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Spotlight effect: why we believe that we are all constantly judged

Spotlight effect: why we believe that we are all constantly judged

October 4, 2022

"I have made a mistake". "I have ceceado". "I have a huge grain." "I wear a sock of each color." "I have badly painted nails." All these phrases have something in common: many people are very bothered by the idea that others may come to detect an imperfection in oneself.

The truth is that most people with whom we interact are not even going to fix on it, but we can become obsessed with that particular detail that might make us look bad, believing that everyone will see it. We are facing what is known as spotlight effect , a psychological phenomenon that we are going to talk about in this article.

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What is the spotlight effect?

It is understood by spotlight effect the overestimation that people make of the salience of their behavior or characteristics . In other words, people consider that an act or element of their own is very striking and everyone will see it and judge it.

It usually refers to negative elements, such as having made an action wrong, having a pimple or wearing a shirt that generates embarrassment. However, it can also refer to an overestimation of what other people are going to say about their own contribution or about some positive feature that others will value and admire. It is more frequent in very introspective people, or that tend to focus a lot on themselves and their actions .

Thus, we give more importance to a specific element and we think that the environment will focus on it, provoking this thought the desire to hide it or teach it (depending on whether what we believe of that element is negative or positive). But we lose sight of and forget the fact that we are not the nucleus of the lives of others , being these centered on their own affairs.

Experiments carried out

The existence of the spotlight effect is somewhat documented and observed in multiple experiments. One of them was Cornell University, where students were asked to wear shirts that they considered embarrassing . After that, they were asked to evaluate the number of people who had set themselves in that detail considered as shameful. Also, the people they had observed were asked. The comparison of data showed that less than half of the people the participants thought they had noticed had actually done so.

The same experiment has been carried out in many ways with very similar results, with aspects such as combing, or even participating in debates. And not only with physical elements or actions taken: a similar effect has also been observed in the belief that others are able to guess their own emotional state due to the salience of our behaviors or actions.


The spotlight effect is common, but it can generate a series of important consequences in the person who suffers it. For example, it is closely linked to self-esteem: if we believe that people are focusing on an element of their own that we judge to be negative, insecurity and a decrease in our perceived self-worth will end up appearing.

We focus our attention on the element in question and tend to pay less attention to the rest of variables and elements present in ourselves or in the environment. Also, this focus can cause a decrease in concentration and performance in other tasks, which in turn can further diminish our self-esteem.

It can also lead to consequences at the behavioral level, which can lead to avoidance or overexposure of situations in which showing up with this element could be embarrassing / proud: for example, not going out or going to a party for thinking that everyone will see and judge the grain that has left us the night before.

It is even possible to relate this effect to some pathologies: body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders can be examples in which a spotlight effect of great importance can be observed. In body dysmorphic disorder occurs a fixation with a part of the body that embarrasses us , and in disorders such as anorexia and bulimia the weight and physical figure we have becomes an obsession. Who suffers them overestimates the salience of these elements and ends up distorting their own self-perception (looking fat even when they are in a severe infrapeso or feeling a deep aversion and concern for a part of themselves), although in these cases it is more related to their own self-perception

A frequent effect throughout the life cycle

The spotlight effect is something that most people have ever experienced, being especially frequent in adolescence . In fact, this effect is directly related to one of the mental phenomena typical of this moment of development: the imaginary audience.

That is, the thought that others are attentive and attentive to our actions and actions, something that generates that we can behave in a way that favors the opinion of the rest about us. It is a somewhat egocentric vision , thinking that the rest of the environment is going to pay attention to us, but that it is habitual in the moments in which we are assuming our individuality and creating our own identity.

The imaginary audience is something that as we mature, it disappears to be replaced by the concern for the real audience that we have every day. But even in adulthood, the truth is that as a rule we tend to overestimate the impression we make on others and the attention that is given to us.

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Advertising use

The spotlight effect has been known for many years, and has come to be used as an advertising element and for commercial purposes. The concern to cover something that we consider a defect or to draw attention it is something that is used by brands to generate more sales. Obvious examples are advertisements for certain brands of clothing, cosmetics, automobiles, watches or deodorants. The supposed focus of others is used in what we use to favor showing a more positive image.

This does not mean that others do not pay attention to what we do or what we do, and the image is important today. But the truth is that this effect makes us overestimate the importance of specific details and give value to things that do not have so much.

Bibliographic references

  • Gilovich, T. & Husted, V. (2000). The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One's Own Actions and Appearance.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 78 (2): 211-222.

Why incompetent people think they're amazing - David Dunning (October 2022).

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