The Spotlight Effect

Spotlight Effect – The Sequel to Social Anxiety

~Shradha Tiwari

  • “Why is everybody in this room staring at me? Is it the hair? Oh no! I think there’s something in my face”.
  • “I wonder what those people out there are laughing about. Must be about me! They must be judging my boots! Oh God! Why did I even come here?”
  • “Should I ask the question? What if everyone laughs at it? What if they tease me? I’m sure they would call me stupid. What if my question offends the teacher? I better keep quiet.”

Most of us can relate to these questions in our everyday lives. There are some situations where we may find ourselves a bit confused.

For most of us, such ‘confusing’ moments occur once in a while and its perfectly normal.

But do you frequently find yourself in such situations? Do you ask yourself these questions every now and then when in a social gathering? Do you feel that everyone is noticing and judging you, your appearances, and your actions wherever you go?

That’s a lot of questions but if you can relate to them, you may be suffering from the Social Anxiety Disorder and the Spotlight Effect.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety (also called social phobia) is a mental health disorder wherein a person is in a constant fear of being judged or criticized by others in social situations. He/she is always worried about being humiliated or embarrassed or even offending others themselves.

This leads to irritability, self-consciousness and the fear of being in any social interactions and gatherings.

People suffering from this disorder generally tend to avoid talking to people, meeting them, and avoid social situations. They are under the constant belief that their actions and movements are always being observed and judged by other people.

Social Anxiety

Knowingly or unknowingly, we all make slight, little mistakes in our everyday lives. Frankly speaking, nobody even notices or cares about those.

On the contrary, people with the social anxiety disorder believe that everyone notices their slightest errors and judges them.

This is nothing but the consequence of the Spotlight Effect. Social anxiety, coupled with the spotlight effect affects the patients adversely, resulting in the lack of self-confidence and fear of any social setting.

That being said let us know about the Spotlight Effect.

What is the Spotlight Effect?

The Spotlight Effect is a phenomenon wherein people tend to believe that they are always being noticed by other people.

However in reality, such people highly overestimate the degree to which they are being noticed and sometimes, no one is actually noticing them. Psychologically, it is a cognitive bias.

They are convinced that all their appearances, movements, behaviour, actions and flaws are always being highlightened and judged under a spot light by the world.

In reality, the case is completely the opposite.

The Psychological Study

A popular study regarding this effect is the Barry Manilow study. It was done in the year 2000 by Thomas Gilovich and his team.

The participants were asked to wear embarrassing shirts of Barry Manilow’s face on it. They entered a room full of strangers.

Later, a comparison was made between the predicted calculation given by the participants and the actual number of people who noticed these participants.

The assumption made was 50% while in actuality; only 20% of the strangers noticed and remembered the participants to be wearing those shirts.

This study and his other studies conclude that:

Every instance where we think many people are noticing us is just an over-assumption where either none or few people are doing so.

The Psychology Behind this Effect

Based on several evidences, the primary reason that the psychologists state as the cause of the spotlight effect is Egocentrism.

This is a cognitive bias which means that we are so much engrossed into ourselves and our own perception that we have troubled figuring out other people’s point of view.

In simple terms, everyone judges a situation or an individual from their own perspective. Being engrossed in their own perspective and self righteousness, people never bother to look into a matter, citing someone else’s perspective.

This is where the anchoring and adjustment mechanisms come into play.

Man with God Complex

Anchoring refers to the fact that our whole attention is on ourselves and our own experiences. Thus, we don’t adjust according to the actual conditions and are unaware about others’ perspectives.

People end up thinking that others have the same focus on themselves like they have for their own selves. Truth be told, the reality is just the opposite.

Do Social Anxiety and Spotlight Effect together make a Double Trouble?

Social anxiety is not just a simple nervousness. Rather, it is caused by the changes in the hormonal composition in the brain and the body.

A higher or a lower level of hormones (stress, sex and thyroid hormones) can lead to the situations of anxiety and lack of self-confidence.

When a normal person feels that he/she is under the ‘spotlight’, he/she might easily escape this induced stress and anxiety, by modifying their appearance or behaviour.

