#20 Spotlight effect: Why nobody else notices the ketchup stain on your shorts

Ever wondered why making the smallest faux pas can ruin your entire day? In this episode, Mel and Dan discuss the spotlight effect, and how it influences our perception of how much attention people are actually paying towards us (and our ads).


Mel: 00:16 Hi, and welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: 00:18 The podcast that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.

Mel: 00:21 Why we think what we think.

Dan: 00:22 And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:24 Always ethically. I have to say that. Speaking of, I'm Dr Mel Weinberg, I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:31 And I'm Dan Monheit, founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for today.

Mel: 00:34 Let's play some music.

(music)

Dan: 00:43 Okay, so the first thing I feel I need to do is I just need to apologise.

Mel: 00:47 To who?

Dan: 00:47 Well to all of our loyal listeners out there because, as it turns out Mel, I've been pretty busy and we haven't done an episode for more weeks than I'd like to admit. And it's pained me as I've tried to fall asleep most nights, thinking about how angry people are going to be. You guys are going to your podcast apps and you're hitting refresh and you're wondering what's going on, why are there no new episodes of Bad Decisions?

Mel: 01:10 They must be so concerned...

Dan: 01:11 I know, people must be concerned. I just wanted to say, I for one as at least 50% of this setup here, am profoundly apologetic about this.

Mel: 01:20 That's really nice of you Dan. I, on behalf of the other 50% of this enterprise, don't apologise. It's fine that you feel that way Dan, but I got some news for you.

Dan: 01:34 What's that?

Mel: 01:34 Nobody cares.

Dan: 01:34 People care.

Mel: 01:35 Nobody cares.

Dan: 01:36 Everybody cares, they're wondering where we've been.

Mel: 01:38 No, no.

Dan: 01:38 Mainly where I've been.

Mel: 01:39 Not as much. They haven't really been lying awake at night as much as you have. I guarantee you that and if you have, please look up my details and come and see me for a session in the clinic 'cause there is something wrong with you.

Dan: 01:49 And then look up my details and come and see me and we can hang out and be the best of best of friends.

Mel: 01:53 So the reason Dan that you are thinking this way and that you are feeling very apologetic, which is very kind and very nice to our listeners...

Dan: 02:01 I'm just that kind of guy.

Mel: 02:02 You are, but you are also somewhat narcissistic, for all of your empathy, and I feel like...

Dan: 02:11 It's faux empathy.

Mel: 02:12 I feel like you're falling victim to what's known as the spotlight effect.

Dan: 02:15 Spotlight effect, me?! Why do these things always affect me?

Mel: 02:27 See this one is quite specific from a psychological perspective and basically what it is, is the tendency to considerably overestimate how much attention other people are paying to us.

Dan: 02:39 I see why other people would overestimate how much attention people are giving them but, with me it's real.

Mel: 02:44 Let me give you an example. You're walking down the street and you're holding a whole bunch of stuff and you're struggling to manage everything and there's people walking past you, and all of a sudden you just absolutely stack it. Things fly everywhere, you spill your coffee, and you fall onto the floor, you hit your butt, and like you're just thinking "oh my god this is the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me". In your mind, you're basically thinking this is social suicide. People are going to think I'm the most useless, incapable person...

Dan: 03:14 Uncoordinated...

Mel: 03:14 Yeah, I can't even walk down the street! So what kind of a person am I? You think about it for hours afterwards, you go "oh my god, that was so embarrassing." You can't stop thinking about it and replaying the incident in your head and you assume that everybody else who saw that is spending their day thinking "oh this idiot just completely stacked it, was carrying too much, just lost it, it was hilarious." When in reality what's happened is that they're not really thinking about it. They might've had a bit of a giggle at the time, if it was funny, and if you were okay of course and not seriously injured. But nobody else is thinking about it as much as you are.

Dan: 03:54 No I know, and that's probably because they're just thinking about something for themselves, right?

