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The imaginary audience is a psychological concept common to the adolescent stage of human development. It refers to the belief that a person is under constant, close observation by peers, family, and strangers. In reality, only a small percentage of those people have any interest in a person’s activities, and a maturing worldview will usually reduce the impression that this imaginary audience exists. Some people, however, maintain this misapprehension well into their adult years. The term has also been applied in studies of the 21st-century social networking phenomenon.
The term imaginary audience was coined by child psychologist David Elkind in 1967. Elkind was studying adolescent egocentrism, the well-documented belief of teens that the world revolves around them. This, Elkind argued, is not a psychological aberration, as it might be in an adult. Rather, it is a natural part of the process of developing a healthy understanding of one’s relationship with the world. Most people will eventually gain a more realistic perspective on the roles they play in their peer groups as they mature.
In the meantime, the imaginary audience can add to the turbulent effect adolescence has on many teens. Some become obsessed with personal appearance, with results ranging from harmless emotional crises over acne breakouts to potentially life-threatening eating disorders. Others will fixate on a particular peer group, imagining that members of that group are judging their actions, or seeking approval from people who in reality are just clueless teens like themselves. These events can seem traumatic to those who have little life experience. By late adolescence or early adulthood, however, such crises fade in importance as people experience truly life-changing events such as graduation, marriage, and child-rearing.
Maintaining an imaginary audience well into adulthood can be a sign that a person suffers from paranoia or other social or psychological disorders. Most people entertain such fantasies from time to time. Constant or recurring sensations of being watched, judged, or persecuted by strangers can signal a more significant problem. These feelings can sometimes be allayed by membership in a church or other social group, such as those based around work or a hobby, by encouraging healthy social interactions. If this is not effective, a qualified therapist can help put things in perspective.
In the 21st century, psychologists sometimes refer to the imaginary audience in the context of social networks. These businesses encourage members to regularly update friends, family, and co-workers, informing them of their daily activities or moments of personal significance. Users may imagine an audience for these updates that is vastly different from their actual readership. If social networking truly changes how people interact, as many commentators suggest, the imaginary audience may become an important factor in adult relationships.
My adolescent son told me some stories about his experiences at school, and it sounded a lot like this imaginary audience definition. He said he always felt like someone was looking at whatever he was wearing, and if it wasn't "cool" enough, nobody would talk to him at lunch. He used to enjoy participating in plays, but now he wouldn't go to an open audition because other students would think he was homosexual or something.
I feel sorry for him, because he's not participating in a lot of fun experiences just because of an imaginary audience of critics. I hope he realizes that most people his age are too busy with their own issues to notice his.
I remember feeling like I had an imaginary audience when I was a teenager. I just knew there were other classmates who were secretly taking notes on everything I said or did. If I asked a girl out on a date and got rejected, all the details would be included in a report that only the cool crowd could read. Intellectually, I understood there was no such audience, but emotionally I felt like I was under constant observation.
Thirty years later, I attended a class reunion and ran into some of those classmates I thought were part of the imaginary audience. I asked some of them about specific incidents from that time, and none of them could even remember being in the same room with me. If they ever remembered any of those events, they had forgotten the details years ago.
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