Spotlight effect: That’s why others don’t find our mistakes as bad as we do

Are you always so embarrassed about small mishaps? And you’re afraid of what the others think now? Probably not that much – at least not about you. That explains the spotlight effect.

Years after an uncomfortable situation, we can feel ashamed that we really made a fool of ourselves. This is not only absolutely counterproductive – we usually overestimate how bad and embarrassing others find our mistakes in the first place. The so-called spotlight effect explains why this is so.

The spotlight effect: I’m sure everyone is only looking at my mistake!

“Spotlight” is the English word for “headlight” and in this case makes it clear that we feel the spotlight very strongly on our person in embarrassing situations. However, this is a fallacy, because most of the time those around us don’t pay that much attention to us when we say something wrong, get confused or spill coffee on our dress.

We think we’re in the spotlight, but we overestimate how strongly others perceive us. Maybe the others will notice the stain on the blouse or the slip of the tongue – but they certainly don’t think the faux pas is as bad as we think. Because most people are just as busy with themselves as we are with ourselves.

No one is as much in the spotlight as he or she thinks they are

The reason for this is a cognitive bias. Our subjective view of the world and our very personal experiences ensure that we often take ourselves more seriously than we are – or rather than our environment does. It’s the same for most of the others, and that’s how the spotlight effect comes into play with the spotlight supposedly only directed at us.

Of course, this does not apply to everyone to the same extent. Depending on their personality, some perceive more of their environment than others, some are more empathetic and can empathize better with others. But generally speaking, most people think more of themselves—that is, put more of the spotlight on themselves—than others do.

Studies on the spotlight effect

Science has been dealing with the topic for years and has already been able to prove the spotlight effect in a number of studies. One investigation from the year 2000, for example, divided the participants into two groups, each of which was to wear a T-shirt with a well-known personality printed on it. The first group was supposed to carry an “embarrassing” motif – namely a picture of singer Barry Manilow, who had his biggest hits mainly in the 70s and 80s.

The other participants could choose between reggae singer Bob Marley, civil rights activist Martin Luther King and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. All personalities were considered “cooler” than Barry Manilow at the time of the study. The result showed that far fewer people paid attention to the shirt’s print than expected. Only a quarter noticed the study participants’ “embarrassing” or “cool” t-shirt. The people with the Barry Manilow shirt had expected a lot more.

Another study analyzed the spotlight effect associated with social phobia. With this mental disorder, sufferers worry excessively about what others think of them and how they judge them. The researchers gave the study participants a memory task and told half that the conversation would be recorded – the other half did not receive this information. Those who knew they were being videotaped were significantly more embarrassed and unsure than the other group.

Both studies show how dependent we are on the opinions and judgments of others. And that we overestimate how interested other people are in us. It can help to keep this in mind, especially when dealing with social phobia and high levels of shame. Because if you’re one of those people who feels very uncomfortable after a supposedly embarrassing moment, remember: The other person is probably busy with something that you’re at least as ashamed of.

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