Mel: 03:59 Well yeah, because when something like that happens to us it dominates our attention. Because it's so critical to our survival in the world, and to our sense of self, our brain needs to focus on it right then and there, but others don't attend to it in the same way that we would. It's important to us, but us falling over isn't really that important to them. It doesn't really have any impact on their survival, or their continued existence or anything like that, other than maybe giving them something to chuckle over for a little moment.

Dan: 04:23 And they probably have things that are much more important to their life, or their survival, like they have a coffee stain on their shirt.

Mel: 04:29 Right, which you maybe didn't even notice.

Dan: 04:30 If you have a ketchup stain on your shorts, that is literally the only thing you're going to be worried about for the whole rest of the day. I'm like, "I'm such an idiot", people are going to be looking at me, and then some schmuck trips over and stacks themselves, and for half a second you're like "ha!". But "I have ketchup on my shorts, I'm such an idiot."

Mel: 04:46 This is the thing, as we go about our day being hyper alert to anything that might threaten our survival, things that happen which impact on other people's survival, unless it's extreme, you don't really care that much. We have so much going on in our environment, that we need to scour and we have effective data filtration strategies which basically mean that we filter out information which isn't immediately relevant to us, or isn't going to be an ongoing source of threat. So if you have a ketchup stain on your pants, that's super important to you, you think everybody's looking at it, especially if you're wearing white pants...

Dan: 05:20 I'm not wearing white pants, but if I was, people would think I'm a toddler, what sort of grown up can't get all the ketchup in their mouth or on their plate?

Mel: 05:27 Look and I think that this is something that we've developed in order to defend our sense of self. We have to believe it's important for our brain to believe that everybody is paying attention to us, because as far as we're concerned, we are the centre of our own universe.

Dan: 05:43 Yeah, you're right. I think western civilisation has a lot to answer for on this as well. Certainly today, we are encouraged to see our lives as a movie, and we play the lead role in this. Hollywood and general western values around individualism and "go your own path, and write your own journey", and all of those sorts of things, tell us there is a spotlight shining on you all the time, and everybody else is playing supporting roles in the movie that is your life. Even if we think about how we raise kids and everything is about being an individual and you have your own room, and someone's kids rooms are off limits to their parents because preserving the individualism is so important and even if we just went back a few hundred years, or looking at more traditional eastern cultures, the role of the individual is far smaller and is much more about how you fit in, how you conform with a tribe, or religion or a society or a group. As opposed to kids having their own rooms, everybody's just sleeping in dormitories and trying to blend in.

Mel: 06:43 It's interesting, for me I see this as a very childlike type of bias that we have. But I think this is an artefact of how our brain develops. You're talking about the individualistic nature of things and how it is very childish, but one of the ways this manifests is in terms of ego-centric thinking. We think we are the centre of our universe and actually when you're a child, you are. Your brain actually doesn't have the capacity to think from anybody else's perspective, so everything that is happening, you're seeing from your eyes and you're experiencing as yourself. No perspective whatsoever. And you see this play out- you've got small kids - you see this happen when you play hide and seek with a child. A two or three year old and it's their turn to hide, what do they do? Do they run off and they hide behind the curtain?

Dan: 07:25 No. That's a lot of effort.

Mel: 07:25 It's a good hiding spot, but no so what do they do?

Dan: 07:28 They put their hands over their eyes...

Mel: 07:30 Exactly, right... and they go you can't see me, I'm hiding.

Dan: 07:34 Yeah, if they can't see me then I can't see them.

Mel: 07:39 That's how they think because they're actually unable to see things from your perspective or from your eyes.

Dan: 07:44 This is why there are no three year old snipers. The worst snipers in the world. In a slightly less military example, on a daily basis, I have young kids and one of them will come up to me... I might be attempting to cook something, and there are literally things on fire in the kitchen and one of my children will come up and not understand why this is not a good time to wanna go and play with them. It's like, "can you see I'm literally, there is literally flames coming off the stove, not a great time to fix LEGO".

Mel: 08:15 Doesn't matter because I want to play LEGO...

Dan: 08:21 Yeah I love you guys still though, we'll play LEGO afterwards, as soon as daddy puts out the fire in the kitchen, it's LEGO for everyone! Especially if you don't tell mummy...

