THE SPOTLIGHT IS NOT AS BRIGHT AS YOU THINK
One of my favorite topics from the world of social psychology is the “spotlight effect.”1 This describes our tendency to overestimate the degree to which other people notice us. Because we are egocentric, we are very aware of our own behavior and appearance and tend to assume that others are as well. Put another way, we know so much about ourselves that it’s hard for us to take the perspective of someone who doesn’t know as much. This concept has led to some creative studies that only a social psychologist would devise. My favorite was when researchers invited a group of participants to their lab to answer questionnaires, but forced one participant, usually the last to arrive, to put on an embarrassing Barry Manilow t-shirt (apologies to all you “Fanilows” out there) before entering the room to join the other participants. That person later was asked to estimate how many of their fellow group members noticed the shirt. Most estimated that 50% or more noticed. It was, after all, a shirt with a huge picture of Barry Manilow’s face sprawled across it. In reality, less than a quarter of the group noticed the shirt. Other studies found the same effect in non-embarrassing situations. For example, people overestimate their personal contributions to group projects.
This phenomenon is probably more evident in the lab and in the real world than it is in court. Jurors do pay attention to the attorneys, the judge, and the parties. But, to the extent that the “spotlight effect” is about our overestimation of how much people notice about us, that is true in court as well. The ratio of how much we think people will notice versus how much they actually notice is probably smaller in court than it is in other settings, but no research has specifically examined this.
Anecdotally, we can say that jurors don’t really care about or notice the color of your tie or the coffee stain on your sleeve as much as you think they do. That blemish on your face the day you’re picking a jury? In the off chance that the jurors even see it, they won’t think it’s nearly as horrifying as you do. Your verbal gaffe during opening statements may haunt you for days, but likely the jurors didn’t notice it in the first place, and even if they did, it’s probably been forgotten. However, we know from conducting post-verdict juror interviews that jurors do like to talk about the people they have been watching for weeks, and they do pick up on consistent verbal and nonverbal behavior. They do notice an attorney who rolls her eyes, or gets flustered at an overruled objection. They do notice when the judge is agitated or bored, and they notice if the defendant seems to have better places to be, or if the plaintiff is faking their emotions. Also, I can almost guarantee that they’ll notice if you wear your favorite Manilow t-shirt to court.
1 Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & 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(02), 211–222.