Why bad hair days may not matter

It's hard to imagine a more humiliating ordeal for an Ivy Leaguer. CornellUniversity psychologist Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., sent students into a room where other undergrads were filling out a questionnaire. But before they went in, he had the newcomers put on . . . Barry Manilow T-shirts.

After the brief encounter Gilovich asked the dubiously dressed students if they thought their classmates had noticed their attire. The subjects supposed that half their peers had been silently snickering, but in reality only 23 percent had noticed their questionable clothing.

While this experiment might seem like a professor's fashion faux pas, it demonstrates what Gilovich calls the "spotlight effect": our tendency to overestimate how often people notice not only how we look but also what we do.

"People assume the social spotlight shines on them more brightly than it really does," he says. This misunderstanding has its roots in childhood, a time when we believe the world revolves around us. Our early egocentrism never completely fades, as Gilovich confirmed in additional offbeat experiments:

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o In discussion groups where one student was secretly chosen to fib, liars vastly over-estimated how many of their companions could tell they were trying to deceive them.

o A survey of female volleyball players revealed that when a woman had an off-day on the court, her teammates noticed far less often than she expected.

The spotlight effect is worth keeping in mind next time you're upset at, say, how your hair looks. "Fewer people notice our bad hair days than we suspect," Gilovich notes. Alas, he adds, there's also a downside to not being the center of attention: "People also don't notice when our hair looks good."

PHOTO (COLOR): A woman with a bad hair

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