I was recently reminded just how much we all live in our own heads and torture ourselves needlessly about our personal brand. We unconsciously exaggerate the attention that others pay to our appearance and behaviour, especially our blunders. But research shows that the reality is a lot less harsh. Nobody notices you or your flaws half as much as you think.

With a reminder of the spotlight effect and how our irrational mind works, people could reduce a lot of unnecessary daily anxiety, especially in the age of social media.

It happens a lot. Your mind suddenly goes into overdrive. You feel self-conscious, embarrassed, humiliated or even mortified. Your personal brand surely destroyed.

The potential sources of this self-inflicted irrational misery are endless. Perhaps you texted the wrong person, told an unfunny joke or spilled a drink in public? Or you have an unsightly cold-sore, a bad hair-cut or are under-dressed at a party? Your reactions are extreme but highly common.

You feel like you are being watched under the glare of 5,000 cameras, like Jim Carrey’s fictional character, Truman Burbank. Everyone has noticed. But have they? Gilovich & Savitsky (2000) named this syndrome the ‘spotlight effect’ where we over-estimate the extent to which others notice us.

Planet You: Being at the Centre of Your Own Universe

Individuals are all prone to an inner paranoia that others notice them far more than they do, living in their own spotlight all the time on ‘Planet You’. This innate self-absorption is a universal phenomenon of vanity that unites humankind.

“But the reality is that others rarely find us half as interesting as we
find ourselves!“ 

Think about it for a moment. If you observe someone else’s clumsy text or bad hair-cut, you barely notice, and if you do, your attention lasts mere seconds. The spotlight fades very quickly. If you even bother to consider the circumstances or the source, perhaps a friend or a co-worker, you quickly moderate any harsh judgment.

But when people tell you that they didn’t notice your blunder or foolish remark, you simply don’t believe it. You can’t let it go. How often do you put yourself back in that negative spotlight and replay it in your own mind, writhing in the torment that the world has now witnessed your imperfection? There are many opportunities for such self-loathing – and we generously gift them to ourselves all the time. In business, we also assume that customers scrutinise our every action. In reality they just don’t.

And yet, ironically, this syndrome also happens in reverse. People assume that others notice and marvel at our feats of greatness a lot more than they do, if at all. How often have you subconsciously replayed your own joke or witty retort in full self-congratulatory style? Re-read your clever email or re-made that killer point? We all do it. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. But we don’t reciprocate for others; and they don’t reciprocate for us!

You may now be disappointed to realise just how few people have absorbed your moment of glory.

That is not to say that some actions are not a source of humiliation or that some people do not live under a media spotlight, especially celebrities or brands. Some re-live their errors with heightened humiliation in the public eye. Think Hugh Grant’s personal indiscretion. Or Gwyneth Paltrow’s cringe-worthy Oscar speech. Think Andres Escobar of Columbia (no relation to Pablo) who scored an own goal in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, tragically gunned down 10 days later, reportedly in retribution.

On balance, nobody is watching you, your career, your social-life or your business half as much as you think. The reality is that few absorb your moment of intense agony or success as much as you. We are just not that interesting, except to ourselves. ‘Not me. I am not egotistical or paranoid’ you say. But you are because you are human. Knowing this is a great freedom and will save hours of unnecessary self-delusion and self-persecution. Don’t take my word for it, many years of research support this:

Evidence of Our Self-Obsession:

For me, 3 well-known experiments best demonstrate the ‘spotlight effect’ and how people consistently overestimate the prominence of their behaviour relative to others – these involve a Barry Manilow t-shirt, a critic and a big hairy gorilla.

1. The Barry Manilow T-Shirt: 

The 1st famous experiment involved a group of students at Cornell University in 2000. A student was asked to join his peers wearing what was considered a very uncool t-shirt with a picture of Barry Manilow. Preoccupied with his embarrassing attire, the student estimated that 50% would notice this but in reality, only 23% did.

A ‘non-embarrassing’ t-shirt was then selected and the student asked to estimate how many would notice. The student thought half the audience would notice but only 10% could recall it. Follow-up experiments found people exaggerated by up to 6 times the observers who noticed a blunder (Source: LA Times 2003). A comfort for some.

“What is interesting is how quickly people acclimatise to their uncomfortable experience.”

The wearer gets used to the bad hair-cut, uncool t-shirt or clumsy error. An experiment was later run where the Barry Manilow t-shirt wearers had to wait 15 minutes before giving estimates. As time passed, estimates were lowered.

Although self-absorption creates a pseudo spotlight, it also leads us to consistently exaggerate how harshly we will be judged when things go wrong.

“Our default assumption is that we will be judged harshly.“

2. The Harsh Critic:

An experiment by Epley & Gilovich showed how we distort the harshness with which we are judged. It tested how a group of Harvard students expected the manufactured blunder of spilling their drink into their lap at an interview would be evaluated by 3 audiences – a harsh critic, an average critic and a charitable critic. In their estimates, the students barely considered the potential charity of the charitable critic.

