Imagine you’ve just walked into a room.
You’re wearing a t-shirt printed with a terrible joke. It’s printed in block letters, so there’s no way people can miss. The colours don’t even go well together. It’s downright embarrassing.
A couple of reactions are to be expected.
You can’t help but notice that a couple of your peers are glancing at your direction. Someone in the corner was snickering. A few people you passed were talking under their breath. It seems everyone has noticed this social gaffe you’ve made.
A couple of minutes later, you’re certain you’re never going to recover from this faux pas. Nobody is going to forget this moment.
All Eyes On Me
It’s an extremely relatable scenario.
Most of us have had moments of embarrassment since we’re young. We’ve asked stupid questions and done stupid things, only realising the mistake we’ve made later on. Afterwards, we can’t forget it. The image of our fourteen-year-old self tripping on flat ground still flashes in our minds.
But as researchers found out, we are terrible at assessing how noticeable our social gaffes are to others. In the above scenario where students had to wear an embarrassing t-shirt, the number of people who actually noticed their gaffe was actually half as many as they had estimated.
This phenomenon is known as the Spotlight Effect — people tend to believe that more people take notice of their actions and appearance than is actually the case. It’s an apt name. We think we are in the spotlight and all eyes are on us. In reality, no one cares.
If you’re not convinced that nobody remembers the word you mispronounced back in high school, try to recall the last time your classmate made a similar mistake. You’ll find that it’s a lot harder than remembering your own mistake.
The Spotlight Effect
It’s not hard to see why the spotlight effect shows up in our lives.
First, we have an egocentric bias in how we assess our actions and appearance to others. We’re the centre of our world, which deludes us into exaggerating our importance. To many others around us, what we do is largely a non-event. It’s highly likely that they’re caught up in their own spotlights.
It also makes sense since no one else follows us around the clock and so they don’t see the same things that we do. But we’re so used to seeing things from our own perspective, we struggle to accurately judge what other people’s perspective is like.
Second, there is what psychologists call the illusion of transparency. Here’s an example they provide:
In particular, witnesses to a potential emergency situation typically behave in a nonchalant manner that masks their underlying concern in order to avoid looking like an alarmist. Yet these same individuals are willing to conclude from the apparent calm of others that there really is no emergency. Why? Why don’t individuals view the apparent calm of others the way they view their own apparent calm — as a “front” that masks their true concern? In part, we have found, it is because people are prone to an illusion of transparency.
In other words, we assume incorrectly that much of our concern leaks out and is available for all to see. We think others can see and sense how we feel. But short of our faces flushing red or our hands trembling with nervousness, nobody can tell that we want to hide in a hole after a social gaffe.
All You Need To Know
Like many other psychological phenomena, the spotlight effect isn’t a result of flawed as much as it is outdated biological wiring.
Back when our ancestors used to live in tribes, they needed to ensure that they had the approval of everyone else. To commit a faux pas that would have caused them to be exiled from the tribe would mean certain death. Thinking that everyone around them was watching them kept them alive.
It’s a little different today. On one hand, we have the Internet and social media which amplifies every act and event, whether positive or negative. On the other, we no longer need to spend time in tight communities. There’s no longer the fear that we would perish if we made a simple mistake.
What does this mean?
For one, you’ll probably need to work a lot harder since nobody is monitoring your contributions and impact. It’s hard enough to detect the signal when there is so much noise. Don’t think that everyone can hear you.
But more importantly, there’s no need to be obsessed with what others think of us. The reality is that everyone has greater concerns — themselves. So speak your mind. Take some risks. Be the man in the arena.
Whether people are watching or not, you’ll be better off for it.