Lesa Rae Vartanian's
Research Interests

Basically, my research looks at social and social-cognitive development, and the role(s) that interpersonal relationships play in these domains of development. I am most interested in these topics as they come into play during the second decade of life, or adolescence. I am interested in research questions such as:

For the past few years, my research has focused specifically on early adolescents' perceptions of themselves and others-- especially adolescents' perceptions of how they think they are evaluated by others. During early adolescence concern over negative evaluation from peers increases sharply -- adolescents seem to believe that others are constantly attending to and criticizing their every move. Psychologists refer to this concern as imaginary audience sensitivity , and they believe that adolescents' construction of a critical attentive audience explains self-consciousness, susceptibility to peer pressure, and conformity to group norms.

Adolescents also often have a distorted or exaggerated sense of themselves as unique, all-powerful or omnipotent, and invulnerable to negative consequences. This pattern of beliefs about the self has been referred to as the personal fable, and it offers a possible explanation of adolescent loneliness and risk-taking behavior. Together, the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs have been understood as aspects of "adolescent egocentrism," and have helped to paint a picture of the typical adolescent as somewhat "out of touch" with reality, and have also furthered a "storm and stress" view of adolescence as a time of life fraught with hitches and kinks through which one must proceed cautiously.

How do you recall your adolescence?Many of us do in fact recall it as a stormy or difficult time. We struggled to learn who we were and who we wanted to be -- and played out this struggle before an audience of difficult if not downright nasty peers. However, this is not necessarily the adolescence remembered by everyone. Many of us were popular during junior high and high school, and remember those times fondly. Did we all experience our own versions of the imaginary audience and personal fable? Or, were our beliefs essentially the same as those of our peers?

I suspect that the picture painted by the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs is too simplistic. Thus, I have been closely examining this characterization of the typical adolescent as "out of touch," or "egocentric." I believe that adolescents' concern about negative social evaluation, or their so-called "imaginary" audience sensitivity, is due in large part to the more critical social environment in which adolescents find themselves -- an environment composed of increasingly attentive, judgmental peers. Similarly, I argue that, given the pressures exerted on adolescents by adults to make identity commitments, the creation of a "personal fable" may reflect more of a reaction to this demanding environment, as opposed to adolescent delusions of grandeur. Furthermore, adolescents' belief in a so-called imaginary audience and personal fable may have a potentially adaptive function during early adolescence. I am not the first to question this construct. For at least 15 years there has been fairly active debate regarding the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs -- debate regarding the appropriate theoretical framework with which to view them, and debate over how they are best measured. At present, I am concentrating on the imaginary audience construct, and how it relates to the general questions I am interested in.

Recently, I've developed what I think is a better method for assessing whether adolescents really view the attentivness and evaluative nature of social groups differently than do children. Working from the picture painted by the imaginary audience, we would expect adolescents to view social groups as more attentive, more critical, and less admiring to a target individual than would children, especially if the adolescents were told that they themselves were the target. I test this by playing a short audiotaped interaction of a hypothetical peer group, telling participants that the "he" or "she" mentioned by the group is either the participant him or herself (Self Target conditions), or another hypothetical peer (Other Target conditions). Then I ask participants to make ratings about how attentive, critical, and admiring they thought the group was toward the target. I analyze these ratings and look for differences based on the grade level of the participants, the type of interaction they heard (e.g., a critical or non-critical, attentive or non-attentive audience), and the sex of the participant.

What I've found so far is that adolescents are not necessarily out-of-touch when it comes to perceiving their social environment--they do not view social groups as uniformly critical or attentive. Their perceptions of social groups differ from those of children, but these differences depend on what kind of interaction they listened to, and who the target of the group's interaction was. One of the key questions that I am pursuing currently is where children's and adolescents' perceptions of social groups differ, how much of the difference is due to adolescents' misperception of what is really going on?

What if we simply ask adolescents to tell us what it is they daydream or fantasize about? Would they typically report that they think about what other people think of them? What if we ask the same question of young adults? How will the topic(s) of their daydreams differ from those of adolescents? Another project underway examines the contents of adolescents' and early adults' daydreams, and how the subjects of daydreams may relate to aspects of self-concept development and maintenance.

My research program allows for undergraduates to become involved on a variety of levels, from collecting data in the school systems to entering data and running statistical analyses. I also often need help with literature searches, and the less "glamorous" (but nevertheless vital!) research-related tasks such as collating materials, and coding/scoring surveys. If, after reading about my research, you think you might be interested in becoming involved in one of my projects, contact me via email (click below) or phone (481-5786). I would be delighted to discuss potential research opportunities with you.

Page created and maintained by Lesa Rae Vartanian -- vartanil@ipfw.edu