We tend to overestimate how much people care about us and our actions. I learned this lesson when I became a creator — if you ever posted anything on the internet, you know how hard it is to get eyes on your content.
I worried about writing articles or posting my thoughts on social media, thinking about “what others will think about it.” But I quickly realized that barely anyone sees this content, let alone engages with it.
And it’s not even about people we don’t know personally.
For example, when I started writing, only a few people knew about it. But later on, I decided to create a Facebook page, invited almost 500 friends to like it, and expected comments on my decision or my writing. It turned out I got several dozen likes but only one message.
But then I realized I do the same. People invite me to like their business pages or share important events from their lives — getting engaged, married or having children. But I don’t really care about that. And I don’t even remember their appearance in the photos they shared.
It’s not like I’m not happy for them — I just don’t have time to think too much about other people’s lives. And so do they, as we live in an era of individuals when everybody is self-absorbed more than ever. And many, maybe most, people fall into an egocentric concept of life.
The Spotlight Effect
Imagine getting invited to a party with old friends from school. You haven’t seen those people in many years, maybe over a decade. And so naturally you are a little worried about your appearance and try to enhance it even a bit by exercising more or buying new clothes.
Everybody wants to feel good and confident. It’s normal. But then you come to the place of the meeting, and the comedy starts.
Suddenly you are in a room where everybody thinks or even freaks out about what others think of them. And as a result, barely anyone thinks of others but is completely self-absorbed.
Psychology defines this as the spotlight effect:
The phenomenon, called the “spotlight effect,” refers to the fact that people considerably overestimate how much attention other people are paying to them.
In 2000 American psychologist Tom Gilovich and his team published a study on the spotlight effect. They conducted various experiments to see how much people overestimate the attention they receive from others.
In one experiment, they gathered groups of students in one room and asked them to complete a task unrelated to the study. Each time, they aligned one of the students to wear a T-shirt with Barry Manilow because they previously established him as an embarrassing person for students.
They asked the students with the t-shirt to estimate how many people would notice the person on their t-shirt. They estimated that it would be 50% of people., and it turned out to be only 25%.
In another study, researchers let students choose T-shirts with a positive personality like Bob Marley and asked the same question as previously. This time, students estimated that 50% of people would notice the person on their T-shirt, but the reality showed less than 10%.
The study is a perfect example that people constantly overestimate how much attention they get from others — both positive and negative.
Social Media Provides a Great Example
Tom Gilovich’s study is from 2000, and now we don’t even need this as social media is a great source to study human behavior.
Today, content creation is a worldwide trend and everyone using social media is a creator. We produce more content than ever in history, more than we can ever consume, and our attention span gets terrible.
Content creators compete for attention for their content, and most of them get barely any of it despite their daily activities. It’s not easy to make people follow you and engage in your content — there are many well-established creators, and it’s hard to break through.
But here you are, worried about starting this hobby, sharing your thoughts, creating content, or writing out of fear of judgment.
The beauty is that you can practice whatever you want in public because people don’t see it anyway — just as they didn’t notice T-shirts in Tom Gilovich’s study on the spotlight effect.
Is That Good or Bad News?
Think about how often you think about your family or a best friend. Ten minutes a day, or maybe not even every day? And what about your old friends from school — do you even remember them? Did you ever wonder what your classmates from primary school do in life?
When you honestly think about this, you’ll quickly realize that you think of them very rarely. Yet, you think that others do otherwise. And it’s a big trap when you overestimate how much other people care about you.
For example, you can worry about what others will think of you when making an important life decision. It can be anything from buying a new car to choosing a life partner. And you either want to make a good impression or you’re worried about embarrassment.
Then the reality comes, and? No one cares about any of this. Other people might see your relationship status or photo of the car. They might even give you a like, write a comment or call you. But a few seconds later, they will return to their lives and their various problems.
And you’ll have to live with your choice — no one cares about this fancy car, but you have to pay for its maintenance. And no one cares whom you partner with in life, but you’ll spend your life with this person.
This way, it’s better to stick to what you think and what you want without worrying about what other people will think of you because they won’t think of you much anyway.
Breaking free from the high school delusion that everyone cares about you and your actions is liberating. Because in adult life, no one cares about you, so you can do whatever you want with your life — it’s sad but liberating.
One of the greatest philosophers of all time, Seneca, once said: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” And overestimating how much others think of us is a perfect example of the quote — it doesn’t happen, but we keep hurting ourselves with it.
In this way, it’s best to keep in mind Eleanor Roosevelt’s wisdom and live our lives however we want, as no one cares anyway:
“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”