The Problem with Main Character Syndrome
The Spotlight Bias, Explained.
You’ve probably fallen for this before.
You know the one. That moment you’re walking down the street, and it feels like all eyes are on you. All at once, your skin feels prickly, your palms get sweaty, and you forget how to walk in a straight line. And if you’re a female walking by a group of men, you can relate on a deeper level.
Yet psychology tells us about the spotlight effect.
What is the spotlight bias?
It’s a cognitive bias that makes us think we’re being observed by others more than we actually are. For example, this series of studies showed how we consistently overestimate the extent to which observers notice our fumbles. It turns out everyone else is busy worrying about themselves. I believe this could tie in closely with imposter syndrome.
It’s why someone might continually apologise for a raspy voice on their podcast or YouTube video, even though we might have never noticed had they not mentioned. Or why we might obsess over a pimple that’s the “size of Nigeria”, according to our melodramatic estimation.
Ultimately this happens because we experience life from our narrow frame of reference; it’s a natural human limitation.
But it’s important to fully understand this bias because of the danger on both sides of the extreme— one of which is when we actually start to believe that the sun revolves around us truly.
Described as the sudden realisation that other people are leading just-as-complex lives as we are. It’s the lightbulb awareness that everyone has a story.
As a child, this was difficult to comprehend. I couldn’t imagine that the Economics teacher even had a life after third period, let alone desires, aspirations and worries.
I think this is why I now enjoy watching people.
There’s something about it.
For one, it encourages me not to take things so personally. Everyone isn’t out to get me. Sometimes the cashier is rude just because.
Because they’ve had a bad day. Because they’ve lost some money. Because they’re going through a divorce…
I’ve come across a couple of quotes or videos that encourage us to “romanticise our lives”. And for a change, it’s one trend I don’t particularly mind. But while with the pure intention to build confidence and spark joy in the mundane, it can unwittingly expose one to further self-consciousness and a worse propensity to be shy. After all, all eyes are on the protagonist or any story or movie.
But here’s the fact:
No one cares that much.
However, the bigger point is that perhaps since we’re the main character in our own lives, we’re secondary in the lives of others—supporting cast, if you will. And so, most times, it’s not that our most genuine friends don’t care. It’s because everyone is preoccupied with their own motion picture, hoping the curtain doesn’t fall on them shoddily.
While this is difficult to get rid of entirely, being aware of it helps to mitigate its more extreme effects. Especially when it leads to overthinking past events.
Chances are that no one, but you, remembers that intimately.