As we mingled afterwards there were a few embarrassed faces. We all had, at some point during the evening, lost count of the steps, bumped into each other or gone in the wrong direction. One person even mentioned having to stop completely for a few minutes to catch his bearings – one of the perils of learning to dance salsa for the first time.
We were all going through similar challenges, yet each of us felt like our individual mistakes were glaring, that everyone else’s eyes were on us, marking our missteps, cataloguing our errors and laughing. We each thought that we were the focus of attention.
You’ve probably had a similar experience. Like that stain on your shirt that you were convinced everyone noticed? Or maybe you walked into a room filled with strangers, someone glanced in your general direction and laughed and you automatically thought they were laughing at you? I know I’ve had to go out with what seemed like an enormous zit in the middle of my forehead and thought that everyone I met was looking right at it. This experience is not accidental, it happens to all of us and there is a name for it.
The Spotlight Effect
Although observed by others before, psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky were the first to put a name to our tendency to think that we are noticed more than we are. The Spotlight Effect as they called it comes into play especially when we are doing or showing something we think is out of the ordinary or embarrassing.
They carried out a number of studies in which they had participants put on a shirt with a big picture of someone’s face on it (in the first experiments it was Barry Manilow, someone any young person would be embarrassed to be seen wearing) and then walk through a room filled with students. After leaving the room, each participant was asked to estimate how many people in the room would remember who was on their t-shirt while the students in the room were asked if they could remember who had been on the t-shirt.
The results showed that participants overestimated how many people would remember what had been on their t-shirts by more than double. Gilovich and Savitsky concluded that we are so conscious of our appearance and actions that we struggle to grasp that others might not be as focused on us as we are.
But why does it happen?
You make thousands of decisions a day and although you may think they’re rational the reality is your brain takes shortcuts to help you make sense of the inordinate amount of data it receives. In doing so, systematic errors, called cognitive biases, are introduced. The Spotlight Effect is one such bias in which you create your subjective reality based on your perceptions.
As a human being, you are an egocentric creature which essentially means you are at the centre of your world. Your perception of reality is based on your own unique experiences and perspectives and you use it to analyze and assess everything you interact with. What you forget is that you may be at the centre of your universe but you’re not at the centre of everyone else’s.
As a result, in situations where you are experiencing something out of the ordinary, you don’t compensate for the difference between your perception and someone else’s. You forget that others around you may lack the knowledge you do about the thing you’re focused on or even give it the same significance. That stain on your shirt bothers you so much that it looms larger in your mind than it is in reality. The person you meet isn’t focused on the stain but probably more on themselves and whatever it is they’re interested in. They may notice the stain but is it as big a deal to them? Probably not.
You’re so used to seeing the world from your perspective that you believe other people must do the same. The Spotlight Effect is a reminder that what is important to you may not be quite as important in the eyes of others. It’s not all about you – at least not to everyone else.
So why does it matter?
The Spotlight Effect is something we all experience and it can hinder our ability to make rational decisions. Not being aware of that can lead to significant consequences.
- Your perceptions can make you so self-conscious that you feel under constant scrutiny and afraid to make a move for fear of criticism or ridicule.
- You may exaggerate your perceived failures so much that it holds you back from moving forward or trying again.
- You may be lulled into a false sense of security about how popular you or your work are thereby exaggerating your perceived success. For instance, you publish an article, get some likes on Facebook and mistake that for real interest. How many businesses have been bitten by the bug of social media buzz masquerading as concrete leads?
- You jump to conclusions because you evaluate other people’s thoughts and behaviours based on your perspective sometimes to your detriment. For example, you stumble during a presentation, you think: ‘I’m so stupid’ ergo your boss must think you’re an idiot.
- You overestimate the accuracy of your perceptions and the degree to which they are shared by others. The problem here is that it causes you to behave in ways that are not consistent with the reality of your circumstances. For example, you think: ‘I’m too fat to wear a swimsuit, everyone’s going to look at me and laugh’, so you don’t go to the beach or the pool – ever.
How can you avoid getting trapped?
1. Be aware
Awareness is the first step. Understand that your perception and focus aren’t everyone else’s and what’s important to you isn’t necessarily as important to anyone else.
2. Counter the bias
Once you are aware of the bias, estimate the effect and try to reduce or eliminate it. In this case when you feel that something you’ve done or are focused on is at the forefront of others’ attention assume that it is less significant.
If you’re avoiding meeting people to hide that pimple on your forehead assume that very few people will notice it and act as you normally would. If you feel too fat for that swimsuit assume that few people will notice you or single you out for attention and head to the pool.
3. Focus on accomplishment rather than issues
Research also found that when participants were allowed some time to get used to wearing the embarrassing t-shirt before entering the room full of students they were less susceptible to the Spotlight Effect. That was because the subjects were not as focused on the t-shirt anymore.
What does this mean for you? You counter the propensity to magnify the negative. It’s okay to assess how well or badly you’ve performed but do it from a positive perspective. Identify and emphasize the things you’ve achieved, the lessons you’ve learned and areas that you can improve upon. Focusing on the positive will encourage you to keep going.
4. Consider the opposite outcome
To counter the possibility of overestimating success consider the opposite scenario. What would it mean if you had little popularity or received negative feedback? Doing this will help you to build a more balanced perspective.
Remember it isn’t the end of the world (even if your perceptions are true)
Life teaches us that very often nothing is as bad or as good as it seems. It pays to keep it all in perspective. So what if everyone notices your zit? It’s just a zit. If you trip over your feet while dancing and everyone laughs? Laugh with them. Do your thighs have a little too much cellulite? Get that swimsuit on and laugh as your thighs jiggle as you run to the water. The point I’m making is, don’t let your perceptions hold you back from fully participating in your life. As uncomfortable as it feels, it’s not the end of the world.
Maybe it’s bad news that you’re not the centre of the universe but the good news is you can stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and just do your thing.