Mental Health

The Spotlight Effect, Sales, Social Phobia and Anxiety

Research has shown that many people drastically overestimate the effect they have on others and surprisingly this so-called “Spotlight effect“, has relevance both for the way we select items for purchase, and for those folk who feel anxious in social situations.

The Anchoring Effect and Comparison

It has been observed in studies that when judging stimuli along a continuum, people tend to compare each stimulus with the first and last stimuli. In sales and marketing, this phenomenon, known as the anchoring effect, might be used to position a less expensive product alongside a more expensive counterpart.

Let’s say you are looking to buy a hair straightener.

There is a Breville hair straightener priced at $230 and beside it on the store’s shelf, sits a GHD brand styler, priced at $300.00. The recommended retail price of the Breville hair straightener might actually be $149, but the anchoring effect means many more customers will pay a higher than recommended for the Breville hair straightener. Why?

A less expensive brand product may be priced above its real value, but the expensively priced item positioned next to it, causes them to look favourably on the cheaper option, even though it might be way above its real worth.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The expensive item is known as an “anchor”. The anchoring effect may also explain exponential increases in house prices in areas adjacent to premium real estate. People moving into an area compare house prices in surrounding suburbs and if they compare them to neighbouring premium properties, they will still assume they are getting a bargain, due to a skewed comparison.

But how does this relate to anxiety?

Social Anxiety and Self-Perceptions

The spotlight effect is an extension of the anchoring and adjustment phenomena which suggests a person uses their own internal feelings of anxiety and the accompanying self-representation as an ANCHOR.

In a similar scenario to the aforementioned incorrect comparison of the best value for money hair straighteners, a person insufficiently corrects for the fact that others are less privy to their internal anxious feelings than they are themselves. In so doing, they overestimate the extent to which their anxiety is obvious to onlookers.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Social Phobia

Clark and Wells (1995) suggest that socially phobic people enter social situations in a heightened self-focused state, namely, from a raised emotional anchor. This self-focused state makes it difficult for individuals to set aside public and private self-knowledge to focus on the task.[5]

The spotlight effect is the psychological phenomenon by which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are.

Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon. The reason for the spotlight effect is the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s. This tendency is especially prominent when one does something atypical.[1]Wikipedia

In group settings, like a class lecture or athletic competition, attention is divided between focusing on the individual and on the actions of the group. The inability to identify the split attention leads individuals to overestimate the likelihood that their peers will perceive them poorly.[7]They may overestimate the extent to which their contributions make an impact on those around them.

If an individual is merely an observer in a group, the spotlight effect is NOT overestimated as the audience’s attention is upon the presenter or main performer.

Awareness of how our perceptions work can save a lot of needless embarrassment and anxiety! It may also save you money!

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50 thoughts on “The Spotlight Effect, Sales, Social Phobia and Anxiety”

  1. Very intriguing but again I find myself reading one of your posts and thinking “really?!”. I would never think that anyone would be privy to my private thoughts, nor would I think they would be interested in them, so I don’t believe I would ever have made the “over estimation” error. We English (of our generation anyway) were brought up to be private and circumspect – my Grandma’s mantra was “keep your counsel” by which she meant keep it all inside and hold your head up. Very old school English, I suspect!

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    1. Keeping you own counsel and holding your head up does sound Victorian and stoic! The spotlight effect and over estimation of others’ critical fascination with ourselves certainly won’t apply to everyone, and it sounds like you might be positioned at the opposite end of the shyness spectrum. But have you never felt embarrassed in a group situation?
      As far as sales go, would the anchoring effect influence you?

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      1. Ah yes of course we all have embarrassment thresholds so the answer to that first question is yes. I did though always relish addressing to groups of people both in my job and as a part time sports coach; I enjoyed public speaking. And yes I’m sure I’ve fallen for the sales tactic, sure we all have at some point.

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        1. If you are very comfortable at public speaking I can understand you not over estimating the perceptions of others. I was not like you. I had to work on my ability to control my breath when speaking publicly, which I did but only through exposure and lots of practice amongst supportive folks. I used to get redder and redder in my face when I spoke to a group when I was a young women. Now, it is not a problem. Children of today are given way more opportunities to become accustomed to speaking in front of class/groups compared to days gone by. My kids even had the option of creating podcasts or videos instead of class presentations. I suppose the incidence of those types of assessments have increased even more since the pandemic.

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            1. The avalanche of virtual reality is a bit like opening a can of worms. One problem is solved, but more created and where it ends up is anyone’s guess. It is not always for the best.

