Saturday, 30 July 2016

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 swallow 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.

ProfessorThomas Gilovich, at Cornell University 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. 

You are your Habits

Aristotle once said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". If you want to know why your life is where it is today, look at your past habits. Better still, if you want to know where your life will be ten years from now, look at your current habits. Our levels of exercise, diet, work routines and pretty much everything else we do on a daily basis decide much of our future success and current choices.

A 2006 study by Duke University found that up to 40 percent of what we do every day is driven by habit rather than deliberate decisions. The autopilot kicks in as soon as we get out of bed and includes how we dress, what we do for lunch, how we greet the family when we get home from work, how much time we spend relaxing, playing or chatting. Eventually bed time routine takes over and the day is done.

This raises a simple point. If you want to change your life, (be that career, fitness levels or work life balance) your habits should be first port of call. There is no shortage of self-help books that will tell you how to quit a habit, start a habit, what sort of habits exceptional people have. It is all very interesting stuff, but in reality how difficult is it to create a new habit or better still, ditch a bad one?

Habit formation research from University College London suggests that there is no one standard length of time required for a habit to form. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. It will come as no great surprise that this period of time depends on how hard the new activity is and how much effort and commitment is required. Getting your 5 a day of fruit and veg might be a little easier and quicker than learning Chinese for half an hour every evening.

The research does suggest however that, for most new tasks the 66-day mark is when repetition becomes automatic and the habit takes root. These researchers did note that if you’re going to miss a day from your new found daily routine, skip a day that is further along in the 66-day period, since the pay back for habit formation counts more in the early days.
Another tip in learning a new habit is not to go for the complete personal makeover. Especially coming up to New Year it’s tempting to go for it all in one fell swoop. You start changing your exercise, diet, how you work etc. That is a lot of new behaviour to adhere to, especially in the critical first 2 months. Changing one habit can be difficult enough and is no mean feat so don’t spread yourself too thin and try changing everything at the same time.

CharlesDuhigg, has written an interesting book on habits, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Duhigg uses some good examples to explain how habits work. He looks at N.F.L. coach Tony Dungy, who, with lots and lots of practice, taught his players a small number of important moves they could perform without thinking, particularly at crucial moments in a game. When the players were exhausted, autopilot kicks in and everyone does their job. You don’t have to be an NFL line-backer to appreciate this. Pretty much the same thing happens when we get home after a night out, maybe feeling a bit groggy, take off our shoes and socks and barely know we did it.

As well as personal habits, we also have shared social habits. Some of these have been around for generations, such as shaking hands when we meet. Others are continually changing. We have seen this in the recent past where wearing a seat belt in the back seat of the car is now a well ingrained social habit; it was a very different story in the 1980s. These habits are changed by policy makers altering the norms in our society. This is the same principle behind de-normalising smoking via bans in bars, the work place and some public areas. The idea is to make not smoking the default social norm and hope that becomes our shared habit or custom.

Having habits is ultimately a good thing. They allow us to do routine tasks without wasting mental energy or having to make the same decisions over and over every day. Habits also allow us to operate within acceptable social norms so we can function as a society. Ultimately we humans are creatures of habit and it’s a case of trying to have more good habits than bad habits and being aware of how to change the habits we don’t want. List your daily habits and see which ones you want to keep. Bet you have more habits than you realise.