Egocentrism, a concept derived from Jean Piaget's (1951) theory of cognitive development, refers to a lack of differentiation between some aspect of self and other. The paradigm case is the failure of perspective-taking that characterizes young children who are unable to infer what another person is thinking, feeling, or seeing. Unable to infer accurately the perspective of others, the egocentric child attributes to them his or her own perspective instead. The inability to decenter from one's own perspective results in egocentric confusion of social perspectives.
But egocentrism is a broader concept that encompasses a number of additional curiosities of early cognitive development, including realism (the confusion of objective and subjective), animism (confusion of animate and inanimate), and artificialism (confusion of human activity or intentions with natural causes). What these forms of egocentrism have in common is the inability to differentiate subjective and objective perspectives. Children project subjective qualities onto external objects or events; are unable to decenter from their own perspective, or else assimilate objective reality to their subjective schemas, deforming reality as a result. So the child who believes that dreams take place in one's room at night (realism), that moving objects have life and consciousness (animism), or that the moon follows them because it wants to (artificialism), is displaying egocentrism just as surely as the child who is unable to differentiate self-other perspectives. Piaget suggested that egocentrism was a primary characteristic of children's thought processes until around 6 to 7 years of age, or when they are able to form mental representations during problem solving. However, while egocentrism is regarded typically as a problem of early cognitive development, such seemingly childish thought may not be entirely absent even in later periods of development.
Elkind (1967) famously reconstructed Piaget's four broad stages of cognitive development to show that each stage is imbued with a form of egocentrism. In the sensori-motor period, for example, egocentrism is evident when the infant stops looking for hidden objects, almost as if objects no longer exist if out of sight. The sensori-motor child is egocentric with respect to objects to the extent that object permanence is confused with object perception. Sensori-motor egocentrism is overcome when children are able to form mental representations of absent objects, an ability that emerges with the symbolic functions of preoperational thought, the next stage of cognitive development. At this stage objects have permanent existence, even when not perceived, because they exist symbolically as cognitive representations.
Although preoperations liberate the child from sensori-motor egocentrism, it ensnares the child in a form of ego-centrism with respect to symbols. Indeed, most of the classic examples of egocentrism are linked to this stage of cognitive development. Hence children in early childhood are unable to infer accurately the cognitive, affective, or visual perspective of others. Their thinking is prone to realism, animism, and artificialism. They fail conservation problems. They are unable to differentiate between symbols and their referents; they confuse make-believe play and reality. This preoperational egocentrismisovercomebythe emergence ofconcrete operations, the next stage of cognitive development. At concrete operations the child can hold two mental representations at once (e.g., symbol and referent, objective and subjective) and thereby distinguish between them.
Although concrete operations liberate the child from preoperational egocentrism, the child nonetheless falls prey to a form of egocentrism all its own In middle childhood, children fail to differentiate the products of their cognition— their convictions and claims about the world—from empirical reality. It is almost as if children believe that their perspective has a certain felt necessity which renders alternative perspectives nonsense or contrary evidence inadmissible. It is not until the emergence of the final stage of cognitive development—formal operations—that this form of egocentrism is surmounted. At formal operations, adolescents can think theoretically, entertain contrary-to-fact propositions, generate logical possibilities, formulate hypotheses, and systematically test them. This ability to entertain multiple possibilities minimizes the felt necessity that attaches to one's own perspective. Moreover, the capacity for scientific reasoning disposes the adolescent to consider claims in light of the evidence.
But the transition to formal operations involves its own variant of egocentrism—what Elkind (1967) termed “adolescent egocentrism.” Here adolescents fail to differentiate between what is the object of their concern (which is the self) from what is the concern of others. Hence teenagers beset by adolescent egocentrism believe that others are as concerned about them as they are about themselves. They construct imaginary audiences of peer critics and admirers for whom they must perform, although being the object of so much (imagined) attention also leaves the adolescent craving privacy and vulnerable to feelings of heightened self-consciousness, shame, shyness, and embarrassment.
