Why You Should Probably Worry Less About What Other People Think About You – The Research on Fear of Failure and Being Judged
When I used to struggle with social anxiety and low self-esteem, one of my biggest fears was the fear of being judged by others.
I would worry incessantly about what other people thought about me as a person and what I said and did. In my teens I went through a stage where I was obsessed about my hair looking ok so that people wouldn’t think I looked stupid. There were times in later years where I could be on the verge of an anxiety attack if I thought others might think I looked weird, or if there was a chance of messing up. I would massively overthink everything I was saying and doing to try and avoid being judged and I had a massive fear of failure because of the rejection and negative perceptions others may have.
And one of the biggest things that holds people back, as far as social anxiety and low self-esteem are concerned, is that fear of what other people might think. It can stop you doing things, or even attempting to do things. It can lead to anxiety and overthinking that others will notice you aren’t good enough in some way. It can lead to worry about what people you know, or even those you don’t know, might be thinking about you. And it can mean missing out or feeling bad because of the fear you might look bad to others in some way.
But are people really that focused on what you are saying and doing all the time? Do they really spend that much time paying attention to you rather than thinking about other things? Do you really need to worry about what other people think about you because of the fear of failure and being judged badly?
If you worry about what others think about you and you fear failure then the research should provide you with some reassurance that your fears are probably far removed from the reality.
Mind Reading Worry About What Others Think
Recently I was reading a book where the main character spent many quiet hours thinking about how other people would be thinking and perceiving him as he went about his daily routines. He was convinced that other people were taking notice of him, commenting amongst themselves about their thoughts of his actions and noticing even the slightest changes in his normal behaviours and appearance.
But, of course, in fact they were doing no such thing. While he spent his time worrying about what they were thinking and over-analysing his every move, everyone else was just busy getting on with their own stuff. They were too busy thinking about their own worries, concerns, dreams and goals to notice too much.
Mind reading is often one of the biggest anxiety and worry generating thought patterns that people engage in. They assume that other people think something negative about them and they start to feel anxious and low. It can be about appearance such as the clothes you wear or your body size, or it could be about you as a person, whether you are interesting or boring or perhaps they think you are weird or stupid. Within the midst of anxiety and low self-esteem, you may even think your closest and longest friends spend their time perceiving you negatively.
Starting to challenge these habitual thoughts can start the process of undermining them. After all, how do you know what others are really thinking? Perhaps you are giving meaning to their words and actions that aren’t really there in fact.
Within this focus on being judged, there is an implicit suggestion that other people aren’t ever that nice at all. I mean, they can’t be that nice if they are spending all their time thinking bad stuff about you can they?
Even beyond challenging your own habitual perceptions and ending the assumption that every one is not a nice person, the research provides clear evidence that people tend to overestimate the extent to which their actions and appearance are noted by others, a phenomenon called the spotlight effect.
How The Spotlight Effect Creates Fear and Worry
As we go about our daily tasks, our own thoughts, feelings, behaviours, beliefs, perceptions and focus are at the forefront of our awareness. We are each of us at the centre of our own universe and focused on what is happening to us, its significance and how it appears to others.
Because everything we are thinking and doing is filtered through our own behaviours and experience, we often are way off in our assessment of the extent to which other people notice our appearance and actions, even though they stand out loud and clear and obvious to us.
You achieve something you think is brilliant at work, you achieve a personal best in your favourite sport, you do something you are proud of, you do a wonderful act of kindness and you may often find yourself surprised at how little attention it receives from others. You stumble over your words, go out with something spilled down your top, you go blank whilst talking or you mess up somehow, and whilst you feel like you want the ground to swallow you up, it passes without notice by others. You have a ‘bad hair day’ and expect comments about your messy hair that don’t materialise. You wear something bold and new and find you have to mention it before anyone notices. You wonder how on Earth no one else these things that are glaringly obvious to you.
Yet as the research demonstrates, people tend to believe that more people take note of their actions and appearance than is actually the case, something referred to as the spotlight effect. We all just tend to believe that the spotlight shines more brightly upon us that it really does.
“Because we are so focused on our own behavior, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much–or how little–our behavior is noticed by others. Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others…we sometimes find that the efforts we view as extraordinary and memorable go unnoticed or underappreciated by others. The same is true of the actions we wish to disown because they reflect poorly on our ability or character. They too may have less impact on our audience than we might think…they often pass without notice by others” (Gilovich, Medvec & Savitsky (2000), reference below).
Our estimates of how we appear to others are overly influenced and distorted by how we appear to ourselves. We struggle to recognise that our own perceptions of our actions in our own minds are not matched by the perceptions in the minds of others. We incorrectly assume that people are paying more attention to us than they, in fact, are.
Fear of Failure: The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgement
This tendency to assume that the spotlight is more upon us than it actually is leads to us incorrectly exaggerating how much other people are noticing and thinking about us, let alone judging what we say and do.
To examine the strength and pervasiveness of the spotlight effect, Gilovich et al (2000) carried out a series of studies looking at how prominent someone estimated their actions and appearance to be, compared to how they actually appeared to those present.
