An attentional bias that leads us to think that everyone is obsessed with noticing us.
“I have made a mistake”. “I have lisped.” “I have a huge grain.” “I wear a sock of each color.” “My nails are badly painted.” All these phrases have something in common: many people find it extremely annoying to think that others may even detect an imperfection in oneself.
The truth is that most of the people we interact with are not even going to notice it, but we can become obsessed with that particular detail that could perhaps make us look bad, believing that everyone is going to see it. We are facing what is known as the spotlight effect, a psychological phenomenon that we are going to talk about in this article.
What is the spotlight effect?
The spotlight effect is understood to be the overestimation that people make of the salience of their behavior or characteristics. In other words, people consider that an act or element of their own is very striking and everyone will see it and judge it.
Generally refers to negative elements, such as having done an action wrong, having a pimple or wearing a shirt that generates shame. However, it can also refer to an overestimation of what other people will think of their own contribution or of some positive trait that others will value and admire. It is more common in people who are very introspective, or who tend to focus a lot on themselves and their actions.
Thus, we give more importance to a specific element and we think that the environment is going to focus on it, causing this thought the desire to hide it or show it (depending on whether what we believe about that element is negative or positive). But we lose sight of and forget the fact that we are not the nucleus of the lives of others, they are focused on their own affairs.
The existence of the spotlight effect is something documented and observed in multiple experiments. One of them was the one at Cornell University, in which students were asked to wear shirts that they considered embarrassing. After that, they were asked to evaluate the number of people who had noticed that detail considered as embarrassing. Also, people who had observed were asked. The data comparison showed that less than half of the people that the participants thought had noticed them had actually done so.
The same experiment has been carried out in multiple ways with very similar results, with aspects such as hairstyle, or even participation in debates. And not only with physical elements or actions performed: a similar effect has also been observed in the belief that others are capable of guessing one’s emotional state due to the salience of our behaviors or actions.
The spotlight effect is something frequent, but it can generate a series of important consequences in the person who suffers it. For example, it is closely linked to self-esteem: if we believe that people are looking at an element of their own that we judge negative, insecurity and a decrease in our perceived self-worth will end up appearing.
We focus our attention on the element in question and tend to pay less attention to the rest of the variables and elements present in ourselves or in the environment. Likewise, this focus can lead to a decrease in concentration and performance in other tasks, which in turn can further lower our self-esteem.
It can also cause consequences at a behavioral level, being able to reach the avoidance or overexposure of situations in which showing up with this element could be embarrassing / proud: for example, not going out or not going to a party because you think that everyone will see and judge the grain that has come out the night before.
It is even possible to relate this effect to some pathologies: body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders can be examples in which a very important spotlight effect can be observed. In body dysmorphic disorder there is an attachment to a part of the body that embarrasses us, and in disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, the weight and physical figure we have becomes an obsession. Those who suffer from them overestimate the salience of these elements and distort their own self-perception (seeing themselves fat even while being severely underweight or feeling a deep aversion and concern for a part of themselves), although in these cases it is more related to their own self-perception.
A frequent effect throughout the life cycle
The spotlight effect is something that most of us have experienced at some time, being especially frequent in adolescence. In fact, this effect is directly related to one of the typical mental phenomena of this moment of development: the imaginary audience.
That is, the thought that others are pending and attentive to our actions and actions, something that generates that we can behave in a way that favors the opinion of the rest about us. It is a somewhat egocentric vision, thinking that the rest of the environment is going to pay attention to us, but that is common in the moments when we are assuming our individuality and creating our own identity.
The imaginary audience is something that as we mature, it disappears to be replaced by the concern for the real audience that we have every day. But even in adulthood, the truth is that we generally tend to overestimate the impression we make on others and the attention given to us.
The spotlight effect has been known for many years, and has come to be used as an advertising element and for commercial purposes. The concern to cover something that we consider a defect or to attract attention is something that is used by brands to generate more sales. Obvious examples are advertisements for certain brands of clothing, cosmetics, automobiles, watches or deodorants. The supposed focus of others is used in what we use to favor showing a more positive image.
This does not mean that others do not pay any attention to what we do or carry, image being something important today. But the truth is that this effect makes us overestimate the importance of specific details and give value to things that do not have it so much.
- Gilovich, T. & Husted, V. (2000). The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 78 (2): 211-222.