Mel: 08:28 This spotlight effect, I feel is a residual effect of having this ego-centric thinking that dominates our life as a child. We grow up and we have the ability to see things from other people's perspective but our inherent, more natural default way to look at things is from our eyes, and our eyes only.

Mel: 08:43 Before we go on, because there are two other ways this manifests that I want to talk about, but I know that everybody is really interested, as much as I am, in the ...

Dan: 08:52 Let me guess, the research!

Mel: 08:53 The research!

Dan: 09:00 I'll be back in a minute...

Mel: 09:02 While you take a break Dan, let me just take everybody very quickly through a little bit of research that was published in a very highly regarded journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in 2000. It was by Gilovich Medvec and Savitsky, they were the ones who sort've coined this term, spotlight effect. What they did, was they created a situation where one person would feel embarrassed and what was the best way they could think of to make somebody feel embarrassed?

Dan: 09:28 This was before the Borat mankini epidemic?

Mel: 09:32 They decided that one way that they could potentially cause embarrassment, or cause a person to feel shame, would be to have them wear a bright yellow T-shirt that had the face of Barry Manilow printed on it.

Dan: 09:43 That's fine in some circles...

Mel: 09:44 It's creative... this is how academics think, right. Let's go with it. Basically what they were doing was they wearing that T-shirt into a room full of people. Before they did, they asked the person who was wearing this T-shirt, how many people do you think are going to notice? Afterwards they asked all the people who were in the room with them, did you guys notice what this guy was wearing? What they found was that...

Dan: 10:05 You're about to get a massive hip check from reality here buddy...

Mel: 10:09 What they found was that the subjects, the people wearing the bright yellow Barry Manilow T-shirt predicted about 50% of others in that room, would notice their embarrassing T-shirt and in reality, only about 25% of their classmates actually did. What that tells us is that we overestimate, we in fact double, how much attention we think people are paying to us.

Mel: 10:31 I'm done with the research now, we can go back to a couple of other ways that this manifests.

Dan: 10:35 Good.

Mel: 10:36 I'm sorry, I know that everybody else really, really needed to hear that, it's important to me so it must be important to them... I think I just fell victim to the spotlight effect.

Mel: 10:46 The next way that this manifests and the other thing that plays into the spotlight effect is the idea of naïve realism. Naïve realism is basically the idea that we assume that we are bringing a completely objective view to a situation. So we're seeing something with all of the facts, and we're naively thinking that is the way that this is happening in reality. We assume that everybody else is seeing it the same way that we are, which is not really what's happening, because essentially what's happening is whenever you encounter a situation, your brain's trying to process it, you're trying to understand it, and you're bringing into that situation your own history, your own experiences, your own memories, your own context with which to understand that information. Other people aren't necessarily looking at it through the same lens that you are. Other people are looking at it bringing in their own understanding, bringing in their own history, bringing in their own memory and experiences and emotions and all that.

Mel: 11:44 It reminds me of when we talked about Daniel Kahneman, I don't think we can go an episode without mentioning him, but in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, one of the acronyms that he continues to refer to is WYSIATI, which stands for What You See Is All There Is. This is essentially what naïve realism is all about. That we see things from our perspective, we think we have all of the information because we actually do have all of the information available to us, the problem is that we assume that everybody else has all of that as well, and they don't.

Dan: 12:11 This is going to be terrible, but this reminds me of an old joke, it sounds like something a Rabbi would tell at a sermon. There's this old couple, Morty and Esther. One morning Morty decides that he's going to go out to the shopping centre. So he goes off to the shopping centre, he's been gone for a couple of hours and it's a couple of hours later and he's driving home. It's about this time Esther's watching TV and she sees a special interruption to the news broadcast. They've got one of those helicopters in the sky, and they basically see somebody driving down the freeway in the wrong direction. The first thing Esther does, she calls Morty, she says "hey I know you're coming back from the shopping centre, please be careful there's some maniac driving down the freeway on the wrong side of the road." And Morty says, "not one, there's hundreds of them!"

