Have you ever gotten off at the wrong train stop and been too embarrassed to get back on, even when there is still time—because you are afraid that people will be laughing at you under their breath? Are you losing sleep over the upcoming presentation, worrying that you will mess up and the audience will remember your blunder forever?
These are examples where the classic “spotlight effect” is at play. People tend to overestimate how much attention their actions or appearance will get and how harshly others will judge them. This egocentric bias causes us to think that the whole world is watching us. For example, a tiny stain on your shirt gets you paranoid over how many people would notice, also imagining that they must be judging you as a clumsy and unkempt person—when in reality, hardly anyone cares.
We all experience the spotlight effect. It influences our minds and behaviour greatly—sometimes to the extent of driving us to ridiculously avoid the people we thought witnessed our flaw. Sounds familiar?
Therefore, we need to understand and be aware of this symptom of social anxiety, diluting some of its impact on our mental well-being and be less self-conscious and more confident.
The T-shirt Experiment
In a study from 2000, a group of participants were asked to wear a cringey Barry Manilow T-shirt before briefly entering a room. They then predicted that about half of the people who saw them would notice the shirt—when in fact, only a quarter of the people noticed.
Whilst the first study presented the participants with an embarrassing situation, inflating their sense of “all eyes are upon us”, the second study examined whether the spotlight effect exists in non-embarrassing contexts. This time, participants got to pick and wear a T-shirt featuring characters they perceived as “cooler”, such as Bob Marley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jerry Seinfeld. Again, they overestimated the number of people who would notice what they wore.
As an extension to the first study, another group of participants were allowed substantial time to get used to wearing the Barry Manilow T-shirt before being sent into the room. Results showed that these participants were less consumed with the embarrassment, predicting that fewer people noticed their T-shirts. This finding is important because it underlines why the spotlight effect happens—because people assume that everyone else will notice something about themselves when they are more focused and obsessed about it.
What we can conclude from the T-shirt experiment is that we tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on us than it truly does, suggesting that a great deal of our fears and anxieties may be misplaced or exaggerated. It proves that other people are less likely to notice or remember our shortcomings or gaffes than we typically expect.
We are the centre of our own universe. Whilst we are absorbed in our own thoughts, others are as well—in their own. All those other people you think are paying attention to you are actually concerned with their own behaviour and think you are paying close attention to them instead.
The Next Time You Catch Yourself Thinking That the “Negative” Spotlight Is on You
Ask yourself if it is because you are obsessing about it, and the spotlight is self-imposed. Look around and be more aware of the happenings in your surroundings to take away the focus of your discomfort and help you assess the reality of the situation.
Remind yourself that your anxiety is baseless. You will never know for sure who is really looking at you, what other people are thinking, and if they will tell their friends, or how long they will remember the event, because all you can do is to guess, unless you do a poll or interview them.
Whilst you cannot deny that some people may have noticed your awkward faux pas, remind yourself that everyone has a million other things to be concerned about. Unless what you do has a direct impact on them, chances are, they are not going to think much about it.
Well, just as you like to people-watch, form stories in your head, and (unfortunately) pass judgement of others, yes indeed, people may judge you. Deal with it by facing your fears. Tell yourself that you can handle this for the next few uncomfortable minutes, then let it pass; let it go; and move on—because your audience (if they are even your audience in the first place) definitely will. Do not dwell on it and let it affect you the next time you approach a similar social setting.
Suppress those self-critical thoughts by practising self-compassion, allowing yourself to make mistakes and accepting that life has its ups and downs. By extending some kindness to yourself and humour to the situation, you will be surprised by how quickly those lousy feelings go away. If others are to remember you, have them remember you for your positive attitude.
Finally, ask yourself what you would say to a friend in a similar situation. Thinking objectively, advise yourself the same way you will advise a friend. This will bring you back to levelheadedness.
“You will worry less about what people think of you when you realise how seldom they do”— David Foster Wallace.
As a final note, whilst this article explains the spotlight effect on negative situations that potentially give rise to social anxiety, the overestimation of the likelihood of being noticed applies to positive things as well. It also means that you cannot assume that everyone knows about the good things you have done, and when appropriate, do take credit for them and be proud to highlight your accomplishments.