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  2. This made me think of all those woman with slightly less than what they consider an ideal bathing suit figure. Fearing they will be ridiculed they don’t venture into the water in bathers so they miss out a cooling swim when the weather is hot. Truth is unless they’re drop dead gorgeous, or morbidly obese and wearing a skimpy yellow polka dot bikini or similar, no one will even give them a second glance. Certainly the spotlight effect!

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    1. Great example, Chris. You get what I am talking about! Yes indeed. Strangers are more likely to focus on the stunning model like beauty and merely give someone with a fuller figure a passing glance- misogynistic men make even make a rude comment to their partner/family/friend, but it lasts barely a second. For many people their own lives are much more involved and interesting to them than to worry for long about anyone else’s. Do you feel that the adolescent experience may influence the extent to which an adult experiences the spotlight effect? Those years are crucial in our sense of belonging/exclusion, perhaps?

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  3. Interesting about the relationship between anchoring and anxiety. I’d never thought about it that way before. I loved learning throughout the years that no-one really cares- glad I’ve learnt this lesson in life already but there’s always room for improvement.

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    1. I find it interesting that it takes us a while for this notion that other people’s lives are much more involved to be that interested in ours. Yet adolescents in particular, recoil at the notion of embarrassment. Must be a self- preservational, involuntary- based social trigger? To enhance belonging in the group – so important in adolescence.

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  4. Amanda, great post. People, in general, think others notice them far more than they do. I was listening to a study finding on NPR, where high school kids wore provocative T-shirts to school over time. With the exception of one that spoke praisingly of the evil Adolph Hitler and another that spoke praisingly of pop icon Barry Manilow (strange duo, I know), the T-shirts went unnoticed. Keith

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    1. A fascinating on-going informal experimentation in wearing T shirts with provocative logos, Keith! I assume Barry Manilow would take offence! But then, I could agree with their analysis in some ways. We were all bombarded with earworms on the radio, of that dreadful ballad, ‘Mandy,’ in the ?late seventies. I hated that song. And it seemed to go on for so mournfully long! Do you read the logos printed on T shirts as the wearers pass you by in the street, Keith?

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      1. Amanda, I do read them. Especially in places where you can start a conversation with someone. Of course, I am prone to ask people about their names. As bad as that song was, there were more girls named “Mandy” after it came out. Keith

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        1. I notice that TV shows and songs do bring forth a wave of babies with popular names. How many Connors were there outside of Ireland, before the Highlander movies/series came out? I had to spell the name for most Australians and a few years later, no spelling was needed. There was one in every primary school class.
          The T-shirt logos would indeed be a great conversation starter with a stranger!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Is there something the opposite of the Spotlight effect, because that’s what I relate to? However as an observer of human nature, people are endlessly interesting in how they view themselves. Frankly that’s why I like the comment sections on blog. I’m fascinated about how this effect influences purchase decisions as well. Great information here.

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    1. Thank you, Ally and it is an insightful question. I suppose the degree of spotlighting might be along a continuum – a spectrum of thought patterns in relation to how much we are noticed and how we are perceived by others, or in terms of purchases not succumbing to anchoring or spotlighting, you are not influenced by unequal and perhaps unethical comparison but more logical analysis when making purchases? Is that what you meant? A reverse spotlight effect in terms of social characteristics, to my way of thinking, would be someone who doesn’t believe people notice them as much as people actually do notice them.
      I believe this is the case with children and it changes sometime around puberty and adolescence. I think to not feel that pubescent embarrassment and self-consciousness would be a great gift. Embarrassment can be a weird kind of social self-preservation mechanism and it is by no means a pleasant emotion.

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      1. I like your continuum idea. That makes sense to me. I’m not inclined to want to spend money, so I might not be influenced as much as some people BUT no doubt I’m not totally immune to the pressure.

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    1. It is curious as to why we don’t believe what our mothers’ tell us when we are younger. Most often times they turn out to be right, yet we constantly challenge that notion until we can reconcile it in our minds. Especially in this sense.
      The spotlight effect goes some way to explaining the effects when we compare ourselves unfavourably, but why compare at all? Animals don’t seem to do this, so why do? I wonder, Kevin if it is in part a self-preservation strategy that sub-consciously we feel might aids us in belonging to the group/herd/community and in that, is a sense of more security?

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  6. I’m not prone to the Spotlight Effect when I shop because I am a chronic researcher and always check prices online first then I walk in and buy the one I want. But I am very much prone to it personally. I’m sure there are events from my past that can still keep me awake at night that the others involved have long forgotten. I’ll try and remember this useful information you’ve provided and worry less.

