Personal Fable Essay


partially examined in a series of empirical studies. Quite sur-

prisingly, the association between pubertal development and

egocentrism has been investigated in only one study (Cohn et

al., 1988). Imaginary audience was higher among those adoles-

cents with more advanced pubertal status, but this weak asso-

ciation disappeared when age was statistically controlled. In a

relevant study (Hansell, Mechanic, & Brondolo, 1986), where

tendency for introspection and not egocentrism per se was as-

sessed, a similar finding emerged, although the correlations

were rather low: adolescents with more advanced pubertal de-

velopment were those who were more inclined towards intro-

spection. It seems, then, that physical changes and the accom-

panying heightened social expectations may lead adolescents to

turn their attention to the self.

The expected association between cognitive development

and egocentrism has received only partial empirical support.

Elkind himself has not assessed formal operational thought in

his own research. The expected peak of egocentrism in the first

phases of the stage of formal operations and the expected de-

cline when these abilities have been consolidated was found in

a few studies (Hudson & Gray, 1986, only for the imaginary

audience; Rycek, Stuhr, McDermott, Benker, & Swartz, 1998,

although the association was weak). In some other studies, no

association between formal operations and egocentrism was

found (Goossens, 1984, study 3; Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields,

1993; Kelly, Jones, & Adams, 2002; O’Connor & Nikolic,

1990; Peterson, 1982). The unexpected finding that egocen-

trism is high during the concrete operational stage and declines

afterwards emerged from some other studies (Gray & Hudson,

1984; Pesce & Harding, 1986; Riley, Adams, & Nielsen, 1984).

And, finally, an unexpected negative correlation between ego-

centrism and formal operations emerged in another research

(Lapsley, Milstead, Quintana, Flannery, & Buss, 1986, study


Similarly, research data on the association between the ima-

ginary audience/personal fable and age are contradictory. Ac-

cording to Piagetian theory, a decline of egocentrism is ex-

pected during the end of adolescence, as a consequence of the

consolidation of formal operations in combination with the

establishment of interpersonal intimacy. This decline was found

in a number of studies (Enright, Lapsley, & Shukla, 1979; En-

right, Shukla, & Lapsley, 1980; Galanaki, 1996; Goossens,

1984, study 2; Goossens, Seiffge-Krenke, & Marcoen, 1992,

study 2; Lapsley et al., 1986, study 2; Lapsley, Jackson, Rice,

& Shadid, 1988; Lapsley, Fitzgerald, Rice, & Jackson, 1989;

Lechner & Rosental, 1983; Markstrom & Mullis, 1986; Varta-

nian & Powlishta, 1996). Also, Elkind and Bowen (1979) found

the expected curvilinear relationship for the imaginary audience

from the fourth to the twelfth grade, with a peak in the eighth

grade; the peak in the eighth grade was also found by Alberts,

Elkind, and Ginsberg (2007). And Hauck, Martens, and Wetzel

(1986) found a peak in the 12 - 14 year-old group in contrast to

younger and older adolescents. However, there is also the un-

expected increase with age (Adams & Jones, 1981; Cohn et al.,

1988; Goossens et al., 1992, study 1; Rycek et al., 1998), as

well as the finding that young adults experience heightened

egocentrism (Frankenberger, 2000; Peterson, & Roscoe, 1991;

Schwartz, Maynard, & Uzelac, 2008). And, finally, no associa-

tion was found with age in some other investigations (Goossens,

1984, study 1; Gray & Hudson, 1984; Hudson & Gray, 1986;

Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields, 1993; Lapsley et al., 1986, study 1;

Peterson, 1982; Montgomery, 2005; Richter, Reaves, Deaver,

& Lacy, 1982).

Furthermore, consistent gender differences in the experience

of the imaginary audience and personal fable phenomena are

incongruent with a cognitive interpretation of adolescent ego-

centrism. Females tend to exhibit more imaginary audience

ideation than males, as has been shown in a quite large number

of investigations (Elkind & Bowen, 1979; Goossens, 1984,

study 2; Goossens et al., 1992, studies 1 and 2; Gray & Hudson,

1984; Hauck et al., 1986; Hudson & Gray, 1986; Markstrom &

Mullis, 1986; Montgomery, 2005; Pesce & Harding, 1986;

Richter et al., 1982; Riley et al., 1984; Ryan & Kuczkowski,

1994; Rycek et al., 1998). Fewer studies have shown that males

have higher imaginary audience (Anolik, 1981; Greene, Rubin,

Walters, & Hale, 1996; Lechner & Rosenthal, 1984) and per-

sonal fable scores than females (Goossens, Beyers, Emmen, &

van Aken, 2002; Lapsley et al., 1989). More recently, an at-

tempt to discover whether there are gender differences in the

dimensions of the personal fable indicated that girls experience

invulnerability and omnipotence more frequently than boys,

whereas boys score higher on uniqueness (Aalsma, Lapsley, &

Flannery, 2006); in another investigation (Alberts, Elkind, &

Ginsberg, 2007) boys were found to experience invulnerability

more frequently than girls. No gender differences were found in

a few other investigations (Adams & Jones, 1981; Enright et al.,

1979; Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields, 1993; Lapsley et al., 1988;

Peterson, 1982; Vartanian & Powlishta, 1996).

