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:
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.