Egocentrism is the inability to differentiate between self and other. More specifically, it is the inability to untangle subjective schemas from objective reality; an inability to understand or assume any perspective other than their own.
Although egocentrism and narcissism appear similar, they are not the same. A person who is egocentric believes they are the center of attention, like a narcissist, but does not receive gratification by one's own admiration. Both egotists and narcissists are people whose egos are greatly influenced by the approval of others, while for egocentrists this may or may not be true.
Although egocentric behaviors are less prominent in adulthood, the existence of some forms of egocentrism in adulthood indicates that overcoming egocentrism may be a lifelong development that never achieves completion. Adults appear to be less egocentric than children because they are faster to correct from an initially egocentric perspective than children, not because they are less likely to initially adopt an egocentric perspective.
Therefore, egocentrism is found across the life span: in infancy early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It contributes to the human cognitive development by helping children develop theory of mind and self-identity formation.
The main concept infants and young children learn by beginning to show egocentrism is the fact that their thoughts, values, and behaviors are different from those of others, also known as the theory of mind. Initially when children begin to have social interactions with others, mainly the caregivers, they misinterpret that they are one entity, because they are together for a long duration of time and the caregivers often provide for the children's needs. For example, a child may misattribute the act of their mother reaching to retrieve an object that they point to as a sign that they are the same entity, when in fact they are actually separate individuals. As early as 15 months old, children show a mix of egocentrism and theory of mind when an agent acts inconsistently with how the children expect him to behave. In this study the children observed the experimenter place a toy inside one of two boxes, but did not see when the experimenter removed the toy from the original box and placed it in the other box, due to obstruction by a screen. When the screen was removed the children watched the experimenter reach to take the toy out of one of the boxes, yet because the children did not see the switching part, they looked at the experimenter's action much longer when she reached for the box opposite to the one she originally put the toy in. Not only does this show the existence of infants' memory capacity, but it also demonstrates how they have expectations based on their knowledge, as they are surprised when those expectations are not met.
According to George Butterworth and Margaret Harris, during childhood, one is usually unable to distinguish between what is subjective and objective. According to Piaget, "an egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same as the child does."
Jean Piaget (1896–1980) developed a theory about the development of human intelligence, describing the stages of cognitive development. He claimed that early childhood is the time of pre-operational thought, characterized by children's inability to process logical thought. According to Piaget, one of the main obstacles to logic that children possess includes centration, "the tendency to focus on one aspect of a situation to the exclusion of others." A particular type of centration is egocentrism – literally, "self-centeredness." Piaget claimed that young children are egocentric, capable of contemplating the world only from their personal perspective. For example, a three-year-old presented his mother a model truck as her birthday present; "he had carefully wrapped the present and gave it to his mother with an expression that clearly showed he expected her to love it." The three-year-old boy had not chosen the present out of selfishness or greediness, but he simply failed to realize that, from his mother's perspective, she might not enjoy the model car as much as he would.
Piaget was concerned with two aspects of egocentricity in children: language and morality. He believed that egocentric children use language primarily for communication with oneself. Piaget observed that children would talk to themselves during play, and this egocentric speech was merely the child's thoughts. He believed that this speech had no special function; it was used as a way of accompanying and reinforcing the child's current activity. He theorized that as the child matures cognitively and socially the amount of egocentric speech used would be reduced. However, Vygotsky felt that egocentric speech has more meaning, as it allows the child's growth in social speech and high mental development. In addition to Piaget's theory, he believed that when communicating with others, the child believes that others know everything about the topic of discussion and become frustrated when asked to give further detail.
Piaget also believed that egocentrism affects the child's sense of morality. Due to egocentrism, the child is only concerned with the final outcome of an event rather than another's intentions. For example, if someone breaks the child's toy, the child would not forgive the other and the child wouldn't be able to understand that the person who broke the toy did not intend to break it. This phenomenon can also be backed by the evidence from the findings of the case study by Nelson, who studied the use of motives and outcomes by young children as aiding to form their moral judgements.
Piaget did a test to investigate egocentrism called the mountains study. He put children in front of a simple plaster mountain range and then asked them to pick from four pictures the view that he, Piaget, would see. The younger children before age seven picked the picture of the view they themselves saw and were therefore found to lack the ability to appreciate a viewpoint different from their own. In other words, their way of reasoning was egocentric. Only when entering the concrete-operational stage of development at age seven to twelve, children became less egocentric and could appreciate viewpoints other than their own. In other words, they were capable of cognitive perspective-taking. However, the mountains test has been criticized for judging only the child's visuo-spatial awareness, rather than egocentrism. A follow up study involving police dolls showed that even young children were able to correctly say what the interviewer would see. It is thought that Piaget overestimated the extent of egocentrism in children. Egocentrism is thus the child's inability to see other people's viewpoints, not to be confused with selfishness. The child at this stage of cognitive development assumes that their view of the world is the same as other peoples.
