Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Imagined Audience

Take note, dear blog readers, for this is a very unusual day in my blogging history. I'm going to write something a bit (gasp!) intellectual. Something that has (double take) - references. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!

So in the recent past (the very recent past - this evening, in fact), I lead a second year MSc seminar group who were discussing papers about the self and adolescence. The paper on the self was inscrutable and fairly up its own arse, but one of the papers on adolescence grabbed in a way that nothing I've read in my work as a psychologist has for a while.

I was reading the paper on the tube, for to prepare, and when I read the following section I actually had to stop and put it down for a while to take in what I was seeing:

"Increased awareness of others' perspectives during adolescence might also be related to the 'imaginary audience'. This term describes the phenomenon whereby adolescents believe that others are constantly observing and evaluating them, even if this is not actually the case... It should be noted that studies conducted more recently indicate that the imaginary audience peaks in adolescence but persists into young adulthood, and that even older adults exhibit some phenomena associated with it." (Sebastian, Burnett and Blakemore, 2008, p 443.)

The reasons why I had to stop, put the paper down and stare, slack-jawed, at the person opposite me on the tube – causing said person to panic and look askance at the fear of actual eye contact on the London Underground... and said eye contact coming from a drooling moron at that – were two-fold.

Number one, I couldn't believe that someone had put this idea of always being watched into words - more than that, that there is an actual phenomenon named after it. And number two, given that this is, apparently, A Thing... that I was supposed to have stopped doing it by now.

At 36 (fiddle sticks), I am definitely an older adult now. And yet I do this all the time. Every single day of my life. I'd never really stopped to think about it, but if I had, I probably would have guessed that everybody else does it too. And yet now it seems, according to Sebastian et al, that I'm an outlier in this case.

The form that my particular imaginary audience takes follows thusly. I do not, egotistical and all as I am, imagine that there are crowded theatres full of people hanging on my every word, cheering at my successes and oooo-ing sympathetically at my pratfalls. Nor do I think that the various extras that populate my world (girls at the gym, other students I pass in the halls, people serving me in the bar) are on a secret government mission to spy on me. I DID think that when I was about four (along with thinking that the weird beeping noise I heard in my ears from time to time was the government checking that the operation on my ears had worked, and that I had to quietly say 'yes' to stop them coming after me - what can I tell you, those many failed hearing tests scarred me), but I'm over that particular delusion now. Let us be thankful for small mercies.

No, my imagined audience is cut from a different cloth. There's usually someone in my head. Isn't there usually someone in your head? The friend I've been talking to a lot recently; the guy I've decided I have a crush on; the internet poster I had an argument with yesterday; the supervisor I'm struggling to impress right now. Someone is nearly always occupying my resting thoughts, so that when I'm not actively thinking about what's right in front of me (usually an episode of Bitch 23 or a phenomenological transcript I'm trying to wrap my head around - I'm nothing if not diverse), that person is dancing around in my head like a sort of embodied screen saver.

And so I imagine (and that's the key word - I know it's imaginary, I do not think it's real, I cannot stress THAT enough!) that they are watching me. And judging me. For good or ill. And occasionally I modify my behaviour so that it will please them. Not a whole hell of a lot... but I stretch a bit further in yoga so that they will be impressed, or I put on earrings I think they would pick, or I put on hip hop CD instead of a pop one if I think they'd like it more. Am I scaring you yet? I sure hope not.

Now that I realise this is A Thing, and that not everybody does it, I find myself wondering if it's connected to another delightful (ho ho) little quirk my crazy brain has. One that I really hope not so many of you have.

Ever since I can remember, my brain has stored little nuggets of shame from my day to day life. Stupid things I've said, mostly, but occasionally idiotic things I've done, or ridiculous outfits I've worn. And, I would say, five or six times a day (more if I'm alone for hours, or tired), those moments of shame will go BANG into my brain, with no warning, so I have no defence against them, and make me physically cringe and shudder. If you've hung out with me a lot, you've probably seen me do this - suddenly grab my head and shrink back a bit. If I'm alone, I will always say, 'i HATE myself' in punishment for being such a fool.

I kinda like my imagined audience. I do not like my moments of shame. But I have no idea how to stop them.

I wanted to write a whole blog about these moments of shame at one point. I was going to call it 'The things that haunt me' and list a whole bunch of those moments - but every time I even thought about writing it, it depressed me too much to continue, and I couldn't imagine who on earth would want to read such a depressing diatribe, so I gave up on the idea.

However, this paper I read, as well as talking about the Imagined Audience, also talks about the idea of the Looking Glass Self, in which the way we feel about ourselves is made up from "our beliefs about how we are seen by others" (ibid, p. 441). Every one of those moments that haunt me came about because I believe that people saw those shameful moments, judged me on them, and found me wanting.

The more logical part of my mind knows that if I asked anyone involved in those moments which repeatedly flash into my mind and make me hate myself, they would no doubt have forgotten them, and not have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about. But my inner whipping girl, the one that can never let it lie, will never believe that.

