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In social cognition, The spotlight effect is a common form of social anxiety that causes people to have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which surrounding others notice aspects of one's appearance or behavior, and the extent to which they are aware of it. The spotlight effect can lead people to feelings of paranoia and self-doubt. This also makes people believe that they will be judged harshly based on their failures. Overall, the spotlight effect explains how people overestimate the amount of attention that is focused on them in group settings.[1]


The importance of the spotlight effect is that it allows people to understand that even during embarrassing moments, others around them are not judging their actions as harshly as they think they are. Eventually when people start to understand the concept of this phenomenon, they will feel more comfortable with themselves when they are caught in a blunder surrounded by people.[2]


The spotlight effect was named by Thomas Gilovich, and Kenneth Savitsky. The first appearance of the term in a journal was in the Current Directions in Psychological Science vol. 8, no. 6 in 1999. Prior to the naming of the spotlight effect there has been research done that showed the existence of the phenomenon. One of these studies includes Ross and Sicoly's work showing that when doing group work one will rate oneself higher on the work they contributed compared to that of other group members.[3]

Ties to other psychological conceptsEdit

The spotlight effect is an extension of several psychological phenomena. Among these is the phenomenon known as "anchoring and adjustment," which suggests that individuals may use their own internal feelings of anxiety and the accompanying self-representation as an anchor, and insufficiently correct for the fact that others are less privy to those feelings than they are themselves. Consequently, they overestimate the extent to which their anxiety is obvious to onlookers. In fact, Clark and Wells (1995) suggest that socially phobic people enter social situations in a heightened self-focused state, namely, from a raised emotional anchor, which makes it difficult for them to set aside public and private self-knowledge and focus on the task.[4]

Another phenomenon introduced in the spotlight effect is called the false-consensus effect. The false-consensus effect occurs when people tend to overestimate the extent to which other people share our opinions, attitudes, and behaviors. This is the opposing theory to the false uniqueness effect, which is the tendency of one to underestimate the extent to which others share the same positive attitudes and behaviors. Either of these effects might actually be applied to the spotlight effect. On the one hand, the idea that others share the same views about why one might be singled out could lead to such a feeling. On the other hand, the thought that one's behavior differs from that of other group members might lead to the perception that one is being singled out.[4]

Another related phenomenon is referred to as self-as target bias. This is exactly what it sounds like. It's where someone believes that events are disproportionately directed towards him- or herself. For example, if you had an assignment due in class and you did not prepare as well as you should have, you may start to panic and think that simply because you did not prepare well, the teacher will know and call on you for answers.[5] [6]

Also relevant is the illusion of transparency concept, which is a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others. Another manifestation of the illusion of transparency (sometimes called the observer's illusion of transparency) is a tendency for people to overestimate how well they understand others' personal mental states. This cognitive bias is similar to the illusion of asymmetric insight, in which people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people's knowledge of themselves.[7]

Research on the spotlight effectEdit


The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One's Own Actions and Appearance.Edit

After being the first psychologists to coin the term "spotlight effect," Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky went to work expanding upon it. In their 2000 study, they hypothesized that participants would overestimate the extent to which people notice things about them in aspects of appearance and group work. Gilovich and Savitsky broke their work down into five conclusions:[1]

  • When wearing an embarrassing t-shirt people were more self-conscious and overestimated the extent in which people around them noticed the embarrassing t-shirt.[1]
  • Even in non-embarrassing situations people overestimate the extent in which others notice them.[1]
  • When working in a group, people tend to overestimate the amount they contributed to a project.[1]
  • People tend to over evaluate or over think why people notice things about them.[1]
  • When there is a delay in action people experience the spotlight less than when there is not a delay in action.[1]

The Spotlight Effect Revisited: Overestimating the Manifest Variability of Our Actions and AppearanceEdit

  • In a follow-up study, Gilovich and partnering researchers predicted that participants would anticipate others' ratings. Participants were asked to rate themselves and others based on physical appearance during a seminar. The question they were asked was to rate themselves and others based on how the other members of the class would rate them. After collecting the questionnaire, results showed that participants overestimated how varied their day-to-day appearance would seem to their classmates. They thought that they would be rated more negatively than they actually were. This supported Gilovich's hypothesis as participants did in fact anticipate others' ratings when taking their own personal appearance into consideration.[8]

Empathy Neglect: Reconciling the Spotlight Effect and the Correspondence BiasEdit

Gilovich and Savitsky revisited the spotlight effect yet again in 2002, compiling four different studies featuring undergraduate participants from Cornell University:[9]

