By Peter Doskoch, published on December 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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
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
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
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
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