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(credit: Nathan Rupert CC BY)

What (we think) others think about us

Our concern about the way we believe others see us is not necessarily all that helpful

“Does my bum look big in this?” Lovers of British comedy may recall this catchphrase from The Fast Show, in which Arabella Weir plays a variety of characters unduly preoccupied with the looks of their rear end. As is often the case with good comedy, it is just an ever so slightly exaggerated depiction of something that we all recognize.

Most of us do indeed care about what others think of us, and the very thought that we might leave a negative impression on them fills us with horror. We shudder at not noticing that there is a big bogey visible inside our nostril, or a piece of spinach stuck between our front teeth. Likewise for ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ such as — for gentlemen — forgetting to zip up their flies, or — for ladies — tucking their skirt in their underwear.

It is not just mishaps that we fear. When we go out, the choice of clothes we wear, and what we do to our face (whether it’s shaving, trimming our nose hair or putting on makeup) is — contrary to what we may like to tell ourselves — most of the time not for ourselves. As we are stuck at home in lockdown, at most we pay some attention to the bit that our webcam will see in the odd Zoom call will see.

It is also not just about how we look, but what about we do — and how we think others will see us as a result. Stanley Milgram is probably best known from the obedience experiment in which the participants were told to give an unknown person electric shocks of increasing intensity every time they gave a wrong answer to a trivia question. However, he also worked on a concept known as norm violations.

During the 1970s, he instructed his students at the City University of New York to take the subway during the rush hour, and repeatedly ask passengers who were lucky enough to have a seat to give it up. What was remarkable, was the fact that no less than 68% of the people responded positively to the request and got up willingly. What was more remarkable, though, is how difficult, even traumatic, the experimenters found this task. In an article in the New York Times published 30 years later, some of the people who had taken part at the time as students reported still having vivid memories of the experiment — “I really felt sick to my stomach,” one of them said, “I was afraid I was going to throw up.”

Man sitting on a subway seat between two women, his legs spread wide open.
Man sitting on a subway seat between two women, his legs spread wide open.
May I have your seat — or is it two seats? (image: WNYC New York Public Radio CC BY)

Milgram himself was surprised his students found it so hard, so he tried it himself. And he too found himself unable to perform this simple task: walking up to a seated passenger in a crowded carriage, and asking them for their seat. When he eventually managed to do what he had asked his students to do, and a man got up, he reported feeling possessed by the need to justify his request: “My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish.”

Much of the embarrassment we experience in social situations may well be related to perceived norm violation. We have a strong tendency to imagine that others continually judge us for our appearance and our behaviour. It even has a name: the spotlight effect, coined in 2000 by the psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky. In one of their experiments, they asked participants to wear a T-shirt featuring the singer Barry Manilow, an artist “not terribly popular among college students”, and to estimate how many fellow students would spot it. They predicted that nearly half would notice they were wearing an embarrassingly naff, norm-violating T-shirt. In reality, it was not even a quarter.

The spotlight effect, the emanation of our reluctance to violate prevailing norms, prevents us from doing things that might get us expelled from our social circle. It is a feature that we probably have been carrying with is since our ancestors were still living in small tribal communities, a strong force that protects us from embarrassment or worse. Would you leave our house in just your underwear or even with no clothes on? Probably not.

Would you do so if you woke up in the middle of the night, smelling gas and realizing your house may be about to explode? Probably yes. The force is strong, but not absolute, and what you would be doing here is hedging. You would be paying a small cost (the potential embarrassment of standing in the middle of the street in your birthday suit) to avoid the disastrous consequence of being blown to smithereens while you’re still putting on your socks.

Female singer wearing a red dress in a single spotlight
Female singer wearing a red dress in a single spotlight
Nobody is paying any attention, you know! (image: Rebecca Orlov/Unsplash)

But, as Annie Duke — world class poker player, psychologist and author of an excellent book about decision making under uncertainty, Thinking in Bets — explained in a recent episode of the Behavioral Grooves podcast, we don’t always make this sensible trade-off. If the urgency of a gas smell, or the sound and sight of flames licking the staircase, are not there to encourage us to hedge our bets and ignore the risk of embarrassment, we are more reluctant. As the COVID-19 crisis was in its early stages, most people continued to shake hands instead of tapping elbows “because they didn’t want to look stupid. I went to a restaurant just before the lockdown, I have my disinfectant wipes with me and I am wiping everything down — and people are looking at me like I’m insane. The reason is that nobody wants to look dumb. ‘I’ve just spent a couple of weeks wiping everything down with Lysol, and it turned out this was nothing, and boy, do I feel stupid! I was tapping elbows with people, and man, I feel like an idiot!’

We are deeply uncomfortable under uncertainty, and we are deeply uncomfortable acting in a way that goes against social norms. There is, or at least there was no norm about what to do and not to do when there is a pandemic about to break out. So the prevailing norm — don’t act like an idiot — applies: as long as we are not certain, we will not be seen as someone who is acting like an idiot.

That combination is not good. Most of us were reluctant to do all these weird things that now seem totally normal, until it was clear that COVID-19 was serious — and a lot of damage was done. There was no gas smell or fire in the hallway to kick us into action. Our insecurity and our fear of looking foolish prevented us from hedging our bet, and we made a trade-off that may, with the benefit of hindsight, not have been the best possible bet.

The spotlight effect can, as so many cognitive biases, beneficial and adaptive. But it can also be overprotective. It can deprive us of the joy of, as the song has it “dancing like nobody’s watching”, of dong what feels right, regardless of what others might think. And it can prevent us from adopting behaviours that may safeguard our own lives and that of others.

Britt Ekland
Britt Ekland
It’s as simple as that. (image: BBC screenshot)

Being aware of the spotlight effect might allow us to enjoy life a bit more, and perhaps even, one day, save our life. Perhaps we can become more like Britt Ekland, the (now 78-year old) actress who, in the BBC show The Real Marigold Hotel, declared: “The best thing about growing old… it’s, you don’t give a shit. I can be a bit naughty… and I don’t really care what other people think. It’s as simple as that.” The spotlights are, for her and for us all, mostly, off.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on May 1, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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