Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > Face it, You are Not THAT Important: The Spotlight Effect

Face it, You are Not THAT Important: The Spotlight Effect

Have you ever eaten alone in your college dining hall?

Now picture this: You walk into the dining hall alone, and you realize that most of the seats are already occupied by those sports teams, girls’ squads, and study groups… Everyone seems to be around with a bunch of people, except for you. You walk into this situation as if you break the “harmony”, and you feel like that everyone is staring at you or even secretly laughing at you — “Oh, she/he eats alone? Pathetic!” “Poor thing.” … But in reality, probably no one is actually watching you. They may not even notice that someone just came in. The feeling of “all eyes on you” occurs in other scenarios as well: when you answered a question wrong in your class, when you had a bad hair, or when you got a zit on your nose tip, etc. If you find these situations familiar, please don’t worry — you’ve just run into the Spotlight Effect!

 

The feeling of “ALL EYES ON YOU” when you get called on in class.

Specifically, the Spotlight Effect refers to the phenomenon that people show a tendency to overestimate the extent to which they are noticed by others, while others may not be even paying attention to them at all, or at least not as much as they suspect in reality. When someone is doing something unusual or atypical, such as doing a public speaking or getting called on in class, the phenomenon would be especially prominent. It is so common that it almost happens to everyone, and it could often be quite annoying. So why is it happening, and how does it occur? If you are curious about this cognitive trap, then keep reading!

 

 

 

The Spotlight Effect is an extension of two other cognitive phenomena — the False Consensus Effect and the Anchoring and Adjustment Effect. The first one indicates an 

You feel like your way of thinking ought to be “normal” for others, too.

attributional type of cognitive bias that people have a tendency to overestimate to which their own opinions and beliefs are also normal and typical in other people’s eyes. In other words, people tend to believe that others think the same way as they do, which leads to a false consensus that actually does not exist. For example, when someone had a bad hair on a busy Monday morning, they might assume that other people would also found their hair weird as they did, even if the truth was nobody even noticed. Therefore, such a false assumption of consensus helps illustrate the Spotlight Effect one may perceive themselves to be salient or obvious, so they assume other people also think they are salient or obvious.

 

People start with an implicit “anchor”and make adjustments to it to reach their estimate.

The Anchoring and Adjustment phenomenon indicates that an individual would use a specific target value as a starting point (an anchor), and then adjust that information until it reaches an ideal/acceptable value. However, the adjustments can be too close to the anchor, which would be a problem if the anchor is far from the true value. Let’s still take the bad-hair day as an example —when someone had a bad hair on a busy Monday, they might set their own baseline of insecurity, assuming that people would at least perceive that they didn’t look decent enough. However, it might not be the case in other people’s eyes. Others might find it quite normal, actually. After all, who has never got a bad-hair day? In the context of the Spotlight Effect, people would usually begin their judgement based on their subjective perspective and then adjust that anchor downward by a little, due to an abstract awareness that other people may not pay that much attention on them as they assumed. However, the adjustment may not be significant enough, so they may still end up overestimating others’ attention on them. 

Taken together, these two egocentric views lead to the mechanism of the Spotlight Effect, that we are the center of our own universe, so our perceptions and experience of life are all built around such a view; however,  other people are also the center of their mental universe and build their perceptions based on that fact, so there will be a significant disconnect between our views of the outside world.

 

One would typically expect other people to be as aware of their embarrassing appearance as they are.

The study conducted by Thomas Gilovich et al.in 2000 examined the mechanism of the Spotlight Effect, which was also the first empirical study that brought this topic to the table. In the study, researchers had participants wear a potentially embarrassing T-shirt before they entered a room with the rest of the participants. Then, researchers asked the target participants to estimate how many people they thought noticed their “embarrassing” T-shirt and compared their estimation with the actual number of people who noticed. It turned out that — you may have already figured out — observers did overestimate the number of others who noticed. Researchers also examined the anchoring-and-adjustment explanation of the Spotlight Effect. By asking participants how they arrived at their estimates, researchers found that individuals did begin their judgement based on their subjective experience, and then adjusted downward by a little bit due to an abstract sense that others might be less focused on them than they assumed. Since such adjustment is usually too close to the anchor, people still ended up overestimating the number of people that noticed their embarrassment. In another trial, some of the participants were asked to enter the room after they had acclimated to wearing the weird T-shirt, and they turned out to give significantly lower estimation of the number of observers who noticed the shirt. This indicates that because they were less consumed with the “embarrassment”, they would start their estimation from a lower subjective anchor (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000). In addition, the study indicated that Spotlight Effect applies to behaviors as well –people tend to overestimate how much others take note of their behaviors, too.

