ME, ME, ME: The Spotlight Effect and Teaching.

Yesterday I shaved my beard off.

It was joyous, for me, to behold the Adonis that looked back at me from the mirror, all smooth chinned and liberated lip. “This will make me feel better,” I thought. I care a lot about what other people think of my appearance (*Yes- I know I need to love myself but it’s difficult when you’re a 33 year old man with a head like a pachycephalosaurus, and ears resembling the handles of a certain domestic football trophy) and so, a few compliments about my new, more chiselled, less scruffy appearance would do nicely to help get me through the tiring last few days of term.

Nobody said a thing.

Now, I’m sure the people I work with ain’t horrible bastards; it wasn’t necessarily that they noticed my freedom from fuzz and just chose not to say anything. Rather, they just failed to realise an essential truth; that everything I do should be a huge deal for them.

Apparently, my egocentric tendencies aren’t that unusual. The Spotlight Effect, a term coined by psychologists Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky in their paper, The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance (2000), refers to the way in which, ‘people tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.’ Basically, our whole experience of the world is framed through our own perspective and experiences. So, we naturally assume that other people see the world as we do: through our lens. Because of this, we tend to overestimate the extent to which people notice changes in our appearance, our mishaps, and our accomplishments.

Gilovich and his colleagues asked participants to wear a t-shirt with someone’s face on it, and enter a room with other students in it. Once the participants left the room, they were asked how many people they thought had noticed or could remember the face on the t-shirt. Each time, participants drastically over-estimated the extent to which people had noticed the face. What’s more, if the student was wearing a face they were embarrassed to wear (in this case the face was that of Barry Manilow –sorry Baz), then they over-estimated even further the extent to which people had registered the great man’s face, on their t-shirt. This has quite pleasing implications because it means that when we are embarrassed, we’re likely to have a more severely skewed idea of just how many students notice the gargantuan sweat stain emanating from our left armpit as we give assembly.

So, what does this mean for teachers? A few things.


It means you can wear that new ‘zany’ tie, sport that new haircut, or try out that new neon yellow dress, without fear of ridicule from students and staff alike. So go on, if you think it will make you feel good, embrace the skinny tie your Mum said looked good on you at Nana’s wedding.


If you’re new to the classroom, or you’re having to present to some god awful panel, or you’re delivering CPD after school on a Friday, and you feel nervous, the chances and despite what you think, your whole audience hasn’t noticed your shaky hands, the tremble in your voice, or the sweat patches.


Perhaps many of us resort to overly slidey PowerPoint slides as a means of distracting from something about ourselves that we consider to be embarrassing: A bad haircut, a pimple on the nose, or a tightly-fitting shirt that reveals just a little too much of last night’s six-pack. Your students need more of you and less smoke-screen. Give them it.


Often teachers avoid live modelling in class because they become hyper aware of things their audience probably won’t notice, or care about: the odd typo, wonky handwriting, a bit of thinking time from the teacher before committing thoughts to the board. A seven second pause as you try to remember how to spell ‘excruciating’ might seem like eternity to you, but for your audience it might seem like…er…7 seconds.


Your students will fall victims to the spotlight effect too. They will over-estimate the extent to which people might react badly to their answering questions in class. Make your students feel less self-conscious by telling them about The Spotlight Effect, and building a culture where it’s safe-even desirable- to get things wrong every now and again.