A personal fable is a term used in psychology to describe the belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are unique, special, and somehow more important than those of other people.
It is often associated with adolescents as they begin to explore their identities in relation to others.
Developed by David Elkind in 1967, the theory suggests that adolescents tend to exaggerate their importance and uniqueness.
An example of a personal fable is when an adolescent believes they are the only person in the world who feels certain emotions or that no one else could ever understand their difficulties.
The potential negative outcomes of exhibiting such behavior include:
- Detachment from others
- An unwavering confidence that one’s perspectives or circumstances are immune to criticism.
Due to feeling either invincible or inflating their own capabilities, such individuals can engage in risky behaviors.
So, a personal fable can be seen as a way for teenagers to make sense of the world around them and their place within it.
Personal Fable Definition
A personal fable is a psychological concept that refers to a young person’s belief that their experiences, thoughts, and feelings are unique and special, differentiating them from others (Jack, 1989).
It has been described as an exaggerated sense of self-importance and personal uniqueness in adolescence and is believed to be due to the heightened egocentrism seen during this development period.
In their book, Fischer and Lerner (2004) state that a personal fable is:
“…a belief in one’s own uniqueness and specialty” (p. 394).
Alberts and colleagues (2006) state that, from a scientific standpoint, a personal fable can be seen as a form of identity exploration whereby adolescents attempt to differentiate themselves from their peers by creating a unique identity.
While such exploration can often lead to positive outcomes, it can also lead to heightened risk-taking behavior due to an overestimation of one’s capabilities or beliefs about being invulnerable.
It can be exacerbated by social comparisons, which lead adolescents to believe that they are internally superior or obligated somehow – leading to further feelings of insecurity or loneliness.
Interestingly, Lerner and colleagues write that:
“…when young people believe that others are thinking about them and concerned with how they look and what they do, they also assume that they are special and unique” (p. 132).
Simply, a personal fable is a psychological concept describing how adolescents attempt to create an identity by exaggerating their importance and uniqueness.
Personal Fable Examples
- Thinking that their feelings or opinions are the only valid ones: Adolescents often believe that no one else can understand or appreciate the depth of their emotions and thoughts, leading to invincibility and over-estimation of their own ideas.
- Believing they are above reproach: Teens may feel invincible and unbreakable, believing they cannot make mistakes or be subjected to criticism from others.
- Believing in omnipotence: Some adolescents may feel as if they have complete control over outcomes, whether it be in relationships, school work, or career goals, due to an overestimation of their own capabilities.
- Over-estimating one’s potential for success: Though everyone has unique talents and abilities, adolescents sometimes underestimate the hard work and dedication required to succeed due to an exaggerated sense of confidence from a personal fable. It can lead to unrealistic expectations about their abilities.
- Feeling like they’re the only ones who experience intense emotions: Teenagers often believe that no one else could possibly experience emotions as intensely as they do – leading to feelings of loneliness and alienation, which can be exacerbated by social comparison.
- Overemphasizing the importance of popularity among peers: Teens may place too much importance on being popular with friends or classmates, believing that their lives will have no purpose or value if they are not liked. However, this belief is often challenged later in life when self-acceptance becomes more important.
- Rejecting advice without considering its merits: Due to an inflated sense of self-importance, adolescents can reject advice from parents or teachers without properly considering its merits. Even though such guidance could ultimately help them navigate difficult situations more easily later on in life.
- Risk-taking behavior due to feeling invincible: An overestimation of one’s capabilities can also lead adolescents into risky activities such as drug use or dangerous driving behaviors. Such behavior is based on an unconscious belief that nothing bad could ever happen to them because they are “special” in some way.
- Believing failure is not an option: Adolescents may refuse to accept failure under any circumstances because they fear losing admiration or respect from their peers. They are reinforcing the idea that their identity revolves around external validation rather than inner strength and resilience.
- Ignoring consequences for actions taken impulsively: Confidence derived from personal fable can lead teens to make decisions without thinking about the potential consequences. They believe they are immune from repercussions due to negative assumptions about others’ ability to hold them accountable for their choices.
Origins of Personal Fable
The concept of personal fable was first discussed in detail by the American psychologist David Elkind in his 1967 work “Egocentrism in Adolescence.”
According to Elkind, adolescents experience a heightened sense of egocentrism due to a shift in perspectives during their transition from childhood to adulthood (Lerner & Jovanovic, 2016).
This egocentrism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and personal uniqueness, thus leading people to view their experiences and feelings as unique and special compared to others.
