That coffee stain on your shirt, those mismatched earrings you absent-mindedly selected this morning...people do not notice those things as much as you think...In a classic study from the 1990s, for example, participants put on a shirt emblazoned with the face of the singer Barry Manilow and then walked into a room full of people... It turned out that the number of people who actually noticed noticed was half the number they had thought.
...here’s the bad news. Most of the time, when you’re minding your own business and feeling relatively inconspicuous, you’re being watched much more than you realize...In one experiment, we asked two strangers participating in our study to arrive in our lab at the same time. They were seated in a waiting room and told that the experimenter was running a little behind schedule...Unbeknown to the participants, the study had begun the moment they walked into the waiting room. The real reason they were made to wait was to give them an opportunity to watch — and to feel observed or unobserved by — each other.
Once the participants were in their private rooms, one of them was asked to write down anything he or she noticed or thought about the other person, and then to report on a numerical scale how much he or she had observed the other person. The other participant was asked to write down anything he or she believed the other person had noticed or thought about him or her, and then to estimate how much the other person had observed him or her, using the same scale...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.
So other people notice our coffee stains less than we think, but they watch us in general more than we think. The problem, in both cases, is that we project the focus of our attention onto others...In short, we pay too much attention to what we’re paying attention to.