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What Is the Spotlight Effect in Psychology and Why Does It Happen?


Have you ever walked into a crowded room late and felt like everyone’s staring at you, silently judging your every move? How about being overly conscious of a small stain on your shirt and wondering how everyone at work is going to notice it? When you had a social slip-up weeks, months, or years ago, did you believe people would still remember and laugh about it behind your back?

If you have experienced any of these or similar situations, you probably know what the spotlight effect feels like and are susceptible to it. When we experience the spotlight effect, we assume that others are thinking about us or overestimate how much everyone notices our actions. Continue reading to learn more about the spotlight effect in psychology, why it happens, and how to deal with it.

What Is the Spotlight Effect?

The spotlight effect refers to a belief that others are paying more attention to your appearance and actions than they actually are. In other words, we feel like all eyes are on us, similar to being “in the spotlight.” People may experience this effect even when no one is watching or paying attention to them at all. In short, no one cares.

Psychologists Victoria Husted Medvec, Kenneth Savitsky, and Thomas Gilovich coined the term spotlight effect in their 2000 study. In this research, they mentioned that humans have a tendency to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it actually does. This makes people assume that their flaws and mistakes stand out, like if they were illuminated by a spotlight.

The spotlight effect is so common and can happen both in negative and positive situations. It can also cause social anxiety, which can have negative effects on your mental health. In this case, therapy can be beneficial. Here are some spotlight effect examples:

  • When you made a mistake at work, you feel like everybody remembered it and thinks you’re stupid.
  • When you wear fake designers or counterfeit luxury brands, you overestimate the degree to which people are likely to notice or judge you.
  • You are hesitant to eat at a restaurant or go to the movies alone due to the fear that others might see you and conclude that you don’t have friends.
  • You spend lots of time in front of the mirror to make sure that you look good and presentable.
  • You overestimate how everyone is impressed by something you’re proud of like nailing a presentation or receiving praise for a job well done.

Why It Happens

The spotlight effect is an example of cognitive bias and error in thinking, known as egocentric bias. This causes us to rely too much on our own viewpoint when trying to make sense of the things that happen around us. Egocentric bias can also cause us to ignore other people’s perspective or underestimate how others’ point of view is different from our own.

With this type of bias, we tend to focus more on ourselves, although it is not our intention. We have immediate access to our thoughts and use them to figure out why people act the way they do. Our thoughts and emotions also filter or affect our interpretation of things. We are so used to seeing things from our perspective that we sometimes struggle to take others’ viewpoints into account.

Is There Any Evidence That the Spotlight Effect Exists?

Since people cannot read minds and know what others are thinking, how do we know that this cognitive bias exists? Well, experts and researchers have conducted several studies that support and demonstrate its existence.

Social anxiety experiment

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorder examined the relation of social anxiety to the spotlight effect. Social anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an intense fear of social situations and the feeling that you’re watched, evaluated, and judged by others.

The participants, which were divided into two groups (high or low social-evaluative condition) were asked to perform a memory task. The first group was informed that the session would be reviewed and was openly recorded. The second group, meanwhile, was told that the researchers were only interested in knowing how many significant events they could remember. The task, however, was secretly recorded and videotaped.

Results suggested that those who believed that they would be evaluated felt more self-conscious and reported higher levels of the spotlight effect.

The T-Shirt Experiment

In a set of studies conducted in 2000, researchers had a group of participants wear a potentially embarrassing shirt (cringey Barry Manilow t-shirt). They were then asked to estimate how many people would notice their t-shirt. The researchers then compared it with the actual number of people who noticed.

As expected, the participants overestimated the number of people that noticed it and remembered what was depicted on the shirt. Those who were wearing the shirt also felt embarrassed about it and felt that other people were paying more attention and noticed them. This clearly fits the cognitive bias known as the spotlight effect.

How Does the Spotlight Effect Affect Us?

So, how does feeling like we’re “in the spotlight” affect our behaviors and mental health? Does it make us act differently, or lean on or against a specific course of action?

  • Skewed reality

The spotlight effect tricks us into exaggerating our own significance or importance. This can then skew our perception of reality and cause us to misinterpret or misunderstand situations.

  • It holds us back

This cognitive bias causes us to become extremely self-conscious to the point that we might dismiss life-changing opportunities or not go after the things we want. This happens because of being overly caught up in how others will judge and criticize our actions.

  • It contributes to social anxiety

As the spotlight effect distorts your thinking by overestimating the extent to which other judge you, it may then lead to social anxiety. It can also worsen feelings of social anxiety and negatively impact your self-confidence.

How to Reduce or Overcome the Spotlight Effect

Don’t let the spotlight effect take you over. Here are a few things that can help you mitigate or deal with this cognitive bias.

  • Acknowledge that it exists

Your self-imposed spotlight won’t feel so bright when you remind yourself that the people around you have their own problems to focus on. Not many people will notice or remember that thing you’re so embarrassed about.

  • Practice self-distancing

This refers to a psychological technique of taking a step back from your situation or seeing your experiences from a different angle. A 2018 study suggested that viewing situations like a fly on the wall can help people overcome biases. This can reduce the spotlight effect, and according to a 2012 study, it can also reduce angry feelings and aggressive thoughts/behavior.   

  • Focus your attention outward rather than inward

Take the focus out of yourself and be aware of the things happening around you. Watch other people and notice their reactions to you. This will help you focus outward rather than inward and overcome social anxiety. Doing so can also help you realize how little attention others are paying to you.

Final Thoughts

Excessive worries about how others see you and notice the things you do can get in the way of pursuing the things you want. If you’re struggling with the spotlight effect and social anxiety, therapy for anxiety can help. A mental health professional can help you explore the reasons for your fears. They can also teach you grounding techniques for social anxiety to divert your thoughts away from distressing emotions.

Talk therapy is very effective in treating mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly beneficial, as it helps you identify irrational thoughts or challenge cognitive distortions. It can teach you strategies to change the way you think and behave, as well as coping skills to manage feelings of anxiety.

A great thing about CBT is that it can be delivered remotely. You can use online therapy platforms like Calmerry so that you won’t need to drive to a therapist’s office. If you’ve never talked to a therapist before, you can learn more about therapy before your first session.

There’s a good chance that most people won’t notice that stain on your clothes or remember that you tripped on the stairs a few days or weeks ago. Trying to think less about these things helps, but it’s not always an easy task. A great solution is to consider online therapy so that you can stop ruminating over negative thoughts that impact your quality of life.

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