Mel: 12:56 Alright, didn't want to laugh at that, and you've broken one of the fundamental rules of Bad Decisions, which is that we don't talk about religion here.

Dan: 13:05 No, that's not about... is that about religion?

Mel: 13:06 I don't know, didn't have to be a Rabbi, but anyway funny joke.

Dan: 13:08 He's not a Rabbi, I said it sounds like a joke you would hear in a rabbinical sermon.

Mel: 13:12 Oh, you're the Rabbi...

Dan: 13:13 Yeah, and I have a beard at the moment. Anyway that's a visual joke, which is excellent for podcast audiences.

Mel: 13:23 Anyway, a third phenomena that's associated with the spotlight effect is what's known as the self-as-target bias, which is a sense that actions or events are disproportionately directed toward the self.

Dan: 13:39 "Why do these things always happen to me?"

Mel: 13:41 Always, right. You're always going to bump into somebody that you don't want to bump into, and that's the thing that always happens to you. Or you're in class and you haven't prepared for a test and you're like, I know the teacher's going to ask me a question. I know they're going to pick on me...

Dan: 13:56 I never get a good parking spot...

Mel: 13:58 Basically it's all about me. It's not about you.

Dan: 14:01 As if the universe hasn't conspired for me not to get a parking spot. What other explanation could there possibly be?

Mel: 14:08 It's just funny because there's a confusion between the information that's available to you and the information that's available to everybody else and we just fail to account for this discrepancy as we go about our everyday life.

Dan: 14:20 I think as far as heuristics go, of mental quirks go, this is a pretty tight package, right? It's like nobody gives a shit, basically nobody gives a shit because everybody is dealing with the ketchup on their pants.

Mel: 14:31 Let's soften this a little bit. People care, people just don't care as much as you do.

Dan: 14:36 People care at least 50% less than you think they do.

Mel: 14:41 And from a psychological perspective it's fascinating. How does it affect people in the brand marketing space?

Dan: 14:47 The first thing is next time somebody says to you "do you how many shits I give?", you know the answer. It's like half as many as I initially thought, so now we've got that wrapped up.

Dan: 14:56 While this is a thing we talk about as individuals and nobody cares about your person as much as you do, or as much as you think they do, I absolutely see this manifest with brands, with clients, with marketers who spend all day, all night, years of their working lives thinking about a product or a brand that they happen to be working on, and sometimes I can find myself in a workshop that has been going on all day and we're debating how we talk about something and sometimes somebody just needs to put their hand up and say "I don't think anybody really cares whether we describe ourselves as healthy and natural, or natural and healthy". It's like we're obsessed with this, but nobody else gives a shit.

Mel: 15:39 One question could be, how do you then make people obsessed with it?

Dan: 15:42 So as far as how this can play out for brands, once you accept that honestly nobody gives a shit, 'cause they've all got ketchup on their shorts, there's a couple of directions you can go.

Dan: 15:52 The first is to acknowledge that it is far harder to get people's attention than you think. It is 100% harder to get people's attention than you think. There's a wonderful saying that most people ignore advertising because most advertising ignores people.

Mel: 16:05 I like it.

Dan: 16:06 And often as marketers, as agency people we think we're being risky and we think we're being bold, but unless we are 100% above where we think we need to be, chances are no one's going to notice, nobody's going to care. One thing is we've got to be realistic about what it takes to create memories, and create "cut through" and stop making boring shit all the time.

Mel: 16:34 Is it like go hard or go home?

Dan: 16:36 Absolutely and go twice as hard as you think, and a good starting point is to go and listen to the previous 16 episodes about all the ways to hack memory, and hack the way that people think because if we're not going hard then we shouldn't go at all. So that's one.

Dan: 16:50 The second interesting way we see this play out is, it sounds a bit sinister but cuts to the heart of a lot of advertising. If people believe that they are the centre of the universe and the centre of their own movie, they're playing the lead role, who am I to tell them they're not? Instead what I'm going to do is I'm going to actually play into that. You see this a lot with luxury goods, where they basically showing scenarios of people wearing the luxury goods, and just turning heads where they go.