Elkind argued that this egocentrism leads adolescents to overestimate their capabilities and importance while underestimating the impact of external forces on their lives, thus creating a “personal fable” revolving around one’s own superiority.
In addition, Elkind proposed that this type of thinking could lead to risk-taking behavior or feelings of loneliness, which could be exacerbated by social comparison (Lerner & Jovanovic, 2016).
So, he provided an insight into why teens may act impulsively or with disregard for consequences despite usually possessing a keen understanding of right and wrong.
Overall, Elkind’s work has been widely accepted as a valid psychological theory over the past few decades due to its ability to explain some of the behaviors exhibited by teens.
Impacts of Personal Fable on Personalities
A personal fable can lead to both positive and negative impacts: from increasing self-confidence and risk-taking behavior to impairing judgment of potential risks or ignoring the advice from others.
On the positive side, a personal fable can lead to increased maturity, emotional regulation, and self-confidence that comes with feeling unique or special.
In addition, it can also lead to higher educational attainment due to the heightened focus on achievement typically associated with personal fable (Jack, 1989).
On the other hand, a personal fable has been linked to heightened risk-taking behavior or feelings of loneliness, which could be exacerbated by social comparison.
So, a personal fable can provide insight into why people (especially teens) may act impulsively or with disregard for consequences despite usually possessing a keen understanding of right and wrong (Jack, 1989).
Furthermore, evidence suggests that personal fable thinking might encourage the contagion effect – an increase in one’s sense of uniqueness when surrounded by peers with similar characteristics or behaviors (Lerner & Steinberg, 2009).
So, if the adolescent’s group of friends all display similar levels of personal fable, then it can create an atmosphere in which extreme risk-taking and impulsive decision-making are seen as the norm.
Table Summary: Personal Fable Pros and Cons
|Increased self-esteem and confidence||Overestimation of one’s abilities|
|Sense of uniqueness and individuality||Sense of invulnerability and risk-taking|
|Encourages creative thinking||Difficulty relating to others’ experiences|
|Motivates to pursue personal goals||Inability to learn from others’ mistakes|
|Promotes autonomy and independence||Inadequate coping with failure|
Strategies for Managing Personal Fable
There are several strategies for managing personal fable, each of which keeps adolescents grounded and better able to manage the external forces that come along with it.
Here is a brief overview of some effective strategies for managing personal fable:
1. Emphasizing Realistic Feedback
One approach is emphasizing realistic feedback from trusted sources – such as teachers, family members, and peers – rather than relying on internal dialogue alone.
It can help teens gain perspective on their individual strengths and weaknesses without placing undue emphasis on grandiose ideas of self-importance.
2. Introducing Teens to Engaging Activities
In addition, introducing teens to activities outside their comfort zone in a supportive environment could also aid in combating personal fable.
Such activities might include joining a sports team or volunteering with a local charity organization; it allows teenagers to have real-world experiences that can help them see where they fall relative to others in terms of skills and capabilities.
3. Focusing on Feelings
Finally, providing teens with meaningful opportunities to practice getting out of their heads and into their hearts through mindfulness activities like yoga or meditation could prove beneficial in managing personal fable as well.
By focusing on feelings instead of thoughts, these exercises can help young people become more aware of their true selves rather than the imaginary persona they often create through personal fables.
A personal fable is a psychological concept often emerging during adolescence as young individuals explore their identities and seek to differentiate themselves from their peers.
Developed by David Elkind, the concept explains some of the behaviors exhibited by teens during adolescence.
While this phenomenon can lead to increased self-confidence and emotional growth, it can also result in heightened risk-taking behavior, loneliness, and an inability to accept realistic feedback.
By understanding the origins and impacts of personal fable, parents, educators, and other adults can implement strategies to manage and mitigate its effects on teenagers.
Alberts, A., Elkind, D., & Ginsberg, S. (2006). The personal fable and risk-taking in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(1), 71–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-006-9144-4
Fisher, C. B., & Lerner, R. M. (2005). Encyclopedia of applied developmental science. New York: Sage Publications.
Jack, M. S. (1989). Personal fable: a potential explanation for risk-taking behavior in adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 4(5), 334–338. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2614649/
Lerner, J. V., Lerner, R. M., & Finkelstein, J. (2001). Adolescence in America: An encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Abc-Clio.
Lerner, R. M., & Jovanovic, J. (2016). Cognitive and moral development, academic achievement in adolescence. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Lerner, R. M., & Steinberg, L. D. (2009). Handbook of adolescent psychology. London: John Wiley & Sons.