In the spotlight: Feeling like all eyes are on you can harm your career

The spotlight effect: You're not the center of attention

Most people know what it feels like to falter in front of clients, screw up with the boss or bomb with a group of new colleagues. And looking back at these blunders months, or even years, later, you can be overcome by a feeling of mortification as intense as it was on the day it first happened. That sharp sting of shame is most probably due to a common and paralyzing cognitive bias known as the spotlight effect.

What is the spotlight effect?

The term “spotlight effect” was coined by American psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky in 1999. It is used to describe the feeling of having a spotlight directed at you, exposing your every move and your most shameful emotions to others.

This phenomenon has been demonstrated in numerous experiments. In one, students were asked to interact with a group of peers while wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with a cheesy photo of Barry Manilow on it. The test subjects were then asked how many people they thought had noticed their embarrassing attire. The average estimate was one in two students, whereas the real number was less than a quarter.

Olivier Sibony is a consultant, teacher and the author of You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them. In the book, he describes how people tend to “underestimate the extent to which they are not the center of the universe, especially in unpleasant or embarrassing situations where they imagine that everyone else notices.” As the spotlight effect is usually linked to unflattering situations, it can cause or heighten social anxiety. You may feel as though others clearly see your discomfort and believe they would die of shame in your position.

This cognitive bias can be compared to other psychological phenomena where people experience an exaggerated sense of self and of their importance in a group. For example, with the false consensus effect, people overestimate how much others share their beliefs and behaviors. “When it comes to professional opinions, people are inclined to believe that their competent and knowledgeable colleagues share their opinions, and are often surprised to discover the opposite is true,” says Sibony. Another common bias is the tendency for an individual to overestimate their contribution to the group. “When different members of a group are asked to estimate their share of the workload, the grand total always exceeds 100%,” he says.

While these two effects—the illusion of consensus and overestimation of one’s own importance—are not directly linked to the spotlight effect, they share a similar process. “You’re always going to be more sensitive to what you yourself perceive. You’re not the focus of other people’s attention in the same way, which is perfectly normal.” But realizing this fact is sometimes hard.

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A universal bias that impacts the workplace

By definition, a cognitive bias is a universal phenomenon. So, if you see yourself in the spotlight, that’s perfectly normal. Yet not everyone experiences it in the same way.

The spotlight effect can be seen as one of the main symptoms of social anxiety. For those suffering from this anxiety disorder, a passing humiliation can be blown out of proportion, affecting their self-confidence and ability to interact with others. At work, this can cause them to become self-effacing as a way to avoid being noticed, which isn’t conducive to teamwork or individual advancement.

As Gilovich and Savitsky explain, however, teenagers and young adults are generally more susceptible to the spotlight effect. “For me, this seems likely because, at an age when peer pressure is very strong, teenagers are probably much more attuned to situations that provoke social anxiety,” says Sibony. “More mature people have had the opportunity to learn that they’re able to survive embarrassment.” Young adults just starting their career, for instance, might have the overwhelming sense that everyone is expecting results from them or that they must prove their worth at every interaction. It can also happen when you join a new company or switch careers. In many situations, the spotlight effect can stifle your creativity and ability to build balanced and constructive working relationships.

At the same time, those who are susceptible to the false consensus effect or who tend to overestimate their own importance are also at risk. For instance, imagine the disappointment of being passed up for a promotion or a raise you thought you deserved. You might feel seriously undervalued when your team chooses a different idea to yours or when you feel the extra work you put in goes unnoticed.

Learn to cope with the spotlight effect

What’s the best way to ensure this phenomenon doesn’t cause too much harm to your working life? The key is to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.

As for embarrassing situations, Sibony thinks the answer is pretty simple. Just repeat to yourself the words of the American-Israeli psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it. Tomorrow you—and everyone else—will have forgotten all about it. As with many other cognitive biases, the best advice is to step back and get some perspective. If this approach doesn’t work and you’re overwhelmed by negative feelings—for instance, if an awkward interaction with your boss still keeps you awake at night—Sibony suggests consulting a professional. “At that point, it’s no longer a bias. It’s a serious problem.”

If you feel your self-confidence plummeting, it can help to practice self-compassion, a concept first defined by University of Texas professor Kristin Neff. The idea is to treat yourself as you would others. For example, if a colleague made a mistake in a presentation, you wouldn’t call them an idiot. So why do it to yourself? For Neff, self-compassion is not just a state of mind but a series of actions you can take:

  • Be kind to yourself in order to relax and self-soothe after a difficult social situation (self-kindness).

  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes and feels embarrassed afterwards (common humanity).

  • Be more aware of your feelings, including negative emotions, so that you can better manage them (mindfulness).

And for anyone who feels embittered by a lack of recognition, it might be time to re-evaluate your contributions and the expectations others have about them. What processes can be set up so that employees receive regular feedback on their work and are encouraged? What can be done to ensure that everyone’s ideas are duly considered, even when they aren’t adopted? How can individual contributions—often difficult to quantify in a workplace setting—be valued, and be used for career advancement? And, if the work environment itself isn’t ready for change, perhaps one question remains: what would happen if we did a little bit less?

Whatever you do, overcoming the spotlight effect involves both getting outside of yourself and working on your self-confidence. Yes, it’s a balancing act—but it’s also a fundamental part of living with others.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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