The Spotlight Effect: How to Stop Being So Self Conscious All the Time

The spotlight effect is a phenomenon which causes us to think that we are being observed and noticed by others more than we actually are.

Because we naturally see everything through our own point of view first, we often have difficulty when we try to see things through other people’s eyes. Essentially, we forget that while we are the focus of our own inner world, we are not the focus of everyone else’s.

This article will show when the spotlight effect manifests in your everyday life, why it affects you, and what you can do to reduce its impact and become more self-confident.


The spotlight effect: thinking others are more aware of what you do than they actually are.


Examples of the spotlight effect

All of us encounter this effect in our life, and research found that it occurs in a wide variety of situations:

  • One study showed that people overestimate how noticeable their clothing is to other people. Interestingly, this occurred both when people were wearing an embarrassing T-shirt, as well as when they were wearing a flattering T-shirt. (These findings were later corroborated in a follow-up study).
  • The same study also showed that people overestimate how memorable what they say is to other people (during a discussion). Once again, this effect appeared both for their positive contributions (e.g. cases where they made a good point), as well as for their negative contributions (e.g. cases where they offended someone).
  • Another study showed that students significantly overestimate how noticeable variations in their looks and physical attractiveness are to their classmates. As the researchers put it: “The blemishes and cowlicks that are so noticeable and vexatious to oneself are often lost on all but the most attentive observers.”
  • This study also showed that people overestimate how much other people notice their athletic accomplishments, as well as their performance in a videogame.
  • A study on the spotlight effect among minorities showed that members of underrepresented groups feel targeted whenever a discussion relating to their group is brought up. Unsurprisingly, this effect is stronger when they are the only member of their group in the crowd.


Why it happens

This cognitive bias is similar to the illusion of transparency, which is our tendency to overestimate how well other people can discern our emotional state. Both occur because when we make judgments regarding how other people see us, we suffer from an egocentric bias, or a tendency to anchor other people’s viewpoint to our own. As one of the premier papers on the topic puts it:

Both the spotlight effect and illusion of transparency appear to derive from the same anchoring-and-adjustment mechanism. People are often quite focused on what they are doing (the spotlight effect) or what they are feeling (the illusion of transparency). To be sure, they realize that others are typically less attentive to their actions or have less access to their internal states than they themselves, and they take that realization into account when trying to anticipate how they appear to others. As is typically the case with such anchoring-and-adjustment processes, however, the adjustment is insufficient… and so people end up believing that the perspective of others is more like their own than is actually the case.


How to be less self conscious

While being aware of this phenomenon won’t make it disappear completely, it can certainly help reduce the negative impact that it has on you.

By understanding when and and why the spotlight effect occurs and how it affects you, you can make sure it won’t influence your thoughts and feelings as much. Next time you are feeling self conscious about some minor negative thing, whether it’s something stupid that you said, an embarrassing shirt that you wore, a bad hair day, or anything else, remember: odds are that almost nobody else noticed it. Even if someone did, they probably don’t care about it nearly as much as you do, and are pretty unlikely to remember it in the long-run.


Summary and conclusions

  • The spotlight effect is a psychological phenomenon which makes us think that we are being observed and noticed by other people more than we actually are.
  • This occurs due to an egocentric bias, which is our tendency to anchor other people’s viewpoint to our own.
  • Because of this, we tend to think that people notice and care about every little negative thing about us, from a bad hair day to something nonsensical we said, when in reality they generally don’t.
  • Whenever you feel self-conscious about something, remember that other people probably don’t notice it or care about it nearly as much as you do.


The Money Envelope: How an Opponent’s Choices Reveal Their Position

In game theory, a smart player accounts for the fact that the choices that other players make reveal a lot about their position. This article will show you how this concept works and how you can take advantage of it, by looking at a round of the money envelope game.


The setting

Richard and Bob are the final contestants in a game show called “The Money Envelope”. As the winners of tonight’s episode, the host gives each of them one of five possible envelopes. They know the following things:

  • Each envelope contains a check with either 500$, 1000$, 2000$, 4000$, or 8000$ (so that there is only one envelope with 500$, one with 1000$, etc.)
  • One of the contestants is getting an envelope with twice as much money as the other.
  • After each of them sees how much money he got (in private), he can ask the other person to exchange envelopes (without knowing how much money the other person got). If they both agree, the exchange occurs.


Money envelope game.


The game

Note: this example involves some simple math. You don’t have to follow the specific numbers too closely, what matters is the concept behind it.

In the current game, Richard opened his envelope and found 2000$. Based on the rules, he knows that Bob got either 1000$ or 4000$, with equal probability.

Richard calculates that he should make the exchange, since he stands to gain more that way; on average, he will earn 2500$ dollars after the exchange, compared to the 2000$ that he’s getting now. This is because there’s a 50% chance he will get 1000$, but there’s also a 50% chance that he will get 4000$ (0.5*1000+0.5*4000=2500).

However, Bob is thinking the exact same thing, regardless of whether he found 1000$ or 4000$ in his envelope:

  • If he got 1000$ and he makes the switch, he will get 1250$ on average. (0.5*500+0.5*2000=1250)
  • If he got 4000$ and he makes the switch, he will get 5000$ on average. (0.5*2000+0.5*8000=5000)

Based on this, we would assume that both players would want to make the switch. However, in reality, the contestants both choose to keep their original envelope. How come?


