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The Spotlight Effect: Why You Shouldn’t be so Self-Conscious

by Lauren Taylor

Imagine you’re making your way through a bustling street, when suddenly, you catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and realize you have a stain on your shirt! Embarrassment starts to kick in, and you start to think that everyone around you is noticing the stain too and silently judging you. This is called the spotlight effect: the belief that people are paying more attention to you than they actually are. 

Now, think about all the times you’ve done something embarrassing. Maybe when you stuttered over a common word when reading out loud in class, or maybe the time you laughed at something someone said only to realize that they’d asked a question. Now, think of all the times you’ve seen someone else do something embarrassing like that. You might be able to think of a few instances, but you can probably name a lot more of your own embarrassing moments than anyone else’s. 

As mentioned earlier, this is caused by the spotlight effect. Basically, people have a tendency to believe that others are more prone to noticing them than they actually are. This is because humans have what is called egocentric bias. This means that we tend to view the world purely through our own perspective and believe that other people also see their surroundings as we do. However, this is incorrect because everyone has a different perspective and therefore views the world differently than anyone else. 

In a well-known experiment by Tom Gilovich, groups of students were brought in to do an unrelated task, and one student per group had to wear a Barry Manilow T-shirt as it was deemed embarrassing for college kids. When asked how many people in the group would remember them wearing the embarrassing T-shirt, the students reported that they believed around 50% would be able to identify that it was them. However, it was found that only around 25% of the group could actually identify who had worn the Barry Manilow T-shirt, demonstrating how people tend to overestimate how much people are paying attention to them. 

The problem with the spotlight effect is that it makes people create situations that didn’t actually happen. This can lead to overthinking, anxiety, and excessive worrying. In order to reduce these symptoms, try to remember that, even if you think something you did was extremely noticeable, most people around you probably didn’t notice. Even if they did, they most likely did not think anything of it and will soon forget about it. Something that is glaringly obvious to you is probably not obvious to others. 

Also, try to view yourself as other people would rather than how you view yourself. Other people do not have access to every memory, every thought, or every action that you’ve done, so they have a different perspective on you that you do. Think of how you view other people. Do you really care that much if you notice that a stranger in line in front of you has a small stain on their shirt? Or will you remember if a classmate accidentally stumbles over a word when reading? Probably not. So, if you don’t remember these little moments in other people, they probably don’t remember these moments in you. 

Everyone does embarrassing things, but you have to realize that your embarrassing things stand out WAY more to you than they do to other people. 

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