Adolescent egocentrism also encourages the construction of personal fables that showcase the self relative to others. Three fables capture the egocentrism of adolescence. First, adolescents are convinced of their personal uniqueness. Second, often as a result of their uniqueness, adolescents evaluate risks in a way that emphasizes a sense of invulnerability. Third, egocentric adolescents revel in subjective omnipotence, believing the self to be a source of unusual influence or power within their peer network. Personal fables are differentially related to adaptation in adolescence (Aalsma, Lapsley & Flannery, 2006). For example, personal uniqueness predicts internalizing symptoms, especially in girls. Invulnerability predicts risk behavior but counterindicates internalizing symptoms. Omnipotence predicts mastery coping and indices of positive adjustment.
The transition to concrete operations after age 7 brings with it new cognitive abilities that diminish egocentrism. For example, a young school-age child is able to decenter from his or her own perspective so that it can be reversed with the perspective of another, yielding a reciprocal form of role-taking (“I think that you think …”). By the end of childhood simultaneous role-taking is a possibility so that the child can reflect upon the self from the perspective of others. The suite of concrete operational abilities hence allow the child to be a better mind-reader, that is, allows the child to infer the intentions and perspectives of others. This ability clearly matters for communicative competence, moral reasoning, and interpersonal understanding, which are three areas that have attracted the most research on egocentrism in childhood. For example, egocentric speech is characterized by the child's use of monologue without any clear audience or in the presence of an audience but without considering that audience's view or contribution. In contrast, socialized speech involves the child responding to other's questions, adding information to the thoughts of others, or attempting to influence others through requests or commands. Piaget suggests that egocentric speech peaks at around 6 years of age, but then declines around 7 or 8 years. In the moral domain, egocen-trism makes it difficult for the preschool child to understand the reason for rules other than what serves self-interest. Moral judgment and prosocial behavior require taking into account the life circumstances and perspectives of others, which is only possible when advances in perspective-taking diminish egocentric thought. Finally, egocen-trism is a barrier to friendships and intimate relationships insofar as it inhibits the ability to see things from the perspective of the other. Growth of perspective-taking skills brings forth a capacity for authentic, other-regarding friendship.
Egocentrism also constrains performance on skills that are crucial to academic achievement, including understanding of number and scientific concepts. The preoperational child is incapable, for example, of hierarchical classification, seriation, multiplication of classes. The child has difficulty conserving transformations of the substance, amount, weight, and volume of objects. This skill must await the decentered, reversible thought of concrete operations.
The role of egocentrism in cognitive development has been qualified greatly by early 21st-century research. Nobody believes that egocentrism is a pervasive cognitive failure of young children. In the social domain, for example, young children clearly are empathically sensitive and responsive to the distress of others, and they engage in prosocial behavior. Alongside egocentrism, then, is an ability to orient to the needs of others. Moreover, young children appear to show more evidence of perspective-taking when tasks require assuming the perspective of age-mates and peers rather than the perspective of adults and strangers. Similarly, whether intellectual competence or egocentrism is observed in young children appears to vary with the nature of the tasks presented to them. Tasks that are simplified to reduce inordinate performance requirements or extensive demand on memory, for example, often reveal less egocentric responding. There is some evidence that children with learning disabilities present with role-taking deficits, indicating that such students might profit from interventions that improve social skills.
For Piaget, the engine that drives cognitive development is the experience of disequilibration, that is, a sense of cognitive conflict that results when current cognitive schemes are incapable of resolving contradiction. Disequilibration is induced in classrooms that are marked by robust peer activities. Piaget and others have suggested that children learn how to take the perspectives of others better through interacting with their peers than with adults. Hence classroom activities that emphasize cooperative learning, peer group discussion, and cross-age teaching are well-suited to introduce instances of cognitive conflict that require better appreciation of the perspective of others.
Aalsma, M., Lapsley, D. K., & Flannery, D. (2006). Narcissism, personal fables, and adolescent adjustment. Psychology in the Schools. 43, 481–491.
Elkind, D. (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38, 1025–1034.
Piaget, J. (1951). The child's conception of the world. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.