In addition, a more well-known experiment by Wimmer and Perner (1983) called the false-belief task demonstrates how children show their acquisition of theory of mind (ToM) as early as 4 years old. In this task, children see a scenario where one character hides a marble in a basket, walks out of the scene, and another character that is present takes out the marble and put it in a box. Knowing that the first character did not see the switching task, children were asked to predict where the first character would look to find the marble. The results show that children younger than 4 answer that the character would look inside the box, because they have the superior knowledge of where the marble actually is. It shows egocentric thinking in early childhood because they thought that even if the character itself did not see the entire scenario, it has the same amount of knowledge as oneself and therefore should look inside the box to find the marble. As children start to acquire ToM, their ability to recognize and process others' beliefs and values overrides the natural tendency to be egocentric.
Although most of the research completed on the study of egocentrism is primarily focused on early childhood development, it has been found to also occur during adolescence. David Elkind was one of the first to discover the presence of egocentrism in adolescence and late adolescence. He argues, "the young adolescent, because of the physiological metamorphosis he is undergoing, is primarily concerned with himself. Accordingly, since he fails to differentiate between what others are thinking about and his own mental preoccupations, he assumes that other people are obsessed with his behavior and appearance as he is himself." This shows that the adolescent is exhibiting egocentrism, by struggling to distinguish whether or not, in actuality, others are as fond of them as they might think because their own thoughts are so prevalent. Adolescents consider themselves as "unique, special, and much more socially significant than they actually are."
Elkind also created terms to help describe the egocentric behaviors exhibited by the adolescent population such as what he calls an imaginary audience, the personal fable, and the invincibility fable. Usually when an egocentric adolescent is experiencing an imaginary audience, it entails the belief that there is an audience captivated and constantly present to an extent of being overly interested about the egocentric individual. Personal fable refers to the idea that many teenagers believe their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are unique and more extreme than anyone else's. In the invincibility fable, the adolescent believes in the idea that he or she is immune to misfortune and cannot be harmed by things that might defeat a normal person. Egocentrism in adolescence is often viewed as a negative aspect of their thinking ability because adolescents become consumed with themselves and are unable to effectively function in society due to their skewed version of reality and cynicism.
There are various reasons as to why adolescents experience egocentrism:Adolescents are often faced with new social environments (for example, starting secondary school) which require the adolescent to protect the self which may lead to egocentrism.
Development of the adolescent's identity may lead to the individual experiencing high levels of uniqueness which subsequently becomes egocentric – this manifests as the personal fable.
Parental rejection may lead to the adolescents experiencing high levels of self-consciousness, which can lead to egocentrism.
A study was completed on 163 undergraduate students to examine the adolescent egocentrism in college students. Students were asked to complete a self-report questionnaire to determine the level of egocentrism present. The questions simply asked for the reactions that students had to seemingly embarrassing situations. It was found that adolescent egocentrism was more prevalent in the female population than the male. This again exemplifies the idea that egocentrism is present in even late adolescence.
Results from other studies have come to the conclusion that egocentrism does not present itself in some of the same patterns as it was found originally. More recent studies have found that egocentrism is prevalent in later years of development unlike Piaget's original findings that suggested that egocentrism is only present in early childhood development. Egocentrism is especially dominant in early adolescence, particularly when adolescents encounter new environments, such as a new school or a new peer group.
In addition, throughout adolescence egocentrism contribute to the development of self-identity; in order to achieve self-identity, adolescents go through different pathways of "crisis" and "commitment" stages, and higher self-identity achievement was found to be correlated with heightened egocentrism.
The prevalence of egocentrism on the individual has been found to decrease between the ages of 15 and 16. However, adults are also susceptible to be egocentric or to have reactions or behaviours that can be categorized as egocentric (Tesch, Whitbourne & Nehrke, 1978).
Frankenberger tested adolescents (14–18 years old) and adults (20–89) on their levels of egocentrism and self-consciousness. It was found that egocentric tendencies had extended to early adulthood and these tendencies were also present in the middle adult years.
Baron and Hanna looked at 152 participants and tested to see how the presence of depression affected egocentrism. They also tested adults between the ages of 18 and 25, which found that the participants who suffered from depression showed higher levels of egocentrism than those who did not.
Finally, Surtees and Apperly found that when adults were asked to judge the number of dots they see and the number of dots the avatar in the computer simulation sees, the presence of the avatar interfered with the participants' judgment-making during the trials. Specifically, these were the trials where the number of dots seen by the participant was inconsistent from the number of dots the avatar saw. Such effect on the participants diminished when the avatar was replaced with a simple yellow or blue line, which concluded that somehow the avatar having a personal attribute implicitly caused the participants to include its "vision" into their own decision making. That said, they made more errors when they saw prompts such as "the avatar sees N" when N was the number of dots the participant saw and not the avatar, which shows that egocentric thought is still predominant in making quick judgments, even if the adults are well aware that their thoughts could differ from others.