Childhood Trauma, Social Anxiety And The Spotlight Effect

I have written elsewhere on this website about how, if we experienced significant and protracted childhood trauma, we are at increased risk of developing social anxiety in adulthood. This is especially the case if we have been constantly criticized and denigrated during childhood by our parents / primary caretakers and we have internalized their rather less than flattering negative attitudes. Indeed, once such attitudes have been internalized our bad feelings about ourselves may become self-perpetuating and a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and we may even develop intense feelings of self-hatred.


According to DSM-5 (Diagnostic And Statistical Manual OF Mental Disorders, 5th EDITION, also known, informally, as the psychiatrist’s bible), the symptoms of social anxiety include :

DSM-5 criteria for social anxiety disorder include:

  • fear and anxiety (which is intense and persistent) about specific social situations because of a belief that if one enters such a social situation others will judge one and one may be embarrassed and humiliated.
  • anxiety or distress that impairs daily functioning.
  • anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation.
  • avoidance of social situations that may trigger anxiety.
  • intense fear and anxiety within social situations that tests endurance.

The SPOTLIGHT EFFECT (Gilovich et al. 2000) refers to a psychological phenomenon whereby we are prone to believe that, in social situations, other people are paying us far more attention than they actually are.

Because of this, we are also liable to believe that we are being evaluated or judged far more than we actually are being (actually, most people are much too preoccupied with thinking about themselves and their own problems to be concerned about thinking about us).

The spotlight effect, then, is so-called because, especially if we are self-conscious, highly sensitive and lacking in self-confidence because of the way we have been treated in the past, in social situations we feel as if we are ‘in the spotlight’, whereas, as far as others are concerned, we are not (unless, of course, we happen to be a pop star in front of a massive crowd at Wembley Stadium which, to my profound regret, I never have been).


On the subject of pop stars, in the 1990s an experiment (Gilovich) to do with the spotlight effect was conducted involving a group of random students from which one was, again randomly, selected.

This student was then asked to wear a ‘T-shirt with Barry Manilow’s face on it. Why Barry Manilow? Because in the 1990s he was considered very uncool.

Newly bedecked in his ‘Barry Manilow’ apparel, he was then required to mix with others who did not know he had been instructed to wear the potentially embarrassing garment rather than to have garbed himself out in it of his own volition.

After he had done this, he was asked to estimate how many of those with whom he had mixed had noticed his potentially embarrassing, new, popstar-themed casual wear. He estimated 50%. The actual figure was 25%.


Because we have no choice but to ‘live in our own heads’ each day and interpret the world from our own idiosyncratic point of view, a compelling, but entirely wrong, impression is created within our minds that we are the ‘centre of the universe.’


The feeling, then, that we are ‘in the spotlight’ in social situations is merely an erroneous perception created by our own minds and it is useful for us to remember this next time we feel self-conscious in such situations.

And, anyway, we all secretly love Barry Manilow…don’t we??!!




David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

David Hosier MSc holds two degrees (BSc Hons and MSc) and a post-graduate diploma in education (all three qualifications are in psychology). He also holds UK QTS (Qualified Teacher Status). He has worked as a teacher, lecturer and researcher. His own experiences of severe childhood trauma and its emotional fallout motivated him to set up this website,, for which he exclusively writes articles. He has published several books including The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Borderline Personality Disorder, The Link Between Childhood Trauma ANd Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and  How Childhood Trauma Can Damage The Developing Brain (And How These Effects Can Be Reversed). He was educated at the University of London, Goldsmith’s College where he developed his interest in childhood experiences leading to psychopathology and wrote his thesis on the effects of childhood depression on academic performance. This site has been created for educational purposes only.

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