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

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

www.pinterest.com 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, no one is actually watching you. They may not even notice that someone just came in. This also occurs in other scenarios: 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 are not pathetic, and you do not look ugly (or at least not that ugly, for sure) — You’ve just run into the Spotlight Effect!

me.me/i/when-you-get-called-on-in-class- 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 in fact others may not be even paying attention to them at all, or at least not as much as they suspect. 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 everyday, and it could be quite annoying for most of the time.Moreover, for people who suffer from social anxiety, the situation would be even worse. So why is it happening, and how it occurs? To answer this, we may need to have a look at some empirical studies.




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 

http://www.clubstreetpost.com/ 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 to those of others. 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, he/she might assume that other people would also found his/her hair weird as he/she did, even if the truth was nobody even noticed.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=HefjkqKCVpo 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 one day, he/she might set his/her own baseline of insecurity, assuming that people would at least perceive that he/she 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? Taken together, these two egocentric views of human beings 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.

www.luulla.com One would typically expect others to notice his/her embarrassing appearance as obviously as one does to his/herself

The first empirical study that brought the topic to the table was conducted by Thomas Gilovich et al.in 2000. 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. As a result — 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 trail, part 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). Similarly, the Spotlight Effect also applies to behaviors –people tend to overestimate how much others take note of their behaviors as well.

So, does the effect only apply to people’s isolated actions and appearance? The answer is no.  According to a following study led by Thomas Gilovich, people would also overestimate the extent to which their variability in actions and appearances are noticed by others. The difference or variability of a person’s appearance or actions can be significant from his/her own perspective, but it may be trivial in other people’s eyes. One reason for this tendency is that other people are typically concentrating on their own actions and appearance, and one may fail to be fully aware of where other people’s attention directs towards (Gilovich, Kruger, & Medvec, 2001). 

ukedchat.com 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 of their performance in high social-evaluative condition, which is a condition that participants being informed that they would be evaluated by a group of “experts”. It indicates that socially anxious people would be particularly vulnerable to this cognitive trap, and be especially pessimistic with their performance. The fear for being judged would compound and get worse, and finally make people stifled (Brown & Stopa, 2006).

www.cbtcognitivebehavioraltherapy.com 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 a cognitive perspective. 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 and then assume others to think the same way as they do. 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!). 

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!


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

Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2002). The Spotlight Effect Revisited: Overestimating the Manifest Variability of Our Actions and Appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(1), 93–99. doi: 10.1006/jesp.2001.1490

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.

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