Relax, people don’t care as much as you think


Relax, people don’t care as much as you think

In general, we feel we are being noticed, watched or evaluated more than is actually the case, writes LOUIS AWERBUCK. This leads to social anxiety and unnecessarily limits our performance.


I DAREN'T go to the beach with this body," a student said to me the other day, anxiously awaiting the  December holidays with her friends. “People are going to look at me and laugh."

She is not the only person with such fears. ­“Usually I just keep quiet in company," a middle-aged accountant recently confessed. “People might think I'm silly."

These and similar statements abound in every psychologist's consulting room. It would probably be expected that people who often feel self-conscious, or are chronically troubled by their self-image, spend more time on professional help for self-development and that psychologists consequently have more to do with people who complain about how others perceive them.

But despite this expectation, it is a regular tendency for most people to experience that other people notice them as individuals more intensely than actually occurs, and this truly human experience is not limited to those suffering from delusions of persecution.

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Research has irrefutably proven that the so-called spotlight effect — the dramatic overestimation of your individual effect on others — occurs far and wide among all population groups and layers of society. In general, people perceive that they are noticed, watched or evaluated more than is the case in reality.

This phenomenon is fuelled by a higher individual consciousness than a group consciousness (unlike in the case of, for example, ants). This means most people are under the mistaken impression that their appearance and actions are more noticeable to other people than what is probably true in these other people's realities.

It seems individuals tend to forget that although they are the centre of their own existence, they are not the centre of other people's existence.

This tendency is especially activated when they do something outside the usual norms of a certain context, such as wearing clothes that do not reflect general taste or enjoy social approval.

In a seminal study on the spotlight effect that appeared in 2000 (“The Spotlight Effect Revisited”), social psychologist Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues describe how they conducted their research. Participants in their experiments were, among others, students who had to wear unfashionable T-shirts with Barry Manilow depictions on campus and estimate how many other students would notice and remember them.

Results showed that the students totally overestimated the effect of their appearance on others and were actually the only ones who wanted to hide in embarrassment behind the campus's pillars. Contrary to the students' expectations, Manilow on the chest did not elicit much social disgust from the public student ranks.

‘The Great Gatsby’

It is clearly woven into our human nature not to be able to accurately perceive other people's perceptions of and about us. Nicholas Epley, a social psychologist known for his research on patterns of perception and social cognition, investigated the spotlight effect in 2008 with a specific focus on how people perceive themselves physically  (Mirror, mirror on the wall: enhancement in self-recognition).

He found that participants in research studies could recognise themselves more accurately in a mirror than in a photograph. But the same participants were under the impression that their families and social acquaintances would be able to recognise them equally easily in both situations — a clear indication of how self-perception and the perception of how others perceive you differ.

The spotlight effect is common in  popular media and literature. In F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the character of Jay Gatsby (in his pursuit of wealth and status) is portrayed as someone whose actions and decisions are constantly shaped by his awareness of how others perceive him. In JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is constantly uncomfortably aware of his position in society and feels collectively watched and condemned.

Peter Parker's (Spider-Man) inner struggle with self-esteem and his resulting fear of social judgment is a continuous theme in this universally popular superhero's daily comings and goings.


The ongoing and genuinely human experience of the spotlight effect is not a pathological predisposition, and certainly not a behavioural pattern that can be described as a clinical condition. This “built-in" tendency to experience oneself as an actor on a stage with a universal audience is considered a normal part of human cognition.

However, there are implications that can make life difficult for people. The core of social anxiety lies precisely in the experience that you are closely and attentively watched and judged by other people. Intense self-consciousness leads to limitation of performance and action; just think of the sweating and stuttering that some have to go through when a speech has to be made.

Research shows that people are most likely to overestimate the value of their physical appearance, as well as the impact of social blunders, on other people. It is therefore quite common to prefer to avoid the beach because you are under the impression that other people will bury their heads in the sand in horror at your white, round body. Or rather keep the joke around the barbecue fire to yourself — not only because you're afraid the others won't laugh, but also because you're afraid they'll remember that your jokes aren't funny.

Research further shows that the fear of experiencing embarrassment, especially social embarrassment, plays a significant role in how the spotlight effect manifests in people's perceptions of situations.

Any factor that is perceived as a possible cause of social embarrassment (such as the Barry Manilow T-shirts) immediately increases the possibility that the the way the individual will view a situation can act as a trigger for the spotlight effect .

The timing of the perceived embarrassment also seems to play a big role. If the exposure is immediate, the spotlight effect's intensity increases. If the exposure is delayed, for example when students first have an opportunity to “mentally prepare" themselves to appear with unfashionable T-shirts among other students, the intensity of the experience of the spotlight effect generally decreases.

False consensus effect

Other human cognitive propensities have strong similarities and connections to the spotlight effect, such as the false consensus effect. Research on the false consensus effect is common and argues that (apart from the spotlight effect tendency) we are also strongly inclined to overestimate the extent to which other people share our opinions and attitudes.

Because most people simply shut up when they disagree with you, it's easy to assume, for example, that everyone agrees with your conspiracy theories, especially after you've had a few glasses of wine. This further general human tendency, unlike in the case of the spotlight effect, easily leads to the wrong conclusion, which can give your self-esteem a solid (unfounded) boost.

Either way, what we think about how other people perceive us is clearly rarely on the same representational level as how it is really imagined in these people's perceptions of us. Most people tend to place too much value on the impact of their actions and appearance on other people. This is especially true of strangers and casual acquaintances, as people seem to be able to gauge fairly accurately what close friends and family's opinions of them are.

Awareness of the spotlight effect is frequently promoted and portrayed by cognitive psychologists. Simply focusing on it or keeping it in mind in certain circumstances can help tackle social anxiety. It is certainly useful to take the principle into account in certain contexts, such as when you have propose a toast and are worried about what everyone will think of your crooked teeth. Fortunately, the research shows that “they" are generally not going to care much.

One could therefore say with relief that it is probably to people's advantage that we are not as important to others as we think we are.

♦ VWB ♦

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