All of us know what it’s like to make a social blunder, whether that blunder involves mispronouncing a word, tripping over our feet or forgetting the name of an acquaintance. Most of us also know what it’s like to lie in bed at night, replaying a years-old mistake and cringing inwardly at our (real or perceived) ineptitude.
For people with social anxiety, the anxiety evoked by these mistakes can become crippling, preventing them from attending parties, going out on dates or even visiting the supermarket. They worry that everyone will notice their slip-ups and then quietly (or not so quietly) pass judgment on them.
“Did you see the dress she was wearing? It was so unflattering.”
“I can’t believe he knocked over his glass when he reached for the potato chips. What a clumsy idiot.”
“Did that guy seriously just snort when he laughed?”
People with social anxiety often feel like they’re living under a spotlight, not unlike a celebrity trapped in a tabloid magazine. Fortunately, there is a psychological explanation for this feeling: the spotlight effect.
Even better, the feelings evoked by the spotlight effect are almost always wrong.
What is the spotlight effect?
The spotlight effect refers to the fact that individuals tend to overestimate how much attention other people are paying to them. This cognitive bias doesn’t just influence people with social anxiety — in fact, most (if not all) people have experienced the spotlight effect at least once in their lives.
The famous study associated with the spotlight effect is colloquially known as the Barry Manilow study. In 2000, a research team at Cornell University headed by Thomas Gilovich instructed some participants to wear a Barry Manilow shirt when interacting with their peers. (According to the researchers, Barry Manilow was judged to be particularly embarrassing.) The researchers then asked the participants to estimate how many people noticed their shirt. The people wearing the t-shirts assumed that about 50 percent of their peers would notice. In reality, only 25 percent of the participants remembered the shirt.
In a later study led by Gilovich, the researchers also found that participants tended to overestimate how many people noticed their physical appearance, their athletic accomplishments and their performance on a popular video game.
In other words? Most people don’t notice (or care) when you get a bad haircut or trip over a power cord. Chances are they’re too worried that you saw them spill salsa on their pants.
How do you conquer the spotlight effect?
For some people, just knowing that the spotlight effect exists may be enough to curb their social woes. They might attend social gatherings with a renewed confidence. The next time their mind reminds them of an embarrassing occasion in the middle of the night, they might be able to laugh it off and fall back asleep.
For other people — especially people with social anxiety — the solution is a little more complicated. Social anxiety is not simply nervousness — it’s an illness that literally changes the physical and chemical composition of the brain. People with social anxiety might know intellectually that no one is judging their mistakes, but that knowledge alone isn’t enough to dim the spotlight. So what can they do?
Thankfully, numerous therapies and medications can help treat social anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy can teach patients ways to correct negative thought patterns, and antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help them ward off the dread associated with social interactions and late-night self-doubt.
In the meantime, try to remember this: The people you want to impress are probably blinded by their own spotlights, too.
At the Sovereign Health Group, we understand that our patients are people — not a diagnosis. For this reason, patients are provided with customized treatment plans that could include cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducational group therapy, art therapy, equine therapy and meditation classes. For more information, contact us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in Neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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