Dan: 17:15 There's actually quite a cool ad, it came out last year for a new car, I think it was called the Holden Arcadia, and the whole ad is built around the premise of, "Don't just turn up. Arrive". It's kind of elevating this moment of turning up somewhere, and everybody's just watching you get out of the car and there's doves flying in the background. It's this complete Hollywood version of the seed of an idea that everybody already has in their mind. I think another classic example, this is rampant in the cosmetics industry, if we look at Maybelline and their old line. Now the line is just "Maybe it's Maybelline", but historically it's "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline", which suggests that if you wear this product, people will gossip about you.

Mel: 17:57 Which is what people are already thinking anyway.

Dan: 17:59 Yeah, so if you wear this product, more people will be talking about you 'cause they're going to be wondering if it's natural or if it's Maybelline. I think the same thing, there was a hair care brand that talked about looking like you've just stepped out of a salon, suggesting that people will talk about you, when really they won't.

Mel: 18:14 It's funny because the whole idea of the spotlight effect is that there isn't actually a spotlight on you even though you think there is, and what these ads that you're talking about are doing, are actually going "No, no, you're right, there is a spotlight effect on you!"

Dan: 18:23 "It's real! You are in a movie!"

Mel: 18:23 So maybe there's some confirmation bias that plays into it as well. That people already think that people are talking about them and they're being watched...

Dan: 18:29 "That's why that ad just talks to me, because that is what happens when I turn up somewhere. The music plays, everybody turns their head..."

Mel: 18:36 Maybe it's Maybelline...

Dan: 18:39 I'm gonna tell you, if you see me in the street, it's not Maybelline...

Mel: 18:42 Definitely not, not with that beard...

Dan: 18:44 I was born with it... not the beard...

Mel: 18:47 To wrap where we're at, I think there's an appropriate quote that I think people will be familiar with, and that is actually very hard to source back to a person... actually that's not true. It's easy to source back to a person, the problem is nobody knows who that person is or what they've done except write a couple of books, which I can't find the titles of, and say some things that sound really good as quotes. Let's go with one of that.

Dan: 19:10 I feel like Churchill gets quoted with a lot of miscellaneous quotes, and it's like I don't know who said this, it sounds smart...

Mel: 19:15 Well this one is Olin Miller.

Dan: 19:17 The big O.

Mel: 19:18 Yeah, apparently an American businessman, that's the best I can get. But he was a clever one, he said "You probably wouldn't worry about what other people think of you if could you know how seldom they do."

Dan: 19:28 That's such a thing that a great aunt would say, and it feels like the sort've wisdom that you get with age. Where when you're a kid you think there's only your way, and as you become an adolescent, you just think that everybody's looking at you all the time and then as you get older, you realise everyone's so busy worrying about their own...

Mel: 19:44 You're just a little speck in the big wide world.

Dan: 19:45 Yeah, everyone's so worried about their own ketchup stains that they don't care about yours. I think that's a wrap. What did we learn?

Mel: 19:54 We learned that nobody cares. We learned that we tend to place a lot more emphasis on how much we think other people are paying attention to us when they're not really paying much attention to us at all. It's not all about us, is really what we learned.

Dan: 20:08 And if we're brands, we should either play in to the fact that people think everybody's looking at them, and tell them that our product is really going to assist them with that, and/or at the same time realise that it's at least 100% harder to be noticed that we think it is. Go hard or go home. If you think your ad is a yellow Barry Manilow T-shirt, you've got to up it to a yellow Barry Manilow T-shirt with sequins and nipple clamps, and maybe make it backless.

Mel: 20:35 Yeah, and then just as a person, the ability to be able to step out of your own head, see things from another person's perspective sounds like something that we really should've figured out, but it's not really the way that we naturally go about things, so it might take a bit of effort. But you can do it.

Dan: 20:49 I feel like we just had a Dr. Phil moment.

Mel: 20:50 A Dr. Mel moment.

Dan: 20:53 Alright, I think that's a wrap, are we outta here?

Mel: 20:54 We're done.

Dan: 20:56 See ya next time.

Mel: 20:57 Later.