Why You Don’t Have to Worry That Much About What Other People Might Think

A lot of people worry about what others might think about them. Maybe you do too sometimes. How your neighbors view your behavior, the way your social media posts are received or the manner in which other members at the gym look at you. It can make people anxious and keep them awake at night. Neither very healthy or pleasurable. But the worst thing about it, is that it probably isn’t even necessary.

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When I was a ten year old boy, I would often visit the Palace Promenade in Scheveningen on Sunday afternoons. My dad would take me, my little brother and often a friend to this big shopping mall. Not only was the Palace Promenade the only mall that was open on Sundays back in the early nineties, it also had an arcade hall with games like Mortal Kombat and a bookstore full of comics. All I needed at that age.

I specifically remember one visit. I was standing in the bookstore going through several comics. My dad had promised to buy me one comic book, so I wanted to pick the best one. While I was mulling over my decision, I noticed two people in the corridor of the mall just outside the bookstore. They stood out to me, because they weren’t moving. Everybody else in the crowded corridor was in motion and going somewhere. To another store, to get something to eat or back to their car. But not these two. The man and the woman seemed to be holding each other very closely. Slightly going from left to right on their spot. Only when I heard the background music that was being played in the corridor, did I realize they were dancing.

The invisible dancers

I instantly felt the appreciation for seizing the opportunity without other people’s opinion stand in the way too much. They heard the romantic song being played in the mall and decided to slow dance to it there and then. Maybe it was their wedding dance, maybe they just liked the song and felt like slow dancing. Whatever the case, they were dancing and they seemed to enjoy it.

Living in the moment and not care too much about other people’s opinion is not the main reason I still remember the incident thirty years later. While I was enthralled with the sight of these two people slow dancing in a crowded mall, nobody else in the mall seemed to notice. People didn’t smile at the sight of two people dancing, people didn’t tap each other on the shoulder, people didn’t even look at the couple. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate the fair sight of two people slow dancing in front of them, they just didn’t seem to register. Everybody just walked by them. Fully engaged in their own shopping, their own conversations, their own thoughts. Although it surprised me back then, science provided evidence that the crowd in the mall showed very normal behavior that day.

The spotlight effect

Ten years after the incident at the mall, psychologist Tom Gilovich and colleagues demonstrated the normalcy of the behavior of the visitors in the mall who didn’t notice the slow dancing couple. The phenomenon named the spotlight effect is the tendency of people to believe they are being noticed far more than they really are. Because people are almost constantly in the center of their own world, it obviously doesn’t mean one is the center of everyone else’s.

The spotlight effect was demonstrated in an experiment. In the experiment, students had to wear a t-shirt with a picture of the singer Barry Manilow (from the ’70s popular song Mandy). Barry Manilow, as was established before the experiment, wasn’t very popular and considered highly embarrassing among college students at the time of the experiment.

Barry Manilow t-shirts are still available online at Fruugo if you don’t think they are embarrasssing at all. But then you are probably not a college student.

The students wearing the Barry Manilow t-shirt were asked to each walk in a different classroom where other students were already filling out a survey. Because the student wearing the embarrassing t-shirt arrived a couple of minutes late to the classroom, the teacher asked the student to come back another time. In that way, all the students who were taking the survey looked up and noticed the student showing up late to the classroom. The researchers asked the students wearing the Barry Manilow t-shirt to estimate the percentage of people in the classroom who would be able to identify the person on the t-shirt after taken the survey. While the students wearing the embarrassing t-shirt placed their estimates around 50 percent, in reality only 25 percent of the people in the classroom were able to identify Barry Manilow. So reality turned out not even close to what they thought it would.

The pros and cons of the spotlight effect

People just don’t pay as much attention to you as you think they do. This has its advantages and disadvantages.

A disadvantage of the spotlight effect is that your brilliant contributions at work are not noticed as often as you may think. If you are in a meeting at work providing some insightful thoughts about the topic being discussed, others in the meeting may not even register it. Caught up in their own thoughts about what they want to say next. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why you sometimes have meetings at work where you think; ‘Didn’t we already discuss this last month?’

An advantage of the spotlight effect is that any missteps on your part aren’t noticed nearly as much as you think. If you are in a work meeting where your remark about the subject being discussed doesn’t make a lot of sense, chances are once again that others just don’t register. Let alone that people in the meeting give any thought to your fashion faux pas, which apparently only lookes good on the supermodel in the magazine ad.

Sleep well

The knowledge of the existence of the spotlight effect can help you cope with worrisome thoughts about what others might think of you. Because the truth is, they probably aren’t thinking about you that much. Your neighbors are not constantly viewing your behavior. They are too busy with work, children and living their own lives. How your social media posts from last week are received may well only be on your mind. The rest of your online network either missed it at all or has moved on to other posts. And the manner in which other members look at you at the gym is not keeping anybody up at night but you. People in the gym generally notice and care about their own buttocks. Not yours.

So when worrying too much about what other people might think, just remember the spotlight effect. This may prevent you from lying awake and worrying about what others might think of you, while others lie awake worrying about what you might think about them. Better to all get some well needed shut-eye. So sleep well. It’s both healthy and pleasurable.

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About the author

Sander Palm (1980) is a behavioral economist and fitness enthusiast. He has a Master of Science in Marketing from VU University Amsterdam. He lives and works (out) in The Hague. Want to know how you can get your marketing, communication, sales, diversity and inclusion programs in better shape? Drop an email at sander@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: shutterstock


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