The Spotlight Effect Is the Reason You Feel Like Everyone Is Judging YouThis message is brought to you by the coffee stains on your sleeves.
Are you ready to have your mind blown? Excellent. Because a little research-backed psychological phenomenon called the spotlight effect is about to make you rethink all of those moments you felt too seen. When you went a solid eight hours with something in your teeth. Every time you said “a great assault” when you meant “a grain of salt.” Even that time you said your new boss’s name wrong.
Turns out, it’s very unlikely people noticed. And if they did, they probably thought about it significantly less than you did once you realized your mistake. If this feels very hard to process, that makes sense. The spotlight effect basically makes anyone who experiences it overestimate how much other people notice things about them—as if they’re standing in a literal spotlight.
What is the spotlight effect?
Coined by psychologists in 2000, the spotlight effect was born out of a series of studies confirming its existence. In one part of the research, a student was asked to wear an “embarrassing” t-shirt (featuring Barry Manilow, FWIW) and then estimate how many people noticed. The result: The student overestimated how many people paid attention to them or the shirt. Sure, that seems very specific, but additional studies demonstrated that most participants assumed people paid way more attention to their awkward moment than they really did.
But just how much you overestimate people judging can vary. Like most things, the spotlight effect manifests on a spectrum. On one end of that, the fear of being embarrassed in public can lead to debilitating agoraphobia, or the inability to leave the house, says Erica Richards, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine. On the other end, it might keep you from speaking with your coworkers, visiting friends, attending important events, or just otherwise enjoying your life.
Why does this happen?
As it turns out, you might be able to thank main character energy for this issue. “The spotlight effect happens because we’re all conditioned to be slightly more focused on our own experience,” says psychiatrist Nina Vasan, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief medical officer at Real. That basically makes us assume that people give way more effs about the state of our hair or the things that come out of our mouths than they really do.
Who does this happen to?
Maybe it’s not that surprising, but the spotlight effect is more likely to happen when you are literally in the spotlight, says Dr. Vasan. So if you’re giving a presentation at work or school or toasting your bestie at their birthday dinner, you might feel like every move you make is on blast. “This might happen because you do have more attention directed at you and thus are overanalyzing how a specific scenario went.” And yet! If you do mess up, it’s still super unlikely anyone cares or is judging you as much as you assume they are.
While pretty much everyone can experience this, if you deal with social anxiety, or the persistent fear of being judged by others, the spotlight effect can feel particularly intense since you likely already assume everything you do is scrutinized, says psychiatrist Aeva Gaymon-Doomes, MD. If that’s the case for you, you might find yourself in a cycle of negative self-talk and avoiding people. That could look like doing things you think will shift attention away from you like avoiding eye contact or speaking really quietly, she explains.
How to make the spotlight effect feel less spotlight-y.
1. Remind yourself that this is a thing.
Not to oversimplify the issue, but bringing awareness to the idea that people probably care a lot less about the things you do or say than you assume is really the first step in overcoming the spotlight effect. So if you find yourself constantly ruminating over social interactions, tending to overemphasize your perceived missteps, and assuming that others see that you’ve done something awkward, remind yourself that this phenomenon is probably at play.
2. Think about how you’d respond if this thing happened to someone else.
If you find yourself in the middle of a social spiral, try shifting your perspective, suggests Dr. Vasan. Say you feel like you didn’t come across that great in that work meeting you just got out of. Think about how you’d react if someone on your team did or said the exact thing you did. “Most likely, you wouldn’t think twice about it,” she explains. Even if you’re certain you’d cringe, you probably wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they’re a terrible, irredeemable human who you’d never speak to again. (Though, if that is really the case, maybe think about whether you might owe someone an apology.) Ultimately, people are usually way too caught up in their own lives to care much.
3. Get an assist from a therapist.
If you find that the spotlight effect is showing up way more often than you’d like, it could be worth reaching out to a mental health provider who can help you figure out why that is and how you can manage it. That’s especially true if you think you might be dealing with social anxiety. Oftentimes, therapists will use a modality like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat social anxiety and the cognitive distortion that comes with the spotlight effect, Dr. Gaymon-Doomes explains. This type of therapy can help you challenge negative self-talk and intrusive thoughts head-on. Plus, you’ll learn how to recognize and reframe the mean things that voice in your head chimes in with. Overall, you’ll develop a more realistic way of seeing yourself and how you come across in social interactions, she adds. Who couldn’t use more of that?
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.