Ever feel like everyone’s looking at you? More often than not, no one is paying as much attention to you as you’re paying to yourself.
But we’re not always good at differentiating between when we’re judging ourselves and when other people are judging us. In fact, according to a new study from University of Oxford, focusing on ourselves may directly cause us to believe that other people are focusing on us.
In the experiment, participants were asked to go through pictures of faces and identify which faces they felt were looking at them. Before doing this, however, they did a guided attention exercise in which they were prompted either to focus on evaluating themselves or evaluating others.
When people had been led to evaluate themselves, it turned out they estimated the number of faces that were watching them as higher. Apparently, paying more attention to themselves made them believe that other people were also paying more attention to them.
The effect held both for people who scored high on social anxiety and those who scored low. In other words, everyone seems to be susceptible to the fallacy that evaluating ourselves means other people are also evaluating us – although for people with social anxiety, fear of being watched and judged seriously interferes with their everyday lives.
That said, not all kinds of self-focused attention are created equal. Research published in 2009 explored the difference between self-focused attention that involves analyzing, evaluating or judging ourselves and self-focused attention that is centered on the concrete details of what we’re doing, experiencing, etc.
The 2009 study found that for people with more fear of being evaluated negatively, directing them away from evaluative self-focus and toward experiential self-focus decreases the negative self-judgments they make. People can’t really decide to just not pay attention to themselves, but they may have some control over what aspects of their experience they focus on.
The biggest practical lesson we can take from this line of research, though, is that our brains sometimes get confused trying to tell the difference between other people watching us and us watching ourselves. Next time you feel like everyone’s looking at you, it can’t hurt to take a step back and consider the possibility that “everyone” is actually yourself.