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It’s a Fine Line Between Narcissism and Egocentrism

A simple trick of the mind that can lead to emotional chaos.

We see the world from the inside out — a fact that leads everyone to be at least somewhat self-centered. The technical term for this is "egocentrism."

As a cognitive bias, egocentrism refers to the natural restriction on our perception caused by the simple fact that we can only see the world from our perspective. It takes special effort to see the world from any perspective other than through our own eyes.

The basic egocentrism built into our cognitive apparatus became an important part of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory about child development. In observing children describe the way a small table-sized model of a mountain might look to someone else, Piaget found that prior to the age of 8 or so, this seemingly easy task was surprisingly difficult.

Young children seem cognitively unable to take the perspective of another person. This fact, incidentally, makes them easy to beat at a two-person perspective game such as checkers. They can’t imagine what the board looks like to you, and as a result, will make mistakes caused by their assumptions that you see what they see.

Although we all grow out of this stage of development, even adults find it difficult to overcome completely the cognitive type of egocentrism. You can prove this with a very simple experiment of your own.

Take a skill that you have at a well-practiced task that you can easily carry out successfully. Now, try to explain that skill to someone who’s never even attempted the task at all. Consider something as basic as preparing a pot of coffee or hammering in a nail. Or imagine something more complex such as saving a computer document, setting up a printer, or getting started on email. Whatever the task, imagine that your job is to tell someone how to do it. Most people find it very difficult to take on the perspective of someone who knows absolutely nothing about this well-mastered ability. Even if think you’re great at laying out the steps in this task that comes so easily to you, chances are that you will not be able to erase completely your own knowledge of the task or memory of the steps needed to carry it out before you can teach it to anyone else.

Another form of egocentrism, one that is particularly strong in adolescence, is the “imaginary audience.” Child psychologist David Elkind coined this term to refer to the teen’s tendency to envision how friends would react to each of his or her actions, and even thoughts. Elkind was writing before everyone was "You-Tubing" their every move, and so the audience was indeed imaginary. As a sidenote, YouTube is most likely reinforcing this type of egocentrism.

We don’t ever completely outgrow the youthful form of egocentrism known as the imaginary audience. If you’ve ever taken up a new sport or decided to start learning how to dance, you may have often felt that everyone’s eyes were on you as you fell or just looked awkward. Feeling that everyone is looking at you, the embarrassment becomes too much.

What you fail to recognize is that everyone else feels equally awkward and embarrassed. In fact, they’re not looking at you at all because they’re so worried about their own performance. As Ann Landers once remarked, "At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At 40, we don't care what they think of us. At 60, we discover they haven't been thinking of us at all."

Egocentrism can also cause us to make incorrect assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling. According to the “assumed similarity bias,” for example, we believe that other people agree with our views even when we have little objective reason for thinking that they do. We might be right, but there’s a very good chance we’re not.

We also show a bit of egocentrism when we fail to communicate in sufficient detail. You may think that your email to your friend is perfectly clear about when you’re going to meet for lunch, based on when you know you’re able to get to the restaurant. If you don’t specify the time, and your friend doesn’t have mind-reading capacities, then without a further round of emails, that friend may fail to show up when you do.

Online communications present many opportunities for egocentrism to take hold on our behavior. On Facebook, it’s all too easy to let your present, private, mood influence your public verbalizations. A situation that you’re in strikes you as funny or weird, so you immediately share your view about that situation with a cryptic posting. It’s unlikely that anyone will actually get your point, though, because they are not sharing the same context as you are. Your wry observation will hang out there in cyberspace, causing nary a like or comment.

In-jokes are a similar type of egocentrism, but in this case, the egocentrism is committed by two or more people who have shared the same experiences. Although occasionally in-jokes are intended to be a slight to someone seen as an outsider, they very often occur because the people involved don’t think about the outsider’s perspective.

Egocentrism can cause us to commit some very public social gaffes. Let’s say you’re waiting in line to check out at the grocery stores, and you need to get out of their quickly. You see an opportunity to jump ahead of someone else, and take it. Thinking only about the situation from your point of view, you don’t pay attention to the needs of everyone else, who may be in just as much a hurry as you are. Needless to say, your rude behavior will lead to expressions of scorn from every onlooker.

Occasional egocentric errors such as these are understandable and easily remedied. As we progress along the continuum to narcissism, however, egocentrism starts to take on a much more complex and problematic form.

In egocentrism, you’re unable to see someone else’s point of view; but in narcissism, you may see that view but not care about it. Going even one step further, people high in narcissism become annoyed or even enraged when others fail to see things their way. At extremes, narcissism leads people to becoming exploitative, particularly among the subgroup known as entitled narcissists.

