The Spotlight Effect (also known as “no one is paying attention to you”)

I still remember it from 40 years ago.

A bunch of guys in our dorm had t-shirts made that said in big letters “Disco Sucks“, and we all decided to wear them around campus the same day.

I can recall before even going into my first classroom that day and my face was already bright red. As I walked towards my seat I felt as if the eyes of everyone were on me. When I finally sat down, the girl sitting in front of me turned around and said: “What’s wrong with disco?”. I can’t remember what my answer was; I was probably in shock from the fact that a girl would actually talk to me. As it turned out, that’s the only time all day that someone mentioned the shirt I was wearing, even though I felt that people were staring at me.

It all came back to me as I was reading Dan Ariely’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal. Here is the question that a reader asked him:

Dear Dan,

I was attacked by a dog when I was 7, and it left me with serious injuries and scars. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that my appearance is holding me back from pursuing things I enjoy. What can I do to overcome this problem? —Joe

Here is part of Dan’s reply:

As someone who was badly injured in a fire as a teenager, I have to admit that my own concern with the way I look is still with me—particularly when people shake my injured hand.

There…is something called the spotlight effect, which says that all of us pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us. This was elegantly demonstrated in a study in 2000 by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues, who asked some Cornell students to walk into a fraternity party wearing embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirts. After the party, the researchers asked them how many people noticed their shirts and what the social implications were. The participants believed that everybody noticed and that it hurt their social reputations. When the researchers asked everyone else at the party, it turned out almost nobody noticed the shirts.

First, poor Barry Manilow, being used for a psychology study.

Second, I wonder if those Cornell researchers had heard about our “Disco Sucks” t-shirts.

Third, the study confirms what I learned 40 years ago, either nobody even noticed the t-shirt I was wearing, or if they did, they didn’t care.

Here is a bit more about the spotlight effect from Wikipedia:

The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon. The reason behind the spotlight effect comes from the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s. This tendency is especially prominent when one does something atypical.

Research has empirically shown that such drastic over-estimation of one’s effect on others is widely common. Many professionals in social psychology encourage people to be conscious of the spotlight effect and to allow this phenomenon to moderate the extent to which one believes one is in a social spotlight.

In social judgment, embarrassment plays a considerable role in the degree to which the spotlight effect is manifested. Research has found that certain situations in which perceivably embarrassing items are factors, such as an embarrassing t-shirt, increase the extent to which the spotlight effect is experienced by an individual.

However, research has also found that in situations involving an audience member whose sole purpose is to observe, the severity of the spotlight effect is not overestimated because the focus of an audience’s attention is centered upon the individual performing.

It seems as if the basic takeaway is that unless you are giving an individual performance where a person’s attention is naturally focused on you, no one is really paying attention to you, or at least not as much as we think they might be.

So I wonder if that means I can pull my old speedo swimsuit out of storage and wear it the next time I go to the beach. As long as I don’t have to rescue anyone, it seems like no one would notice the few extra pounds I’ve put on since college…

*image from TimeOut London (you didn’t think I was one of those guys, did you?)

12 thoughts on “The Spotlight Effect (also known as “no one is paying attention to you”)

  1. 🙂 Almost everyone is very self-conscious about their appearance.

    Also, one should not allow a few scars or a few pounds to prevent them from enjoying their life.

    Great topic, Jim!


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