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Consumerism and the Spotlight Effect: how our minds convince us to spend

April 27th, 2022 No comments

What is the spotlight effect?

The spotlight effect envelopes our everyday lives, something that we all experience and unique for every person. It is the fact that we believe we are being perceived and seen by others around us on an exaggerated scale, and that those people take a more conscious and meaningful critique.

The spotlight effect makes a great deal of sense, for our entire lives we are the center of our own universe, and we know nothing else. We experience everything through our own perspective, which makes it difficult to remove ourselves from this and accurately think about how others might perceive the world, or more specifically, yourself. Changing from person to person, this we each may have different aspects of ourself that we believe are on display. They may revolve around self-conscious aspects of our person, or around things we take pride in.

We simply fail to comprehend that other people are too preoccupied with their own thoughts and actions, and in a consumer society, this can be taken advantage of and lead to big consequences.

What cognitive psychology components are at play?

It is clear why we might assume others take such notice to our actions, but why don’t they? The main reason is that in the human brain, we sift through the vast amount of incoming sensory data with the cognitive function of attention. We have the ability to direct our attention, focusing our actions and thoughts, allowing us to not be overcome with the infinitely large amounts of raw data we could perceive.

Because of this, attention must be thought of as a limiting factor, as we cannot attend to every stimuli that we receive, we rather use attention to block out much of the other stimuli that would cause interference. In the case of the spotlight effect, often when we believe that others would be perceiving us, they are rather using attention to attend to actions that are currently meaningful or important to them, making our existence and actions irrelevant and therefor unattended too.

How does the spotlight effect influence consumerism?

It is well known that the USA us a consumerist society. Everyone scrambles for the newest clothes and phones, and while doing so quickly lose interest in past fixations for the next down the line. But where does the spotlight effect come into all this?

Companies know well the effects of the spotlight effect, and often use them to their advantage to sell their products. They use celebrities to market their products, preying on our wants to be similar and seen with such stature.

It is helpful to break down why we consume; do the products really get any better month to month? Probably not, in most cases one could argue that it would be very possible for some of these changes to be simply added to the old products. Phones are a great example of this, often much that is promised by getting a new phone, such as the newest software and capabilities, could simply be added to your existing phone in a software update.

So if not that, then is it for our own personal gain? Would we feel the same enjoyment if nobody else could see our new items? Arguably not. Often times the only enjoyment that is felt comes from the validation from others, a friend telling you how cool something is for example. This validation is what we crave and pursue, and where the spotlight effect comes into play. Because we believe that others are seeing us and caring about how we look and what we have, this pushes us to want to have the best, look the best, and present a false persona about ourselves. We buy expensive clothing because we believe that others will see us and care. Then, once more and more people have what we have, we begin to feel less in the spotlight, and pursue the next thing. We buy the expensive phones because we believe others will care if your number is green in their phone and not blue. These phones don’t work any better, but we believe that others live to view and judge ourselves.

After a deeper look, the spotlight effect is deeply…deeply integrated in our consumerist society. 

How can we combat the influence of the spotlight effect?

So, we after reading this far, we can see that we all have suffered from the spotlight effect is some way, shape, or form. But what now? How can we learn from this? Much of the spotlight effect lives unconsciously in our brains, it is a learned process which we do not consciously uphold, an automatic process. So, to combat this, we must consciously reflect in moments of vulnerability. Ask yourself questions that remove yourself from the subject of the situation. Something like, if I saw someone with this, would I really care, or even notice? Questions like these can help to combat the spotlight effect in consumerist settings, which can be both helpful and calming.

Literature Citations

Czarnecka, Barbara; Schivinski, Bruno (17 June 2019). “Do Consumers Acculturated to Global Consumer Culture Buy More Impulsively? The Moderating Role of Attitudes towards and Beliefs about Advertising” (PDF). Journal of Global Marketing32 (4): 219–238.

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” (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Gilovich, Thomas; Kruger, Justin; Medvec, Victoria Husted (2002). “The Spotlight Effect Revisited: Overestimating the Manifest Variability of Our Actions and Appearance” (PDF). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Matthew James Hall (2020) ,”Are You Paying Attention? Consumption-Related Antecedents and Consequences of the Spotlight Effect”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 48, eds. Jennifer Argo, Tina M. Lowrey, and Hope Jensen Schau, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 383-384.

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