You’re Too Focused on What You’re Focused On
Gray Matter


Credit Marion Fayolle
Here’s some good news for self-conscious people. That coffee stain on your shirt, those mismatched earrings you absent-mindedly selected this morning, that unfortunate haircut you just got — people do not notice those things as much as you think.

Although it can feel as if your flaws and missteps are the focus of everyone’s attention, research in social psychology suggests otherwise. In a classic study from the 1990s, for example, participants put on a shirt emblazoned with the face of the singer Barry Manilow and then walked into a room full of people. Later, when asked how many people in the room would be able to identify what was on their shirt, the participants significantly overestimated: It turned out that only half the number of people noticed as they had thought.

Now here’s the bad news. Most of the time, when you’re minding your own business and feeling relatively inconspicuous, you’re being watched much more than you realize. My colleagues and I demonstrated this in several studies whose findings we published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In one experiment, we asked two strangers participating in our study to arrive in our lab at the same time. They were seated in a waiting room and told that the experimenter was running a little behind schedule. They were invited to pass the time by reading one of the newspapers provided (or in any way they liked) as they waited for the study to begin. Five minutes later, the experimenter returned, told the participants she was ready to begin and ushered them into separate rooms in a different part of the lab.

Once the participants were in their private rooms, one of them was asked to write down anything he or she noticed or thought about the other person, and then to report on a numerical scale how much he or she had observed the other person. The other participant was asked to write down anything he or she believed the other person had noticed or thought about him or her, and then to estimate how much the other person had observed him or her, using the same scale.

Although people surreptitiously noticed all kinds of details about each other — clothing, personality, mood — we found that people were convinced that the other person wasn’t watching them much, if at all.

So other people notice our coffee stains less than we think, but they watch us in general more than we think. The problem, in both cases, is that we project the focus of our attention onto others. Because we’re fixated on our coffee stain (or whatever we happen to be self-conscious about), we assume others must be, too. But when nothing in particular draws our attention to ourselves, we neglect the fact that we may nevertheless be an object of other people’s interest.

In short, we pay too much attention to what we’re paying attention to.

Assuming other people are focused on the same thing we are is at the root of many kinds of miscommunication. Employees pull their hair out in frustration while bosses obliviously believe their instructions are simple and straightforward. Spouses feel misunderstood because their partners fail to notice that they cleaned the house. Activists preoccupied with the issue of health care assume others are uncaring because they can’t recall what a single-payer system is.

We all have a tendency to egocentrically ascribe our own perspective to others. That doesn’t make us selfish or bad. But it’s worth keeping in mind that everyone’s attention illuminates the world in a particular way, and what gets spotlighted differs from person to person.

Erica J. Boothby is a graduate student in psychology at Yale.

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