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Stepping Out of the Spotlight
You’ve just walked into a crowded room. It’s a social gathering – you know nobody other than the friend who invited you, and of course, that one friend is nowhere in sight.
Your pulse begins to race as one, two, ten pairs of eyes settle on you. Did you remember to brush your hair this morning? Are your clothes too loud for the occasion? It’s suddenly ten degrees hotter, and your palms are slipping around at your sides.
Now it’s later in the evening, and you’re trapped in a corner with someone you’ve never met. It’s been 35 minutes of painful surface-level conversation; all the while, you’re wondering, “Am I being too boring? Does this person want to leave and talk to someone else?”
The secret, of course, is that every single person at the gathering feels at least a bit of the same anxiety you’re feeling. The stranger trapped in the corner with you is just as worried about making a good impression as you are.
I’ve always wondered why these social anxieties are so universal. It may all have to do with the Spotlight Effect.
Shining a Light on the Spotlight Effect
The Spotlight Effect is a phenomenon that occurs when people overestimate the extent to which their behavior is noticed by others.
In other words, we think everyone in the room notices us – we feel as though all eyes are on us – but in reality, most people only have enough attention for themselves and those they’re directly interacting with.
It’s easy to understand why we have this misconception: When walking into a crowded room or giving a presentation, it can be hard not to imagine each person watching you intently. But our actions often don’t draw as much attention from bystanders as we’d expect them to.
You’ve probably felt the Spotlight Effect on first or second dates. These are the crucial ‘getting to know you’ dates where the other person could either pursue a relationship or run away screaming; it’s only natural that the stakes feel particularly high.
Of course, we often walk away from these dates hardly remembering what the other person does for a living or who their favorite band is.
Why? Because we were so focused on ourselves; our own behavior, our outfit, the jokes we told – we completely forget to pay attention to the other person. (And they probably did the same).
It’s a shame, especially when relationships are threatened, and opportunities are missed. Where does this disruptive illusion come from?
Origins and Psychological Ties
It wouldn’t make sense to say that the Spotlight Effect suddenly kicked in at some point throughout history. It’s been a turret of human life since we became conscious of our own behavior and social standing.
The first people to give it its title, though, were scientists Victoria Husted Medvec, Thomas Gilovich, and Kenneth Savitsky. These psychologists were aware of the phenomenon, and Thomas Gilovich had actively written a number of research papers on it.
Scientists David Kenny and Bella DePaulo added to the pool of research with their own study. They were interested to see just how inaccurately humans evaluated how others perceived them. The hypothesis? That participants would base their answers on their own self-perception.
They found that the participants’ answers did indeed vary from the real responses of their peers. But these studies didn’t answer the question of why.
Anchoring and Correcting
There are quite a few psychological concepts we could refer to when trying to crack the case of the Spotlight Effect. Anchoring is one of the best explanations; it’s the idea that we hang onto the first piece of information we’re given. We often grab onto our anxiety as an anchor since it’s at the forefront of our minds.
Creative writers (or any creatives, really) will be intimately familiar with the Spotlight Effect. If you’ve ever experienced a creative block, feeling hesitant to publish your work or even create it to begin with, it can be a result of anchoring. You feel self-critical, and so you assume that everyone else will be critical, too.
The ‘assuming’ part of this is known as correcting or adjusting. It’s almost like changing your perceived reality based on those anxiety anchors. Where you once had an audience of passively interested strangers, you now have an audience of vicious critics.
Another ridiculous thing we do as humans is assume that everyone is on the same wavelength as us. It happens subconsciously, of course, but the False Consensus illusion can make us feel targeted and isolated.
When we’re talking about the Spotlight Effect, the False Consensus causes us to believe that everyone around us agrees with our self-perception. If you think your outfit sucks, so do they. If you think you’re disinteresting, so do they.
Illusions of Transparency
Going deeper still into this concept, we can talk about the illusion of mental transparency – the idea that everyone else can see your thoughts just as clearly as you can.
It’s actually pretty common for people to project the thoughts they feel onto those around them. This illusion takes it all to the next level by assuming that other people will share your exact perception of the world. We overestimate the capacity of others to read our minds.
For instance, if you’re feeling self-conscious in a conversation with someone else because they seem to have accomplished more or had greater experiences in their life, it’s easy to assume they see the contrast as clearly as you do. That’s enough to completely kill your confidence and suck the life out of your conversation.
Breaking the Spotlight Effect
It isn’t hard to put two and two together and see how the Spotlight Effect could be a major hindrance to our lives.
Feeling as though you’re constantly being judged is stressful and disheartening. It’s a constant pressure to be better, to reach higher and do more – and not in a good way.
Worse still, it’s completely pointless. The people around us are NOT watching our every move to see if we slip up. They aren’t aware of our deepest insecurities. Most people are busy thinking about themselves – that’s simply the reality of it.
So, what’s the best way to break the Spotlight Effect?
1. Consciously focus on others.
Most of us assume that we’re great at paying attention to others. I challenge you to reflect on your conversational manner and see if this is really the case.
When someone else is talking, do you listen without interrupting? Are you genuinely focused on what they have to say? Or are you busy thinking about what you’ll say next to ensure you seem intelligent?
It can be incredibly freeing to let go of these tendencies and actually hear people out. Suddenly, you’re learning. You’re seeing the other person’s face light up as they register your genuine interest in them. And you’re not even thinking about their perception of you.
2. Acknowledge your anxieties and find your anchors.
I’m a sucker for a good journal prompt. Write down the anxieties you hold about yourself – and, more specifically, about the way others see you. Do you feel as though you’ll never be successful enough? That your social skills aren’t up to par?
Once you’ve identified these anxieties, go through and see which ones you tend to use as anchors. You might avoid social situations because you’ve decided that everyone else can see your social ineptitude. Maybe you steer away from conversations about your career because you have anchored to the belief that you’re a failure.
Once you can recognize these anchors, being able to correct or adjust them will be much easier.
3. Think about your own observations of other people.
As an experiment, pay attention to the way you perceive others at your next social gathering. When someone walks through the door, do you stare them down and critically judge their every characteristic? Chances are, you don’t.
Most likely, you give them a passing glance and then go back to your conversation or whatever else it is you’re doing. This simple exercise will help remind you that other people aren’t paying attention to your every move either.
The Spotlight Effect can be an incredibly damaging illusion if we let it take hold of our lives. It’s easy to think that others know us better than we actually do – but the reality is far different from this assumption.
We have control over how much energy we give to the Spotlight Effect. Recognizing it for what it is and taking steps towards breaking free from its limits can be extremely rewarding in the long run.
I view the Spotlight Effect as one of the most damaging illusions that can impact our lives. It’s a natural response to feeling uncomfortable in social situations – but it has the ability to completely disarm us if we let it.
Have you observed this effect in your own life? How did it influence your actions or decisions? I’d be fascinated to hear about your experience in the comments!
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
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