The Imaginary Audience


The psychologist David Elkind published an interesting study in the mid 1970′s. Adolescents, he found, believe in an “imaginary audience.” Consider a 13-year-old so embarrassed that they miss a week of class, positive that the entire school is thinking and murmuring about some tiny incident. Or a teenage girl who spends three hours in front of mirror each morning, like she’s about to go on stage. They do this because they’re convinced that their every move is being received with rapt attention by the rest of the world.

As strange as this behavior is, it’s all very normal. In fact, it’s an integral part of the development of self-consciousness. The child is becoming aware of their own powerful feelings about themselves and the newness of it often makes it difficult to discern where their thoughts end and other people’s begin. If all goes well, they grow into and realize that, hey, maybe everyone isn’t watching as closely as I thought.

But some psychologists have begun to notice that some people don’t come to this realization. They carry this delusion forward and never shake off the imaginary audience. Emotions that are supposed to peak in 8th grade, stays with them and becomes an enormous part of their identity and ultimately, their narcissism.

There are a lot of parallels between this and how people behave on the internet. Liveblogging. Lifecasting. Oversharing. Alter-egos. Fameballs.

I saw a Facebook post the other day where a guy posted a link to a Haitian charity, which after being criticized by a friend, he responded that he’d be willing to “issue a retraction.” I got the sense that I was the only witness to something very strange. Who was this intended for? What body would be overseeing this formal procedure? Why would he say that?

Schopenhauer had a name for this empty talk, he called it “fencing in the mirror.” It’s more common than you think. Consider all the times you’ve seen some blogger apologize for not posting recently — profusely addressing some concern that likely was never expressed. Or the Twitter updates to 38 followers, half of which are bots or uncaring companies. More realistically, maybe you’ve read too much into looks from a table of girls at a restaurant (a type I evolutionary error). Maybe you like to roll down the windows in your car, turn up the stereo and know that everyone is just so impressed by your classic taste.

Have you ever seen a person on YouTube who makes elaborate, time-consuming videos day after day to a few views a piece? This person who gets objective reports on the audience for their work — as close to zero as numbers get — continues, in their own mind, to capture its attention.

You can either live your life pandering to this empty room or you can be honest with yourself and admit how few people out there are actually watching. How there is really only one, maybe two people in your life that you need to impress. You look like a fool when you act any differently.

Think about it like this, how rare is it that a real public pulpit does someone any good? What on earth would you think that a fake one would be anything but worse?

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This post originally appeared on RYANHOLIDAY.NET.

image – danjo fing