Home > Attention > The Fat Lady is Singing, but Nobody is Listening: The Spotlight Effect

The Fat Lady is Singing, but Nobody is Listening: The Spotlight Effect

by Sam Barry

It’s the eighth grade. It seems like the day will go well: you wake up on time, choose something to wear, and go about your morning routine. Until you look into a mirror for the first time and realize that there’s an enormous zit, bright red, on your nose! When you arrive at school, you can feel everyone’s eyes upon you–actually, on your zit. Their judgment feels as tangible as the zit itself. We’ve all felt that way before. We’ve all felt that we are at the center of everyone else’s criticism due to some small flaw or social misstep. But no matter how embarrassed you feel, one thing seems to be consistently true: they probably never even noticed. This overestimation of the extent to which others notice our shortcomings is known as the spotlight effect.


The first empirical evidence for the spotlight effect was presented in 2000 by Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky. Participants were asked to don a potentially embarrassing T-shirt (it was a Barry Manilow shirt­­–is Barry Manilow embarrassing?) and then enter a room with the other participants. Those wearing the shirt were asked how many people they thought had noticed the shirt, and this was compared to the number of people who actually did notice. By now you can probably guess the result: people overestimated the number of other participants who would take note of Barry Manilow (ah, music puns). Similar results were observed with a non-embarrassing T-shirt, such as one depicting Bob Marley or Martin Luther King, Jr (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000). The spotlight effect can also apply in situations of group discussion, where people believe that the importance of their contributions to the discussion are greater than they actually are. This was measured by a round of “who said what, who said the most” across participants, and lo and behold, the spotlight effect was observed once again (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky 2000). The spotlight effect can be found with any kind of deviation from a personal norm, such as diminished athletic performance, a bad hair day, or new clothing (Gilovich, Kruger, & Medvec, 2001). But why might this happen, and what are the explanations that could account for it?

(Decety & Sommerville 2003, Figure 1)

There are a wide variety of theories for why the spotlight effect occurs. The initial 2000 study attributed most of the effect to egocentric bias, which means that people view themselves as the center of their own universe and forget that others do the same for themselves. Thus, this egocentric worldview causes us to overestimate our own impact on the world.


To link this to cognitive psychology, the spotlight results from a great deal of attention being directed to oneself. Attention is a limited resource, and thus using a heightened amount of it to attend to oneself can take away from paying attention to how others are truly reacting. There’s also empathy neglect: people are much less likely to judge others harshly if they can empathize with their situation (for example, few middle schoolers will judge your zit because they have also had one in the past). In addition to aggrandizing our own flaws, we also underestimate the extent to which others can empathize, which increases our perception of how critical they are (Epley, Gilovich, & Savitsky, 2002).


Michael Brown and Luisa Stopa first studied the anchoring and adjustment process in 2006, in which anchoring refers to the fact that people focus on themselves and adjustment refers to whether or not they are accustomed to the current conditions. Interestingly, a corresponding decrease in the spotlight effect was recorded when participants had been wearing the embarrassing (emBarrysing?) article of clothing for a period of time before interacting with other participants. They had adjusted to the idea of the shirt, and it was less prominent in their minds when they greeted their peers (Brown & Stopa, 2006).


A cognitive neuroscience study revealed that our processing of the self and how the self relates to others occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain. Anaesthetizing this hemisphere (putting it to sleep temporarily) can yield interesting effects, including failure to recognize others’ faces and even one’s own body parts. There is also some degree of inhibitory control that area, which is associated with maturation of brain cells. Inhibition occurs when the brain actively inhibits a certain circuit from operating–that’s how we are able to carefully control our movements and avoid twitching and flopping around all the time. This suggests that we can inhibit ideas of self to attempt to understand things from the perspectives of others (Decety & Sommerville, 2003). Half of the fusiform face area, a brain region involved in picking out fine details on faces, is also located in the right hemisphere (usually the larger half). This suggests that face recognition, a very specific type of pattern recognition, is linked with the perception of self and other. Thus, there is a distinct possibility that processing associated with the spotlight effect could be located in the right hemisphere.

Spotlight: http://www.fultonschools.org/en/PublishingImages/Spotlight.jpg?Height=300

As you have probably guessed, the spotlight effect is not uniform across all situations and all people. Socially anxious individuals are extremely likely to show a spotlight effect higher than that of a non-socially anxious individual (Brown & Stopa, 2006). When in stressful social situations, they often divert their attentional resources to a detailed examination of the self, which places their attention on the self in favor of others. They use a variety of internal information to create a negative self-image, which contributes to the social phobia.