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    1. How it seems that 3 am in the morning is a time when most of us recall all those devastatingly embarrassing moments, those mistakes and failures of the past. I reach for my meditation app or a book at that hour, lest I get caught in that sticky web of self-admonishment.
      I do hope this information on the spotlight effect helps – I found it most illuminating (excuse the pun!) Lol.
      Glad to hear that there are others who research prices like me, albeit sometimes I do slip and only check the item at the last minute in store, before pulling out the credit card. It does save you dollars.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very good post and research.
    There is another factor you might find of interest, my boss once told me: the “Alfa Romeo effect.” If you don’t own an Alfa Romeo, you probably don’t see the Alfa Romeo ads. The day you buy an “Alfa Romeo”, you start to see Alfa Romeo ads everywhere. Why? Because the ads serve as a reminder that you made a good purchase. Obviously you can change the brand for any “durable” purchase. Consumers like to be reassured they have made a good buy. All well I hope?

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  8. Enjoyed this post and the title was so good and love how you brought all of this to connect. Our filters and bias can be so off and there were many key takeaways here

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    1. The filters we use to see our world isn’t always and almost always isn’t how others see us. If only we realised this at a younger age! Thanks for your visit, Yvette. How are things at your end?

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      1. Hi – well said and at an earlier age would be helpful – and things here are good – very busy this last couple months – have a few books in progress and trying to figure out which one to pick to hustle and finish – hmmmm

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        1. You are so productive, Yvette! I am impressed. You need to start a business mentoring people who wish to publish their own book. You’d be great. Remember to take a moment to breathe!

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          1. Hi- Amanda – funny you should mention that! I did start an LLC for publishing and helped four folks already
            But it is not my gift mix to be an editor – I do it okay and worked in higher Ed on and off for years and so editing student papers was just natural for me.
            So anyhow – I haven’t given up on the idea – but only have so much time for projects (and it might seem like I am productive but I do pause and in fact feel a little behind on projects – I have some that have been idle for more than five years – sigh – but I k ow that not projects need to be finished and some projects lead to the better projects and so I try to be mindful on where I place me energy. And with that said- I am so excited about your recent flash fiction endeavor
            – not sure if you know that I wrote flash for three years –
            And stopped in 2020 (because I do breathe and can only do so much) but I miss it much!
            And it is funny that you think I am so productive – I try not to compare (because we both know that leads to faulty outlook – now of course we need benchmarks and can get ideas from others) but I had to really watch a sneaky comparing come in when I saw another author have a dozen books right now – she started writing her first one when I did “lady by the river” (my third) – and I thought the same thing you said to me – “so productive” and “how does she find time to breathe?” Hshshs
            But then I remembered that her path is much different from mine.

            She might have hired help – she might just write quicker – and maybe she never did outreach (because sometimes when we do out reach it pulls from our own output and that is important to remember)

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              1. Hi- I am a happy for them and their dozen books and Amanda – it was one of the few times I had to wrestle with the comparison game – whew! I got through it (ha)
                And it also reminded me about the whole Quantity trap! More is not always better !
                “Many books” is not the goal
                (How boring is that) – so the important thing is to write a book that has essence and vitality – whether long or short – and to not force it (let it get ripe and hustle at times but never force it because then we won’t be proud of the outcome and could waste our efforts).
                Anyhow – Thanks for letting me share all that!
                Hope your week is going well
                😊🌺🌸🌺🌸

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        1. We haven’t written anything for some time on our book…. Eventually we will come back to it. Today, I interviewed a businesswoman who assists others to self-publish. Very useful info.

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          1. Hi – will your interview be shared on your blog? I am so curious

            And a wonderful book on publishing is “ideas, influence, income” –
            My spouse got it free on a retreat and gave it to me and lots of info about ideal book length and the author just seemed to pour tons of her experience into each chapter

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  9. They even do the anchoring on Amazon. I’ve been watching and every time you look at something, they give you more expensive vs cheaper options. Fortunately, I need almost nothing these days. 🙂 I get how they target our anxiety. I’ve learned to wait and think about why I’m even considering buying something now. Marketers are genius at it. Great article.

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    1. The 100 day dress challenge I am currently doing is making me re-think new clothes purchases completely. I am up to Day 28 of wearing the same dress in different ways every day ( and yes I wash it overnight). Amazing how little a person actually needs

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