If you’re human, you’ve done something embarrassing in a public place. And if you’re like most people, you probably felt like everybody was staring at you and judging you harshly. But were they? Picture it:
You and your significant other decide to go out for a rare evening together. You book a table at the best restaurant in town. The babysitter is hired. You both spend hours grooming and dressing for the big event. At the restaurant, the maitre d’ greets you and escorts you past the other diners to a secluded corner. The décor and elegance overwhelm you. You think of the babysitter trying to minimize the damage from the flying macaroni and spilled milk. You feel yourself relaxing for the first time in a long time.You and your mate discuss the wine list with the sommelier. You agree on a wine—a charming Pinot—staring into each others’ eyes all the while. You lean forward to say something intimate and bump your water glass. It flies off the table and lands in front of a passing waiter. You bend for the glass, but the waiter— in a friendly but firm voice—says, “No monsieur, allow me.” You right yourself and pull the menu close to your face. Your mate slowly sinks under the table…
You feel so embarrassed. You’re sure that dozens of people saw what happened. “They probably think I’m a buffoon,” you tell yourself. Relax. It’s not nearly as bad as you think.
No one is staring (much). How do I know this? Easy: Science says so.When I do something embarrassing in public, I feel like there is a huge spotlight shining on me. I feel like everybody is staring at me and thinking the worst. Not so, though.
That’s what the research of Tom Gilovich and his colleagues show. Sometimes, their research subjects wore embarrassing t-shirts in front of observers. Other times, subjects were introduced to observers as bed-wetters. Subjects felt like there was a spotlight on them. Subjects believed they were judged harshly.In truth, they weren’t noticed by many observers and, when observers did notice them, the observers weren’t all that hard on them. So, why do you feel like there’s a spotlight on you? Why do you think your social standing is suffering?
It’s Not Them, It’s You
What we do, think, and feel overwhelms our experience of the world. We are the main characters in our own dramas. Now, we’re not all egomaniacs. We know that we aren’t at the center of everybody else’s experiences, but our experience of ourselves exerts such a strong pull—like an anchor holds a boat firm in a fast current—that it’s hard for us to completely adjust away from it.
Gilovich and colleagues showed that the “spotlight effect” can be eliminated simply by having people focus on things other than their own experience. This scientific insight leads to some good advice: Next time you do something embarrassing and feel like everybody’s staring, focus on all of the other goings-on around you. You’ll be reminded that you are but a bit player in a much larger social drama.
Your significant other should relax as well. My research shows that your mate thinks that your actions have brought shame to the both of you. Not so. If anything, the few people who did notice your water glass hit the floor feel a bit sorry for your lover. And they don’t think you’re that bad either. So, relax: Nobody’s staring (much). Enjoy the soup. I hear it’s good.
Ian Newby-Clark is Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He studies habits and methods for changing them. You can read more about his findings at his blog, My Bad Habits.