The spotlight effect is just one example of a type of cognitive distortions known as egocentric biases. This type of cognitive bias skews the way we see things by causing us to rely too heavily on our own perspectives, rather than adjusting to take other viewpoints into account. Another common example of an egocentric bias is the false consensus effect, which causes us to assume that most other people share the same beliefs and opinions that we do.2 There’s also the illusion of transparency, describes how people tend to believe that others are able to discern what we’re thinking or feeling.6
In a way, in our daily lives, all of us play the role of an amateur social psychologist: we are constantly trying to figure out why other people act the way they do. However, as the many egocentric biases demonstrate, we also have a tendency to center ourselves, even if we’re not trying to—after all, the only point of view that we have direct access to is our own. This means that our interpretation of a situation comes filtered through our own thoughts and emotions.
Our judgments are anchored by our own experiences
In part, the spotlight effect is driven by another cognitive bias, known as anchoring (or the anchoring bias). First coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two of the “founding fathers” of behavioral economics, anchoring describes how when we are making decisions, we tend to rely too heavily on information that we received early on in the process.3 Once we make a plan or estimate based on this early information, we start to think about everything that happens next in terms of that initial value. This makes us resistant to making major changes to our plan, even if the situation calls for it.
The effects of anchoring are so strong that we can even become anchored to information that’s not relevant to our goals. For example, in one experiment, people were asked to provide the last two digits of their social security number. They were then shown a number of products one at a time, including objects like computer equipment, bottles of wine, books, and boxes of chocolate. For each item, participants were asked if they would be willing to pay the amount that their two social security digits formed. For example, if somebody’s number ended in 34, they would say whether or not they would pay $34 for each item. After that, the researchers asked what the maximum amount was that the participants would be willing to pay.
This study found that, even though the social security number is just a random string of numerals, people still became “anchored” to the amount these digits formed. Those who had higher numbers were willing to pay much more for the same products, compared to others who happened to have lower numbers.4 As this experiment shows, any information we receive at the start of our decision making process becomes our point of reference for future decisions, even if this is illogical or puts us at a disadvantage.
So, what does this have to do with the spotlight effect? Well, one way to explain this bias is as a result of anchoring. When we are making judgments about social situations, we become anchored to our own perceptions, because they are the only thing we have immediate access to. Afterwards, we may try to adjust our views to take other people’s perspectives into account, but because of anchoring, these changes are insufficient.5
There is some experimental evidence to back up this theory. In the first paper on the spotlight effect, published by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Husted Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky researchers elicited the spotlight effect in their participants by putting them in a situation that most college students at the time (that is to say, the late 1990s) would find embarrassing: being forced to wear a T-shirt featuring everyone’s favorite one-hit wonder, Vanilla Ice, singer of “Ice Ice Baby.” (An earlier version of the experiment involved T-shirts with the face of singer Barry Manilow.) The participants were then briefly brought into a room where a few other students were working, after which they answered some questions from the researchers.
Gilovich, Husted Medvec, and Savitsky had already shown (through the Barry Manilow shirt study and others) that participants significantly overestimated how many of the other students would be able to recall what was pictured on their shirt. This is the spotlight effect at work: the T-shirt wearers, feeling embarrassed about their outfit, felt that people were paying more attention to them than they really were. But in the Vanilla Ice version of the experiment, the researchers went a step further: they also asked participants whether or not they had considered any other numbers before deciding.
A majority of the participants also said that they had initially considered a higher number, before adjusting downwards. This is in line with what we would expect if anchoring were at play: people initially came up with an extra high estimate, and then dialled it back a little bit—but not enough, because their perception was influenced by their original guess.
We notice changes in our behavior or appearance more than others do
Another reason that the spotlight effect might happen is that we are more familiar with our own behavior and appearance than other people are, and so we are more aware when there is something “off” about it. Everyone has had “bad hair days,” for instance, or mornings where they’ve woken up to find an angry, red pimple on their face. Or, to give a non-beauty-related example, academics who give the same talk over and over again might feel like they do a great job on some days and a terrible job on others, and be surprised to find that they get a similar response from their audience regardless.5
When we do something out-of-the-ordinary or perceive a change in our own appearance, it feels like everybody else must be just as fixated on it as we are—but they’re not. Research has confirmed that we tend to overestimate how much other people notice variations in the way we act or look. In one study, college students were asked to rate, on a 7-point scale, how they thought they appeared to everyone else on that particular day, relative to their appearance on most days. The gap between these two estimates was much larger than the actual ratings that other people gave of them.5 This can also drive the spotlight effect, in cases where we are self-conscious because something’s different from normal.