The "spotlight effect" means we think we're being noticed more than we really are.
Do you analyse the caption on your Instagram photo for more than 30 seconds before posting it? Do you try to create a cohesive grid on your profile? Do you feel the pressure to maintain a personal "aesthetic" on social media? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be wasting a ton of time.
The psychological phenomenon known as the "spotlight effect" suggests most of us think we're being noticed more than we really are. We feel the social limelight shining brightly on ourselves, when in reality, most people aren't paying that close attention. This overestimation can apply to both moments we're embarrassed by or proud of. The phenomenon suggests that time spent worrying about what people think of us on social media might not be worth it — because rarely do others think about us at all.
What Is the Spotlight Effect?
The easiest way to understand the spotlight effect is to think of your hair. You might believe a "bad hair day" is totally obvious, but the spotlight effect would say that most people don't notice. On the flip side, they probably can't tell if you're having an exceptionally good hair day either. In the groundbreaking paper The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One's Own Actions and Appearance, published in 2000, social psychology researchers conducted five studies to demonstrate that most people overestimate the extent to which they're noticed by others.
One study asked university students to wear a t-shirt with a photo of Barry Manilow on it, and guess how many observers could recall the "embarrassing" shirt? Respondents guessed that about 45 percent of them could recall the shirt, when in fact fewer than 25 percent could. In a second study, participants were asked to wear a shirt picturing someone they were proud to be associated with. (If you're curious, that included Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld — it was the year 2000 — and Martin Luther King, Jr.) Again, they overestimated how many observers could recall the shirt.
"Whether in the midst of a personal triumph or an embarrassing mishap, we are usually quite focused on what is happening to us."
"Most of us stand out in our own minds," the authors wrote. "Whether in the midst of a personal triumph or an embarrassing mishap, we are usually quite focused on what is happening to us, its significance to our lives, and how it appears to others. Each of us is the center of our own universe." Because we're focused on ourselves, they surmised, it's hard to accurately assess how much or how little other people notice us. "Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others," they wrote.
These "performances" could include a social gaffe on a first date, tripping, or stumbling over our words while speaking in public. While we might feel shame, others probably didn't even register it. Same goes for positive actions, like making a great point in a meeting or wearing a new outfit we think we look amazing in. These things go mostly unnoticed to everyone but us. The researchers concluded that such discrepancies "reflect an egocentric bias."
How It Could Apply to Social Media
While this study was conducted before the rise of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, today social media platforms give us an outlet to constantly put ourselves out there for others to judge — and appeal to our most egocentric tendencies. According to experts like Generation Me author Dr. Jean Twenge, millennials are more likely to describe their generation as having narcissistic personality traits, like the need for admiration and a sense of grandiosity. It's not hard to see how social media may exacerbate that. We spend time carefully choosing our photos and filters and hours documenting our experiences on Instagram or Snapchat stories. The time we spend on the details assumes there is an audience paying close attention to the content we're creating. They'll surely notice how we nailed our eyeliner in this selfie, we think, and those self-deprecating hashtags we added to our holiday photos will let everyone know we're not actually full of ourselves.
There's comfort in knowing that most of the time people don't notice us.
Unfortunately, the spotlight effect suggests that not that many people do pay attention. Sure, a good percentage of observers in the original study did notice the t-shirts, but it wasn't as many people as the t-shirt wearer predicted. We can probably consider those observant people to be the ones who would leave an engaging comment on a political post we share on Facebook or direct message us in a story to compliment us on our appearance. People who pay attention do exist, but it's clearly not as many people as we think.
The bottom line is we can all relax a little bit about our social media presence. There's comfort in knowing that most of the time, people don't notice us, freeing us from the tyranny of overanalysing our appearance and actions, either online or in real life.