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They Are Watching You More (and Less) Than You Think

May 17th, 2017
woman observingRemember that time you wore mismatched earrings to a party? Or had a stain on that tie you grabbed from the closet in the dark?

Embarrassing, sure, but nowhere near what you might have thought. It turns out far fewer people notice such things. Social psychologists long ago showed that we overestimate the noticeability of our flaws and faux pas.

We go wrong, though, when we think no one is noticing us at all.

"People believe that they observe others more than do other people and that they are generally observed less than are others," write the authors of a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To put that more simply, even in a crowd, when you're feeling inconspicuous, you are being observed.

One experiment the researchers conducted was to have two strangers in the study arrive early at the lab. Leaving the two of them in the waiting room alone with newspapers and other distractions, the researchers later asked one of them to write down what they noticed about the other person, and to note on a scale how much they had observed. The other person was then asked to list how much they thought the other person had noticed about them and to estimate on the same numerical scale how much they thought they person had observed.

"Although people surreptitiously noticed all kinds of details about each other — clothing, personality, mood — we found that people were convinced that the other person wasn’t watching them much, if at all," explained Erica Boothby, one of the authors of the study.

"So other people notice our coffee stains less than we think, but they watch us in general more than we think."

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