In a few former installments of Psyched, I addressed two hallmarks of adolescence: Disembedding and personal fable. For more information about those concepts, please read those articles.
I’d like to tackle another common psychological phenomenon that first shows up in adolescence. It’s actually somewhat related to the personal fable (briefly, a feeling that someone considers themselves the main character of the story of life).
It’s called the imaginary audience.
What Is the Imaginary Audience?
The imaginary audience is a feeling that whatever you do or say is the primary focus of other people’s attention. This leads to the sense that you are under the close constant observation of others. Teenagers often will be extremely sensitive to this sensation and tend to be overly focused on whether they are doing even low-stakes tasks right. And they will feel like others are watching them and judging them.
The imaginary audience is believed to be one reason that adolescents tend to be obsessed with fitting in. (And are devastated when they do not.)
Why Knowing About This Can Be Reassuring
Yeesh, that sounds like a stressful state of affairs. This article suggested that knowing about this could be reassuring. What gives?
Well, here’s the thing: The imaginary audience isn’t reality. It’s an illusion. In fact, it’s closely related to another phenomenon I covered in this same series called spotlight effect. While this imaginary audience effect is most pronounced in adolescence, it does tend to follow us into adulthood to some degree — in the form of the spotlight effect. This cognitive bias makes us feel like the spotlight is on us — when it’s really not.
This has all sorts of consequences — positive, neutral, and negative. Yes, sometimes it means that the insanely witty joke you posted on Facebook (good job by the way, well done) didn’t get nearly the love it deserved. Lots of people didn’t see it or didn’t react for some reason (of course, the algorithm filters things, but even beyond that, people scrolled by without reacting). And look, that’s a bummer. I get it.
But it also means that no one is thinking about that embarrassing thing you said three years ago. Half the room didn’t even hear it in the first place.
Anyway, it’s something that I try to keep in mind — and something that I find to be true.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.