Some forms of narcissism may come hard-wired into the individual’s personality. However, nurture can trump nature due to narcissism's highly reinforcing properties. Just as many entitled narcissists are bred, not born, into their exploitative behaviors. Let’s take the example of people who are late in situations that inconvenience other people. The latecomers can see, from their own point of view, why they’re late. They know that traffic was bad, that they had one last email to answer, or that they couldn’t extricate themselves from a conversation.

Over time, chronic latecomers may start to experience some benefits from their tardiness, which only serves to strengthen their tendency to be late. This is how the narcissistic tendency to be late can develop. Like the actor who flounces in to occupy center stage in the middle of a crowded scene, the latecomer sweeps in and becomes the center of everyone’s attention. The tendency is strengthened even further when the latecomer encounters no adverse consequences and when the situations require the individual to be there in order for things to start.

Imagine everyone at a birthday party waiting for the honoree. The party can’t really get underway until he or she gets there. The doorbell rings 30 minutes later, and the birthday boy or girl can now be greeted by the assembled crowd. Though they may feel resentful, the guests nevertheless reinforce the person’s lateness because no one wants to express their annoyance openly. Similarly, the boss who arrives five minutes late for a meeting can also be assured of a grand entrance without ramifications. None of the employees can actually complain out loud about this rudeness, so the boss finds no reason to change and in fact, may be even later for the next meeting.

It’s very easy to slip from ordinary egocentrism to entitled narcissism. Without encountering any adverse consequences, people such as chronic latecomers see no reason to change their behavior. No one complains, no job is lost, and all they get are the rewards of drawing everyone’s attention.

The problem is exaggerated among people who gradually acquire public recognition. Actors, musicians, reality show contestants, and politicians who start to grab the eye of the media are particularly prone to taking on narcissistic tendencies. If they don’t remain grounded in their previous reality, they can become victim to the narcissistic bubble in which they lose their sense of accountability for their behavior. The grand entrance becomes almost a required part of their job and if they’re not careful, it can lead them to take on an entitled attitude toward their friends and family.

What’s going on inside the mind, and emotions, of entitled narcissists? If they’ve slipped into this pattern of behavior inadvertently through the reinforcement process, they may not even be aware of the resentment they’re creating among their nearest and dearest.

At the same time, as their narcissism progresses, they may find that their self-esteem becomes more and more dependent on having that position in the spotlight. Once having been the center of everyone else’s gaze, they now crave it like a drug. In order to protect their increasingly unstable sense of self, they need to surround themselves with admirers who will prop them up. If they go unnoticed among a crowd of strangers, they feel insignificant. Unlike their celebrity friends who actually enjoy going undercover, media stars who enter the narcissistic bubble find it hard to exist without being followed by paparazzi.

Ordinary people who’ve developed the entitled form of narcissism can feel just as empty and depleted as the celebrity icon. Their emotional lives become dominated by the need to be recognized and they go increasingly out of their way to ensure this need is satisfied. They insist on receiving special treatment, complain when they don’t get it, and reject people who they feel get in their way. Anyone who complains, for example, about their chronic lateness is removed from their list of friends or employees.

Knowing the dangers of letting egocentrism get out of control, how can you engage in corrective action? Whether it’s you or a loved one you’re trying to help, here are five pointers:

  1. Make an honest assessment of your egocentric behaviors. Take stock of the behaviors caused by ordinary egocentrism that may be getting out of control. Whether it’s chronic lateness or poorly conceived Facebook posts, decide whether you’re letting your internal viewpoint skew your social interactions.
  2. Check out how other people feel. Check out how other people are feeling by putting yourself in their place. Using active empathic listening, for example, you can broaden your perspective to see not just from the inside out, but from the outside in.
  3. Build up your inner sense of self. Don’t let your self-definition become too dependent on receiving attention from others. Find ways to build your self-esteem by developing an internal set of standards that allow you to reward yourself for your actual accomplishments.
  4. Squelch your imaginary audience. You may feel that everyone is looking at you and judging you, but in reality, most people are just as concerned about themselves as they are about you. If you commit a social blunder, it’s unlikely that it’s as noticed (and criticized) as you think it is.
  5. Practice counter-egocentrism. Test out your abilities to take another person’s point of view by trying to explain that skill of yours to someone who’s never attempted the task in question. Read over your e-mails before you send them to make sure you haven’t skipped over details that only you know about. Include other people in your in-jokes with your friends.

No matter where you are on the egocentrism-narcissism dimension, you can pull yourself back toward a mindset that will allow you to see yourself as others truly see you. Once you do, you’ll find that you can live more healthily and independently based on a more solid and internally based sense of self.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012.

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