Buss (1986) did not. All of these studies used traditional measures of formal operations to examine the relationship between adolescent egocentrism and cognitive development. This may have been problematic, since adolescents and adults often do poorly on formal operational tasks due to reasons other than their competency.

The present study was designed to examine the relationship between adolescent egocentrism and cognitive level in college students. A post-formal operational assessment (Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldston, 1992) that is not task based, but does discriminate between formistic (early formal to formal operations), mechanistic (formal to late formal operations), relativistic (early post-formal operations), and dialectical (post-formal operations) thinking, was used. It was felt that this measure would be more appropriate for a college-aged population than would traditional tests of formal operations. If there is a relationship between adolescent egocentrism and formal operational thought, then the lower forms of reasoning (formistic and mechanistic) should show greater egocentrism as compared with higher forms of reasoning (relativistic and dialectical).


Participants were 163 undergraduate students (53 males and 110 females), ranging in age from 17 to 24 (mean age = 19.6), recruited from introductory psychology classes at a medium-sized midwestern university. They were administered a version of Elkind and Bowen's (1979) Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS) that had been slightly modified for college-aged individuals (similar to the adjustment made by Peterson & Roscoe, 1991). The IAS, which measures adolescent egocentrism, is a 12-item paper-and-pencil self-report instrument. Potentially self-revealing or embarrassing situations are presented, and respondents choose from three possible reactions. The IAS includes two subscales - the Abiding Self (AS), which reflects long-lived characteristics such as mental ability and personality traits, and the Transient Self (TS), which reflects momentary or temporary appearance and behavior such as verbal mistakes and physical mishaps. After the IAS was administered, the participants were administered the Kramer, Kahlbaugh, and Goldston (1992) Social Paradigm Belief Inventory-Likert Version (SPBI), which measures formal and post-formal thinking. The SPBI is a 56-item paper-and-pencil inventory in which respondents are asked to rate, on a 6-point Likert scale, their level of agreement with statements related to people, relationships, and institutions. The statements reflect either formistic, mechanistic, relativistic, or dialectical thinking.


Participants were classified (formistic, mechanistic, relativistic, or dialectical) based on Kramer et al.'s (1992) scoring of post-formal reasoning. Three separate 2 (sex) x 4 (cognitive level) ANOVAs were performed on the total IAS score and the two IAS subscores (AS and TS). A significant main effect for sex was found for the total IAS score, F(1, 162) = 10.37, p [less than] .01; the AS score, F(1,162) = 7.28, p [less than] .01; and the TS score, F(1, 162) = 9.07, p [less than] .01. In each case, females had higher scores than did males (see Table 1). Further, females' mean scores were comparable to those reported by Peterson and Roscoe (1991) (see Table 2). There were no other significant main effects or interactions.
Table 1

Mean Scores on Imaginary Audience Scale and Subscales across Sex

Scales Males Females
 (n = 53) (n = 110)

Abiding Self Subscale 5.26 6.19
Transient Self Subscale 4.04 5.11
Imaginary Audience Scale 9.30 11.21


Additional analyses revealed a weak but significant correlation between cognitive level and the total IAS score for females only, r(108) = -.20, p [less than] .05. No other correlations were significant.


These results replicate Peterson and Roscoe's (1991) study with female college students and extend their work in several ways. The Peterson and Roscoe study used only females, while this study examined both genders and found that females possessed greater levels of adolescent egocentrism than did males. This supports both Peterson and Roscoe's (1991) and Elkind and Bowen's (1979) contention that females show higher levels of egocentrism at this age.

Table 2 presents a comparison of the present research and previous studies of female adolescent egocentrism. It is interesting to note that Elkind and Bowen's 12th graders and Peterson and Roscoe's college freshmen were approximately the same age but had different levels of adolescent egocentrism, while the present study used primarily college freshmen and sophomores (with a mean age that was two years older) and found an intermediate level of adolescent egocentrism. In post hoc analyses of the female data, age and year in college were examined. No differences in the level of adolescent egocentrism were found for either age or year in college. These findings, coupled with the Peterson and Roscoe (1991) and Elkind and Bowen (1979) results, suggest that college may enhance adolescent egocentrism in females.

The results only weakly support Elkind's (1967) contention that formal operations and adolescent egocentrism are related. While a significant correlation was found, it was weak and limited to the female subjects. These data suggest that while cognitive level may contribute to adolescent egocentrism, other variables should be explored. Lapsley et al. (1986) suggested that lack of perspective taking may account for egocentrism in younger adolescents. However, this does not explain the findings for college students, for whom perspective taking presumably has already reached mature levels. Another possibility that merits investigation involves self-concept. Perhaps college females are still trying to resolve identity and career issues, and the concomitant self-consciousness may reflect higher levels of adolescent egocentrism. Alternatively, as suggested by Peterson and Roscoe (1991), increases in egocentrism during college may represent a coping mechanism. When individuals enter a new social environment, they may attempt to cope through somewhat regressive behavior. Thus, greater egocentrism will be manifested while adjusting to college life. These possibilities need to be investigated further.


Elkind, D. (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38, 1025-1034.

Elkind, D., & Bowen, R. (1979). Imaginary audience behavior in children and adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 15, 38-44.

Hudson, L. M., & Gray, W. M. (1986). Formal operations, the imaginary audience and the personal fable. Adolescence, 21, 751-765.

Jahnke, H. C., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (1993). A test of two models of adolescent egocentrism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22, 313-326.

Kramer, D. A., Kahlbaugh, P. E., & Goldston, R. B. (1992). A measure of paradigm beliefs about the social world. Journal of Gerontology, 47, 180-189.

Lapsley, D. K., Milstead, M., Quintana, S. M., Flannery, D., & Buss, R. R. (1986). Adolescent egocentrism and formal operations: Tests of a theoretical assumption. Developmental Psychology, 22, 800-807.

Peterson, K. L., & Roscoe, B. (1991). Imaginary audience behavior in older adolescent females. Adolescence, 26, 195-200.

Riley, T., Adams, G., & Nielsen, E. (1984). Adolescent egocentrism: The association among imaginary audience behavior, cognitive development, and parental support and rejection. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 13, 401-417.

Sherry L. Stuhr, Jacci McDermott, Jennifer Benker, and Michelle D. Swartz are Research Assistants, Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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Author:Rycek, Robert F.; Stuhr, Sherry L.; McDermott, Jacci; Benker, Jennifer; Swartz, Michelle D.
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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