The Cognitive Biases of Adolescence

Young people often feel unique, invincible, and misunderstood. If you want to know why, read on. We'll explain the main cognitive biases of adolescence.
The Cognitive Biases of Adolescence
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 04 April, 2023

Most adolescents say they feel misunderstood. In much the same way, adults often find them difficult to understand. In fact, their way of seeing the world is unique. They’re more impulsive and reckless and their emotions are always on the surface. Moreover, many of their opinions attract attention, their decisions often seem unwise, and their take on life is contradictory. However, this is only due to the cognitive biases of adolescence.

Furthermore, their thought processes aren’t always optimal. Firstly, because their main reference points are their peer groups and these can exert excessive influence. Secondly, adolescents don’t have track records with which they’ve accumulated enough experience in certain areas. Thirdly, their brains (more specifically, their prefrontal cortexes) are still maturing.

Despite this, adolescence entails an increase in reasoning skills. This gives rise to some curious cognitive phenomena that we should be aware of if we want to know how to support them through this tricky stage.

The cognitive biases of adolescence

We call cognitive bias the psychological effect that alters information processing and leads to distortions or inaccurate judgments. These can lead us to irrational interpretations and unlogical ways of thinking. That said, they’re present in all of us.

This is because they play an evolutionary role by helping us filter information and make decisions quickly. However, they can also lead us to erroneous thoughts.

In adolescence, these distortions of judgment are different and characteristic of the process of this life stage. As a rule, they demonstrate the following attitudes:


For psychologist David Elkind, an expert in child and adolescent biology and psychology, egocentrism is key to an adolescent’s thinking. This permeates all their perceptions and interpretations. It occurs because they fail to differentiate between their own thoughts and those of others.

At this stage, the adolescent thinks mainly of themselves and assumes that others do too. Thus, they come to believe that everyone is just as aware of their appearance, behavior, or feelings as they are. In effect, they feel that they and their entire internal world are special and unique.

Critical character

Typically, adolescents frequently engage in intense discussions and debates in which they always believe they’re right. Thanks to their supposed greater logical and abstract reasoning, they consider that they possess more knowledge and better ideas and opinions than adults, whom they constantly oppose and consider guilty of actions they don’t agree with.

Three teenagers take selfies
Young people with self-centered attitudes are convinced that the world revolves around them.

Imaginary audience

This cognitive bias stems from adolescent egocentrism. Many young people believe that everyone around them is truly aware of them, and what they do, say, and how they look. As a result, they feel great pressure and a fear of being judged when, in reality, all the attention is imaginary. That’s because they’re only concerned with themselves and not others.

Personal fable

This phenomenon explains why adolescents feel so misunderstood. At this stage, it’s common for them to consider themselves and their experiences as unique and different from those of the rest. Due to this cognitive distortion, the adolescent considers that no one feels the way they do, that no one has lived what they’re living through, and that no one can understand them or put themselves in their shoes.

The fable of invincibility

Finally, within the cognitive biases of adolescence, ideas of invincibility stand out. Indeed, minors at this stage feel invulnerable, in the sense that nothing bad will ever happen to them. Therefore, they minimize their chances of becoming addicted to substances, getting pregnant, or having an accident, and taking unnecessary risks.

Other cognitive biases of adolescence

Beyond these cognitive biases of adolescence, young people can also present others that are also common in adults. After all, as we said earlier, we all generate distortions and incorrect judgments at times. This often has consequences.

Research suggests that many of these cognitive errors are related to low self-esteem and symptoms of anxiety and depression in adolescents. Associations have been found with the following:

  • Catastrophism. The tendency to imagine and consider the worst possible scenarios for no reason.
  • Selective Abstraction. Focusing all their attention on the negatives and magnifying them, while leaving out the positives and other information that may be relevant.
  • Overgeneralization. Drawing conclusions from an isolated fact. For example, a teen with good grades, by failing a single exam, might deduce that they’re not particularly skilled or intelligent.
  • Emotional reasoning. They accept information as true simply because they feel it to be so. In other words, they assume that what they feel about themselves or others is true, without considering that emotions can be deceiving and not reflect objective reality.
During adolescence, confrontations between parents and children are common. In fact, teens always claim to be right.

Addressing cognitive biases in adolescence

In short, adolescence brings with it the appearance of certain thought distortions based on egocentrism and insufficient brain maturation. However, the increase in cognitive abilities in young people also gives rise to other types of more general distortions that can affect their psychological health.

It’s advisable to supervise them but remain calm. Many of the cognitive biases of adolescence are transitory and are resolved on the way to maturity. However, others can become part of their thought patterns and become chronic. In this scenario, if they cause discomfort or significant interference, they should visit a professional.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.