 

Although one is the center of his or her own mental world, one is not the center of other people’s mental world.

Now, let’s put this from the perspective of attention. It’s said that attention is like a spotlight, so people are not able to pay attention to everything around them all the time. Instead, they can only direct attention to a certain place at a time and then shift to other places (Posner, Snyder, & Davidson, 1980). Therefore, since people would naturally pay attention to their own self, they may fail to pay enough attention to other people’s actual response at the same time and then hold biased assumption about them. In addition, just because attention shifts around, what you attend to may be different from what other people attend to. This disconnect could lead to poor ability of metacognition, that you may not be good at evaluating your importance and thus assume everybody else is as interested in you as you are. Moreover, since attentional resource is limited (Kahneman, 1973), if people put too much attention on worrying about their performance or appearance, they may not be able to really focus on what they are doing right now (So don’t do that!). 

 

The Spotlight Effect becomes even more intense in high social-evaluative condition.

Such tendency could affect people from all walks of life, and can contribute to social anxiety. According to the study conducted by Michael A. Brown and Lusia Stopa, people tended to show higher levels of the Spotlight Effect and more negative evaluation if they thought they would be evaluated by a group of “experts”. It indicates that socially anxious people would be particularly vulnerable to this cognitive trap, and especially pessimistic with their performance. The fear of being judged would compound and get worse, and finally make people stifled (Brown & Stopa, 2006).

 

In actuality, it is unnecessary to be too self-conscious. Although one is the center of his or her own mental world, one is not the center of other people’s mental world. There are 7.7 billion people on this planet, and it’s clear that most of them don’t really care about you. They’ve got their own things to do, and they’ve got their own insecurities and problems to worry about, just like you do. Let’s face this fact— you are actually not that important (Just joking. You are important, but in a different way!), and you are not going to be on minds of people before they sleep (If they do, it only means they like you). Therefore, please relax and try to be less self-conscious in the future. Next time when you feel “all eyes on you”, just remember it’s simply a cognitive trick but no big deal!

References

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

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

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. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.11.006

Posner, M. I., Snyder, C. R., & Davidson, B. J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109(2), 160–174. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.109.2.160

  1. December 3rd, 2019 at 21:44 | #1

    A very interesting and quite funny post! The spotlight effect is a very relatable bias, evident in most peoples’ everyday lives. I especially enjoyed reading the account of the Gilovich et al. (2000) funny t-shirt experiment– my new favorite psych experiment! I think the Spotlight Effect connects well with the next-in-line effect (eg. where someone is so worried about their own performance and what people may think that they do not pay attention to presentations/events that precede their own).

  2. jmmccu22
    December 4th, 2019 at 19:22 | #2

    Great post! This post reminded me of our classroom discussion of metacognition and how poor metacognition can result in overconfidence. This overconfidence relates to the spotlight effect as we are not accurate in gauging our own importance, leading to us believing that more people are paying attention to us than they really are.

  3. December 4th, 2019 at 20:53 | #3

    I found this post to be very relevant to my own life! It is interesting that almost everything we might think draws attention in our minds does not actually draw attention. I couldn’t help but think about the limited capacity of attention. While we might think others are giving something as small as the zit on our nose attention, throughout this course we have learned that individuals only have so much attention to give. I believe like this could be more supportive evidence to back the Spotlight Effect in that individuals simply do not have the attentional capacity to notice the small things others are doing.

  4. December 7th, 2019 at 13:41 | #4

    This was a really interesting topic, and definitely applicable to I’m sure each and every one of us. For me at least, I feel incredible self conscious when I get up to go to the bathroom in Cognitive and have to walk in front of Jen and the entire class…good to know most people won’t think much of it! Reading this post reminded me of a theory that I learned in social psychology last year, egocentrism. This is generally thought of as an inability to see things from other people’s perspective. So if you are incredibly embarrassed by your bad hair day or the pimple on your forehead, you assumed to think that everyone else is thinking the same thing, rather than realizing that people probably won’t notice or if they do, they won’t care. It is definitely cool to see connections between the different areas of psychology and my own life!

  5. December 16th, 2019 at 04:09 | #5

    Thank you for your comment! Your idea of metacognition makes great sense and is significant, so I’ve made some revision to take that into account too. Glad you like this topic!@jmmccu22

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