The Spotlight Effect and Social Anxiety


The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are, being that one is constantly in the center of one's own world.

So, you are in the end of another work day. Your colleagues invite you for a 30 minutes happy hour, just to relax a little and enjoy some time together. In the end of this happy hour, you were talking about a project idea, and you make a comment that was incorrect. You try to fix it but suddenly your mind start to think things like "now everybody must be thinking about how I’m stupid, and they will go home talking about me".

In 2000, American psychologists Tom Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, with a study of a group of students asked to complete an unrelated task in the same room, and randomly assigned one of the students to put on an embarrassing T-shirt. 

The students wearing the T-Shirt were asked to estimate how many people in the room noticed what they were wearing. The students wearing the shirt estimated that about 50% of the room noticed. In reality, only 25% of the people in the room were able to identify the embarrassing T-shirt. 

Interestingly enough, when different students were asked to watch these groups' recordings and estimate how many people they thought would notice the T-shirt, they had a similar estimate to about 25%. 

This means that actually wearing the T-Shirt and being in the situation caused people to overestimate how many people would notice drastically. 

So while we’re out here worrying about what others are noticing about us, in reality, most of them aren’t. 

This is because most people are too preoccupied thinking about themselves or something that they are doing. If we’re in the same calculus class, there is a very small chance that I’m going to notice what shirt you’re wearing.

The Spotlight Effect is a term used by social psychologists to refer to the tendency we have to overestimate how much other people notice about us. In other words, it is like when you feel the spotlight is always shining on you, that for whatever reason people are paying attention to what you are doing.

"... 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. However, for people with social anxiety, this feeling can be even worst.

People tend to believe that they are the center of attention of others around them. Such belief can cause people to subject themselves to undue social pressure as they think that all their actions are being closely scrutinized. In fact, the spotlight effect is a major reason why people experience unnecessary anxiety when they 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.

Essentially, whenever we think about what other people think about us, we tend to overestimate how likely they are to notice things that we do, as well as how likely they are to care about those things. 

Nathan A Heflick have a fascinating comment related to our Bias, where in an article to 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."

The spotlight effect causes us to have an exaggerated view of our own significance to the people around us, leading us to misjudge situations and make decisions based on our overly inflated feelings 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 not paying much attention to us. When we accept that, we’ll be able to shake anything off.

When in doubt, assume that you are probably overestimating how much people care about this, and try to relax. 

Remember that, even if someone does notice whatever you are worried about, they probably won’t care about it nearly as much as you think, and they probably won’t remember it in the long run.

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