Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > You’re so Vain, You Probably Think Everyone is Thinking About You: The Spotlight Effect

You’re so Vain, You Probably Think Everyone is Thinking About You: The Spotlight Effect

You chugged your normal two cups of this coffee this morning, so you decide you should run to the bathroom quickly before your 10:00 a.m. meeting. You turn on the sink to wash your hands, but as you turn the handle the water sprays everywhere. You stare down to realize the splash has created a huge water stain on the front of your pants. Frantically, you dab the water stain with paper towels, but finally decide there is no way the stain will dry before your meeting. As you walk into the room, you feel like everyone’s staring at you. You look down at the floor and quickly walk to your chair, but can feel your cheeks turning red with embarrassment. You are certain that everyone else in the room is thinking about you. A few minutes later, you might find yourself still worried about what others are thinking, hoping that your colleagues won’t remember this in a few days.

twitter.com/awsten
How you might feel imagine everyone is staring at you as a result of the spotlight effect.

 

Moments like these, when you assume that everyone is thinking about you, are common in everyday life. This phenomenon of overestimating how much other people focus on your own appearance and behaviors is called the spotlight effect.

In one study demonstrating the spotlight effect, participants were told to wear a t-shirt with an image of Barry Manilow’s face on it. Participants entered a room with observers for a brief period of time. Participants who wore the Manilow t-shirt significantly overestimated the percentage of observers who would notice their t-shirt. The same study was done with participants wearing t-shirts they liked. Participants still overestimated how many observers would notice their shirt. These results demonstrate the tendency of overestimating how much others notice your appearance, even if you are not embarrassed about how you look (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000).

www.all-about-psychology.com
This image highlights the fact that you consistently overestimate how much other people notice your appearance (and behaviors).

The spotlight effect also extends to behaviors. Have you ever dramatically tripped while walking up a staircase and felt sure that everyone around you noticed? There are also the times when you execute something perfectly, such as scoring a goal in a game or answering a question correctly in class, and you expect that everyone is taking notice of your actions. But are people really as focused on your actions as you think? To test this, researchers had participants engage in a group discussion about the problems confronting inner cities. For both positive and negative contributions to the discussion, participants overestimated how much the other people in the group assessed their behavior and participation (Gilovich et al., 2000). This study demonstrates that not only do you routinely overestimate how much others take note of your appearance, but also your behaviors.
Why do you overestimate how much others notice your appearance and behaviors? It all starts with attention. Attention is a limited resource (Kahneman, 1973). If you are paying attention to one aspect of your environment, you might completely miss something else that’s happening right in front of you because your attention being used up as it is directed elsewhere. For example, research has found that you can completely miss something that is unexpected but literally right in front of you, such as a person in a giant gorilla suit, if you are paying attention to a different aspect of your environment (seriously, people will miss the gorilla that’s right in front of them! If you don’t believe me, try watching this video) (Chabris & Simons, 201o). Misdirecting attention can also help explain why you fail to understand how a magic trick is done, even when the magician is doing the trick right in front of you.
You might be wondering, what does the fact that attention is limited have to do with the spotlight effect? Well, you experience the world with yourself in the center of it. Therefore, you can easily focus most of your attention on an aspect of your appearance or a behavior of yours when it feels particularly important. However, you are not the center of everyone else’s experiences. Everyone else is also focusing on themselves or other aspects of their environment. So, everyone has limited attention to focus on other people’s appearances and behaviors at any given moment. According to the anchoring and adjustment theory, you are so focused on our own experience of the world that you fail to take into account that others are perceiving and experiencing the world in a different way than you are (Gilovich et al., 2000). This results in the spotlight effect.

fabafter40.tumblr.com
This cartoon image highlights the fact that people could be thinking about so many other aspects of their environment, yet you still tend to assume that other people are thinking about you.

This means that if you walk into a room filled with people and you feel like everyone is noticing the giant stain on your pants, this is probably not the case. Sure, some people will look up and notice the stain and maybe think about it for a second or two. But then their phone will buzz in their pocket, they’ll notice something interesting outside the window or they’ll start to think about how their stomach is growling because they had an early breakfast. Any of those three things would probably capture their attention and push the stain on your pants out of their minds.
The spotlight effect can also occur in social settings where a racist or controversial comment about race is made. When such a statement is made, if you are a member of the minority group referenced in the comment you might think that you become the center of attention. You feel this way even when other people around are not actually paying any extra attention to you. This specific incidence of the spotlight effect is called the minority spotlight effect (Crosby, King & Savitsky, 2014).

