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How to use the “spotlight effect” to get promoted and be less stressed

It’s good to be a wallflower. But sometimes, you need to show yourself off a bit.
Black and white photo of a person on stage, the spotlight effect illuminating them from behind, casting dramatic shadows. A red border frames the image.
Unsplash / Richard Ciraulo
Key Takeaways
  • The “spotlight effect” describes our tendency to overestimate how much others notice our actions and appearance.
  • It can otherwise be called “main character syndrome” or “egocentric bias,” and it’s been observed by philosophers and proven by scientists.
  • Here we look at three ways we can rework this bias to our advantage in the workplace.

In his book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, neuroscientist David Eagleman imagines various science-fiction-grade ways the great beyond could play out. In one version, Eagleman tells us that our afterlives are spent as background characters in someone else’s dream. Like actors in The Truman Show, we have to simply be there, making up another person’s dreamscape. We’re just wallpaper and ornamental trinkets. We’re meat in the room. Eagleman writes that, except for a few thespians who are given the starring roles, most people are “just happy to sit in the background,” eating at a restaurant, lying on a beach, or whatever. Most people love the fact that no one is really watching them.

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Eagleman’s short story is the counterpoint to Jean-Paul Sartre’s more famous line: “Hell is other people.” Sartre thought that “the gaze” of others pins us in place. It fixes us and forces us to reorient our entire being into some kind of performing monkey. And the exhausting, hellish torment of all this is that we feel like we’re being watched all of the time. Whenever we’re in public, we feel like someone’s looking at us. We feel like someone’s judging us. We are the specimen on the microscope, and a horde of beady-eyed scientists are jabbing and scrutinizing us.

This feeling that we are constantly being watched and center stage is known as the “spotlight effect.” Here’s what we can learn from it.

The main character

There’s a concept that started first on social media known as “main character syndrome.” It’s a modern twist on an ancient, egocentric personality streak, where some people behave as if they are the main character in a computer game. And so, everyone else is treated like a disposable NPC (non-player character)—an expendable, valueless tool to be used only for the main character’s advancement. Main character syndrome can range from moments of selfishness to fully-blown, clinical narcissism.

In the scientific literature, “main character syndrome” and “the spotlight effect” are often called “egocentric bias.” Studies have proven that people will often notice and evaluate their own actions and appearance. In other words, we feel as if people are noticing every little pimple, scar, sweat mark, stray hair, bloodshot eye, or snotty nose we have. In reality, people rarely notice. For example, in 2000, Gilovich et al. gave some participants an embarrassing T-shirt and asked them to estimate how often they thought they were noticed. The team proved that what people thought and what was actually the case were radically different. Most people just didn’t care what was on the participants T-shirts.

But is this bias a bad thing? In some ways, it’s a source of anxiety and pressure. If we feel we’re always on display, then it makes us obsess about our front-of-stage image. But in other ways, this is just a part of being human. For example, Martin Heidegger argued that it’s impossible not to see ourselves as the main characters, with a spotlight following us around. Heidegger argued that “being-in-the-world” is a fundamental aspect of our existence and that we naturally see the world in narrative form. This self-centered narrative of the “spotlight effect” isn’t just a psychological trend but a structural reality of human existence. We are each enmeshed in our own worlds and see ourselves as protagonists. For Heidegger, we cannot help but feel a spotlight on our being. The world is only understood in the way it relates to me.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

If we agree with Heidegger, then it seems we’re all inevitably lumped with some kind of egocentric bias or spotlight effect. We can’t help but see ourselves as the main characters because… we are. So how can we work this in our favor? Here are three takeaways:

Don’t sweat it. If you make a huge mistake at work, chances are someone will notice it. You’ll be called in to see your line managers, and fingers crossed you come out intact. Big mistakes create big ripples, and those ripples will be felt. But the spotlight effect teaches us that for most of the small mistakes we make, no one is really watching. If you fluffed a line in your slideshow presentation, if you didn’t copy someone on that email that you were meant to, or if you used the wrong in-house font (just me?), chances are people won’t notice. If they do, they probably won’t care too much — and definitely less than you think they do.

Show your work. Of course, it’s not always a perk to be a wallflower. Sometimes you don’t want to blend into the background; sometimes you want to celebrate your wins. If you are looking to get promoted at work or move into a new role, you want people at your workplace to notice you. Of course, we’d hope a good manager does see and celebrate your work — but often, people just have other things to get on with. Humility has its place, but if you want to get noticed, you need to make people notice. Over on Big Think+, Gorick Ng, career advisor at Harvard University and author of The Unspoken Rules, shares his tips on how to “get into the minds of those who matter.”

Think of your brand. The spotlight effect can often be extended to your wider business identity. When you spend eight hours a day talking about company things to people with company titles and company logos everywhere, it can easily feel as if your brand is rivaling Coca-Cola and McDonalds for visibility. Every now and then, it’s good to check in to see how much of what you think you’re putting out there is actually being noticed. Of course, you could fork out a small fortune to get a company to do this for you, or you could check out what Big Think+ can teach you about the matter.

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