The Spotlight Effect: Why It Feels Like People Are Looking at Us (and Why They’re Actually Not)

I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You do something that seems so embarrassing, it consumes all of your attention, and you’re sure that everyone’s watching you, reveling in how embarrassing your faux pas was. Later you find out that nobody had any idea you did anything unusual.

In general, people aren’t paying as much attention to you as they’re paying to themselves. Nevertheless, when we’re focused on something about ourselves, we often assume that everyone else is focused on it, too. This is the heart of what social psychologists call the spotlight effect.

Here’s another example: I got my first pair of glasses in fifth grade. These days, I often forget I’m even wearing them—for better or for worse—but for those first couple weeks, all I could notice were the new lenses on my face. I even remember that right after we picked up my new glasses, my mom and I had to go to the mall, and the entire time, I was sure that people were staring at me. I felt self-conscious. I figured everyone was looking at me and my new glasses, thinking to themselves how strange they looked on me.

Now, I could be wrong, but as I look back, I don’t think anyone at that mall actually noticed my glasses that day. What mattered was that I focused on my new eyewear, and that degree of self-consciousness made it seem like everyone else must have been focused on it, too.

Turning on the Spotlight

Image Credt: Weatherman90 via Wikimedia
Who wouldn’t want this on a t-shirt?

An early published demonstration of the spotlight effect considered the everyday embarrassing experience of wearing a Barry Manilow t-shirt.

Let’s back up for a second. In this study, college students were to arrive at the psychology lab in groups to fill out printed surveys in a conference room. In fact, one randomly chosen participant from each group was given an arrival time that was 5 minutes after everyone else’s, so when that person arrives, everyone else in his or her group has already been taken to another room and started filling out the survey.

When that person arrives, though, the experimenter says that he or she has to wear a t-shirt with an enormous picture of Barry Manilow’s face on it. Manilow, the researchers assure us, is “a musician who is not terribly popular among college students.” In other words, everyone’s embarrassed to wear this ridiculous t-shirt.

Boldly wearing the Barry Manilow shirt, the participant heads to the other room to meet the rest of the group. The person sits down and gets ready to take the survey when the experimenter says, “on second thought, everyone else is already pretty far ahead, so you should actually wait outside for moment.”

Okay, what is this all about? Well it’s at this point that the main participant answers the critical question: “How many people in that room do you think would be able to tell me who is on your t-shirt?” In other words, “do you think anyone in that room noticed you were wearing a shirt with an enormous photograph of Barry Manilow’s face on it?” The participant answers the question and gets to leave. Presumably the researchers kindly asked for their vintage t-shirt back and the participants were all too willing to return it.

On average, people thought that about 50% of the people in the room noticed the shirt and would be able to identify the embarrassing visage gracing its fabric. The critical question, though, is how many people in the room actually could tell us who was on the t-shirt? Only about 25% of people in the room actually noticed the shirt.

Participants vastly overestimated how many of the people in that room noticed the t-shirt. If you put yourself in their shoes (or t-shirts, rather), the judgment makes a lot of sense—if you were made to walk into a room wearing an embarrassing t-shirt, of course you’d think everyone noticed. But the reality is not nearly what we think it is.

As a side note, this is not just an effect of Barry Manilow T-shirts. The same study was replicated with a Vanilla Ice T-shirt. The researchers snidely note that Vanilla Ice is a “pop icon whose 15 minutes of fame had passed by the time this study was run.”

Turning the Spotlight Off

There’s one wrinkle to all of this that’s worth mentioning, though. In another study, when the researchers allowed some time for the participants to get used to wearing their new pop culture apparel before heading to the other room, they weren’t as susceptible to the spotlight effect. That is, they weren’t as likely to think that too many other people noticed the shirt. This is important because it gives us insight into why the spotlight effect happens; it’s because people assume everyone else will notice something about themselves when they’re more focused on it.

When you feel embarrassed, it consumes all of your attention, and you assume that everyone else is focused on what you are focused on. If it doesn’t concern you, though, you don’t leap to the conclusion that everyone else is paying attention to it.

So when you catch yourself thinking that everyone is paying attention to something you did, ask yourself: “is it just because I’m obsessing about it?” The reality is that all those other people who you think are paying attention to you are actually concerned with their own behavior and think you’re paying close attention to them.

11 thoughts on “The Spotlight Effect: Why It Feels Like People Are Looking at Us (and Why They’re Actually Not)

  1. “You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do” – David Foster Wallace

  2. I think this is also applicable when you had a pimple or acne, you are too focused on it that you think people are noticing it when they actually don’t.

    • That’s a great example. Also, the more you stress about it, the more it feels like people notice.

      Another example I’ve noticed is when I eat spicy food, and it feels like my lips are burning. I can get self-conscious because all I can feel is the burning sensation, and even though there’s nothing visual about it, it seems like everyone’s noticing.

  3. The Barry Manilow shirt example & what they implied from it is bull. It depends on WHO is wearing the shirt. For example, sometimes today men wear pink-colored shirts. Sometimes it’s really ‘tough’ looking guys who do. And when they do, nobody seems to look or care. But I remember one time when I decided to wear a pink-colored shirt it was a whole other story — all of a sudden everyone had a remark to make about it, and some were not very nice.

    I just don’t feel the Spotlight Effect is described very accurately. It has little to do with embarrassing moments & T-shirts. It’s more that the person feels everyone is staring hard at them, whether or not there is an embarrassing moment or a T-shirt involved.

    • Maybe there’s another “spotlight effect” that you’re describing, but the social psychological phenomenon is that people can feel as though they’re being scrutinized but only because they themselves are focused on it. This why the follow-up study was so important; when people stop focusing on whatever it is they’re concerned about, the perception that other people have noticed goes away, too.

      Of course, this isn’t to say that all perceptions that people have noticed something about yourself are wrong–just that we often overperceive it to be the case when there’s something that we’re especially concerned about. It’s more about perception than about what people actually notice about other people. Thanks for the comment!

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