Search this Site:

Headmaster's Address

Barry Manilow and the Spotlight Effect

For Upper Sixth pupils the final lap has been well and truly entered now and we wish you and all the Year 11s every success in your forthcoming examinations. Around these, it will be a series of ‘last time we’re doing this’ – starting perhaps last Friday, with what I thought was a very moving last regular Friday Chapel service, and now this – I know some Upper Sixth are on study leave, but this is my last chance to hand out some School Colours, and I am delighted to award them to:

  • India F
  • Beatrice G
  • Jack H
  • Daria P
  • Alexander S
  • Luke W
  • Isabella W

It’s also my last chance, for the Upper Sixth, to dispense I won’t say ‘wisdom’ necessarily, but certainly some well-intentioned advice in the form of my addresses to this assembly, on the receiving end of which you’ve been for the last two, five and even seven years.  It’s been a privilege to have this opportunity, and I hope you take some of it with you into your lives beyond The Leys.

My focus this week isn’t on anything exam oriented – and it is a reflection which applies equally to all other year groups, and indeed to the adults present also.

I wonder how many of you have heard of the singer and songwriter, Barry Manilow?

As well as producing and arranging albums for himself and other artists, Manilow has written and performed songs for musicals, films, and commercials for some of the world’s largest corporations. He has been nominated for Grammy Awards (the Oscars of the music industry) fifteen times as a producer, arranger and performer and across five decades and has sold more than 85 million records as a solo artist worldwide, making him one of the world’s best-selling artists.

So, how come so few of you have heard of him? Well, he is hardly at the cutting edge of on-trend popular culture.  He was a massive star in the 1970s and retains a hard core of uber-dedicated fans to this day, but the crucial thing about him is that he was never cool.

Indeed, he is pretty much the antithesis of cool.  He wrote and performed some great songs, but to admit you like the music of Barry Manilow, well, it’s not the sort of thing you do if you’re a bit insecure about what others might think of you.

That makes him the perfect pop star to use for a social experiment into what is known as the “spotlight effect.” This is the term given to describe the phenomenon where people tend to overestimate how much others notice aspects of one’s own appearance or behaviour. This causes a lot of social anxiety for people, and we’re all subject to it, to a greater or lesser extent, so I wanted to offer some insights to try to dilute some of that. This actually builds on what I said a few weeks ago about self-handicapping, because one of the things which deters people from taking good risks, the risk of really giving it your all, the risk of putting your hand up in class, the risk of trying out for a play, the risk of trying something new – all the things we really want you to do here at The Leys – one of the main factors in deterring people from doing that is the social anxiety of worrying about what other people think of you.

So, if you are worried about how much others notice aspects of your own appearance or behaviour, I have one very reassuring message for you: other people really do not care about how you look or what you’re doing. In fact, most people aren’t noticing you at all.  I don’t say that to be cruel, or to paint others in a negative light.  It’s just a fact, and given that most people don’t notice or don’t care, then that knowledge should help us combat social anxiety and be more comfortable being ourselves, taking risks, and trying new things rather than being crippled or paralysed by the thought of what others might think of us if things go wrong.

So where does Barry Manilow come in?  Well, in the year 2000 Tom Gilovich and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this study, “the researchers brought in groups of university students to complete an unrelated task in the same room, and randomly assigned one of the students to put on an embarrassing T-shirt (you guessed it, it was a t-shirt of Barry Manilow, which the researchers had previously established was highly embarrassing for this college population). Afterwards, the researchers asked the students who’d been wearing the embarrassing T-shirt to estimate how many people in the room had noticed what they were wearing. The students wearing the shirt estimated that about 50% of the room noticed.

In reality, only 25% of the people in the room were able to identify the Barry Manilow shirt. It’s an egocentric bias—we see everything through a “Player 1” lens. Simply being the person who is wearing the T-shirt, the one feeling that the spotlight is on them, causes people to overestimate drastically how many people would notice.

So, let me pitch you a scenario that probably sounds familiar. You’re walking down the hallway, and you know that your hair looks bad. As you walk past several people, you can feel everyone looking at you, noticing your messy hair that you couldn’t fix this morning because you overslept. Guess what? I can guarantee that you greatly overestimated how many people noticed or cared.

The lesson from this, one of which we need to keep reminding ourselves, is that whilst we’re out here worrying about what others are noticing and thinking about us, in reality, most of them aren’t noticing or thinking about us at all.

We think everyone is staring and noticing us, but they aren’t. And, even if they do notice something about you, they quickly forget about it.

The Spotlight Effect explains why we feel that there is a spotlight shining on us in public and social situations, but the reality is that most people are too preoccupied thinking about themselves or something that they are doing – as this slide suggests, they’re probably busy thinking about how other people are thinking about them!  Pre-conditioned fear of placing yourself in “spotlight situations” means you run the risk of shrinking yourself down. In terms of kindness and empathy towards others, remember also that the spotlight effect may explain why self-consciousness can manifest as self-centeredness. And, most importantly of all, if we let ourselves fall victim to the spotlight effect, that means we may avoid doing what makes us happy because of fear of judgement.

I am afraid that the spotlight effect is an inevitable part of the human condition.  We can never turn it off completely, but if you’re someone who struggles with this, and we could all benefit at times from dimming the spotlight: here are three Spotlight Dimming Strategies:

  1. Strategy 1: Awareness. The first step is always awareness. Understand that others are never as tuned into ‘you’ as you are. Even if they do notice something about you, they quickly forget about it, as they’re just focused on themselves.
  2. Strategy 2: Be interested. Most people strive to be interesting—to impress people. Instead, focus on being interested. Ask questions, listen, and engage. This eases your own tension, gets others talking, and builds up your confidence in a new social situation.
  3. Strategy 3: remind yourself: “So What?” Whenever you think about a future spotlight situation, try to confront your fears about what could go wrong. Then ask, “so what?” about that fear becoming reality. Usually it isn’t all that bad. “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

In summary: two big mistakes in life are worrying about what other people think about you, and believing that other people are thinking about you in the first place.

Fight back. Don’t let fear of judgment stop you from taking good risks.  Stop worrying about what others think, be yourself, don’t let the spotlight effect stop you from making the most of opportunities, and just get on with living a full life according to your values.