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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai

The Spotlight Effect

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Imagine that there is a spotlight on you all the time. This spotlight allows people to notice you and pay close attention to your words and actions. Even though this spotlight doesn’t exist, many people actually feel like there’s a spotlight on them all the time. This is called the spotlight effect.

The spotlight effect is a cognitive bias where a person overestimates how much other people notice them.

For example, imagine you arrive at work and realize that your shirt is more wrinkly than usual. You feel self-conscious. You feel embarrassed and unprofessional. You start thinking that everyone at the office will notice your wrinkled shirt, and that they will also judge you for it and remember it forever.

However, in reality, only a few people notice your wrinkled shirt, and none of those people actually care. They aren’t judging you and they certainly won’t remember your wrinkled shirt for very long into the future. In reality, nobody cares about the way you look that much!

Actually, most of your colleagues are experiencing the same fear and anxiety you are feeling about themselves.

One coworker is feeling self-conscious about her new haircut.

Another coworker feels insecure about how he spoke in yesterday’s meeting.

And still another coworker feels anxious that he is underperforming in his role.

But in reality? Most people are thinking about themselves and don’t notice or care too much about what other people are doing.

The spotlight effect impacts almost everyone from every culture in the world. Individualistic cultures may experience the spotlight effect more than other cultures because people are focused so much on their individual selves.

On the other hand, I would argue that a collectivist culture like Japan suffers from the spotlight effect just as much.

Japanese culture emphasizes conformity, not inconveniencing others, and is shame based.

Even though Japanese culture is not focused on the individual, these three aspects of the culture may cause Japanese individuals to be quite sensitive to what other people think about them – how they dress, what they say, or what they do.

When people suffer from the spotlight effect, it causes them unnecessary anxiety and it takes away from their energy and focus.

While it is important for us to be sensitive to what other people feel and think, our energy is often wasted unnecessarily because people are actually not even thinking about us. This means we need to stop caring so much about what people think and, instead, start living our life with more ease and freedom.

But how can we change our mindset?

First, we simply need to be aware of our tendency. So, be aware of the spotlight effect. You already know about the spotlight effect, so now just keep it in mind when you worry about what other people think about you.

Next, just think about how often you notice things about other people. Think about how often you care about how other people look, what they say, or how they act. And, think about how long you remember their words or actions. Usually, if we’re honest, we don’t care about other people and we forget what they did or said pretty quickly. This is because we’re usually focused on ourselves.

So, if we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and try to imagine how they view us, we can understand that other people really don’t care that much about what we do, what we say, or how we look. If they do care, they’ll probably forget about it soon.

At the end of the day, why should we care so much about whether people judge us or not? Maybe we should just let them waste their time and energy judging us. This way, we can spend our time living our life with ease and freedom.

Doesn’t that sound better than constantly being self-conscious about what other people think?


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