Thursday, 10 January 2013

It's not as bad as you think

Part of the human experience is to find ourselves in embarrassing situations. We have all been there. In the pub we have knocked over a drink, had the odd wardrobe malfunction, or made an embarrassing mumble when giving a speech or presentation. You wish the ground would sallow you up. However, it may not be that bad, research now suggests that we generally overestimate the extent to which our actions or appearance are noticed by others. This phenomenon has even been given a name, The Spotlight Effect.

It was Professor Thomas Gilovich, at Cornell University who gave the spotlight effect its name and did some of the early research in this area. In one study he had participants put on a t-shirt showing a large picture of Barry Manilow’s face, (deliberately embarrassing) and then briefly go into a room filled with students. After each participant left the room, he or she was asked to estimate how many people in the room would be able to remember who was on their t-shirt. The students in the room were also asked if they could remember who had been on the t-shirt.

Participants completely overestimated how many people would remember they wore an embarrassing Barry Manilow t-shirt. Gilovich followed this up with a further study to see if the spotlight effect extended not just to people’s appearances, but also their actions. He put people into groups to discuss inner city problems. At the end of the discussion each person estimated how the other members of the group would rate their contribution and the performance of other group members. In most cases people overestimated how much attention had been paid to them when they were speaking.

According to Gilovich this happens because we are completely focused on ourselves, what we are doing and how we look. We have trouble appreciating that other people might not be that interested in us. Ever had an embarrassing post or picture put up on Facebook but never got the ridicule you initially expected? We focus on our own profile way more than others do.

Gilovich found evidence for this self-consciousness or self-focus when he ran the Barry Manilow t-shirt study a second time. On this occasion half the participants waited for 15 minutes before they completed their estimations. By delaying the estimation process, the experimenters gave the participants time to get used to wearing their shirts. Once the participants got used to their shirts, and became less self-conscious about their fashion infringement, they were no longer as aware of Manilow’s face, and neither did they assume that everyone else would notice it.

You have probably seen this yourself where the day after an embarrassing haircut or black eye, we are sure the whole world is pointing and laughing, but a few days later when we have got used to the face in the mirror, we think everyone else has too, even though many of the people we meet are seeing if for the first time.

The next time you make that mistake in public, don’t feel you have to blush and hide. You are probably the only person who was really paying attention to your calamity. But this is a two way street. For the same reason we also have to understand that when we make a witty remark or wear what we think is a cool or clever t-shirt, we may not get the attention or compliments we think we deserve. People aren’t paying as close attention to our appearance and actions as we are. Like us, they are too busy paying attention to themselves.

Being aware of this Spotlight Effect is important. Hanging on to or continuing to focus on your embarrassing mistakes can impact on your self esteem and how you think of yourself generally. The best response is to smile, even if it comes out as that weird smile of embarrassment and admit that it was a cringe worthy experience. Then let it go because people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are also the most prone to be liked. We like honesty.

The take-home message is perhaps this. When you find yourself mortified, be aware that other people simply don't pay as much attention to you as you think they do. Your slip up will not loiter long in the memory and that peculiar stain on your shirt or character won’t be the hot topic in the canteen. Your legend will not be secured on the basis of one particularly brilliant or embarrassing remark. It is not that you won’t be noticed, just that people do not brood over your actions you as deeply as you do. In other words, while you're stuck on your current problem or predicament, everyone else has already moved on. Shine the spotlight somewhere else, it will make you feel better about yourself.

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