If I asked you to wear an embarrassing t-shirt in public and go walk around a downtown core or a bustling school campus, would you worry that people will notice what you're wearing and judge you accordingly? Will you become woefully self-conscious? Might it affect your confidence and ability to interact with others?
This is a question designed to draw your attention to a cognitive bias called the Spotlight Effect.
What is the Spotlight Effect?
It is a phenomenon where a person tends to overestimate how much others pay attention to them and, how much they notice other people's appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour (Calderaro, 2021).
When an individual experiences the Spotlight Effect, they feel like they are always in the spotlight. It is a bias that shows up in our day-to-day lives and represents an exaggerated view of our own significance to those around us.
It can cause us to misjudge a situation and possibly even make poor decisions because of our over-inflated sense of visibility.
This feeling of being in the spotlight is driven by the anchoring bias which describes how we tend to rely too much on information we receive early on and then we make decisions based on our initial information (Bouygues, 2022).
Anchoring Bias – relying on immaterial but easily accessible facts to make judgements.
With the Spotlight Effect, we become anchored in our own perception of a situation because we’re in our thoughts and don’t have access to others’ immediate feedback or input. This cognitive bias causes us to believe that people are paying close attention to any changes in our behaviour. This effect contributes to social anxiety and influences our relationships as well as our mental and physical well-being.
Barry Manilow T-Shirt Experiment
To prove how the Spotlight Effect works, researchers Gilovich, Husted Medvec, and Savitsky conducted the t-shirt experiment in 2000, where they asked a group of students to walk into a university classroom wearing a t-shirt with a large picture of Barry Manilow on it. Now for these students, wearing this t-shirt was considered embarrassing as to them, Barry Manilow wasn't a cool performer.
The students in the Barry Manilow t-shirt overestimated how many students would recall what they were wearing. In actuality, very few students could remember or describe what was on the t-shirt.
Suggested Video: The Spotlight Effect – Social Psychology (4:01-minutes)
The results of this experiment reinforce that people pay far less attention to us than we believe to be true. Others are more wrapped up in their own thoughts and perhaps their own experience of the Spotlight Effect.
"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do." - Eleanor Roosevelt.
Overcoming the Spotlight Effect
One of the most helpful ways to overcome the Spotlight Effect is to remember that people generally don’t pay attention to you nearly as much as you think they do. They are too preoccupied with their own thoughts!
This is where cognitive reframing comes in handy. When you worry that you’re in the spotlight because you have a pimple on your face or are wearing a hat to hide a bad haircut, this “out of the ordinary” behaviour is likely going to go unobserved by others. Because it is unusual for you, you believe others will clue in and pay closer attention to you as a result.
Suggested Reading: The Power of Cognitive Reframing
Embarrassment is an emotion that doesn’t last long yet we believe we’ll hold onto the negative feeling for much longer than is the case. Emotions are like waves that rise, crest, and fall, and this all happens within the span of about 90 seconds.
Suggested Reading: Understanding Emotional Triggers
Try the Role Reversal Technique
Imagine that you noticed someone with a piece of broccoli stuck in their teeth. Would you hold onto that thought for hours or days?
The answer is "no".
You might mention to the person that they could benefit from a quick check of their smile in the bathroom mirror, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for you to notice it, while for the person with the food particle in their teeth, it might feel like a momentously embarrassing moment that they think you’ll mentally revisit as much as they torture themselves by ruminating on the experience.
I often tell my clients who are anxious about presenting and public speaking that those in the audience are hopeful for their success and, if anything, they are wishing that the presenter won’t trip on their words or have technical issues.
We think between 70,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day and generally are not in the present moment enough to really notice details about those around us. Let that sink in when you’re feeling like the spotlight is following you around.
If you’d like an exercise to try, this worksheet can help you rebalance your thoughts.
What we think isn’t always true. Ask yourself, “Do I feel like everyone will notice me because I’m obsessing about it?”
Suggested Reading: How Do I Overcome Negative Inner Thoughts?
Give Yourself Permission
By learning to overcome the Spotlight Effect, you give yourself permission to make better decisions, to reduce social anxiety, and to simply feel better in your own skin.
Bouygues, H. L. (2022, August 30). Don't let anchoring bias weigh down your judgment. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2022/08/dont-let-anchoring-bias-weigh-down-your-judgment
Calderaro, R. (2021) Reducing social anxiety the spotlight effect. https://www.cabrini.edu/blog/2020-2021-blogs/reducing-social-anxiety-the-spotlight-effect
The spotlight effect - social psychology. YouTube. (2017, April 13). Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://youtu.be/lAxOi9EEvlM