It is only a matter of time before the person either realizes their assumption to be false or completely forgets it.

Consequence of the Spotlight Effect

However, in a person with social anxiety, the spotlight effect takes a more damaging form. In such cases, even after realizing that the feeling is baseless, the anxiety does not go away.

Rather, with time and increasing social interaction, the feeing becomes more deep seated. The person begins to feel more and more insecure and vulnerable.

Not only those, the spotlight effect can even make it difficult for some to go out in public such as in restaurants, malls or evens the public washrooms.

Consequently, sufferers of this disorder prefer to be lonely, keep less friends and avoid social gatherings altogether. To them, socialising is a dreadful activity.

Solve the puzzle of Double Trouble!

As the saying goes, “Better late than never”. It is always the right choice to fight and win over your mental battles.

It is always possible to cure yourself of the spotlight effect regardless of the fact that you have the social anxiety disorder or not.

Below, are some steps to overcome the Spotlight Effect.  


There are various therapies to treat this. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps to eradicate the negative thinking and bring in positive thinking.

Various antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can also be given to control the fears and diminish the stress. Consult a psychiatrist at the earliest.

Knowing the Disorder itself is the Solution

The first step to the cure is recognizing that you have this disorder. If you ever feel being under the ‘spotlight’, try to laugh it off.

Just remember that people don’t notice your appearances or your actions as much as you think they do. It’s a vast world with 7.8 billion people.

Everyone has their own problems, thoughts and responsibilities to take care of. Frankly speaking, in this fast paced and competitive world, no one has the time to eagerly notice others actions and appearances.

Understand the Concept of ‘Illusion of Transparency’

According to the Illusion of Transparency, people believe that their internal cues (such as their thoughts and emotions) are more apparent to others than they actually are.

Simply speaking, this is a cognitive bias resulting in people overestimating that their personal mental state and feelings are clearly visible to other people, when in reality, that is not the case.

Whenever you feel this illusion, understand that is not the truth and just a baseless belief.

Shift your focus from yourself and your anxiety and notice that maybe few or no one at all is noticing you. As a matter of fact, people are more engrossed in themselves than others.

Keep Calm and Breathe

During such situations, focus on breathing and take deep breathes in-between.

Excessive sweating and experiencing breathing difficulties is common during this while facing the consequences of this effect.

Inhale Exhale

Pay Heed to The Things Around You

Let’s assume that you have gone to the birthday party of your friend where everyone except your friend is unknown to you. Your friend is busy with others.

Suddenly, you feel overdressed in your mind just because the fabric of your dress is shiny. You start to feel embarrassed, like every eye in the room is on you. You feel that others are giggling at you being ‘overdressed’.

Slowly, you begin to feel that it would be better if you could just sneak away and escape. Don’t worry. You’re not ‘overdressed’. It’s the spotlight effect ruining your evening.

In such a case, focus on your environment. Try talking to the unknown people there. Time to make the ‘friends of friends’ your friends.

Explore the place and the music. Play games in your mind thinking about other guests at the party. Always keep focusing on the surroundings until it helps in such situations.

Challenge Yourself Out of Comfort Zone

Get out of your comfort zone! Push yourself to do things which generally make you feel awkward.

Talk to the person you find the scariest. Wear those neon pop colour shoes. Get your hair dyed. Get a tattoo.

Leave your life. Life’s too short to just stress over what others think about you. Just enjoy!

Capture and Correct Yourself

Make a video of yourself and observe. Rectify things in yourself which you find improper. Do this often to keep a check.

This will boost your self confidence as well as make you admire yourself more and more.


The next time you feel everyone is looking at your tanned hands in summers, or judging your new haircut or even your pop-coloured shoes think of this as the spotlight effect.  

Just snap out of it. It’s all in your head. Don’t  let some baseless beliefs ruin your day.

And most importantly,

Remember, you’re not alone. Talk to your family and loved ones. We are all there for you in this fight!

Anupam Kundu
A professional blogger and an IT freak. The atypical combo of a Civil Service aspirant and a Tech enthusiast.