Different levels of spotlight effect are observed when social conditions change; for example, a situation where little social evaluation will take place, such as taking an exam, will show a less pronounced effect than a highly socially evaluative situation, such as a beauty pageant. There seems to be no significant difference in spotlight effect across gender; it is no more pronounced in women or men (Epley, Gilovich, & Savitsky, 2002). Due the anchoring and adjustment explanation, it is also less pronounced the longer the embarrassing stimulus has been in place before facing other people. One of the most fascinating aspects of cognitive biases such as the spotlight effect is known as the bias blind spot. This phenomenon suggests that people do not realize that they are biased; they believe that all of their perceptions are indisputably accurate (Heflick, 2011). Since many people believe that their own biases do not exist, this contributes to the overestimation of personal salience.


The spotlight affects many of our daily lives, but also those of famous individuals. For example, former President George W Bush had his own brush with the spotlight effect on national television in November 1999. He was given a pop quiz: the host asked him to name the leaders of Chechnya, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. Bush was only able to name the leader of Taiwan. However, despite quite a few criticisms of his intelligence already circulating the media, he did not lose voter support following the interview. This is an excellent example of how voters, who empathized with Bush’s difficulty with the questions, did not judge him as harshly as he may have thought they did, nicely illustrating the phenomenon of empathy neglect (Epley, Gilovich, & Savitsky, 2002). Of course, for many famous individuals, what constitutes the spotlight effect for us is all too real for them. Harsh criticism and even hate is directed at celebrities every day, to severely detrimental effect upon mental health for some (see article here).


Now that you know as much about the spotlight effect as your average cognitive psychology student, you may have realized the undue burden of stress the bias can place upon a person, particularly someone with social anxiety or insecurities about their appearance. So, is it possible to avoid the spotlight effect or diminish its impact? The research in this area is still limited and preliminary, but quite interesting. A study by Macrae and colleagues in 2016 suggested that the spotlight effect was diminished by a shifting visual perspective in mental imagery. Imagining events in the far future as opposed to the near future produced half the usual level of personal impact overestimation (Macrae et al, 2016). A 2015 study suggested that engaging in brief mindfulness meditation was also effective in reducing egocentrism. The rationale was that the meditation forced participants to pay closer attention to their own personal experiences in the present moment and thus achieve a more accurate mental representation of the self (Golubickis et al, 2015). It also helped to foster a third-person perspective in mental imagery, which aided participants in realizing that their own shortcomings were not as salient as they thought them to be.


To sum up: the spotlight causes people to think that their atypical appearance or contributions are more important than they truly are. It is caused by an egocentric mindset and failure to recognize the empathy of others. It happens to you, to everyone else, and to famous people. It’s possible to escape it to some extent, but we don’t really know enough yet to come up with very effective strategies for relieving the stress of the spotlight effect. So whether you already knew about the spotlight effect or not, hopefully you have learned something that will help you confront those insecurities head-on: I promise, they’re not looking, and if they are, they don’t care nearly as much as you think they do.




Brown, M. A., & Stopa, L. (2007). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social

anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, 804-819. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Decety, J., & Sommerville, J. A. (2003). Shared representations between self and other: a social cognitive neuroscience view. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 7(12), 527-533. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Epley, N., Gilovich, T., & Savitsky, K. (2002). Empathy neglect: reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300-312. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: an egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211-222. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2002). The spotlight effect revisited: overestimating manifest variability of our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 93-99. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Golubickis, M., Tan, L. B., Falben, J. K., & Macrae, C. N. (2015). The observing self: diminishing egocentrism through brief mindfulness meditation. EJSP. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Heflick, N. A. (2011, November 23). The Spotlight Effect. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-big-questions/201111/the-spotlight-effect


Macrae, C. N., Mitchell, J. P., McNamara, D. L., Golubickis, M., Andreou, K., Møller, S., . . .Christian, B. M. (2016). Noticing future me: reducing egocentrism through mental imagery. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(7), 855-863. Retrieved April 11, 2017.


Villarrial, C. (2010, March 26). The psychological impact of being in the spotlight: the emotional struggle of celebrities. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from https://drchristinavillarreal.com/2010/03/26/psychological-impact-being-spotlight-emotional-struggle-of-celebrities/

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