If you experience the minority spotlight effect, you may forget about the incident where you felt you were the center of attention by the end of that day, or you may bear feelings about the incident and other like incidents for a long time. If you have social anxiety and are a member of a minority group, you would experience a heightened spotlight effect if a controversial or racist comment is made about your race (Brown & Stopa, 2006). This would mean you would probably not forget about the incident for awhile.

 

memecrunch.com
This meme captures why the spotlight effect is increased if you have social anxiety. With social anxiety, you are paying too much attention to your own actions and behaviors, so you incorrectly assume that everyone else is also analyzing your behaviors and/or appearance as closely as you are.

If you have social anxiety, the spotlight effect is more than simply overestimating how many people notice your t-shirt or the giant water stain on your pants. With social anxiety, you may believe that because you answered a question wrong, everyone will think that you are stupid. Therefore, you might refrain from speaking out in class or in a group of people for fear that you will make some sort of mistake and be judged negatively (Brown & Stopa, 2006). The increased magnitude of the spotlight effect if you have social anxiety greatly impacts your behavior in social settings and can negatively impact your mental health.
So, what can you do now that you know about the spotlight effect? Next time you trip up the stairs in public or accidentally spill something on your shirt, try not to sweat it! We live in a world filled with distractions. Technology and social media have such a strong presence in our lives and take up so much of our attention at any given moment. There’s a good chance half the people around you won’t even notice you just tripped up the stairs or have a giant stain on your pants because they’ll be too busy scrolling through instagram or tagging their friend in a funny meme on Facebook. Therefore, try to smile or laugh at yourself the next time something embarrassing happens. Of course, me telling you to pay less attention is not an easy task, especially if you have social anxiety or are a victim of the minority spotlight effect. However, no matter what form or what magnitude of the spotlight effect you are experiencing; try to remember that you are probably paying way more attention to yourself than anyone else. So, if you can eliminate some of the negative attention you will likely find that you will have a much more pleasant day!

References

Brown, M. A., & Stopa, L. (2007). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21(6), 804-819.

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (201o). The invisible gorilla: How our intuitions deceive us. London, England: Harper Collins Publishers.

Crosby, J. R., King, M., & Savitsky, K. (2014). The minority spotlight effect. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 5(7), 743-750. doi:10.1177/1948550614527625

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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.78.2.211

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Strayer, D. L., & Johnston, W. A. (2001). Driven to distraction: Dual-task studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological Science, 12(6), 462-466.

  1. April 30th, 2017 at 12:44 | #1

    You gave very interesting examples of the spotlight effect! Even though we may overestimate how often people notice us, especially when there is something “off” about our appearance (e.g., a water stain on your pants, a Barry Manilow t-shirt, a large pimple on your face, et cetera), I don’t fault us for doing so. If we consider the role of attentional capture and distinctiveness in memory, I can easily see why we would think our coworkers would certainly notice that water stain. Things that are distinctive, or “pop out,” are remembered better. Our textbook describes one of Treisman’s studies in evidence of this effect. In one study, she asked participants to locate either a blue letter, an S, or a green T in an array of 5 or 15 distractors. She found that it was easiest for participants to find the blue letter and the S because both popped out of their respective arrays, demonstrating attentional capture: Our attention is drawn to stimuli that are different. Thus, Treisman’s experiment suggests that people do indeed notice distinctive stimuli, but the research you presented lends evidence to the notion that we overestimate exactly how much people notice.

  2. April 30th, 2017 at 12:46 | #2

    @Julia Butler
    See Yi Feng’s post!

  3. April 25th, 2018 at 19:45 | #3

    This was a great post and I found it super informative! I really liked the examples you used and was immediately able to think of so many instances in my own life when I experience the spotlight effect. I find it super interesting that there is so much scientific backing for this effect, because before this post I thought it was just a general effect, or something a parent would say to make you not worry about that embarrassing comment you made in class. I was also totally unaware of the connection that the Spotlight Effect has with attention. Another part of this post I found super interesting is the way that this effect is heightened for those with social anxiety or who are part of a minority group. As you mentioned, I don’t think that being aware of this effect will actually decrease how much I am worried people will remember something embarrassing or silly I did. However, it is definitley a good thing to be aware of.

You must be logged in to post a comment.