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The spotlight effect

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The spotlight effect is explained by its author as: “Most of us stand out in our own minds. Whether in the midst of a personal triumph or an embarrassing mishap, we are usually quite focused on what is happening to us, its significance in our lives, and how it appears to others […] People tend to believe that more people take note of their actions and appearance than is actually the case. […] People tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does,” The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance, Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., y Savitsky, K. (2000).

And so, because we are so worried and focused on ourselves, we become the center of our own universes. Whether we made a brilliant point in a discussion in class, we scored two goals like a legend in a soccer game, or wore a shiny and revealing outfit, we may realize that our extraordinary efforts go unnoticed or under-appreciated by others, our gorgeous appearance may have gone generally unnoticed. People actually think about and judge us much less than we think they do.

You would not worry so much about what others think of you if you realize how seldom they do

You would not worry so much about what others think of you if you realize how seldom they do

Fortunately, this also happens when we screw things up, the impact on our “audience” is much less than we think. Maybe, you skipped a few lines in your speech, there was a little red stain on the sleeve, you slipped and missed a goal, etc., you might think that your shame will last forever, that it will be completely unforgettable, but chances are, they also may have gone unnoticed or under-appreciated.

In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny, Martha Beck, Oprah.com

In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny, Martha Beck, Oprah.com

Two related bias are:

  1. The over-perception and self-as-a-target bias: people tend to believe that they are the main protagonists in situations in which the identity of the target is not clear, but ambiguous: “I do not want to attend his class today, he is going to call me,” “These boys are always giggling and mocking me, or so it seems.”
  2. The illusory transparency. People often overestimate the extent to which their thoughts, feelings, and sensations leak out and are available to others. A dinner guest may feel that her distaste over her host’s atrocious cooking is more apparent than it really is, a secret admirer may believe his infatuation with a colleague is more obvious than is actually the case (The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States, Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., y Savitsky, K., 1998).

Although certain emotional states can be seen by some, our internal state, our emotions, thoughts, fears, etc. are generally hidden and unknown to others. Why? Firstly, no one out there can read our minds, but mainly because they are also focused on other things and themselves, as we all are, on their own behaviors, worries, appearances, and how they will be seen by others.

How to limit the spotlight effect, the self-as-a-target bias, and the illusory transparency?

Now is the time for us to shine. The time when our dreams are within reach and possibilities vast. Now is the time for all of us to become the people we have always dreamed of being. This is your world. You’re here. You matter. The world is waiting, Haley James Scott.

If your intervention in a discussion or an interview was not as bright as you would have liked it, it does not matter either. You can always adjust your behavior, appearance, body language, communication style, etc. to be more effective. Everyone makes mistakes, nobody is perfect, and that's okay! That's life, a bumpy road with many twists and turns, ups and downs, where we need to learn constantly from our mistakes and persevere to grow and succeed.

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