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GOOD NEWS ABOUT BAD HAIR DAYS: OTHER PEOPLE OFTEN DON’T NOTICE

SHARE GOOD NEWS ABOUT BAD HAIR DAYS: OTHER PEOPLE OFTEN DON’T NOTICE

Having a bad hair day? Feel like too many people are watching you? Relax.

New studies say you get away with more than you think.In a series of experiments, one of which subjected college students to the embarrassment of wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Barry Manilow, researchers conclude that people overestimate how much others pay attention to them.

It's the spotlight effect, says psychologist Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University in New York. It's why you feel like a public failure if you stand in the corner or spill a drink at a party.

"You can relax," Gilovich said. "Many fewer people notice these and other embarrassing circumstances than you might think. . . . People tend to think the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it does."

Gilovich described a two-year series of experiments on the subject Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

One study addressed the social horror of the bad hair day, a shorthand term for those times when you're not exactly looking your best.

Researchers showed up unannounced at three small undergraduate seminars at Cornell. For four days in a row, each member of each group, which typically included about 10 people, was asked how good other members looked that day, and how good other members would think he or she looked.

The study showed that on average, each person was greatly overestimating how much others were noticing their bad days or good days.

The Manilow T-shirt experiment followed a study that found most Cornell students would find the shirt embarrassing to wear in front of their peers.

Each participant put on the shirt, walked into a room of other students who were filling out questionnaires, and then left after a brief stay. The participant was asked to estimate what percentage of the students noticed the shirt.

On average, they thought 46 percent noticed. In fact, only 23 percent did.

The same trend held true off campus. Skiers overestimated how many people riding ski lifts were scrutinizing their skiing.

What's going on here? Gilovich said a person typically knows that he or she is more concerned about himself or herself than others are. People take their own self-consciousness into account - but not enough - when judging how much others are paying attention, Gilovich said.

To test that idea, he did the T-shirt experiment again but with two twists. One is that the face on the shirt was either Martin Luther King, comedian Jerry Seinfeld or reggae icon Bob Marley. Studies showed students would be proud to wear at least one of those images.

The second twist was that some students went into the room right away, while others waited a half-hour. The idea was that those who waited would get used to the T-shirt, be less self-conscious about it and not think as many people were watching - which was exactly what happened.