In the first study, participants were asked to wear a potentially embarrassing t-shirt (with a large picture of Barry Manilow on it!!) before entering a room where the other participants were present. The t-shirt wearer was asked to estimate the number of people who noticed who was on their T-shirt and this was later compared to the actual number who actually did notice it. The results showed that the t-shirt wearers substantially overestimated the extent to which observers paid attention to that element of their personal appearance (the average estimate was twice as high as the actual rate).
Evidencing the spotlight effect, the participants wearing the potentially embarrassing t-shirt allowed their own focus on the shirt to distort their estimates of how much it would be noticed by other people.
To test whether the spotlight effect also applied in non-embarrassing situations, a similar study was conducted whereby participants wore a t-shirt depicting a famous person that they would feel good about wearing (from a choice of Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld and Martin Luther King Jr.). As before, they substantially overestimated how many people would notice their t-shirt (the average estimate being six times greater than the actual rate).
In a third study, Gilovich et al examined the spotlight effect for behaviour and self-presentation rather than for appearance. Following a group discussion, they had participants estimate how the group as a whole would rank everyone for a number or positive and negative items. They found that whether assessing their positive contributions (e.g. advancing the discussion) or negative contribution (e.g. offending someone), participants overestimated how much their own behaviours stood out to others.
“It thus appears that the average person’s actions command less attention from others than he or she suspects, and that the social spotlight may shine less brightly than he or she believes.”
In yet another study they found that when people are estimating how their actions appear to others, they form their judgement by first focussing on their own behaviour and then adjusting downwards to take into account a sense that others are less focused on them than they are on themselves. However, that adjustment is typically insufficient and so “people end up believing that others have attended to them more than is actually the case.”
And in a final study, they repeated the Barry Manilow t-shirts but had some participants delay entering the room where the others were. Those who delayed got used to wearing the t-shirt and so were less intensely focused on their own experience and, being less concerned with the t-shirt themselves, they thought it would be less noticeable to others too. Although they wore the same t-shirts, those who delayed and were less focused on them, assumed everyone else would be less focused too.
All of which clearly demonstrates that when we are focused on our size, appearance or behaviour, we incorrectly overestimate how much other people pay attention to it simply because we are so aware of it. Whether you have a new haircut, wear something new, say something funny, forget your lines in a presentation or make a gaffe, your own focus means you expect others to notice it, and even though you take into account that things are not as prevalent to others as they are to you, you will still overestimate how much attention it gets.
All those worries about making a mistake, the fear of failure and the worry about what others think and being judged, are exaggerated in your mind. We all overestimate how much others are paying attention to what we say and do.
Fear Of Failure and Being Judged
All of these studies go to demonstrate that we tend to believe that we stand out in the eyes of others, both positively and negatively, more than we actually do. We largely overestimate how much attention others give to our actions and behaviours. We try and take into account that others are not as focused on what we are saying and doing than we are, yet we do this insufficiently and still believe that the perspective of others is more like our own that it actually is.
In fact, the more focused you are on what you are doing, the more likely you are to overestimate how much others are paying attention to you. You feel anxious at a social event and because you are so aware of your own anxious thoughts and feelings, you assume everyone else can notice it too (and so you feel even more anxious). You mess up some words in a presentation, or leave something out, or your hands are a bit shaky as you speak, and you think everyone there is also hyper aware of it. You worry and doubt yourself and think you aren’t good enough and you assume everyone else can tell you are a fraud. You stumble while walking down the street, you think you look fat in your clothes, you get someone’s name wrong, say something wrong or any number of countless other things. And chances are, in any situation where you are worrying what other people think or have a fear of failure of being judged, that you are actually way off in your assessment of how much it is in the heads and lives of other people.
Being aware of the spotlight effect really should be the thing a the front of your mind if you have anxiety, social anxiety, a fear of failure or worry about what other people think.
There may be opportunities that you have, or will miss, because of that fear of failure or of being socially judged.
“Individuals do not reach out to others because of a fear of rejection and how it will be perceived; people do not dance, sing, play a musical instrument, or join in the organization’s softball game because of the fear that they will look bad.
The present research suggests that a great many of these fears may be misplaced or exaggerated. Other people may be less likely to notice or remember our shortcomings than we typically expect…The lesson of this research, then, is that we might all have fewer regrets if we properly understood how much attention – or inattention – our actions actually draw from others.”
This is one of those situations where our minds are often misguided or just plain wrong. We overestimate the extent to which our actions and appearance are noted by others. Even though we try and take into account that other people are not as focused on us and we are ourselves, we still assume they pay more attention than they actually do. The spotlight effect means we are generally just plain wrong in our estimates and perceptions. And whether we do something positive and great, or something a bit embarrassing, our fears and focus about what others are thinking are still likely to be off. We fear we will look bad in some way yet that fear is misplaced and exaggerated.
So given that people are paying much less attention to your actions and appearance than you suspected, you really now can get out there and seize opportunities, do the things you want to do, relax around others and enjoy your experience of life.
To your success,
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Reference: Gilovich, T., Medvec, V.H. and 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(2), p.211.