Date of this Version
Published in Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, Volume 2 (1973).
In popular usage of the term, an egocentric person is a conceited and boastful individual who is preoccupied with his own self-importance. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the cognitive egocentricity of a child as defined by Piaget, and the egocentricity of an adult as is commonly understood. A child is egocentric because he cannot take someone else's point of view; an adult is egocentric because he will not - in one case, it is cognitive inability; in the other, social insensitivity. "Cognitive egocentrism," according to Piaget, “…stems from a lack of differentiation between one's own point of view and the other possible ones ... " (11 ,p.4). Decentering is defined as the “ability to shift mental perspective, in social relationships as well as in others,” (11,p.8) Egocentricity may also be defined as “the inability to decenter, to shift the given cognitive perspective (manqué de de’centration).” (11,p.3) Piaget has justified the use of the term “egocentrism” as opposed to “centrism” because “the initial centering of perspective is always relative to one’s own position and action…”(11,p.3)
All children are egocentric as they pass through the Piagetian cognitive continuum. Egocentrism is a developmental necessity which the child cannot escape. It is as unconscious as it is natural. It is a cognitive mode of dealing with reality, different at each developmental level. This term has been the most criticized and least understood of Piaget's concepts, but he has "insisted upon its epistemological meaning ... rather than on its popular or 'moral' meaning." (15 ,p.118) At one point, however, even Piaget succumbed to the mounting criticism and stated:
We no longer call it "egocentric," as one of us once did, in deference to the criticisms from many psychologists who are still not familiar with the practice in the exact sciences of using a term only in accordance with the definitions proposed, irrespective of its popular meanings and associations. (15 ,p.61 , footnote 6)