I spoke at a conference in Malta recently where one of the other presenters referred to the up and coming ‘erection’, instead of election. Naturally, a titter ran around the room. (What a great job that is, eh? Just waiting all day in the blocks for something funny to happen and then off you go on your lap of dishonour.)
Anyway, back to the story. Over lunch, I mentioned this rather amusing gaff to the chap sitting next to me. Turns out it was he who said it. I hadn’t recognised him at all; I just remembered his mistake. It was a little embarrassing for me but more so for him. He naturally assumed that everyone would not only recall his slip but also be able to attribute it to him. But this wasn’t the case. Nobody remembered who said it, just what was said.
Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich calls this the ‘Spotlight Effect.’ It describes our tendency to overestimate how often other people notice what we do or how we look. So, when we stumble on a staircase or spill soup in our lap, we get embarrassed because we assume everyone in the room saw what happened. Gilovic’s studies suggest that most times they don’t. The fact is, other people are more interested in themselves than in you.
To prove the theory, Gilovic invited a group of students to take part in an experiment. When the first one arrived, he was asked to swap his T-shirt for one with a big picture of Barry Manilow on the front. That’s right, the septuagenarian survivor from Brooklyn who looks uncannily like Michael Douglas playing Liberace after plastic surgery. The only man who describes himself in all sincerity as a ‘sex god in a red jacket’.
Naturally enough, the young chap felt a little self-conscious as the other students began to arrive. Then, after all the participants had spent a few minutes completing a questionnaire, the Manilow Boy was asked to leave the group and enter an adjoining room. Here, the real Barry Manilow was waiting with outstretched arms, closed eyes and puckered lips. (Actually, I just made that last bit up but I think it would have been worth trying to arrange.)
The remaining students were then asked if they could remember who was pictured on the lad’s T-shirt. The student himself was also invited to estimate how many of the other students had noticed. In a series of experiments of this nature, the student with the Barry Manilow T-shirt always overestimated the amount of attention he attracted. On average, they guessed about half of all the students had noticed, when, in fact, only one in five could recall the Brooklyn crooner. One student, to his credit, did say it looked like Michael Douglas playing Liberace after plastic surgery.
So, the next time your fly is undone or you’ve tucked your dress into your pants following a loo break, don’t panic. Hardly anybody will have noticed. Unless, of course, they have a camera to hand in which case the picture will be uploaded to Facebook before you can say ‘sex god in a red jacket’.
Any comments? Email Paul Colston