Subject: Spotlight Effect – Barry Manilow T-shirt
Event: Birthday of Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, 1954
In an old joke attributed to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, it is said that more people fear public speaking than fear death. This means that at a funeral the majority of people would rather be in the casket than at the podium delivering the eulogy.
While it is true that many people fear public speaking, it’s doubtful that it is a fate worse than death. What is true, however, is that we all tend to let our imaginations overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others in public situations. Proof of this comes from the research of psychologist Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, who was born on January 16, 1954.
In Gilovich’s best-known study, he had his subjects put on a shirt with a big picture of Barry Manilow on the front. Gilovich wanted the t-shirt to feature the picture of someone who most subjects would be embarrassed to be associated with. Manilow, the ‘70s singer known for schmaltzy pop, fit the bill. Telling his subjects that he was conducting a memory study, Gilovich had the t-shirt-clad subjects walk into a room. As they entered, what they saw was a room full of seated students facing them. After the subjects left the room, Gilovich asked them to estimate what percentage of the students in the room would remember their t-shirt. Gilovich also asked the students in the room if they remembered whose face was on the t-shirt.
The results revealed that the t-shirt-clad subjects grossly overestimated how much they were noticed. They estimated that just under half of the students would remember the shirt; in reality, fewer than a quarter remembered seeing Manilow’s mug.
Gilovich also conducted the study by having subjects wear t-shirts that were considerably less embarrassing. Even in these cases, though, the subjects drastically overestimated how many people remembered the shirt.
Gilovich dubbed his discovery the “spotlight effect,” an appropriate name to describe how inaccurate our perception of reality is. Naturally, since we experience the world from our own first-person point of view, we put ourselves at the center of our own universe — in the spotlight. This egocentrism distorts reality; the truth is that others are focused much more on themselves than on us (1).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the spotlight effect, and how did Gilovich’s study show the difference between perception and reality?
Challenge – Spotlight PSA: Write a public service announcement that informs the audience about the spotlight effect and that persuades them that public speaking is nothing to fear.
1-Gordon, Amie M. “Have You Fallen Prey to the ‘Spotlight Effect’?” Psychology Today 21 November 2013.