So as I said at the start of this blog, if I had given my imagined audience any thought before, I think I had just assumed that everyone did this. But it seems that I was wrong - and so perhaps the two things are linked, and are a result of my being in some sort of fucked up state of arrested development, whereby I have yet to get past being an emotional adolescent, with all of the sensitivities and fears that they have.

Let's face it, it would explain a lot, right? The hello kitty obsession, the 13-year-old's taste in music, the fear of the unknown, the inability to hold a boyfriend down, the constant student-dom, the never ending emo-angst? Maybe this is the answer to it all?

Or are Sebastian and co wrong, and we DO all think the same way I do? How about it, blog-fans? Am I crazy, or are you just like me? Answers on a blog comment, please!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It is safe to say that you are not alone.

    I am constantly changing and evaluating my behaviour based upon how I think others view me - even when there's nobody there, in my little flat. It takes a mental effort to purposefully stop doing it. Everything is affected. The way I stand and walk has exacerbated my bad back. I walk and stand like this to make myself look as attractive as possible. I've never let ANYONE see me be sick. I have no problem with people being sick, but I imagine it would bring me down from the slightly-otherworldly-pillar that I am on. I always try and look as attractive as I can and consider not being around people if I don't consider myself attractive, as who wants to look at an ugly person?. I don't eat in certain ways, I drink things only from certain glasses, I basically sham up my life. This list could go on and on.

    The only times when I don't *act *like this, are when I am DJing or dancing - and that's because I *actually am* in front of a real audience - so do all those things because I'm meant to and plenty more 'on-show' things besides.

    I was explaining to my counsellor last week that I base my entire self-worth on how other people view me. She couldn't get it and thought I was being a bit thick.. Even in my counselling sessions I put up a front of someone who seemed to understand what she was saying and agree with her thinking. Someone who wanted to change, rather than wanted to escape.

    I've always wondered why I was so tired all the time, but now I think I know. Being judged constantly and continually re-evaluating one's behaviour is exhausting...

  3. *hug* Ben. You know I would still think you were beautiful even if you were being sick ON me, right? Cos, like, much as I harp on about fancying you and being jealous of Micky and everything, it is your inner beauty what I love the most.

    And if that isn't going to make you vomit on me, nothing will.

  4. General genius and cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, in his book "The Emotion Machine" describes a model of human development in which "imprimers" are very important indeed to the development of a mature human mind.

    He points out that if a person or AI learns by association, there is no mechanism for developing Goals, only for learning how to achieve goals already implicit.

    "imprimers", he proposes are the mechanism under which humans and AIs may arrive at their goals. A person to whom the developing mind becomes attached. Usually a parent, intially at least.

    Praise from the imprimer acts as a reward system which can then use simple association from that praise to build goals and values.

    He really thinks that we learn our values from these people and that our mental model of these people, how we think they would react, becomes a part of us.

    And I think he's right.

    I'm curious what makes the people who wrote the paper think that mature adults don't exhibit phenomena associated with it unless they just mean it becomes so ingrained into a mind that the amalgam of the imaginary audience simply *is* the person and being your own audience doesn't count.

    Even the Jesus-impaired tell us to ask ourselves "What Would Jesus Do".

    So, what phenomena do they mean I wonder? And are they certain that a person is better off without considering their loved ones approval or otherwise of their actions, even after those loved ones are dead?

  5. That's very interesting Pre... So you do it too then? Cos a lot of people I've spoken to since writing this don't think they do. But maybe you're right and it's just become so ingrained that they don't realise they do do it any more. Certainly, I was surprised that the authors (it was a review paper, so there would be other papers saying the same thing) said not everyone did it, cos I thought that if ANYONE else did it, surely EVERYONE else would. James swears blind he doesn't, but his brain is special anyway.

    Thanks for the comment.

  6. I LITERALLY DO THIS ALL THE TIME - right down to having a specific sentence I have to say when I remember something shameful.
    Sometimes it happens when I think I'm walking around on my own and I realise I've just hissed FUCKOFF or FUCKING-IDIOT while someone is walking behind me on the street.

  7. I am a 32 year old man and I do the shouting at myself thing all the time, although it very rarely seems to happen when there are people around, thankfully. The seriousness of the memories that rush into my head seem to have very little relation to the seriousness of the response. For example, a memory of tapping someone on the shoulder thinking it was someone else and having them turn around looking confused (when I was 9 years old) will elicit 'I WISH I WAS DEAD' or a similarly over the top vocal response. I am glad that I am not alone in doing this.

  8. It is quite comforting to me to hear that such minor things elicit similarly OTT reactions from others... though I wish I could find a way to cure us all as it just isn't right, really, is it???

  9. Goddamnit, I wrote a really long comment and it's f**king gone, stupid Blogger, I'm not writing it again.


    Basically, everyone thinks that everyone else spends a lot more time evaluating or judging them than anyone actually does. Don't they? Cos everyone's at the centre of their own universe.

    I don't have anything as specific as an imagined audience, but I do definitely get my sense of approval from others, I'm quite the extrovert that way.

    Gah. Really hate Blogger.

  10. Oh noes! Wish your post hadn't been eaten! Thanks for commenting anyway, though, and yes, I'm sure you're right.