The Spotlight Effect: Making Mountains out of Molehills

May 26, 2019
People who suffer from the spotlight effect feel as if they can't have any visible defects or make mistakes because they feel like everybody's constantly judging them.

The spotlight effect is when people overestimate any of their defects or flaws, however small they may be. The victims of this phenomenon feel as if everyone’s watching them. They think others will judge their smallest mistakes. Although it’s more common in teenagers, many adults also suffer from it.

A person afflicted by the spotlight effect will be terrified of seeing a pimple on their face. They think everyone will notice that small imperfection. Likewise, they imagine others are talking behind their back, criticizing them. Two contradictory situations occur in the minds of these people. On one hand, they have very low self-esteem. On the other hand, they also feel like they’re the center of the universe.

Advertisers know a lot about the spotlight effect. That’s why there are countless commercials in which everybody shames a person for not using a certain product. For example, some ads show people signaling out or rejecting a person for not using a certain brand of products or doing a certain action. Of course, people who’re obsessed with others’ opinion are easy prey for advertisers.

A woman in a field, sitting down.

What’s the Spotlight Effect?

The spotlight effect is the tendency to overestimate one’s own characteristics or personal behaviors. In particular, this happens because the person believes any of their flaws or mistakes will be very noteworthy for others. However, they don’t realize that most people don’t care about their stained shirt.

We could say that the spotlight effect is just another form of paranoia. A paranoid person feels special, different, and chosen. But it isn’t due to excessive narcissism. Rather, they feel guilty about something they’re not really aware of. Thus, they project their guilt onto others. For that reason, in their mind, it seems like everyone’s constantly judging them. At the same time, their guilt evens out with their air of superiority.

People who suffer from this effect maintain the image that they’re better than everyone else. Therefore, they become extremely dependent on other people’s opinions. On one hand, they need to capture other people’s attention in some way. However, they’re also afraid of others, because in their mind others are merciless judges.

An Eye-Opening Experiment

Some scientists carried out an experiment on the spotlight effect at Cornell University. The experiment consisted of gathering a group of volunteers and asking them to choose a shirt they considered ugly. Then, they had to wear it for a day and count how many people noticed it.

After completing the first part of the experiment, the researchers asked each person how many people had noticed them in their embarrassing shirt. Likewise, they also surveyed the observers to compare their answers with the volunteers’ responses.

In the end, many of the volunteers were significantly off in calculating the number of people who had noticed them. The results showed that less than half of the reported observers had noticed the shirt.

A man suffering from the spotlight effect.

How to Overcome the Spotlight Effect

To overcome the difficulties that reside in your unconscious, experts recommended undergoing psychological therapy. However, there are other measures you can take in the short term that many prove effective:

  • Check the validity of your assumptions. It’s worth recreating the Cornell University experiment on a personal scale. You could try asking others if they noticed when you made a mistake or did something ridiculous.
  • Analyze the reasons why you’re embarrassed. It’s good to think about why you believe your mistakes or flaws are so serious. What’s so terrible about them? Why would other people be so intolerant towards them?
  • Think about something positive. To fight these negative feelings, you could try thinking about something positive. What makes you valuable? Why does a pimple on your face or a stain on your shirt make you less valuable?

In addition, it’d be interesting to take a closer look at why you feel so insecure about who you are. The spotlight effect manifests in people who haven’t been able to accept themselves.

  • Bleuler, E., Llopis, B., & Minkowski, E. (1969). Afectividad, sugestibilidad, paranoia. Madrid: Morata.