Why are you making other musicians nervous? The Spotlight Effect

How quickly are you able to change the way a musician feels just by looking at them?

You might deny this powerful ability. But they know the truth. When they walk into the performance, as you look at them you create a feeling inside them that makes them less able to play or sing the way they really can.

You’d probably tell a performer that you want them to play well, especially given your own experiences. You know what it means to someone to perform in a way that reflects their true ability at the time.

But in their mind, really you’re looking for evidence that they’re no good, which means they need to prove you wrong.

So how do they arrive at this way of thinking?

Any highly skilled musician is always able to notice they can continue improving. This means they’re usually mostly aware of the areas of their playing they’re not happy with. Strangely then, a highly skilled musician who’s improving can become convinced they’re ‘never good enough’.

As a result, they often believe that everyone else will form the same conclusion and they’ll be ‘found out’. They decide they need to prove themselves to others.

This is the belief that if you like their performance they’ll have proved themselves to you and they’ll now recognise how skilled they are.

So now they want to play or sing in a way that you like. But how can they possibly know what you like? They’d have to be able to read your mind to know that. And what’s the likelihood that everyone they ever perform for will have exactly the same taste?

As they’re practising in the run up to the performance, at no point are they able to know if they’re even getting close to achieving their aim of playing in a way you’ll like.

The more important the performance is to them, the more time they spend imagining whether you’ll like their playing or not. They swing between thinking you will and thinking you won’t.

In their minds, you’ve been listening to and evaluating their performance hundreds of times in the run up to the day itself.

In fact, as they’re imagining you doing that, you’re probably either deciding what to watch on the telly or out at the shops trying to find something for dinner.

They picture you scrutinising every detail of one particular piece. In reality, you’re in freezer section of the supermarket annoyed that they’ve run out of frozen peas.

Either way, in their mind, you’ve set out to decide whether they’re skilled or not based only on this performance. You obviously didn’t decide anything of the sort. They did that when they set out to prove themselves to you.

Because you’re spending all of your time trying to decide whether they’re good or not, they know you’re making them nervous!

Not only do they think that other people are going about their daily lives wanting to ‘find them out’, they also believe that everyone else is as focused on them as they are.

This is what’s known as “The Spotlight Effect”. It’s a cognitive bias named by psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky in research they published in 1999.

The Spotlight Effect describes the tendency people have to forget that although they are the centre of their world, they’re not at the centre of everyone else's world. They imagine that you and others are focused on what’s happening in their life to a much greater extent than you actually are.

This also happens during the performance.

As you’re watching their performance you’re listening closely to some parts, but your mind also wanders onto thinking about other things too. You might smile as you’re enjoying their playing or you might smile because you remember you’re going out with friends tomorrow.

Your facial expression may be fairly neutral as you’re listening respectfully to their performance, but then you frown because you forgot to send that e-mail, so you make a mental note to do it straight after.

In their mind though, every change in body language and facial expression you make is ‘about them’.

So, you go up to them after the performance and compliment them, telling them how much you liked what they did.

They’ve done it! They’ve proved themselves to you! And any idea that they lacked skill or ability has now been disproven once and for all.

In reality though, they weren’t happy with their performance, so they don’t believe you could have possibly liked any of it, even though you did.

You’re obviously just complimenting them to ‘be nice’ or to ‘make them feel better.

And now they’re even clearer that next time they really need to prove themselves….

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© Mike Cunningham 2017

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