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The Spotlight Effect

A bit of psychology to help you manage mortification anxiety.

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.

The effects went beyond Barry Manilow: in a second study, participants were allowed to choose a non-embarrassing t-shirt, this time with a picture of Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld, or Martin Luther King Jr. Again, the t-shirt wearers estimated that 50 percent of others would be able to identify the person whose picture they were wearing. In this study, less than 10 percent of their group members actually did. A third study extended the findings to behavior, showing that in a group conversation, people regularly overestimate how much people notice their brilliant contributions-- or their embarrassing feet in their mouths.

The reeasons for the spotlight effect, as I alluded to earlier, have to do with the salience of our own actions in our own perceptions. People (generally) of course know that they are not the center of everybody else's universe. But when we do something atypical, either good or bad, we tend not to sufficiently correct for the difference between our own and other peoples' perceptions.

The take-home message, I hope, is clear: when you find yourself mortified or overly worried about the impression you'll make, remember that other people simply don't pay as much attention to you as you think they do. Your conversational faux-pas will not linger in their memories, and that coffee stain on your shirt is unlikely to be a conversational topic at the water cooler. You will not make or break a first impression on the basis of one particularly brilliant or embarrassing thing you say.

This is not to say that people don't notice you at all; only that people do not process information about you as deeply as you do. In other words, while you're stuck ruminating, people have likely moved on. No big deal.

I should know: I ran into one of the players on the court from a few days ago at a cafeteria, and mentioned how embarrassed I was after falling on my butt. His response? I kid you not: "Really? I don't remember that."

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

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