The imaginary audience refers to a psychological state where an individual imagines and believes that multitudes of people are enthusiastically listening to or watching them. Though this state is often exhibited in young adolescence, people of any age may harbor a fantasy of an imaginary audience.
Outside of the field of psychology, the sociological term imagined audience refers to a mentally constructed idea of who our audience is without real or complete insight into who that may actually be.
Early History in Psychology
David Elkind coined the term "imaginary audience" in 1967. The basic premise of the topic is that people who are experiencing it feel as though their behavior or actions are the main focus of other people's attention. It is defined as how willing a child is to reveal alternative forms of themselves. 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. This imaginary audience is proposed to account for a variety of adolescent behaviors and experiences, such as heightened self-consciousness, distortions of others' views of the self, and a tendency toward conformity and faddisms. This act stems from the concept of ego-centrism in adolescents.
Elkind studied the effects of imaginary audience and measured it using the Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS). The results of his research showed that boys were more willing than girls to express different sides of themselves to an audience. This apprehension from girls has given rise to further research on the value of privacy to girls. Imaginary audience influences behavior later in life in regards to risky behaviors and decision-making techniques. A possibility is that imaginary audience is correlated with a fear of evaluation or self-representation effects on self-esteem.
The phenomenon stems from egocentrism and is closely related to another topic called 'personal fable'. (Personal Fable involves a sense of "I am Unique.") Imaginary audience effects are not a neurological disorder, but more a personality or developmental stage of life. It is not aroused by a life event; rather it is a part of the developmental process throughout adolescence. 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. This natural developmental process can lead to high paranoia about whether the adolescent is being watched, if they are doing a task right and if people are judging them. Imaginary audience will likely cease before adolescence ends, as it is a huge part of personality development. Imaginary audience can be as simple as having to change multiple times in the morning because the adolescent still feels unsatisfactory about arriving at a destination about his/her appearance even though he/she will appear the same as everyone else. The number of adolescents who experience an imaginary audience effect cannot be described with any sort of statistics because an imaginary audience is experienced in all adolescents.
According to Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist known for his epistemological studies with children, every child experiences imaginary audience during the preoperational stage of development. He also stated that children will outgrow this stage by age 7 but as we know now this stage lasts much longer than that. Piaget also said imaginary audience happens because young children believe others see what they see, know what they know, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel. The extremes to which adolescents experience an imaginary audience, however, varies from child to child. Some children are considered to be more "egocentric" than others and experience more of an extreme imaginary audience or have more of an elaborate personal fable. Therefore, children then subconsciously put more value on the idea that everyone cares about what they are doing at all times. This is very common in adolescents during this level of development as the child is going through Erik Erikson's identity vs. identity confusion.
The child is struggling to figure out their identity and formulating congruent values, beliefs, morals, political views, and religious views. So, on top of experiencing an identity moratorium in which they are exploring different identities, children feel they are constantly being watched or evaluated by those around them. This leads to intense pressure being placed on the child and may also influence later self-esteem.
Imaginary Audience Examples
A teen that is affected by imaginary audience might be self-conscious and may worry about what other people think of them. They may change their clothes constantly before leaving the house to make sure they are presentable for everybody that is watching them. They may also spend extra time on make-up and hair to better appeal to the audience they feel they need to impress. A teen may also change their wardrobe to match "trends" that start. They may also believe that they are better than everyone else and everyone is constantly looking at them and judging, feeling the need to look "perfect". A teen who has a pimple on their face will think that everyone will notice and that it is covering half of their face. (This is one very common example of imaginary audience.) 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.
Gerald Adams and Randy Jones conducted a study to test imaginary audience behavior. They tested total of 115 male and female adolescents between the ages of 11 to 18 using an empathy scale, social sensitivity scale, and a measure of social desirability. They stated Imaginary audience is seen most in teens going through puberty where their bodies are changing rapidly and they are concerned with how everyone is viewing their change. The relationship between age, imaginary audience behavior and self-reported concerns about body image during adolescence questions certain assumptions underlying the development of the Imaginary Audience Behavior scale.
Imagined Audiences in Social Media
Specifically referencing modern social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Eden Litt and Eszter Hargittai explain that the imagined audience refers to a mental construct people form of their audience without real insight into who is actually consuming their online content.
This disconnect between a user's imagined audience and actual audience is affected by social norms and context, and could play a large role on impression management — if a user believes their audience is composed of certain people, they may curate their social media feed and image to reflect this belief. Notably, academic scholar Jacqueline Vickery found in a study that her informants attempted to dissociate themselves from peers they considered "ghetto." Since her informants were aware that Facebook friend connections are visible to everyone, those who were worried about associating with certain people then needed to maintain online distance by declining those friend requests.
Scholar danah boyd argues that the "imagined audience ... resembles the concept of the White audience inherent to respectability politics; namely, that one must be able to successfully perform a White-defined bourgeois self to achieve upward mobility." The relationship between the dominant, acceptable social norms and intersections of class, gender, racial, or ethnic norms creates tension when managing impressions for both the imagined audience and the invisible audience.
As sharing on social media continues to become more commonplace, the imagined audience will continue to play a role in how people choose to represent themselves on different platforms. For instance, a study on impression management in online dating found that participants had to navigate mediating conflict between the pressures of impression management and their desire to present an authentic sense of self. Other similar studies have also found that there are significant instances of misrepresentation in online dating: 86% of participants in one study felt that other members of their dating sites misrepresented their physical appearance. Misrepresentation, particularly on sites where participants are looking for companionship and love, could be explained by the idea of the imagined audience — as participants form the idea of who is actually viewing their profiles, they may cater their own online representation to be more appealing.
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