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The Spotlight Effect: 8 Billion Reasons Why Nobody Is Staring At You


One slip-up. 

A ‘kind retards’ to a potential client, a colleague walking into your unlocked toilet cubicle, a risqué WhatsApp message sent to your mortgage advisor instead of your lover, and that’s it. You’re done. 

Your reputation, career, and future property empire – all down the drain. Forever.  

You might as well walk around with a huge flickering neon sign above your head that says ‘loser’ for the rest of your life. 

The spotlight effect

In reality, while you might still be fretting about your embarrassment hours, days and sometimes weeks later, everyone else has long moved on. They’ve been too preoccupied with their own neon sign for your indiscretion to register as anything more than a bit of schadenfreude or a funny anecdote they’ll bring up in the pub on Friday evening. 

Behold the power of the spotlight effect, a cognitive bias that has us dramatically overestimate how much attention others are paying to our mistakes, appearance, or behaviour. It's particularly debilitating for those who are naturally shy or struggle with social anxiety. 

In a previous article I wrote on psychological biases, I spoke about the Dunning-Kruger effect – a so-called egocentric bias that explains why incompetent people overestimate their competence so often. The spotlight effect is, in fact, just another example of a blind spot caused by putting far too much weight on our own vantage point.

Indeed, our baked-in egocentrism fools us into believing that we live at the centre of our own little solar system – orbited by planets, satellites and meteors whose lives would be impossible if they weren’t feasting on our gravity and light. 

We’re the A-list celebrity in our very own Truman Show – everyone else cast as extras or, if they’re lucky, in a solid supporting role. 

The spotlight effect is triggered by a fear programmed into us during times when we were still doodling mammoths in caves – social rejection. It explains why stepping into a restaurant on your own can feel like strutting the red carpet on the Croisette. All eyes on you, bystanders interrupting their dinners to snigger at those weird yoghurt stains on your crotch and the horror show of you dining all by yourself.  

Except that, yet again, you barely registered in anyone’s consciousness. The other diners were either too busy focusing on their conversation or they were ruminating about their own micro-embarrassments from earlier in the day. And even if your entry did go noticed, chances are you were forgotten faster than the sequel to Basic Instinct. 

No Palme D’Or for you again this year, I’m afraid.  

The illusion of transparency effect

To make matters worse, we simultaneously suffer from a bias called the illusion of transparency. This causes us to overestimate how much people perceive what’s going on for us internally. 

As a result of this bias, we convince ourselves we’re easy to read and somehow wear our hearts on our sleeves. But here’s the thing: we’re way more familiar with our appearance and behaviour than others are so, of course, we’re the first ones to notice when something’s off about it.

Whenever we perceive a change in how we look – a bad haircut or sleepy eyes – or do something out of the ordinary, we therefore assume everyone else is just as fixated on it as we are. They aren’t.

At work, you may notice this illusion as it exacerbates feelings of being a bad public speaker. You're shocked that people compliment you on your presentation even though you feel you’d been putting on a slow-motion panic attack in front of everybody. Instead of the room picking up on your scent like a pack of hyenas in a slaughterhouse, barely anyone picked up on your nervousness. 

On the flip side, as you trick yourself into thinking that your body language tells all, you also expect colleagues, friends and lovers to be excellent mind-readers. You assume that what’s bothering you is written all over your face and bleedingly obvious, even to the uninitiated. In reality, you have a poker face that gives little away about your subjective experience. 

This illusion of transparency means we often fail to communicate what’s going on for us but then get frustrated when others don’t pick up on our moods or sullenness. Or, conversely, we apologise for having been a bit off today to a bemused colleague who hadn’t noticed anything different in our behaviour. 

We think we’re channelling Daniel Day-Lewis at his most intense, but what we’re actually giving is Keanu Reeves – in Toy Story.

Role reversal 

So how can you prevent both biases? 

You can't, as it turns out. They’re baked into our wiring, so you can’t stop them from happening. What you can do is exercise greater awareness and self-control over how quickly you snap out of them.

In the words of Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Exercise that freedom by reminding yourself that everyone suffers from the same biases. Instead of stressing out about being at the centre of attention, switch your attention towards the other people in the room. Remember they're all trying to deal with their own internal turmoil and negative thinking at this very moment too.

And to be honest, all of us have far better things to do with our time than to be preoccupied with your minor social infractions. Unless you're a narcissist, this should come as a welcome reassurance. 

So, when the heat is on, give yourself a few seconds. Take control of your internal state and imagine what might be going on for everyone else in your vicinity right now. In a variation of picturing everyone naked, remember they are human beings who, at this very moment, may feel as vulnerable as you for different reasons. 

Besides, why not enjoy the limelight for a bit and strut that red carpet like it’s Oscar night – even if all you're nominated for is a Golden Raspberry? 

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You'll also be the first to find out about my next group coaching programme and upcoming retreats.