The Why #15: Why do these things always happen to me?

By Dan Monheit, 19.03.21

Question submitted by Elliot, Preston

Because life is cruel Elliot. We all know it.

Remember that time you worked so hard to impress your new girlfriend’s parents at that fancy restaurant? Five courses over three hours and nobody thought to mention the poppyseed jammed between your two front teeth.

Or that time you tripped UP the stairs into your boss?
Or dropping that massive tray of drinks at the Christmas party?
Or spending an entire day, including multiple new business meetings, blissfully unaware of your wide open zipper.
Or the infamous ketchup stain incident?

Shall I go on?

With a run like that, it’s easy to conclude that the world is conspiring against you. Or is it? Maybe you did commit some seriously heinous acts in a previous life dear Elliot, or maybe you’ve just got a healthy dose of self confidence (read: narcissism) and are falling victim to a common mental bias? Let’s find out…

Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect refers to the way we consistently and considerably overestimate how much attention other people are paying to us. While we may believe that a faux pas, a missing shirt button or a massive spill crossing the street has made a significant impact on those around us, chances are, they hardly gave it a second thought. Why? Because they’re too busy thinking about themselves.

The term Spotlight Effect was first coined by Medvec and Savitsky in 2000, after completing an experiment designed to destroy the street cred of any self respecting college student. Their experiment had a simple set up: create a situation where a subject would do something sure to make them feel embarrassed in front of a crowd. Ask them how many people they think will notice. Compare this to the number of people who actually did.

To create embarrassment, the research participants were instructed to walk into a crowded classroom wearing bright yellow t-shirts featuring the enlarged face of Barry Manilow. Poor students. Poor Barry.

On average, the subjects predicted that 50% of people in the room would see the shirt and take notice of them. In reality, only 25% of their classmates actually noticed what they were wearing — a full half of what they’d expected.

What this tells us is that we overestimate — in fact we double — how much attention we think people are paying to us. In many ways, this makes complete sense, because as far as our brains are concerned, we’re at the center of the universe. We’re the hero protagonist in the blockbuster movie of our own making.

So of course it seems like ‘things’ happen to us more than anyone else. And of course it seems like everyone else is always going to notice when they do. And they would, if it weren’t for their own blockbuster movies playing out at the exact same time.

For brands, the lessons here are both simple and powerful. Firstly, if customers believe that they’re all starring in their own show, who are we to tell them otherwise? Play into the idea that our product will help them stand out (or fit in) when all eyes are on them. Secondly, let’s redefine ‘brave’. If the science says a bright yellow Barry Manilow t-shirt only gets half the attention we think it will, then how much harder should we be pushing our next ‘edgy’ campaign? It’s safe to say at least 100% more than we think we do.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Spotlight Effect on episode 20 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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Want more?
Check out Dan’s write up in Mi3 on what every marketer needs to learn from the meteoric rise of ‘buy now, pay later’.

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