Playing sports in middle age against college students can be humbling. The other day, I was pllaying basketball against a taller, quicker, and well, younger guy. He accelerated to the basket, and trying to stay in front of him, I lost my footing and unceremoniously fell on my butt. I bounced a couple of times before coming to a stop. Nobody said anything, and my first thought was that everyone was privately laughing.
I was mortified, but as I got up I reminded myself of a psychological phenomenon that always helps me get through embarrassing moments. The trick also works when I'm worried about the impression I will make in a new setting.
The phenomenon, called the "spotlight effect," refers to the fact that people considerably overestimate how much attention other people are paying to them. Being the center of our own worlds, our own actions and words loom quite large in our perception, but the spotlight effect reminds us that we simply do not loom quite as large in the eyes of others.
In a 2000 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tom Gilovich and colleagues demonstrated this phenomenon empirically. In one study, the researchers brought in groups of students to complete an unrelated task in the same room, and randomly assigned one of the students to put on an embarrassing t-shirt (if you must know, it was a t-shirt of Barry Manilow, which the reseachers had previously established was highly embarrassing for this college population). The researchers asked the students wearing the t-shirt to estimate the percentage of people in the group who would be able to identify the person on the t-shirt. While the students placed their estimates around 50 percent, in reality only 25 percent were able to identify Barry Manilow. Importantly, when other students were asked to watch videotapes of these groups and produce a similar estimate, their estimates were also around 25 percent. Thus, it seems that wearing the t-shirt specifically had the effect of heightening the perception that other people pay more attention to us than they actually do.