Game Theory analysis

The issue here is that if both Richard and Bob are perfectly rational, and both know that the other person is also perfectly rational, an exchange is never going to take place. We can see why by considering the situation step by step, starting from a slightly different angle:

  • Let’s say that Richard opens his envelope and finds 8000$. Since he knows that he already has the envelope with the most money, he won’t agree to an exchange.
  • In this scenario, Bob has to get 4000$ in his envelope (since Richard got the maximal amount). However, Bob doesn’t know whether Richard got 8000$ or 2000$. What he does know is that Richard won’t agree to an exchange if he got 8000$. Instead, the only way Richard will agree to an exchange, is if he got 2000$. Therefore, Bob can conclude that he himself should not agree to an exchange, since he will lose out on money if he does.
  • Based on this, we know that a player who gets 8000$ won’t ever agree to an exchange, but neither will someone who got 4000$.
  • Now, we’re back at the original scenario, where Richard got 2000$. If Bob has 4000$, then he’s not going to agree to an exchange, as we saw above. Therefore, if Bob is interested in an exchange, Richard can conclude that Bob got only 1000$, in which case Richard will be the one that doesn’t agree to an exchange.
  • Furthermore, if Bob has only 1000$, he knows that the only way Richard will agree to an exchange is if he has 500$ (the minimal amount), in which case Bob shouldn’t want an exchange in the first place.

See the idea here? Basically, before making a decision, each player looks at the other player’s behavior. If the other player wants to make an exchange, the original player can conclude that it would benefit that player more than it would benefit them. Eventually, the only person willing to trade is the guy who got the minimal amount, but no one wants to trade with him anyway.


A note on the math

This setting is based on the two envelopes problem/the exchange paradoxIn practice, the assumption that each player stands to gain from making the switch may be inherently flawed (which is why it was originally termed ‘the exchange paradox’). There is a large number of papers on the topic, each offering a different explanation for this, and no consensus on the topic has yet been reached.[1,2,3,4]

In general, most formulations of this problem focus on a situation where a single person is given two envelopes, and is allowed to switch between them. However, the current scenario involves two players, engaged in in a zero-sum game (because one contestant’s gain is exactly balanced by the other contestant’s loss).

In practice, it doesn’t matter that the original motivation to exchange may not exist, because the logic behind the players’ decision to keep their envelope, as presented here, still holds. As always, when reading about game-theory models, you should focus on the concept behind it, rather than on the scenario itself.


Summary and conclusions

  • In many situations, the decisions that your opponents make can give you insights regarding their position.
  • Use these insights to make better informed and more strategic decisions.


The basis for this strategy and example comes from “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

I recommend it over the earlier version of the book (“Thinking Strategically”), because that’s what the authors themselves recommend. However, the difference between the two versions isn’t crucial.


Make Your Password Manager More Secure by Changing a Simple Setting

If you’re storing all your password in a password manager (as you should), you might be worried about someone gaining access to your files and brute-forcing their way into your password collection.

The best way to avoid this is by using a strong, random password, which will be impossible for a hacker to brute force. However, with the constant advances in computing power and hacking techniques, the bar for how strong your password should be is constantly increasing.

Luckily, there is a way to significantly improve the security of your password manager, without increasing the complexity of your password, and without much effort on your part.

All you have to do is change a single setting: the number of key transformations (also known as ‘password iterations’). Basically, when you input the master password in order to access your database, the software transforms this key multiple times before checking its validity (a process known as ‘key stretching‘). The more transformations, the longer it takes to check if a password is correct, and the longer it will take someone to brute force their way into your database.

KeePass, for example, currently specifies a default value of 6,000 transformations. However, on most modern computers, you could easily change that number to several million transformations without experiencing a noticeable increase in software loading time. This means that if you increase the number of transformation to 6,000,000, a hacker will now take 1,000 times as long to crack your password, while the program will still load almost instantaneously when you input the correct password.

In fact, KeePass lets you set the number of transformation so that it takes the computer exactly 1 second to check the password. On modern computers, these values can often far exceed the 6 million transformations value.


The KeePass database setting for changing the number of iterations/transformation the master password goes though.


Keep in mind that the loading time will vary for different devices; this will be especially noticeable if you access the password manage on mobile, so make sure you’re not setting the value too high.

Likewise, the optimal value might be different if you use an online service, such as LastPass, which currently recommends not exceeding 10,000 password iterations for client-side encryption (compared to the default 5,000), though they do allow users to go as high as 200,000.

The setting itself is generally easy to find in all platforms. In KeePass you will go to File > Database Settings > Security. In LastPass you go to Account Settings > General > Show Advanced Settings > Password Iterations.


LastPass setting for controlling the number of password iterations.


One more thing worth noting: while this post focused on password managers, this advice is also applicable in other types of encryption software. VeraCrypt, for example, allows you to set the number of iterations used for encrypting volumes, using their Personal Iterations Multiplier.


Summary and Conclusions

  • The master password to your password manager undergoes multiple transformations/iterations before being verified; this number scales linearly with the time required to login.
  • By increasing the number of transformations, you can easily improve the security of your password database.
  • This will lead to a negligible increase in software loading time for you, but will significantly increase the time it takes to brute force the password.
  • When setting the number of transformations, make sure to account for the different processing power of the devices you will use to login (especially if you use mobile).
  • Instructions on how to do this are generally easy to find. If unsure, search for ‘software name + key transformations’ or ‘software name + password iterations.