It appears, then, that only contradictory results have been

found for the developmental nature of adolescent egocentrism

due, partly at least, to the different measures used and to the

restricted age ranges in some investigations. Also, quite surpri-

singly, the original hypothesis formulated by Elkind and in-

cluding both pubertal and cognitive development has not been

tested yet. This gap in the literature has not been pointed out

even by critical reviewers of the field (e.g., Vartanian, 2000),

although some investigators (Adams & Jones, 1981; Goossens,

1984; Lapsley, 1993) have proposed that the role of puberty

should be a goal for future research. In addition, as is evident in

the above literature review, the imaginary audience and the

personal fable phenomena are rather neglected research topics

in the last decade.

Aims and Hypotheses

The aim of this research was to test empirically Elkind’s

(1967, 1970, 1978) Piagetian theoretical formulation for the

developmental nature of adolescent egocentrism, that is, the

relation of egocentrism to pubertal development and formal

operational thought. The contribution of this study is: 1) The

inclusion of pubertal development which was ignored by other

researchers; 2) the distinction between pubertal level,that is,

the adolescent’s current level of pubertal development, and

pubertal timing, that is, the timing of pubertal onset relative to

peers (these two concepts are often confused);3) the broad age

range of the sample (11 - 18 years)—in many studies the sam-

ple was seriously restricted as to the age range; and 4) the study

of different manifestations and dimensions of egocentrism—

also, in all studies only one or two of the existing instruments

measuring the manifestations of egocentrism have been used.

Imaginary audience and personal fable are expected to de-

cline with age (Hypothesis 1). Girls are expected to have higher

imaginary audience scores than boys, whereas boys are ex-

pected to have higher personal fable scores than girls (Hy-

Copyright © 2012 SciRes.


Your older child will go through numerous stages while he or she is on the road to puberty, and it's important to understand some of those stages so you can prepare yourself for the changes. It's not uncommon for middle school and high school students to develop a "personal fable." Such a fable is a common teen and older tween belief that arises from adolescent egocentrism, which develops between the ages of 11 and 13.

In short, the personal fable is the adolescent's belief that he or she is highly special and unlike anyone else who has ever walked the earth. Colloquially, these individuals are known as "special snowflakes." In other words, the adolescent thinks that since others are so obviously fascinated by him (adolescent egocentrism), he must be a unique individual (the personal fable).

Learn more about this development of adolescent identity and the potential consequences it can result in with this review of the personal fable.

Personal Fables Are Normal

If you suspect that your tween or teen has developed a personal fable, don't worry that your child will grow up to be a narcissist or self-centered. Belief in the personal fable is a developmentally normal cognitive limitation. Unfortunately, though, the belief can have serious consequences.

In particular, the personal fable can cause a tween or teen to believe that nothing bad could possibly happen to someone as exceptional as herself.

In other words, since she's so special, she must be invulnerable. Some research has shown that belief in the personal fable and one's invulnerability is directly connected to common adolescent risk-taking behaviors such as promiscuous or unprotected sex, use of alcohol or illicit drugs, and physically dangerous acts, such as driving without a license or driving recklessly or while intoxicated.

You may need to consult with a counselor, therapist or another mental health professional to counter these behaviors. At the very least, you and your tween should have numerous conversations about risk and safety.

On the other hand, personal fables also result in tweens and teens believing that they are omnipotent, or have enormous power, lacking in others. This belief can actually improve the way a child adjusts to changes or challenges in life and can improve self-worth.

The Difference Between Personal Fables and Self-Esteem

Belief in the personal fable should not be confused with having high self-esteem. Tweens or teens with low self-esteem usually still hold a version of the personal fable. In fact, they may even perceive their critical self-judgments as "evidence" of their particular uniqueness -- i.e., no one thinks quite as critically as they do. In other words, adolescents typically all believe they are special, even if they don't necessarily think of themselves as "good" special.

The Origins of the Term 'Personal Fable'

Psychologist David Elkind was the first to describe the adolescent phenomenon known as the personal fable. Elkind coined the term in his 1967 book "Egocentrism in Adolescence."

Elkind's characterization of the adolescent experience builds on Piaget's theory of adolescent development, which illustrates how teens do not differentiate between themselves and others, leading them to think that others are as obsessed with them as they are obsessed with themselves. Piaget also found that the adolescent mental state is not rooted in reality. WIth this in mind, Elkind used the term personal fable to describe the untrue stories adolescents tell themselves about their place in the world.


Elkind, Ph.D., David. Egocentrism in Adolescence. Child Development. 1967. 38: 1025-1034.


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