The Spotlight Effect in Psychology

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Have you ever felt like everyone was watching you? If so, you may have experienced the spotlight effect. Learn more about the spotlight effect from examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is the Spotlight Effect?

Lisa is a sixteen-year-old preparing for junior prom. Lisa and her mom purchased a pair of high heels for Lisa to wear with her prom dress. Lisa has never walked in heels before, but she's confident that she'll be able to do it. After all, Lisa watches her mom walk in tall heels almost every day. Once Lisa gets dressed for her prom, she finds that walking in heels isn't as easy as she thought. Lisa manages to make it all the way to her prom without much difficulty. As soon as Lisa and her date walk into the building, she trips over the carpet and falls. Lisa blushes in humiliation and runs into the bathroom, Lisa is convinced that everyone at the prom watched her fall, even after her date tells her that it was dark and most people were too busy dancing or talking to notice her fall. Like most people that find themselves in an embarrassing situation, Lisa is experiencing something called the 'spotlight effect.'

I am sure we've all had embarrassing moments like Lisa's and felt like the whole world watched our epic failure, when maybe there were only a few witnesses or people really didn't notice. The spotlight effect refers to the tendency for individuals to thing that others are observing them more closely than they actually are. In the example above, Lisa was sure that everyone saw her humiliating moment, when in actuality, not that many people noticed.

The spotlight effect occurs for different reasons. Each of us views our individual self as the center of our own universe. And while this may be true for us, we tend to forget that we are not the center of everyone else's universe. Our entire world consists of our own personal experiences and viewpoints that help us make sense of everything around us, which includes other individuals.

Our experiences and perspectives are unique and differ from other people's. Combined with the fact that others are also the center of their own universes, it makes sense that they would focus on different things than we do. So while we may focus on that humiliating tumble down the stairs we just took, others might be focused on reading the paper in their hand or a conversation with a friend. The spotlight effect is especially common in potentially embarrassing situations, though it can occur in other situations as well.

What is the History of the Spotligtht Effect?

The term 'spotlight effect' was popularized by Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky. Gilovich and Savitsky conducted an experiment in which they had participants wear an embarrassing T-shirt into a room occupied with people. Later, the participant was asked to estimate how many people had noticed the image on the embarrassing shirt. Gilovich and Savitsky found that the participants overestimated how many people noticed the image.

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