Dance like nobody’s watching…because they’re not

On Good Friday this year, a friend of mine died after a two-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 61 years old and had just recently begun her third round of chemotherapy.

I enjoyed our conversations about nature, healthy living (though I didn’t always follow it), the work of Thoreau, and parenting. We shared similar outlooks on the trappings of our world, and the meaning of it all.

On a fairly regular basis, she would offer quotes from her favorite poets and thinkers, whether I asked for them or not. Some of the time, the quotes were her originals. For example, “Life is simple, but it’s never easy” is something she told me all the time. She meant that being a good steward of the gifts one has been given—our loved ones, our bodies, our world—was a very basic tenant of a good life, but so terribly difficult to do on a continual basis.

Her “20/40/60” rule is also something that she shared often. As she was closing in on 60 at the time, she’d tell me that “When you’re 20, you worry about what everybody thinks about you. At 40, you stop worrying. And at 60, you realize they were never paying any attention to you in the first place.”

It’s a thought that brings a smile to my face. I’d love to think that people don’t pay any attention to me.

But is that really true?

In a 2000 research article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of psychologists led by Drs. Tom Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky (and including Cornell doctoral student Justin Kruger, whose lab I would later work in at the University of Illinois) put this idea to the test. How much do people really pay attention to us?

They examined this idea through a group of controlled experiments. The first involved a college student walking into a crowded lecture hall with an embarrassing T-shirt. The researchers determined that, among college students, fandom for singer Barry Manilow was perceived to be quite embarrassing. So, in the study, the T-shirt was emblazoned with a large picture of the crooner’s mug. The experiment was simple. The student was asked what percentage of the others would notice his or her embarrassing shirt. The guess? Approximately 50 percent. The researchers then interviewed the students in the lecture hall to identify what percentage actually observed the Manilow T-shirt. The answer: 25 percent.

The second study was set up in a very similar manner to the first one: A student wearing a T-shirt walking into a lecture hall. This time, however, the face on the shirt was of someone for whom the wearers thought they may receive positive attention. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jerry Seinfeld, or Bob Marley was chosen. Again, wearers felt that roughly 50 percent of the other students in the lecture hall would identify the shirt. In reality, less than 10 percent did.

The third and final study focused on our behavior, rather than appearance. Participants worked on group projects and then were asked to rate how memorable their contributions—both positive and negative—had been. The result? Raters consistently overestimated how much their groupmates remembered either type of contribution.

This phenomenon is referred to as the spotlight effect. In a simple explanation, our own egocentrism clouds our ability to correctly judge how much people pay attention to us. We fret over our faux paus and bask in the glory of a job well done, and we expect others to do the same for us. But they don’t.

So we have empirical proof that my friend was right. But is this knowledge common for people her age, or was she some type of sage?

As the T-shirt studies involved college students, I do wonder if an older subject pool would yield different results. If you sent a 70-year-old man into McDonald’s with a Kanye West T-shirt, would he overestimate the percentage of his coffee-drinking buddies that would notice his goofy shirt? I have reached out to Dr. Gilovich for his thoughts on this question and will report back an answer if I receive one.

For now, though, I will relish the fact that no one’s paying any attention to me. The next time I’m at a wedding, I’m definitely going to hit the dance floor with no reservations. Egocentrism won’t hold be holding me back. And besides, in addition to human nature, there are typically other factors that keep people from remembering anything from a wedding reception.

Even more reason to let it all hang out.

  1. Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(02), 211–222
  2. Denton-Mendoza, R. (2012, June 05). The spotlight effect.
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