By: Hosea Chen
The teacher asks for a volunteer to sing their favorite song in front of the class. Would you do it? What if I told you that you’d feel more inclined to hit those high notes in front of your peers by the end of this article? Well, let me introduce you to the spotlight effect in psychology: the tendency to think that others notice us, our actions and appearances, more than they actually do. But why do we do this?
Surprise! You and I are innately egocentric. When we were younger, we may have believed that other people shared our views of the world because our judgements were objectively reflective of reality—a phenomenon called “naive realism.” For example, when you ask little Benny what his dad’s favorite toy is, he responds with his favorite toy, trains, because he believes trains are the best toy, and therefore everyone’s favorite. At his young age, Benny does not consider the existence of other perspectives; rather, he assumes his is universal. As we age, we develop the capacity to acknowledge that other people may be different than us, and have different perceptions of the world. Hence, while teenage Benny may still interpret the world by anchoring in his experiences (“trains are everyone’s favorite toy”), he adjusts his perceptions and beliefs by factoring in other perspectives to reflect a more holistic truth (“trains might not be everyone’s favorite toy”). However, the “adjustment” part of this anchoring-and-adjustment process is often insufficient, even though we know it is necessary. Voila—the spotlight effect is born.
In a study conducted at Cornell University, each undergraduate participant was asked to wear an embarrassing shirt depicting Barry Manilow’s head and neck, and walk into a room of two to six observers. The participant was then asked to estimate how many observers noticed the shirt; the observers were surveyed to see how many of them actually noticed it. At the end of the experiment, the average target estimate was twice as high as the average observer estimate. Behold, the spotlight effect: the targets felt like more people were focusing on their shirts than in actuality—like a spotlight was on them.
As the study implies, the more self-conscious we are, the more susceptible we are to the spotlight effect. Let’s explore this idea in a hypothetical high school lunch setting. Because Mitch is self-conscious and embarrassed about his bad hair that day, he thinks that people at a nearby lunch table are watching and laughing at him. Meanwhile, because Riya is self-conscious of and insecure about her clingy tendencies, she jumps to the conclusion that Mitch isn’t texting her back because he is tired of her. Moving back to the group next to Mitch’s lunch table, because Rebecca is overthinking how she stuttered when she introduced herself to the group as a new freshman, she thinks they are all silently judging her. Through these examples we can see that the more self-conscious we are, the more likely we are to adhere to our self-biased anchors and less likely to adjust, begetting the omnipresent spotlight effect.
The spotlight effect has a wide range of implications in our daily lives. We may overthink, falsely assume, or futilely expect that others notice nuances in our actions and appearances. We may mistakenly believe that we are the target of other people’s actions—a tendency known as “self-as-target bias.” We may respond with inaction to opportunities we want to participate in, restrained by our inhibitions and worried about what others would think, or overestimate the impact of our actions.
Not everything is about us, and the spotlight effect corroborates that. In fact, if everyone experiences the spotlight effect to some extent, everyone would be busy thinking about themselves rather than us anyway. Cognizance of the spotlight effect allows us to better adjust for the spotlight effect-induced misinterpretations of reality, which can alleviate resulting negative emotions and consequences—one of which being a regret of turning down a risky yet enjoyable activity.
So why don’t you let yourself have some fun and sing us a bop—it’s getting awkward with no one volunteering, don’t you think?
GILOVICH, T., MEDVEC, V. H., & SAVITSKV, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment : An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211–222.