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Thinking about thinking


The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency


The eighth in a series of articles where Whitianga resident, Max Ross, is exploring the way we think.


The spotlight effect was named in “Current Directions in Psychological Science” in 1999, but the concept behind it was much older. A cool name helped to make it more widely recognised.

In an experiment, people are given a particularly cringy t-shirt to wear to a function. They wear this bad t-shirt all night and at the end they are asked how many people they think noticed their t-shirt. All the people at the function were then also asked if they noticed the t-shirt.

The person wearing the t-shirt wildly overestimated the number of people who noticed. This is due to the spotlight effect. People think they are noticed by others much more than they are. The same effects were found when the t-shirts were considered cool or average. Less people noticed the t-shirts than the wearers thought.

This effect has been shown within experiments using group discussions where the subjects think more people heard their contribution or noticed them. While it is pronounced when something embarrassing happens, the spotlight effect also happens when you do something of which you are proud. Unfortunately, less people notice your achievements than you think.

Understanding the spotlight effect and how it makes you not see things as they really are, with respect to being noticed by others, can help when you are in an anxious or embarrassing situation. Less people than you think saw and even less will remember it in the future. Understanding of the spotlight effect also helps you to remember that everyone has their own concerns.

Related to the spotlight effect is the illusion of transparency. We have a cognitive bias where we think people can understand our thoughts and feelings far more than they actually do.

The classic experiment that shows the illusion of transparency is where people are asked how nervous they are and how obvious was that to others. People wildly overestimated how many people noticed that they were nervous. We believe that others can read our internal thoughts and attitudes easily, that they can see how we feel, what we think and what is happening in our heads.

This bias could be because while in our heads, we are the centre of the world, other people don’t spend as much time thinking about your actions as you do. In reality, people think about you much less than you think. They are too busy within their own experiences to notice all the subtle clues about the inner workings of your mind.

When next you are about to do some public speaking or are in a situation you find embarrassing, it may help to remember that due to the illusion of transparency, everyone cannot tell how nervous and uncomfortable you are and due to the spotlight effect, they are not noticing you as much as you think they are. Your poker face is much better than you think it is. Maybe it will help.

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