Get Over Yourself
By Bryan Caplan
I don’t worry much about what other people think about me. My detractors attribute this to a severe case of Asperger’s, but I’ve got a competing two-part story.
Part 1: We live in an evolutionarily novel anonymous society, so most people’s opinions of me – good or ill – are inert. As long as I please key actors in my immediate social network, I do fine. Tyler Cowen’s pro-Caplan stance has changed my life far more than the negative opinions of hundreds of my classmates.
Part 2: In any case, most humans are too self-obsessed to heed my eccentricities. As I often say, “We’d worry far less about what other people thought about us if we realized how little they think about us at all.” In hindsight, the vast majority of the “hundreds of classmates” who seemed to dislike me were barely aware I was alive.
Part 1 seems indisputable, but Part 2’s more in doubt. Last week, though, I stumbled across a mid-sized psychological literature on the “Spotlight Effect” – and learned the research is strongly on my side. Gilovich, Medvee, and Savitsky’s seminal “The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2000) snaps together three experiments to show that individuals underestimate their social invisibility:
The research presented here supports our contention that people tend to believe that they stand out in the eyes of others, both positively and negatively, more than they actually do. Participants in Study 1 who were asked to don an embarrassing T-shirt overestimated the number of observers who noted that it was the singer Barry Manilow pictured on the shirt. Participants in Study 2 who were asked to wear T-shirts bearing the images of figures of their own choosing from popular culture likewise overestimated the number of observers who noted the individuals depicted on their shirts. Contributors to a group discussion in Study 3 thought their minor gaffes and positive contributions to the session stood out more to their fellow discussants than they actually did. It thus appears that people overestimate the extent to which others are attentive to the details of their actions and appearance. People seem to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on
them than it truly does.
if people overestimate the extent to which others are attentive to their momentary actions and appearance, it stands to reason that they will also overestimate the extent to which others are likely to notice the variability in their behavior and appearance over time. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is reflected in the widespread fear of having a “bad hair day.” Clearly, the fear of having such an affliction is not simply that one’s hair can be recalcitrant and that rogue strands of hair can sprout in the most unfortunate places–it is that other people will notice any such aberrations that arise. But the research on the spotlight effect suggests that this concern may be often overblown. The variability that an individual readily perceives in his or her own appearance is likely to be lost on most observers. To others, one’s putative bad hair days may be indistinguishable from the good. This phenomenon is hardly limited to physical appearance, of course. Academics, who frequently deliver the same lecture numerous times, are often surprised to find that marked fluctuations in their own assessment of their performance (whether they “nailed” or “bombed” a talk) are not met by corresponding fluctuations in their audiences’ reactions. The variability that one so readily sees in oneself–and expects others to see as well– often goes largely unnoticed.
Followup evidence has been supportive, though note that much of it was conducted by the authors of the original research.
Parting question: How famous do you have to get before the social spotlight becomes brighter than you imagine? As far as I can tell, 10,000 Twitter followers isn’t even close.