Have you ever read something that altered the way you thought about your life and the way you lived it? I hope so, and I hope it was a passage from a novel, or an ancient philosophical text, or maybe a story from a religious book like the Bible. I’ve found profound insights in all of those places, too, but a few years ago, I came across one in a somewhat dorkier place: An article in a 2000 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It’s a soothing read for the overly self-conscious. Writing about this research in 2015 for The Atlantic, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom suggested the same, and that the ideas it puts forth could change your life. He’s not wrong.
The experiment at the heart of this paper is a simple one, and it’s also pretty funny: The researchers — led by Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University — set up an unfortunate few of their volunteers for awkwardness, starting by purposely telling them the wrong start time for the study, to ensure that they arrived five minutes later than everyone else. Upon his or her late arrival, the researchers insisted that the volunteer change into a goofy, oversized T-shirt with a giant picture of Barry Manilow’s face printed on it. (An aside: Manilow pops up a lot in psychological studies of embarrassment. If these researchers aren’t making people wear a shirt with his face emblazoned upon it, they’re making people sing his songs — “At the Copa! Copacabana!” — in front of a stony-faced audience.)
After putting on the shirt, the accidental latecomer was sent into a classroom where the rest of the study participants were already gathered — but before this poor person could even sit down, the experimenter interrupted. On second thought, the researcher said, the rest of the group was too far ahead. It would probably be best if the be-Manilowed individual left the room, and instead continued with a private, one-on-one version of the study.
Gilovich and his colleagues call this cognitive bias “the spotlight effect”: our tendency to overestimate how closely others are noticing what we do or how we look.
You have to imagine this person was incredibly confused at this point. But they turned around, left the room, and in the hallway were greeted by a different experimenter. This one started asking a bunch of questions, purportedly to test the subject’s short-term memory, but there was really only one answer the researchers were interested in. How many people in the room did this study volunteer think noticed his goofy T-shirt, to the extent that the others would be able to name the famous person whose face had been screen-printed upon it?
Get the better newsletter.
About half would probably remember, most study subjects guessed; in reality, though, only about a quarter recalled the Manilow shirt. The subjects’ guesses, in other words, were too high. True, some people did remember the embarrassing T-shirt, but not nearly as many as the subjects predicted. Gilovich and his colleagues call this cognitive bias “the spotlight effect”: our tendency to overestimate how closely others are noticing what we do or how we look.
Often a decision against taking action is made out of fear of the social consequences: If you speak on stage, if you say “I love you” first, if you ask for a promotion you deserve — what will people say? What will people think?
It’s a welcome thought for people who struggle with self-consciousness. The entire point, after all, of the Manilow shirt was that it was an odd, eye-catching thing to be wearing. But if hardly anyone noticed something that was purposely embarrassing, then why should we assume people notice, or care, when we do something that is accidentally embarrassing? Give yourself a break. Fewer people are keeping track of your foibles than you think.
Sometimes, though, Gilovich tells me, retellings of this research seem to flatten its findings into a kind of superficial social nihilism: Nothing matters! Do whatever you want! No one is paying attention, anyway! And yet something as always bothered me a little about this understanding of the spotlight effect. How do I square that interpretation with the fact that I feel like I pay extremely close attention to the people around me?
Give yourself a break. Fewer people are keeping track of your foibles than you think.
Some newer research, published in early 2017, adds nuance to this idea. These psychologists coined their own kicky term: the “invisibility cloak illusion.” It’s their name for the paradoxical notion that most people engage in a fair bit of people watching when out in public, while at the same time assuming that no one is watching them. “This is an illusion that prevents you from realizing that, whether you are on a plane, in a restaurant, or at a rodeo, when you stop watching people … when you turn our attention to whatever else you are doing — the people around you are likely to raise their eyes from whatever they were doing and watch you,” the researchers write.
Sometimes you feel like you’re the center of attention, whereas other times you’re minding your own business and assuming you’re drifting along unnoticed by others. The problem is that you assume other people are fixated on the things that you are fixated on. Often, they are not.
The spotlight effect study was inspired by Gilovich’s work on regrets, I learn in a conversation with him. You know that quote people like to post on Pinterest and Instagram, the one that’s often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain? “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” The source may be wrong, but the idea turns out to be true.
According to research conducted by Gilovich and others, people really do tend to regret inaction more than action. Often a decision against taking action is made out of fear of the social consequences: If you speak on stage, if you say “I love you” first, if you ask for a promotion you deserve — what will people say? What will people think? “If that’s the concern that one has — you know, how will it look to others — what one needs to factor into the equation is, you know what? Many fewer people than you think are likely to notice it in the first place,” Gilovich tells me. Defy your self-consciousness and do the thing that’s pulling on you. Your future self will thank you.
Adapted from Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Melissa Dahl, 2018.
NEXT: What's the secret to health and happiness? Laughing at yourself
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.