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

April 12th, 2017 No comments

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? Read more…

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