The Spotlight Effect and Social Anxiety

Being at the centre of one's own universe, people tend to think they are being noticed far more than they actually are. This is the spotlight effect.

You have just finished another day at work. To relax for a few minutes and enjoy some time together, your colleagues invite you for 30 minutes of happy hour. 

In the course of this happy hour, you mentioned a project idea, and you made a comment that was incorrect. 

Suddenly, you start thinking, “now everyone is thinking about how stupid I am, and they will talk about me at home”.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000 by American psychologists Tom Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky examined the effects of having a group of students complete an unrelated task in the same room while one of them wore an embarrassing T-shirt.

Those wearing the T-shirt were asked to estimate how many people in the room noticed what they were wearing. According to the students, about half the room noticed what they were wearing. The embarrassing T-shirt was only recognized by 25 percent of the people in the room.

The number of people they estimated would notice the T-shirt was about 25% when different students watched these groups’ recordings.

Essentially, the fact that people actually wore the T-shirt and were in the situation caused them to overestimate just how many people would notice dramatically.

In reality, most people don’t notice what we’re doing out here while we’re out there worrying about what others are seeing. 

The reason for this is that most people are too preoccupied with themselves or what they are doing. There is very little chance that I will notice what shirt you’re wearing if we are in the same calculus class.

Spotlight Effect

Psychologists use the term spotlight effect to describe our tendency to overestimate the amount of attention we receive from others. In other words, it’s when you feel the spotlight is always shining on you, that people are paying attention to what you’re doing for whatever reason.

“… The spotlight effect refers to a feeling most of us can relate to. It’s the feeling that when we’re doing something that other people are really attending to what we’re doing, that the social spotlight is on us. And it turns out that other people are paying much less attention to us than we think…” – Tom Gilovich, at Freakonomics Radio Podcast #280.

In an article at Very Will Mind, Arlin Cuncic says that for people with social anxiety, the spotlight effect can be much worse, to the point that it has an effect on your ability to work or feel comfortable around other people. It is not uncommon to find yourself feeling embarrassed. This feeling can be even worse for people with social anxiety.  

It is common for people to believe that they are the center of attention of those around them. The belief that all their actions are being closely scrutinized can cause people to feel that they are being subjected to undue social pressure. In fact, the spotlight effect is a major cause of unnecessary anxiety when people are in public places.

“… There’s this thing called the spotlight effect. You tend to think that you’re in the spotlight and everyone’s looking at you. Applying that to Christmas, it’s like you think that everyone’s looking at the gift you’re about to give, and it’s super important. And so you put a lot more weight on it, and maybe you spend a little bit too much. The truth is you’re not that interesting. The person who’s about to get the present is going to get dozens of others, and they’ll probably forget what you’re going to give them…” – Justin Wolfers, at Freakonomics Radio Podcast #105.

Our tendency to overestimate the likelihood that other people will notice or care about the things we do is related to the way we think about what other people think about us.

Nathan A Heflick has a fascinating comment related to our Bias, where in an article for Psychology Today, he says that “… for instance, people typically do not perceive themselves as biased. They tend to assume that what they are focusing on is accurate and objective. In turn, they believe that most other people should notice what they are focusing on. It is—in the mind of the person—objective and accurate, after all.”

Due to the spotlight effect, we have an exaggerated sense of significance to the people around us, causing us to misjudge situations and make decisions based on our overly inflated perceptions of visibility.

“… As the main characters of our own story, much of our world revolves around awareness of our actions and appearance. Consequently, it may be difficult to realize that others are not as focused on us and our behaviors as we think they are. We expect others to notice both negative and positive things about us, including mistakes during a presentation, a stained shirt, new shoes, or a sports team cap. This egocentric bias may lead an unprepared student to believe they were called on by a clairvoyant teacher, or cause a person who enters a room of laughing peers to assume they are the subject of ridicule…” – Allison S. Bernique

Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist and former professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, wrote in The Financial Times, advising: “We live in an imperfect world. We will inevitably make mistakes at work or embarrass ourselves among colleagues. Thankfully, most people are self-absorbed and do not pay much attention to us. When we accept that, we’ll be able to shake anything off.

Try to relax when in doubt, and assume that you are probably overestimating how much people care.

You should remember that even if someone notices what you are worried about, they probably won’t care nearly as much as you think, and they probably won’t remember it in the long run.

References, inspirations, or recommendations:

People Mentioned:

  • Tom Gilovich
  • Kenneth Savitsky
  • Arlin Cuncic
  • Justin Wolfers
  • Nathan A Heflick
  • Allison S. Bernique
  • Sian Beilock

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