The spotlight effect: why you are not the center of the universe

Wednesday morning in the office. Oliver is sitting in an open workspace and reading the news on his laptop. He has had a busy morning and now has some time for a quick break and a coffee. Ray, a coworker, drops by to catch up with his manager. Ray sits down right behind Oliver and faces Oliver’s screen. Oliver suddenly became very aware of himself, scrolling through a news site and his private email. He then reopens the excel document he had just closed.
In that same moment, Ray is being questioned by his manager about the progress of his project. He sums up his activities and informs his manager about the planning, which is falling behind schedule. He feels like everyone on the floor listens to him talking. “They will probably think I suck at project management” he thinks.

Ray never even glanced at Oliver’s screen and Oliver did not hear a word of what Ray was saying. They were both minding their own business and focusing on themselves.

Sounds relatable? The spotlight effect is the phenomenon that people overestimate how much attention is payed to them by others. People think that others notice their behavior, their appearance and their faux pas more than they actually do. As if in a spotlight.

Scientists studied this effect. A student had to wear an embarrassing t-shirt to class. While this student predicted 50% of their classmates would notice their shirt, only 25% actually did.

The spotlight effect might be caused by peoples self-awareness combined with the inability to see the objective perspective of others.
So the next time you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, remember that while you are the center of your universe, other may hardly notice.