Have you ever been in a social gathering and caught yourself thinking that you must be drawing everyone’s attention? Or, you made a slight mistake and felt as if all eyes were on you?
If yes, then you have fallen victim to a common psychological tendency — or, a cognitive bias — known as the spotlight effect.
We sometimes assume that people around us notice our every little fault and mistake. In reality, it’s rarely the case: just like we are mostly concerned about ourselves, others are mostly thinking about themselves too.
What is the Spotlight Effect?
In 2000, two American scientists Kenneth Savitsky and Thomas Gilovich, came up with the term “spotlight effect” to refer to a phenomenon where people grossly overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to them.
In other words, people feel as if they are under a spotlight that highlights all their flaws and mistakes. This can include worries such as:
- “How do others perceive me?”
- “Did I make a mistake?”
- “Did others see me do it?”
- “Are they talking about me?”
For example, you walk into a movie theater alone and, because you usually go there with a group of friends, you feel as if everyone is noticing you, and perhaps even judging you.
Why it Occurs?
This effect is a type of egocentric bias, meaning the tendency to rely on one’s own perspective on things without much consideration into other’s viewpoints. This easily leads to unrealistic and even harmful judgments, as in the case of the spotlight effect.
Since we tend to focus on ourselves, we also tend to believe that others are giving us the same amount of attention. This is typically incorrect: we get very little attention from other people who, in turn, are being as self-centric as we are. Even if a mistake happens and gets registered by others, it’s often quickly forgotten.
How to Overcome
As with other biases, to overcome the spotlight effect, the first and most important step is to be aware of its presence. This helps you identify it and think rationally.
When you do you start feeling conscious about a mistake — or for any other reason — remember that it’s more than likely that you’re overestimating the seriousness of the situation. Observe how few people around actually pay attention and still can recall it later on.
When it comes to debiasing, there are two techniques you may try: self-distancing and asking for feedback.
In self-distancing, you try and take the other’s perspective whenever you feel like you are under the spotlight. Consider the reason behind the feeling and whether you would be paying attention if you were in their place. Oftentimes, the answer is “no.”
Another effective technique is to seek feedback from someone you trust; ask your friend or someone close to you whether the feeling has any merit. Similarly to self-distancing, this helps you realize just how much you overestimate the amount of attention directed towards you.
Additionally, if you experience stress or anxiety as a result of this bias, practicing self-love may prove to be helpful.
In essence, treat yourself with compassion, learn to accept your flaws, and refrain from criticizing yourself. When you incorporate self-affirmation and positive thoughts, your view of yourself can improve and help you cope with the stressful thoughts.
- Brown, M. A. & Stopa, L. (2007) “The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social anxiety“
- Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H. & Savitsky, K. (2000) “The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance“
- Face it, You are Not THAT Important: The Spotlight Effect – CogBlog