Most of us stand out in our own minds. Whether in the midst of a personal triumph or an embarrassing mishap, we are usually quite focused on what is happening to us, its significance to our lives, and how it appears to others. Each of us is the center of our own universe.
Because we are so focused on our own behavior, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much–or how little–our behavior is noticed by others. Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others.
So begins an academic paper on Egocentric bias
published in 2000 by Cornell professor Thomas Gilovich and two of his graduate students that deals with the spotlight effect, i.e. our tendency to believe that the spotlight shines more brightly on us than it actually does. The researchers conducted an experiment asking college students to throw on a Barry Manilow t-shirt and then walk into a room of strangers facing the door. The researchers predicted that the students would assume that more people had seen their t-shirt than was actually true. True to form, participants thought that roughly half the strangers would have recognized the Barry Manilow t-shirt, when in fact the number was closer to 20%. Participants allowed their own focus on the embarrassing t-shirt to distort their assessment of the degree to which others noticed it, thus manifesting the spotlight effect.
What’s interesting for us is that this same spotlight effect is often at work in those who suffer from social anxiety. Many anxiety sufferers know that feeling of being stared at. The good news is that studies like this confirm for us that this feeling is most likely exaggerated. We may think we can read the minds of others, but we are most often wrong. What we believe to be true regarding our public appearance is often not the case. Most of the time, people are just not that interested in our appearance or performance. Keep this in mind the next time you feel yourself the center of attention in a public space. In fact, keep three things in mind:
- assign a number to the feeling of public awareness around you and then cut it in half,
- remember that the few who do briefly pay attention to you also probably quickly forget you, or they may like something about you (and then shift to thinking of their own spotlights)
- if an awkwardly worn Barry Manilow t-shirt is noticed by only about 20% of people in a situation designed to draw attention to it, your worst gaffe can hardly do more.