By Megan Rooney, published on September 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
Ever feel that you're Truman Burbank, with every eye trained on your everyaction, especially your blunders and shortcomings? Psychologists call the familiar feeling that the whole world is watching you the "spotlight effect." Thankfully (to everyone except narcissists), that social searchlight is turning out not to be as large and as bright as we fear. "We think that people notice us much more than they do," says Kenneth Savitsky, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Williams College, who has studied the phenomenon extensively with researchers from Williams, Cornell, and Northwestern.
In one experiment, a student wearing a Barry Manflow T-shirt was sent into a room filled with peers. Though the student was convinced that the "embarrassing" clothing would be noticed by at least half the people, follow-up interviews found that less than 50% of the group recalled the shirt. In another semester-long experiment, dubbed the "Bad Hair Day Study," students rated their classmates on whether they looked better or worse than usual. The results show that the raters were less aware of variations in appearance than were the students they scored. Most people just don't notice when we're not looking our best or worst.
Why not? Simple egocentrism, declares Savitsky. Since we're focused on ourselves, we assume that others pay close attention to us, too, but everyone else is concerned with their own problems. "The truth is," says Cornell graduate student Justin Kruger, "we're just not as interesting to other people as we are to ourselves."
PHOTO (COLOR): Though you might feel that every eye is on you, nobody's really looking.