Pretty much all of us have made a social blunder or two.
Those awkward moments can be incredibly embarrassing. Weeks, months, even years later, the memory might still make you cringe, so you do your best not to think about it. You might even make an effort to avoid the people who witnessed it, in case they’re still laughing.
As it turns out, you’re totally safe to relax. Most of those people probably don’t remember what happened. They may not have even noticed in the first place.
Something called the spotlight effect helps explain why you don’t need to worry about your faux pas lingering in anyone’s memory (except yours, of course).
The spotlight effect refers to people’s tendency to assume their mistakes and perceived personal flaws stand out clearly to others, as if illuminated by a spotlight.
In reality, though, other people don’t pay as much attention to you and your behavior — unflattering, exemplary, or anywhere in between — as you think they do.
At any given moment, most people are pretty absorbed in their own thoughts and experiences. This means they often fail to notice your experiences.
Your fly’s open
Imagine you’ve just found a great pair of pants at the thrift store. They fit perfectly and look amazing. When you wear them to your friend’s party the next day, though, it becomes obvious why someone gave them up: The zipper creeps down.
You keep darting into corners to adjust it, but eventually you get drawn into a conversation. Someone you’ve been hoping to talk to comes up and you start chatting, forgetting all about the zipper.
As the party winds down, you realize with dismay that your fly is open again. Unable to remember the last time you checked, you resign yourself to the fact that everyone you talked to saw you with your pants open.
But before you let your worries overcome you, remember an open zipper is something friends will generally mention. If no one said anything, it’s likely no one noticed.
Before a team meeting at work, you overhear a group of coworkers discussing current events. You jump into the conversation, eager to share your opinion.
After a long moment of silence, someone says, “Actually, we were talking about something else.”
You apologize for interrupting and back away as you look around nervously, convinced the entire room overheard.
The spotlight effect can also work the other way, causing you to think everyone noticed something you’re particularly proud of.
Perhaps you’ve just finished a presentation to your seminar. You spent a long time preparing and know you did well, particularly since your research covered several obscure points.
“How was it?” you ask a classmate as you take your seat. You ready yourself to take in their amazed reaction.
“Huh?” They say distractedly. “Oh, fine.” But you can tell your successful performance didn’t really register.
The spotlight effect is an example of cognitive bias, or error in reasoning.
Your worldview, choices, and moment-to-moment experiences typically revolve around you.
As you go about your day, you focus on the needs, responsibilities, and aspects of daily life that matter most to you. This can create something of a blind spot.
People typically interpret their experiences in the context of what they already know and think. This often results in observations that aren’t entirely accurate. You notice what you consider important, and you believe other people see these things in the same way. This is known as naive realism.
Most people don’t realize their perceptions are biased. Consider this, though: If your reality is shaped by your personal experience, doesn’t it follow that the same goes for everyone else?
In your world, you’re front and center. In their world, they are. Just as you focus largely on the information that has significance to you, their observations prioritize the information most important to them.
Even when you do take into account that other people generally see things in different ways, you might have a hard time modifying your own perspective to accommodate this.
People can’t read minds, of course, and we just established that you really can’t know what people are thinking.
So, how do we know that the spotlight effect really exists? Experts have conducted several studies over the years that support its existence.
In one set of studies from 2000, researchers found evidence to suggest that people regularly overestimated how much attention other people paid to their actions.
One group of study participants, asked to wear a cringey Barry Manilow T-shirt, predicted about half of the people who saw them would notice the shirt. In reality, only about a quarter of the people who saw them noticed.
A second group of participants chose a T-shirt that featured Bob Marley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jerry Seinfeld — all of whom were considered to be “cooler” than Barry Manilow by participants. Again, they greatly overestimated how many people would notice what they wore.
The research team also explored the spotlight effect in a group discussion.
People who shared their thoughts believed others in the group paid more attention to their comments than they actually did, regardless of whether those remarks were positive, potentially offensive, or inaccurate.
Social anxiety experiment
Researchers asked participants with a history of moderate to high levels of social anxiety to complete a memory exercise.
They told one group of participants the session would be recorded and reviewed by communication experts. They told the second group the goal of the exercise was to see how many significant events the participants could remember. They didn’t mention that the session would be recorded.
The results suggest the participants who believed they would later be evaluated felt more self-conscious about their performance.
If you’ve heard of the spotlight effect, you may have also come across something called the illusion of transparency. This describes your estimation of the ability of others to decipher your thoughts, personal beliefs, and emotions.
Most people have the impression that others can read these internal attitudes pretty easily. Believing other people can see exactly how nervous, upset, or embarrassed you are can increase the sensation of being under a spotlight.
Similar to your perception of the spotlight being on you, however, this impression is usually way off.
You might have some firsthand experience with this if you’ve ever gone through some significant emotional distress. From your perspective, your pain is pretty obvious, since it’s all you can think about. So you might feel pretty hurt when no one asks, “What’s wrong?”
Remember, there’s no way for anyone to know what’s going on inside your head. They can’t feel your burning shame after you wipe out on the icy path, and they don’t have any idea about your inner turmoil, unless you choose to share.
While the spotlight effect is just a normal part of being human, there are two things that can help when you feel like your mistakes are taking center stage.
Remind yourself about that self-imposed spotlight
Overcoming the spotlight effect can sometimes be as simple as knowing it exists.
When you remember everyone around you has their own concerns to focus on (including how people see them), that spotlight probably won’t feel so bright.
So, even when your hair absolutely won’t behave or you regret your outfit more by the hour, just keep in mind that far fewer people than you imagine will actually notice.
And those who do? They likely won’t remember for long.
Still a little worried? Ask yourself this: How often do you notice (or remember) what other people do?
Try to stay casual
The spotlight effect may not necessarily relate to public mistakes, but that’s when you might feel it most.
When a coworker, friend, or stranger does happen to catch something, ease your tension with a lighthearted remark. Connecting in this way can make it seem as if the situation is just between the two of you, and you’ll spend less time wondering about anyone else who might’ve seen.
If you accidentally call your boss by your partner’s name, you might feel a little flustered. The more embarrassed you feel, though, the harder it becomes to recover.
Instead, say something like, “Well, my body made it to work, but I think my brain is still in transit.” Then move on with what you were saying.
When you can look at yourself with a sense of humor, people will remember you, but they’ll probably remember your positive attitude more than the accident that led to it.
It’s normal to see yourself as the center of your world. But sometimes, this perception can make it seem as if others spend just as much time considering your actions as you do.
The spotlight effect can get in your way when you struggle to cope with it alone. Excessive worries about how others perceive you can make it tough to speak up in school, offer ideas at work, and prevent you from pursuing other interests.
If that’s the case for you, a therapist can offer support and help you begin working through these fears.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.