The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

We are social creatures that crave connections with and acceptance from other people. We want to have many allies as we move through life and want to be seen as a valuable ally to others. In our minds, we magnify our actions, words, and behaviors, examining what we do and how we present ourselves to others to make sure we are winning as many allies as possible. However, this constant focus on ourselves and how we might appear to others creates an illusion known as the spotlight effect. We are so focused on how we are presented to others that we begin to feel as though everyone else really is watching us and really is paying attention to how we present ourselves.

 

The reality, for most of us, is that very few people really notice much about us. Our spouse and other members of our household probably notice the little details about us, whether we haven’t shaved for three days, whether we have worn the same shirt two days in a row, and whether something is really bothering us, but most other people probably don’t notice that much. The reality is that most of them are focused on themselves, falling into their own spotlight effect and not actually paying much attention to what we are doing.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about the spotlight effect in their book Nudge. They write, “One reason why people expend so much effort conforming to social norms and fashions is that they think that others are closely paying attention to what they are doing. … here’s a possibly comforting thought: they aren’t really paying as much attention to you as you think.”

 

People follow traditions, like wearing ties, that they dislike because they think everyone expects them to wear a tie and will be disappointed in them if they fail to wear one. This example of conformity bias mixed with the spotlight effect is relatively harmless, but the spotlight effect can have more severe consequences. People may believe their phones and social media posts are being watched by the police, they may worry that their colleagues will think of them as a cheapskate if their Secret Santa gift isn’t expensive and cool enough, and they may worry that other people on social media won’t find them authentic if they don’t angrily denounce the outrage of the day. These examples show how the spotlight effect can play into conspiratorial thinking, spending more money than one can really afford to spend, and engaging in signaling behaviors that might be beyond reasonable.

 

This is why Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can be helpful and possibly comforting. It is useful to recognize that we overanalyze ourselves and focus too highly on everything we do and how we present ourselves. Understanding this can help us see that everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t have a lot of mental capacity left for scrutinizing everyone else. Once we realize that others are not paying as much attention to us as we thought, we can scale back negative aspects of conformity and self scrutiny. We can dial back the spotlight effect, and hopefully make decisions and choices that better fit the person we are, not the person we try to convince everyone else that we are. There are positive aspects to the spotlight effect, but for many of us, we probably over stress ourselves worrying about what others think, and would benefit from recognizing that others don’t pay so much attention to us.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.