Why We Should Stop Worrying About What Others Think of Us

Standing in the spotlight can be daunting. Giving that third-quarter report to shareholders, pitching your idea at a team meeting, even competing in the state fair to win first place with a batch of your best chocolate chip cookies makes most people feel the uncomfortable pressure of being judged. But there’s new scientific evidence to bolster the anecdotal advice that mom always gave you: Just relax and do your best.

A study co-authored by Alice Moon, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, finds that when people perform tasks in front of others, they tend to believe they are being judged harshly on their performance. But in reality, actors are much harder on themselves than the observers who are watching them. People also worry that they will be unfairly judged on the whole based on a single part. For example, a driver who can’t parallel park worries that people watching him from the sidewalk now think he’s lousy at all aspects of driving. But in reality, observers would evaluate his skills behind the wheel based on a number of measures, such as his awareness of blind spots, maintaining a safe distance, his attention to road signs, his use of turn signals, etc.

All that worry and stress can lead to what Moon calls the “overblown implications effect.” When people are so preoccupied with the judgment of others, they tend to believe that that judgment is far worse than it is. Through a series of experiments, Moon and her colleagues found that actors consistently overblow their failures — and even their successes — because they often don’t see things from the broader view of the observer. “Actors see their own performance as having more evaluative impact on observers than it actually does.… Successful parallel parkers will be mistaken in thinking their full driving skills are on display,” the researchers write in their paper titled, “The Overblown Implications Effect.”

Moon wrote the paper with Clayton Critcher, associate professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Muping Gan, a former UC Berkeley graduate researcher who now works for YouTube. Moon recently discussed the implications of their research with Knowledge@Wharton.

Knowledge@Wharton: What piqued your interest in this topic?

Alice Moon: My interest in the topic arose organically. As people, we are constantly in the role of both actor (the person whose performance is on display) and observer (the person who is watching someone else perform). As an actor, I often worry about how people view me, whether it be during a meeting or when giving a talk. But as an observer, I know that I don’t judge people that extremely. Reflecting on my own concerns about impression management, I realized that I was — most likely — overly concerned with how any single performance had gone.

Knowledge@Wharton: What question or questions did you set out to answer in this study?

Moon: Our primary question was whether people overweigh how much a particular performance factors into observers’ perceptions of them. We were also interested in why and under what conditions this might happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your paper, you introduce the concept of “working trait definitions.” Can you explain what that is? How does it relate to the idea of a working self-concept?

Moon: A working self-concept is how you think of yourself in a given moment. This working self-concept is variable, because we can’t call to mind all aspects of our self-concept at all times. For instance, I might consider my identities as a daughter, friend and employee to all be important components of my self-concept, but at work, my “employee” identity may be more salient, whereas at home, my “daughter” identity may be more salient.

In a similar way, we argue that people have working trait definitions as well — that is, how you define a given trait, skill or competency in a given moment is dynamic because we can’t call to mind all aspects of what defines a trait, skill or competency at all times.

In our paper, we investigate how working trait definitions change when people are under the threat of evaluation. For instance, how you define what intelligence is, or what behaviors you think of as displaying intelligence, is affected when you feel that some aspect of intelligence is “on display.” If you are answering a trivia question — which people think of as relevant to intelligence — in front of others, you think that others’ working trait definitions of intelligence will disproportionately comprise skill at trivia.

Knowledge@Wharton: You conducted eight experiments. What were your key findings? And did any of them surprise you?

Moon: Our key finding was that people overweigh how much both failures and successes factor into observers’ perceptions of them. That is, if you bake a bad batch of cookies, you think that others will now assume you are a horrible cook, and if you bake a good batch of cookies, you think that others will now assume you are a fantastic cook. Interestingly, both you and the observer agree on whether the batch of cookies is good or bad, but the error arises in the greater implications from that performance: how good of a cook you are, and also, how good you are at related skills, such as making an omelet.

“Our research suggests that when you make a stupid comment in a work meeting, you shouldn’t spend so much time ruminating on how everyone now thinks you are an idiot.”

One surprising finding is that people display the overblown implications effect even before they take the stage, so to speak. That is, just being under the threat of evaluation, you think that your upcoming performance is going to be more diagnostic of the broader trait or competency than observers do.

Knowledge@Wharton: You and your co-authors note that public self-consciousness – the degree to which an individual focuses on their visible traits – plays a moderating role in this. Can you explain?

Moon: The overblown implications effect demonstrates that because people are worried about how they may be regarded by others, they overblow the broader implications of their performances. That is, they think others will now draw broader conclusions about their traits and competencies from their narrower performances – for example, conclusions about their intelligence from their performance on a single trivia question. It stands to reason, then, that people who are especially concerned about how they might be perceived by others would show the greatest degree of the overblown implications effect. Indeed, we find that people who are higher on what psychologists call “public self-consciousness”– a trait that captures the tendency to focus on how you are viewed by others — show our effect the most.

Knowledge@Wharton: What should managers and employees be aware of when it comes to perceptions of competency?

Moon: Employees are constantly concerned about issues with impression management. Our research suggests that when you make a stupid comment in a work meeting, you shouldn’t spend so much time ruminating on how everyone now thinks you are an idiot. On the other hand, when you make a brilliant comment in a work meeting, you shouldn’t assume that you can rely on everyone to now think you are a genius either. People don’t judge you as extremely as you might think. Managers should also be aware that their employees have these concerns, and reiterate that a single performance — generally – is not the end-all and be-all for their evaluations.

Knowledge@Wharton: What questions did this study raise that could be examined in future studies?

Moon: I think one of the most interesting open questions about the overblown implications effect is how people’s perceptions change over time. We investigated how single performances affect judgments, but often, skills are on display over multiple instances. Though we find the overblown implications effect for how we think we are viewed by strangers, acquaintances, and even friends, it is unclear how the overblown implications effect unfolds over time. When people are worried about what their performances say about them, do they always worry about their most recent performance, or the most significant performance? This is one question that I think would be interesting to study in the future.

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