The Spotlight Effect – why science says no one’s watching (we just think they are)

Have you ever had a moment where you stumble on a cobbled pavement (in front of loads of people taking photos) and think everyone must have seen? What about that time you said “love you!” instead of “lovely, thank you” to your boss and think everyone in the room must have heard you say it.  (Yep, both these actually happened). 

Was I embarrassed? Oh yes. But I didn’t need to be, because not a single person noticed. Not one.  Not. A. Soul. 

If you’ve ever tripped over in a crowded restaurant, fallen up a kerb or missed your mouth when you took a sip of your cappuccino in a busy café, chances are no one noticed that either.  We just assumed they did. 

This is what’s known as “The Spotlight Effect”. 

According to research by Thomas Gilovich, and featured in this article in Psychology Today, even when you walk into a room full of people wearing a Barry Mannilow t-shirt, no one seems to care. (Seriously, they actually did this in the experiment). 

The reason, Gilovich suggests, is because we are usually so aware of our own actions and appearance that we have trouble realising other people might not be.  (It’s also worth considering that we may be so self-conscious it caused us to “slip up” in the first place).   

So what does this mean? The next time you pour your drink down your chin or miss your mouth when you eat, don’t worry.   It’s unlikely anyone will notice.  But it also means you have to cut people some slack when they don’t notice you got your hair cut, or something clever you said at work.  Because they were too busy worrying people were watching them. 

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