Tell us if this sounds familiar: you’re going to a party, and you’re super excited. But when you get there, you can’t see anybody you know. Suddenly, the whole room seems to be watching you – and worse, judging you. Why did you wear this outfit? Why didn’t you bring a party favor? You idiot! Now everybody thinks you don’t even know how parties work!
Chances are, you’ve been in that situation, or something like it, at some point. And in all likelihood, if you ever asked one of the other people at that party about it, they wouldn’t have even noticed you were there. So what gives?
What is the spotlight effect?
What we’re describing is a phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” – the feeling that you’re the center of everybody’s attention, even in day-to-day life.
“If I walk into a grocery store and I'm the only one wearing a mask, I might experience the spotlight effect, imagining that everyone else is privately thinking I'm a weirdo for doing something different,” Alison Ledgerwood, Professor of psychology and behavioral science at UC Davis, told IFLScience.
“In reality, everyone else is probably thinking about cucumbers, or where on earth the cracker aisle is, or maybe they're experiencing their own spotlight effect and assuming that I'm noticing their particularly bad hair day (I'm not, of course, because I'm too busy stewing about what everyone thinks of my mask).”
Why do we experience the spotlight effect?
Here’s the bad news: being a human in the year 2022 is just about the worst thing to do if you want to avoid the spotlight effect.
“I think there’s a whole bunch of things that go into it psychologically,” Taryn Myers, Professor of Psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University, told IFLScience. “One is definitely social anxiety, and I would imagine that’s worse now […] having come out of a time when we were all sequestered, and then now it’s like, ‘how do I interact with people?’”
And what did we spend our time doing while we were under quarantine? For most of us today, social media is an inescapable part of modern life – and that means more hours staring at other, prettier, more photoshopped people than we see in the mirror.
And that can be a problem. “Leon Festinger, back in the 50s, came up with this theory called social comparison theory,” Myers told IFLScience. “[The] idea is that humans are always looking at other humans – they judge themselves in comparison, and basically try to better themselves.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing – humans are a social species, and this kind of compare-and-copy behavior is a big part of how we form and strengthen social bonds. And for most of human history, it probably didn’t make us feel too self-conscious: according to Festinger, if a comparison was too much of a stretch, we just kind of ignore it.
“You know, if I were to compare myself to Bill Gates on wealth, I would just […] you know, sort of dismiss it,” Myers told IFLScience. “But modern research shows that for appearance, we still do that, and we don’t stop. We’re comparing [ourselves] usually to like, the supermodels, or the airbrushed people in Hollywood, or the people using all of the filters on Instagram, and […] we can’t stop – even when it’s harmful to us.”
What does this have to do with the spotlight effect? “If we as people are constantly monitoring our own appearance – which we’re kind of trained to do, because our society is so image-focused – then we’re going to assume that everyone else is checking us out too,” explained Myers.
“Those people could be just in their own heads, experiencing the same thing,” she added, “but in our minds we’re like ‘everybody is judging me – because I’m judging myself.’”
What causes the spotlight effect?
Even without lockdown and Instagram, it seems like we’re destined to experience the spotlight effect. “It happens, at least in part, because we often use our own experience as a starting point for understanding how other people are experiencing things,” explained Ledgerwood.
It’s called the “false consensus effect”, and it’s that oh-so-human habit of overestimating how much people see the world the same way we do.
“If I love a TV series or hate a particular kind of sandwich, it's easy for me to imagine that most other people share my views,” Ledgerwood told IFLScience. “And then I'm of course stunned when the TV series gets cancelled – wasn't everyone watching that??”
And that’s why even the most confident and self-assured among us will probably feel the spotlight effect at some point. “Our own view is always going to be colored by our perception,” said Myers.
“As much as we can be the most empathetic and understanding and connected person in the world, we are our own narrators,” she told IFLScience. “It seems like all the attention is on us, because our primary focus of attention is, you know, us. That’s a big piece of it too.”
Who is affected by the spotlight effect?
Want to know how we guessed you’ve felt this before? Because you’re human.
“Most people will experience it at least in some respect,” said Myers. But “it’s on a spectrum,” she added.
“So it might be that certain people have it much more,” she told IFLScience. The strength of the effect depends on various factors: “level of awareness […] confidence in yourself, how much you’re able to dismiss […] I would imagine it also matters like, where you are in your career, or whether you’re looking for a relationship, or […] the kind of group you’re interacting with.”
There are some people, though, who are more likely to feel the spotlight on their faces. “There’s a ton of research suggesting that this does have more of an effect on women, for a whole host of reasons,” Myers explained.
“I think that’s true intersectionally,” she added. “For any sort of minority status – there are reasons why a person of color in a room full of white people might feel like they’re being stared at, and it’s not the spotlight effect […] I think that’s important to keep in mind.”
Even in these modern enlightened times, women and people of color are often seen more as things to be looked at than whole people – and it’s not just an external phenomenon. “There’s a great theory that was developed in the 90s called self-objectification theory,” Myers told IFLScience.
“It’s the idea that you turn yourself into an object […] You’re not in touch with your own body, and it has a lot of negative psychological consequences,” she said. “You are ‘watching yourself’ instead of enjoying the moment.”
And while this gender gap does appear to be closing, the bad news is it’s happening in the wrong direction.
“Unfortunately … [it’s] not that women are getting more empowered,” Myers told IFLScience. “Men are getting more self-conscious and engaging more in self-monitoring and things like that.”
What can we do about the spotlight effect?
“A good way to reduce the spotlight effect is just knowing about it!” said Ledgerwood.
“Once you know about it, you can sail into the grocery store with your mask and bad hairdo and shopping list for an unusually large number of cucumbers safe in the knowledge that everyone else is dealing with their own mental baggage and doesn't actually have much space to worry about you,” she told IFLScience.
It’s sage advice: after all, studies have shown that the people around you are likely pretty oblivious to you. We might spend hours planning the right outfit for a social event, but the truth is you can wear a wildly embarrassing shirt, leave the room, and come back in wearing a totally different one, and chances are nobody will even notice.
But if that knowledge alone isn’t enough, there are other things you can try. “If this is something that is pathological, if it is social anxiety, then looking at therapy with someone who’s trained in one of the cognitive behavioral modalities – so, cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, things along those lines – they can help you dissect those thoughts you’re having,” Myers told IFLScience.
“Otherwise a big part of it is probably just figuring out what makes you feel more confident,” she added. For some people, that may be giving yourself a pep talk; for others, bringing a friend for emotional support, or maybe a quick drink – “not pathologically!” she warns: “I’m not saying get wasted, and don’t develop an addiction of any kind.”
“For some people, it’s almost like a costume, or armor, right?” Myers explained. “When I first started teaching, […] some of my students were my age or older, or not that much younger – and so I wore a blazer. It just made me feel more legitimate, it just made me feel that much more confident, and so I think that for some people it can be something outward like that.”
And if all else fails, just remember this: even if things are exactly as bad as you think, there’s always an upside.
“For me, it's also helpful to remember that social influence goes both ways,” Ledgerwood told IFLScience. “Other people can influence us and make us feel uncomfortable or awkward, but we can also influence other people and make them feel more comfortable and less awkward.”
“Wearing a mask or sporting a bad hairdo might free someone else up to feel more comfortable in their own mask or bad hairdo,” she said, “because now they're no longer alone.”