The Spotlight Effect, and why you need to Buy a Tide Pen

Image generated by Dalle-AI with prompt: A dark academia style edison light bulb lighting a library in the style of surrealism

Image generated by Dalle-AI with prompt: A dark academia style edison light bulb lighting a library in the style of surrealism

Ameenah Syed

Picture this: Sally is in her chemistry class and the teacher calls on her to ask how many oxygen atoms are in water. Remembering that the chemical formula for water is H2O, Sally confidently says “2!” But to her great dismay, Sally mixed up oxygen and hydrogen. Sally thinks to herself, “How could I have made such a careless blunder!” Suddenly, Sally felt that all eyes were on her. She couldn’t shake the feeling of embarrassment from mixing up such a simple equation. Sometimes when Sally goes for a drink of water, her subconscious reminds her of that one unpleasant day in her sophomore chemistry class. 

Take Sally’s subconscious away, and this situation isn’t something that calls for a lot of thought. Where Sally’s class forgot about her error within 10 minutes, Sally was still thinking about it years later! But situations like Sally’s aren’t uncommon, due to the spotlight effect

In day-to-day life, decisions, assumptions, and takeaways all revolve around the individual and their bias. But this bias also creates a blind spot. 

This blindspot is similar to that of babies in the game “peek a boo.” Babies don’t have the deduction ability to realize that their parents aren’t disappearing after each “peek a boo!” This is because babies are only aware of what they are seeing in real-time. 

Similar to the “peek-a-boo effect,” the spotlight effect makes it so the individual can only acknowledge their own perspective in any situation. 

In Sally’s case, her upset about making an error in class translated to how she saw her classmates. Because Sally kept telling herself that she was stupid for mixing the two molecules up, she couldn’t help but think that everyone else thought the same thing. This is where her cognitive bias comes in. Sally didn’t account for the insignificance of her mishap when generalizing her class’s reaction to it. Because of the spotlight effect, Sally fell into the trap of generalizing that the world revolves around her. 

For people who are in social situations often, (like students at Lakota West High School!) It’s important to remember the spotlight effect when making decisions. So, before deciding to spend the whole day hung up on the ever-present ketchup stain on your brand-new white tee-shirt, remember that tide pens do exist, and nobody will remember after a day or two.