Psychology + Self-Development

The Spotlight Effect and Social Anxiety

image of concert spotlight
We’ve all had our share of embarrassing moments. Perhaps it was the time you fumbled with your words and even blanked out momentarily during a presentation. Or that Winter where you boarded a streetcar, its ground filled with slush, only to have slipped and brought down not only yourself, but the trainee driver you hoped would catch your fall…all in front of an audience of passengers. Or those days where you’re simply having a bad hair day and think that everyone who sees you are taking notice. They probably are, although not to the extent that you may think. This phenomena, coined by social psychologists is called ‘The Spotlight Effect’.

In this article you’ll learn all about the spotlight effect, why this happens and how you can lessen its influence on yourself.
image of concert spotlight

What is the Spotlight Effect?

The Spotlight Effect is our tendency to overestimate the extent of which our behaviours, actions, as well as appearance are noticed by others. The impression as if a spotlight were illuminating your every action, expression, behaviour and appearance for all to see. Essentially, one of our cognitive failures to take into account that other people’s perspective are different than our own. Everyone experiences this to a certain degree but for those with social anxiety, the spotlight effect has a much more debilitating effect and may cause them to avoid situations altogether.

Famous Study of the Spotlight Effect

‘The most referenced study conducted in 1999 by psychologist Tim Gilovich and his two graduate students concerning this phenomena was one where subjects were asked to wear an embarrassing t-shirt with the face of Barry Manilow on it and walk into a room full of strangers.

It was hypothesized that each participant wearing the shirt expected majority of the observers to take notice of them and recognize the face on their shirt when in fact, it was later found that only 20% of the observers actually took notice. This goes to show that our feelings regarding our public appearance, actions, embarrassing gaffes and other instances where we think others are zooming in on us, is more than likely an exaggeration.

Why Does This Happen?

This phenomena occurs due to egocentrism, a natural cognitive shortcoming wherein children and adults alike are unable to recognize the subjective nature of their own perception. Since we’re so used to seeing things from our own eyes, it can be easy to think that others are taking notice of us when in reality, we’re most likely much more concerned and preoccupied with the happenings of our own lives. Naturally, we are much more aware of our own subtleties, for example, if a new pimple were to appear on our face or if we’d gotten a new haircut, the next person, be it a stranger of close friend, may not be able to spot the difference.


According to Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), a Swiss psychologist and a pioneer of developmental psychology, studied that children, before the age of 8, have an extremely egocentric mindset and are unable to take on another person’s perspective apart from their own. Piaget theorized that children were not necessarily less smart compared to adults but that they both think differently and that intelligence is one that grows develops through a series of stages. One of the most known methods that displayed egocentrism and the mental capabilities of children was a technique called the ‘Three Mountain Task’ which showed a three-dimensional display of a mountain scene. In that task, children (from ages 2 to 7) were asked to draw how the mountains would look from the perspective of a doll across from them. The study showed that children at that stage were unable to draw the mountain from the doll’s perspective and instead drew what they could visibly see in front of them.
Piaget's Three Mountains Test
Piaget’s 3 Mountains Test
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As we age and our cognitive skills such as attention, logic and reasoning, short/long-term memory develop, egocentric biases tend to be more subtle – though we are all still susceptible to various cognitive shortcomings that affect and changes the way we perceive everything around us. The Spotlight Effect is just one of many. For a downloadable PDF of 24 Cognitive Biases (created by The School of Thought), click here.

How You Can Overcome the Spotlight Effect

The spotlight effect can be detrimental to those who are unaware about it. People may spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what other people are thinking about them, unable to come to the realization that nobody ever really thinks of anyone all that much, with the exception of our family, friends and significant other. It is also one of the major reasons as to why some people feel unnecessary anxiety while out in public. If you’re feeling self-conscious with the way you look or act in a public setting, here are some things to remember:

  • Keep in mind that those few who do pay attention to you, will quickly forget you. Try this out: Keep track of your thoughts throughout the day. How often do you think about goofy things friends have done in the past? Or think about judgements you make of others around you for only a few seconds? You’ll eventually find out that it’s probably not often.
  • Use temporal self-distancing techniques by asking yourself, “How would I feel about this one week from now or ten years from now?” Distancing ourselves from our current situation and becoming aware of the concept of impermanence may help in supporting our emotional recovery.
  • Pay attention to your breathing. Physiological effects when you feel the Spotlight Effect may include a shortness of breath, increased heart rate and sweating. This is normal and is your body’s “fight or flight” response. To counter this, you should use your breath to signal to your brain that you are ok by paying attention to your breathing. Exhaling longer and deeper will help you calm down physically.

Let’s Discuss

Have you fallen prey to the Spotlight Effect? How much attention do you give when you or people around you do embarrassing things? Feel free to share your thoughts below.


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