What is the Spotlight Effect?

We’ve all had the experience doing something embarrassing in public and immediately thinking that everyone saw that embarrassing thing. You trip and fall in a store and suddenly it feels the world is watching you. Negative thoughts rush through your head as you bolt away. “That was so stupid!” “Everyone saw me and is laughing at me!” “I hope no one caught that on video, I looked like a clutz!”

 In reality, most people don’t even notice the things that you do, even when those things are embarrassing. But why do we feel this way then? Why does it seem as though you can feel everyone’s eyes on you?

This is the spotlight effect. The spotlight effect is a psychological term used to describe the sensation of being noticed more than you really are. While it was first coined by Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky, this idea was not entirely new. Many before them had researched similar topics. In one of their early studies, The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgement: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance, participants were asked to either wear a flattering t-shirt or one with a potentially embarrassing image on it to a college lecture. The students who wore the potentially embarrassing t-shirt greatly overestimated the number of people who noticed their shirt.

This is similar to an experience that most people have where they drop food on their clothes and now, they must walk around with a food splotch on their shirt all day. We tend to overestimate how much others notice about us. Most people won’t even notice the stain on your shirt. Other people are so focused on themselves that they don’t spend the time picking through your every word and move.

Other factors play into the spotlight effect, such as the idea that we see our perceptions of the world to be unbiased and correct. Through our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we often wrongly evaluate the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of others. We are the centers of our worlds, causing us to place our worldview onto others. Our embarrassing moment is so big to us we assume it must be big to others. But if you boil that down, you’ll realize that since you are the center of your world, everyone else is the center of their world, meaning they don’t see your mistakes. Unfortunately, the spotlight effect can manifest into other problems such as social anxiety.

How do we combat this? The simplest way is to acknowledge it. Know that while it may seem like everyone is stopping to snicker at you after you fell in front of that crowd., the majority of the crowd has all but forgotten your trip up moments after it happens. Recognize in yourself how often you focus inwards rather than outwards when it comes to others. This will help endorse the idea that many others feel the same way as you and don’t see your every move. Do you remember that one time Bob tripped up the stairs? Or when Alice had BBQ sauce on her shirt? Probably not and maybe you didn’t even notice. Remember this when you are hard on yourself and experiencing the spotlight effect.

Another mindset change I find helpful is telling myself that those who hone in on anything embarrassing you do, say or wear aren’t exactly people I should be concerned with. The idea is that those who focus on the negatives of others, looking for something wrong, are people whose opinions don’t matter as much to me. It has helped me develop a more care-free attitude regarding mistakes and choices I might make. When I first started going to the gym and running outside, I told myself this often and still do.

Mindset changes can be very difficult, but with persistent positive self-talk and internal introspection, you can overcome something like the spotlight effect. If you find that you have a difficult time with social anxiety or the spotlight effect, I highly encourage you to reach out to a professional to discuss this further. They can be immensely helpful when we need direction.