The Spotlight Effect – Part Two: Forget About Your Bad Hair Day

I first wrote about the spotlight effect back in 2019.

Simply put, this refers to the fact that all of us pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us.

Dan Ariely casts the spotlight on this phenomenon again this week with the following letter:

Dear Dan,

In an effort to save money, I asked my housemate to cut my hair. It didn’t turn out well and now I don’t even want to go outside. Besides waiting for my hair to grow back, what can I do to feel less embarrassed? —Alexa

And here was Dan’s response:

You might think your haircut is bad enough to stop traffic, but the reality is that we pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us. This is referred to as the spotlight effect: We tend to think there’s a spotlight shining on us that attracts attention and makes our flaws obvious. Thomas Golivich and colleagues demonstrated the spotlight effect in a 2000 study where they asked college students to go to a party wearing embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirts. The students wearing the shirts were convinced that everyone was laughing at them, but afterward, when the partygoers were surveyed, it turned out that almost no one noticed the shirts at all. So don’t worry about your haircut getting stares, and after a few days you’ll forget about it yourself.

First, an embarrassing Barry Manilow t-shirt seems redundant.

Second, isn’t this what hats are for?

I know over the past year my hair has gotten to the point a couple of times where I couldn’t stand what it looked like, but I kept putting off getting it cut for a variety of reasons. I have to admit I felt like everyone I came in contact with was taken aback by my hair as well; it’s good to know that perhaps they weren’t. Or maybe it made them feel better, knowing that at least their hair wasn’t as bad as mine.

I’ve felt this way about my dress habits as well.

I’ve never had a large wardrobe, and I used to think that students probably grew to recognize my limited clothing options, and talk among themselves about my lack of style. But once I learned of the spotlight effect, I felt like it gave me permission to care even less about what others thought of my sartorial habits. So I reduced my wardrobe even further, and now it includes just a couple of pairs of khakis, a couple of dress shirts, and a couple of polo shirts.

I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I wear the same clothes every time I teach, but never say never. And even if I did, it’s good to know that no one would notice, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

42 thoughts on “The Spotlight Effect – Part Two: Forget About Your Bad Hair Day

  1. I feel so relieved to read this. I have an enormous pimple right between my eyes, right now. It’s about the size of a quarter, and suppurating profusely. It’s nice to know that nobody is paying any attention to it, when I go shopping.

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  2. It’s very liberating when you think about it. As long as we have clothes on, we won’t stand out. No sure it always works though. I have seen how some women notice and judge other women’s clothes. Years ago I studied fashion and one of the surprising things that I learned back then was that most North American women dress to be noticed by other women. Most men don’t usually care what labels or designers women wear.

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  3. This is so liberating! I remember as a younger person being paralyzed by something or other that I thought was embarrassing. Nowadays, I just move on, but still it’s nice to know that I don’t need to give blips in life another thought. As to haircuts, I usually pull my hair back and tell Tony “cut here.”

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  4. I follow your approach and ignore the spotlight effect. Hats hide the bad haircuts I give myself. Masks cover up for days I don’t shave. I go out so infrequently, wearing basically the same things all the time likely isn’t noticed. Just trying to make the best of a bad situation. 😄

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  5. About the only thing I’m self-conscious about is my hair. I’m a that thinning hair stage where I flip flop between shaving it all off and going bald or growing it a bit longer to see if that covers it up better. I shaved my head and wore it that way for two months. At least I know it looks okay that way.

    I think Dan is right about what he says. At least a few times per year, I would have a child come into class petrified that other kids would laugh at his/he new haircut. There was a school rule about no hats, so kids would wear their hood over the head all day. The way I handled it was to ask the child to stay in a minute at recess. I’d ask them if I could see their haircut. 95% of the time it looked fine. It usually only took one compliment and they would come back after recess relieved that no one said anything.

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  6. I agree women dress for women and it was very apparent when we lived in Phuket..beautiful people and all that…sigh…it was even commented that maybe I should edit my photos b4 I put them on that point the air was blue and I decided I did not want to be part of that scene any more…I’m mean FB..PLEEEESE get a life….

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  7. It is amazing how our own egos place us at the center of our own universes. Luckily, most people are too concerned about their own appearance to be truly bothered by someone else’s. The books my mother received to proofread always came before the dust covers were made, and oddly enough these plain, unadorned fabric covers did not have any affect on the words inside. I try to keep that in mind when it comes to people’s appearance. Great post, Jim!

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  8. interesting, isn’t it? perhaps for some women this took root back in our encounters with the infamous ‘mean girls’ of middle school? in reality, we put way too much focus on ourselves and others really don’t even notice things, all about ego. that being said, my 3 and 4 year olds mention when the teachers look even a tiny bit different, a change in hair, new shoes, why is that sock older than the other one, etc. I don’t think they are being judge-y, just great observers with no filter. can be a scary combo or wonderful, such as when a three year old commented -‘you’re as thin as a whip!’ – (not the best observer, but I’ll take it!), his parents were howling with laughter and said they had no idea where he ever heard that phrase. the older I’ve gotten the less I care about it, as others have said, it is very liberating –

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  9. Excellent point about the hats. I was working with a guy once at a job where we were supposed to wear ties. One of my co-workers, a 300 pound football player, wasn’t having it. He just threw the tie over his shoulders, and proclaimed that if you were confident enough about it you wouldn’t have to tie the tie.

    It actually kind of worked.

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  10. Realizing that I maintain a great deal of anonymity as I go through my day has been incredibly freeing. People really don’t care about me… and I mean that in the most non-depressing way. It lead me to blogging 🌺

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