In yesterday’s edition of Psyched for the Weekend, I talked about adolescent disembedding, a normal developmental stage in which teenagers create emotional distance and rebel against rules in order to establish and understand their own identity.
Today I wanted to tackle another hallmark of adolescence: The personal fable.
What Is the Personal Fable?
The personal fable is a commonly held belief by many adolescents. In their personal fable, they are special, unique, and invulnerable. Basically, they are the main character of a story, the hero. And just like most traditional stories have the heroes triumphing over any danger that they face — even when they take great risks — adolescents believe that they, too, can take any number of risks and be fine in the end.
When people are in the throes of this cognitive distortion, their decision-making surrounds risk-taking suffers greatly. They do not plan for negative outcomes that can certainly affect them, thinking themselves invincible. The odds of catastrophic consequences don’t concern them. They believe they are special and won’t come to great irreparable harm.
Personal Fable Is a Normal Part of Adolescence — But Doesn’t Necessarily End There
Like yesterday’s topic, adolescent disembedding, the personal fable is a normal part of adolescence. However, unlike disembedding (which generally doesn’t even last for the entirety of adolescence and doesn’t extend to adulthood), personal fable doesn’t necessarily end in adolescence.
For some folks, it extends well into adulthood and becomes an ingrained part of their self-concept, typically taking the form of self-serving bias.
In a certain lens, this is hardly surprising. After all, another study we covered in this same series demonstrated that broadly speaking, people get more anxious when others take the risks than when they take those same risks themselves (in that research, adults were studied).
This would suggest that a certain degree of unwarranted invulnerability still persists.
Perhaps We Should Calibrate Our Health Risk-Taking Behavior to the Risks We’re Comfortable Other People Taking
But the reality is that the personal fable isn’t fact. It’s a cognitive distortion. And it’s one that can be quite comforting sometimes, to be sure — but also can lead us to bad calculations re: risk-taking behaviors.
While we can’t completely eliminate cognitive distortions, we can account for them. And that’s why I maintain something else I said recently: It’s better to calibrate your level of health risk to others, not yourself. And yes, that includes COVID-19.
If it makes you anxious thinking about other people doing, don’t do it yourself. Period. Any voice inside your head telling you that you’ll be safer, that you’ll do a better job protecting yourself — is not to be trusted.