  • Study 1: Randomly assigned participants observed other participants solving problems. Those observers who were informed of the answers before the participants answered the questions rated solvers to be less intelligent and creative than observers who did not know the answers. Solvers in this study overestimated how harshly they would be judged.[9]
  • Study 2: Questioners developed 10 questions for a contestant to answer. Inside and outside observers watched the experiment. With participants in the room, the experimenter said aloud how many questions were answered correctly. Outside observers rated the contestant to be less intelligent, just like in study one. In this experiment, contestants overestimated how harshly other participants were going to judge them.[9]
  • Study 3: This experiment consisted of a participant chewing 2–5 pieces of gum while trying to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The inside observer knew the singer was chewing gum and watched the performance. Outside observers listened to a recording of the participant singing the Star Spangled Banner. It was predicted that observers who knew the participant was chewing gum while singing would show more empathy. Participants underestimated the impact of empathy in this study.[9]
  • Study 4: 50 participants imagined they were actors in studies 1, 2, and 3. Participants were then asked to estimate how much they would be judged by observers during these studies. Some were made to first consider the empathy level of the observers while others were not. Those asked to consider observer empathy anticipated less harsh judgments, and these anticipations were mediated by their estimates of observer empathy.[9]

The Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency in Social AnxietyEdit

More recently, an extensive study on the spotlight effect was performed by Drs. Michael Brown and Lusia Stopa in 2007 at the University of Southampton.[7]

  • The study used a between-subjects design and participants were allocated to either the high or the low social-evaluative condition. In the high social-evaluative condition, participants performed a brief memory task that was openly videotaped. They were told that their task performance would be evaluated later by a group of experts in communication skills. Participants in the low social-evaluative condition performed the same memory task, but they were told that the experimenter was only interested in coding the number of ‘significant events’ they could recall. However, participants in the low social-evaluative condition were secretly videotaped with a hidden camera. Participants then completed the SATP-Q, as well as measures that assessed fear of negative evaluation and depression. An independent assessor, who was blind to the experimental conditions, watched videotapes of participants’ task performances and completed an assessor's version of the SATP-Q.[7]

Research SummaryEdit

Gilovich and his fellow psychologists' studies have illustrated that people underestimate how others will react to embarrassing moments when the behavior is observed. Participants who were allowed to empathize were more charitable in their initial judgments. When participants were able to imagine being in studies 1 and 2, they were less judgmental on intelligence level. People admit harsh judgments toward others when they have little information about the situation at hand. Overestimation occurs because of failed connections to how other people empathize. People who embarrass themselves tend to focus only on how much they've embarrassed themselves instead of factors around them. Cynical beliefs tend to lead to harsher judgments. All people expect to be judged charitably by friends, family, etc. The overall findings of this research shows that people do in fact overestimate the extent others see them self. It has been shown that the spotlight effect is active in actions and appearance. It is also not just found in embarrassing aspects of life but in aspects that are considered positive as well.[9]

Brown and Stopa came to a conclusion that their results suggest that the spotlight effect might be specific to social-evaluative concerns, whereas the illusion of transparency may reflect a more general feature of social anxiety concerns. The results provide support for Turk et al.'s (2001) suggestion that socially anxious individuals use both internal and external sources of information to infer how they are coming across to others. However, a more precise understanding of how the spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency operate in social anxiety is needed. For example, concerning the illusion of transparency, it is not clear whether individuals believe that others can detect their internal states by reading their external appearance – as proposed by Gilovich et al. (1998) – or whether it might operate in a different way. For example, Kenny and DePaulo (1993) have suggested that people can assume their inner self is obvious—without referring to their behavior at all. Further research is needed to clarify this question. [7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (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(02), 211–222.
  2. Denton-Mendoza, R. (2012, June 05). The spotlight effect.
  3. Gilovich, T. & Savitsky, K. (1999). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency – Egocentric assessments of how we are seen by others. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 8(6), pp. 165–168.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sanderson, C. A. (2010). Social Psychology. United States of America: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. McConnell, A. (2009, June 25). Did everyone see me do that?
  6. The Life of Jessie: Roll. R. (1969, June 25). [1]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Brown, M., and L. Stopa. "The Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency in Social Anxiety." Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21.6 (2007): 804-19. Print.
  8. Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2001). The spotlight effect revisited: Overestimating the manifest variability of our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (38), 93–99.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Epley, N., Gilovich, T., & Savitsky, K. (2002). Empathy neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300–312.
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