It may be that age, personality or context determines the extent of our reaction ie whether we commit this perceived catastrophe in front of strangers, colleagues or friends. However the overall effect does not tend to diminish completely.

Ironically, our flaws make us more likeable.”

Many people are perfectionists and don’t want to appear weak. But ironically, being occasionally error-prone and showing fallibility makes you look human and draws people closer. This was originally tested in 1966 by psychologist, Elliot Aronson, who evaluated perceptions of a group spilling coffee during a quiz. The coffee-spilling group was deemed the most likeable. Perhaps that is why people always support the underdog.

3. The Invisible Gorilla:

Our brain is known to have limited capacity for captive attention as we know, and more so in a stimuli-saturated and data-intensive age. In reality, people are less aware of their surroundings than you think, and hence, of your failure or success. Simons and Chabris (1999) proved how people can focus so hard on one thing that they become blind to the unexpected. This is known as “inattentional blindness”.

The 3rd experiment is where an “invisible gorilla” shows just how little we notice what is happening when we are fixated on something else, including seeing a big hairy gorilla in a room! Impossible you say. In this experiment, volunteers watched a video where two groups passed basketballs around – one group dressed in white, the other dressed in black. They were asked to count the basketball passes among the players dressed in white. Consistently, half did not notice a big hairy gorilla cross the screen.  

This can apply to any area or industry. Where analysts are directed to focus on gross sales, they may miss the extent of dissatisfied customers and poor net sales.

The awareness test is now spoiled for you of course but you can test your family and colleagues here. For those familiar, the latest adaptation here further verifies our blindness to adjacent stimuli.

“We are neither half as interesting as we think nor notice stimuli half as much as we think either.”

And the converse applies. Neither do others constantly notice us! But in a 24/7 digital world , what happens to the spotlight effect? Is this phenomenon amplified?

What Causes this Spotlight Effect?

As people over-estimate how much friends or colleagues notice them, they also assume that events sit as long in their memories as they do in ours. It is unlikely that others are impacted by our failures or successes half as much as we are. So why does this happen? Understanding the causes helps alleviate the perceived trauma. The spotlight effect is explained by 4 inter-related social psychology concepts:

1.Natural Egocentrism: We are focused on ourselves and assume that others pay close attention to us. Everyone else is just as concerned with their own selves

2. Naive Realism. We assume that what we pay attention to is accurate and true; and others notice the same things. We overestimate the extent to which perceptions are shared or accurate, including attention to our successes or failures.

3. Illusion of Transparency. We think that our internal state is visible to others when it is not. While it may feel as though everyone knows what you think about yourself, nobody can. We simply misinterpret others’ obsession with us.

4. Blind Spot Bias: We tend not to see ourselves as either biased or ego-centric yet recognize this occurrence a lot quicker in other people.

Why Understanding Matters. A Rising Phenomenon

Even if partly irrational, the tendency to overestimate how much others notice our bad hair days or errors creates anxiety, insecurity and low self-esteem. This can be debilitating and difficult to recognize or overcome. For those with existing anxiety, the effect is seriously exaggerated. This can be acute in narcissists and fragile teenagers.

Mirror mirror on the wall. Only today it is a digital wall. In a 2018 Economist survey, it was shown that prolific use of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter carry addictive qualities, adversely impacting the mental well-being of Britons aged 14-24. The online sharing benefits of self-expression and community get outweighed by insomnia, bullying, anxiety and depression. This is exacerbated by the spotlight effect.

In 2014, a study found that these platforms triggered the same impulsive part of the brain as gambling and substance abuse. They were known to ‘exploit a vulnerability in human psychology’, according to Facebook’s president.

“Excessive concern about being the unwanted subject of attention can carry serious consequences.”

Sadly, there was a case in Ireland where a teenage boy was lured by social media to pose nude, and subsequently blackmailed. Despite bravely telling police and his parents, the risk of peer-shaming and unwanted attention remained. He tragically took his own life. The ability to cope with attention and scrutiny is so critical for positive mental health, at all ages.

5 Practical Suggestions

Knowing how much our perceptions and responses can be exaggerated is helpful. You can give yourself a break and immediately reduce the discomfort, anxiety or embarrassment in social or organisational situations. Here are 5 practical suggestions:

1.Stop focusing inwardly on your self and re-focus your attention on others. It will distract you and also give you more context and reframe the perspective.

2. Notice how you react to others. Then notice how little attention people actually pay to you or your blunders. Be kinder to yourself. To err is human.

3. Test your assumptions. Ask others whether they really noticed these flaws or social faux-pas. Does it really matter anyway? Those who care about you dont care.

4. Remember rational self-interest. When you make a mistake, most people don’t  think about it for too long. The spotlight fades. They are thinking about themselves.

5. Don’t take yourself overly seriously. Make light of the issue to help it pass. If your act was stupid, just admit it and move on. People have short memories.

So next time you feel that everyone is noticing you or thinking about you or your brand in an unfavourable light, remember the rational insights from a Barry Manilow t-shirt and a big hairy gorilla.

Copyright © 2018 by Nuala Walsh.