Those words are from the opening paragraph of a landmark 2000 study that was published under the daunting title The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance.
Few people remember the title.
But lots of people remember what its authors, three psychology researchers, asked 109 Cornell University students to do for the good of science.
They had to enter a lecture hall and walk amongst their peers wearing a T-shirt with an enormous picture of Barry Manilow.
The researchers had previously discerned that Manilow was not, as they put it, “a singer popular among college students.” That would be a big 10-4. A number of the students, in fact, almost couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
What would other people think of them?
After departing the room the students in the experiment were asked to estimate what percent of those present had noticed the face on their T shirt.
The typical estimate was 80%. After all, displaying the face of Barry Manilow is like having a monster zit, or a bad hair day, and everyone is staring at you. Right?
It turned out that comparatively few people seemed to notice or care.
The experiment was a confirmation of what psychologists have come to call “the imaginary audience.”
A great many of us (especially teenagers) go through a typical day believing that people are fixated on our appearance and our behavior. That means I become preoccupied with a never-ending series of self-focused questions: Do I look presentable? Are my clothes trendy? Does anyone notice that I’ve gained a few pounds? Is there a piece of lettuce stuck in my teeth? Does this belt go with my shoes?
As the old saying goes, we end up buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have in order to impress people we don’t even like.
The concept of the imaginary audience informs us that, in reality, there is no one to impress – because few people, if any, are paying as much attention to us as we might hope or dread.
What’s a good measuring stick of spiritual maturity?
We’re growing spiritually as we care less and less about whether other people think we are beautiful or successful; as we begin to grasp that our imaginary audience never really existed; as we recognize that our one-and-only life isn’t a drama being played out before a crowd that is always writing critical reviews; and as we feel humbly glad that is true.
And then there’s the flip side.
Spiritual maturity also means recognizing there does happen to be an audience. An Audience of One.
And that Audience, who turns out to be the real center of the universe, loves and forgives us even on the days we mistakenly assume He bestowed that position on us.
— Authored by Glenn McDonald
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