The Imaginary Audience

January 27, 2010

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 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?

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

36 responses to The Imaginary Audience

  1. Excellent post!

  2. begs the question, are you doing the same with this blog?

  3. Yeah, self-expression sucks!

  4. When I was little, I thought exactly the opposite. I saw that nobody was ever really paying attention to me, and I took advantage of that to do some pretty sneaky things. Well, sneaky for a fourteen year old. Stuff like steal the mid-semester progress reports out of the mail and carry on like nothing was going wrong, expecting my parents to never even think about them. 99% of the time it worked. I could be quite the deceptive one, I would do stuff and nobody would notice it. I laughed as all my classmates did their classroom cutting up in the most ridiculously transparent manner, getting caught time and time again, whereas I never did.

    Whenever I got embarrassed as a teen, it never bugged me for long, because I knew nobody was watching me. I’d look around and expect people to be like, “haha, that girl laughed at you when you asked her out!” and when nothing like that came, I remembered that nobody was ever paying attention to me. The next day I’d be as relaxed as I was the day before.

    But people were paying attention to me. My sister, three grades under than me, was always telling me about how people would ask her about me, talk about me to her. People cheered really loudly at my graduation in a way I never expected. I guess my self-assured manner communicated itself to my peers as some kind of status. If only I had known.

  5. R – Nice post today. There is an interesting juxtaposition between actually being on stage 24/7 and not at all. At home, I have a regular TV gig and most people recognize me walking down the street.

    back home in the US, I am just an ordinary guy. It might just have been that I wasn’t popular in 8th grade and I am just feeding my own narcissism, but I kind of like being on stage.

    The flip side there is my annual trip to Burning Man, where everybody really is on stage. It could be a form om masturbation (it is), but I wouldn’t trade that one in for your delusion of normalcy either.


    “Begs the question” doesn’t mean what you think it does Jbower.

  7. This reminds me of psychology experiment–I can’t recall the source (perhaps from Nudge by Thaler). My best summary from memory:

    A subject was chosen to discuss a topic among 15 people in a room. She was given an embarrassing shirt to wear (emblazoned with written profanities, weird photos). After the discussion and 30 minutes of self-conscious thinking, she was asked to estimate how many people in the room could recall the shirt she was wearing.

    Results showed after testing that the subject predominately grossly overestimated how many people recalled/cared what she was wearing (something like 80% to 20%).

  8. Thought provoking post for a musician using the internet to grow an audience. A slow process to date.

  9. > 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.

    If no one is really watching anyway, then who is that thinks you look like a fool?

    Thinking there are people watching you who care is almost as delusional as caring about what non-existant people think…


  10. Also called the spotlight effect, which is classed under attribution errors in social psychology. Ironic too in that it isn’t just inaccurate, it is completely backward: so few people are examining your actions that it is almost impossible to do something of any social consequence, deliberately or accidentally.

    This should be a liberating thought. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you can start building up a defense against your own ego.

    But there’s nothing wrong with maintaining your own quaint corner of the internet for a few friends. Not everyone who does that suffers from delusions of grandeur.

    I would also argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with hitching your self-esteem to your popularity/exposure. And I could see how artificially inflating your self-esteem by hyping your image could boost your popularity/exposure.

    The problem comes when you TRULY BELIEVE others perceive you based entirely on your own self-definition. The truth is that most “others” haven’t perceived you at all, and the majority of those who have would describe you in two words.

    So I say draw your social circles smaller and never bluster about yourself within them. The rest of the world is fair game, if you can avoid believing your own hype.

  11. “You’ll worry a lot less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” – David Foster Wallace

  12. @joe

    At some point everyone says something into the ether, but only a fool expects a reply.

    And that same lack of humility that the fool thought would win over whatever accidental audience his content finds is going to be exactly what prevents him from forming new contacts.

    And no reasonable person really expects nobody will ever see anything they do. You give yourself a prayer of being recognized if you at least say something true.

  13. “Vince, is this you?”

    Hah! Keep being awesome.

  14. I’m 19, and try as I might, I can’t help but walk around school, with my favorite song going on my mp3 thinking about how all the stuff I go through is “so different” than the other 19 year olds around me.

    Ryan, is there a certain age that we’re supposed to grow out of this stage or does it just happen?

  15. Tucker Max is a liar and a douchebag, and you are a huge faggot.

  16. Still Laughing @ You Two. January 30, 2010 at 11:31 am

    “The Imaginary Audience”…is this the title of Max’s new book that no one will read now that everyone on the net knows he’s a fucking bullshit-artist? God, I hope you don’t still suck his cock in hopes of praise.

  17. Another beautiful article!

    Thank you!

  18. Trying to impress people is where I always lose. I can do impressive things, but not when I’m trying for the sake of being impressive. There’s a conflict that I’ve got: one part in the thrall of the mediocre and one part contemptuous.

    Focusing on service to others and being truly helpful makes me money.

  19. JBower,

    Begs the question – will you go fuck yourself?

  20. Reading this reminds me of the first date from hell – the one where you keep wondering if she notices the mustard stain on your right sleeve.

    On a more serious note, I think as humans we’re hardwired to think other people care – if they don’t then we’re alone. Granted some people take this a bit too far!

  21. Mark,

    Why would you ask such a stupid fucking question? I mean, uh, ya — you are supposed to grow out of that stage exactly when you are 20 years and 2 and a half months old, but only if you pluck 14 hairs out of a donkey’s ass when a full moon is out during the month containing your birthday.

  22. Genuine Chris Johnson,

    You are one of those people who would better “service others” through being stabbed in the face by the fabled but unfortunately ever elusive machine that stabs people over the internet. But then again, you would probably be able to do something impressive and dodge the knife, so it would all be in vain.

  23. Aren’t all artists and geniuses and crazy people narcissistic? If they whispered their messages, or tucked their poems in their pockets and didn’t share them- with real or imagined readers, five or 50,000- they’d just be even more tortured.

    Often this blogging and everything else is not about megalomaniac vanity, but instead a sort of ‘call and response’ type exercise. is anyone out there? maybe. maybe not. who cares? it’s supposed to be about the process and not the destination. some people get there, get famous. others don’t care if they get there or not, they just keep doing it. yes, it’s kind of sad and maybe laughable to a snarky person that would have taken the time to deconstruct someone’s 33 ‘followers,’ but our society is becoming more and more isolated, and the core word in the phrase imaginary audience is audience. it’s something.

  24. Sam

    Are you really trying that hard to sound funny?

    Of course I’m not asking for the specific hour that a person transforms into a mature selfless person, I’m wondering about the stage in life that a person matures out of this.

    I’m being dead serious, stop the attempt at sounding witty and sharp, no one is impressed and I can see through to your desperation like glass.

  25. Ya this is an old post, but I’m catching up… and this one here is a treasure trove. Comments included.

    Tee hee. & thanks.

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