9) Perception – Overestimating the Impact of Failure

Perception of our failures at Givent Executive network

9) Perception – Overestimating the Impact of Failure

Sharing ideas and standing out can be a good, and often, beneficial occurrence. We are too often afraid to speak up and help others because of the discomfort we may feel, or even the judgments that may result. We can be aware of this spotlight effect and learn to overcome it.



People are often fearful when sharing with others or speaking publicly. They’re afraid of making a mistake and embarrassing themselves in front of others. Are people actually judging us as harshly as we believe them to be? How can we learn to not be afraid to speak up, despite the possibility of awkwardness?

Social Psychology has collected evidence of a phenomenon called the spotlight effect. This effect describes that people tend to overestimate the extent to which others will notice their blunders and judge them extensively after.

Research study


In 2001, a group of researchers published in a peer-reviewed psychology journal explaining and demonstrating the spotlight effect. This effect describes that people tend to overestimate the extent to which others will notice their mistakes and how harshly the observers would judge them.


The hypothesis was simple: participants will overestimate the harshness of judgement received from observers when they complete various tasks, as well as overestimate the impact and duration of the judgement.


In study one, 260 participants were asked to imagine themselves in various scenarios; that of accidentally triggering the alarm system in a library, being the only person at a party to forget a gift for the host, and being spotted by peers carrying a shopping back from an unfashionable store. The participants were given one of the following roles; the actor, the observer, or the third-party. Each was asked to rate the level of judgement on the actor after committing whichever social faux pas.

In study two, 30 participants were divided into two groups, the solver or the observer. The task as a solver was to solve 16 anagrams, and the observers were to observe the solvers performance. They were timed, graded, and then asked to report on their predicted judgement by the observers, and the observers were to judge.

In study three, 111 participants were put into a similar situation. They took a general knowledge quiz, divided into the roles as contestant or observer. Those answering the questions, again, overestimated the level of harshness given by the observers.


For study one, each participant given the role of actor greatly exaggerated the harshness of judgement given by both the observer and the third-party. Even in an imaginary, or hypothetical, situation, we tend to overestimate the harsh judgement others observing us would report.

In study two, the results were also as expected. The solvers predicted that the observers would judge them much more harshly than in reality they did.

In study three, another aspect was added. The contestants were asked, right before they took the “quiz”, to make a list of alternative factors that may cause them to fail, creating what is called a focusing illusion, in other words, distracting the participants from predicting such a harsh judgement. The study found that the distraction indeed narrowed the margin of overestimation that the contestants tended to make of the judgements of the observers.

We see that in reality, people do not judge us as harshly as we may predict them to do. Others are often charitable in their judgements of our failures or mishaps, giving the benefit of the doubt.

Reference: Savitsky, K., Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (2001). Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishaps. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 44-56,

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