People Are Thinking About That Embarrassing Thing You Did Less Than You Think They Are

a spotlight shining on an empty stage in a theater
Image by poirpom / CC BY

“You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Olin Miller

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I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ve done a lot of embarrassing things in my life. Said things I wish I could immediately take back. Done things I wish I could immediately undo. And following such an incident, I’ve experienced many a sleepless night as I ponder my own interpersonal doom, the threat of social exile.

It always feels so real in those moments, that threat. And yet, the banishment never quite seems to come.

As it turns out, people don’t notice our blunders as acutely as we do. In fact, people don’t notice us at all as much as we think they do — for good or for bad. This can be a difficult reality if we’re trying to garner positive attention (if we’re trying to attract admirers of one kind or another, for example). But it also has the flip side of mitigating the effects of something you’d rather others not notice (for example, the fact that you’re having a bad hair day).

Spotlight Effect

This phenomenon is known as spotlight effect, our tendency to believe that others notice us more than they actually do (for good, for bad, and otherwise). Because our consciousness positions each of us at the center of of our own world (again, for good, for bad, and otherwise), it becomes easy to forget that we’re not also the center of everyone else’s. And it becomes easy to feel like the spotlight is on us, when it’s really not.

So if we do something embarrassing in public — for example, trip — we’re convinced that everyone will notice and remember it later. When in reality, studies find that a smaller portion of people will notice and even fewer will remember it later, after the fact.

So chin up.

Maybe you did something dumb. But odds are that other people barely noticed. And if they have, they’ve probably already moved on to something else.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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