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Why Our Partners Embarrass Us

... and why it's probably not as bad as you think.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Have you ever felt embarrassed by your romantic partner’s actions? Maybe your partner is rude to a waiter, and you’re mortified. Or your partner is dressed inappropriately for an event, and you want to pretend they’re not with you. If you've felt this way, you're far from alone. New studies have uncovered what researchers call the “vicarious spotlight effect."1

Past research has shown we have a tendency to believe that others are paying more attention to our actions than they really are. In one famous study, researchers asked college students to enter a room full of strangers while wearing a Barry Manilow T-shirt (pretty uncool attire for a college student). They then asked them to estimate the number of people in the room who had noticed the shirt. The students overestimated how many people had noticed the shirt, guessing on average a number twice as high as the reality. And numerous other studies have shown that, whether positive or negative, we assume others pay more attention to us than they really are.2

But does this spotlight effect extend to our significant others? Our most important relationships tend to become incorporated into the self, as “s/he and I" becomes “we." We begin to see our relationship partners as part of us.3,4 And so, for better or worse, what affects our partners affects us, too. Research shows that we can use our partners’ accomplishments and positive traits as a way to boost our own self-esteem.5 It makes sense that since we experience our partners’ gaffes as reflecting on us, we would also feel that we are in the spotlight when those embarrassing moments happen.

Joel Armstrong and colleagues at the University of Western Ontario conducted three studies (each with approximately 400 participants, representing a wide age range) to see if a partner’s behavior makes people feel that they, themselves, are in the spotlight.1 Participants imagined they were at a dinner party with a group of people. The researchers varied two aspects of the dinner party situation:

  • who the other partygoers were—strangers, acquaintances, or close others; and
  • whether or not the partner did something negative. (The negative behavior they chose was that the partner “releases a loud and conspicuous fart,” while the neutral behavior was that they asked where the restroom was.)

The results showed that people felt more in the spotlight when their partners engaged in negative behaviors than when they engaged in neutral behaviors. This was especially true when the behavior occurred in front of strangers or acquaintances, rather than close others.

The third study also asked some participants to imagine a situation in which their partner engaged in a positive behavior. This situation also elicited feelings of being in the spotlight, but to a somewhat lesser extent than the negative behavior did. In addition, participants rated how proud and ashamed they would feel in the situation. These feelings of pride (in the case of the positive behavior) or shame (in the case of the negative behavior) mirrored the feeling of being in the spotlight.

This research is an interesting first step in establishing the existence of a “vicarious spotlight effect.” I would be curious if this effect would also occur among friends. I would suspect that with closer friendships this is more likely to be the case, but the effects may still be less extreme than for romantic partners. I would also like to know how this operates with one’s children. Since people feel as though others hold them accountable for their children’s behavior, I can imagine that this effect could be stronger. On the other hand, it could be weaker because socially inappropriate behavior is more expected from children.

I would also imagine that some people are more prone to the vicarious spotlight effect than others. People high in public self-consciousness, for example, might be more prone to the effect. I would also suspect that people with low self-esteem are more likely to experience the vicarious spotlight; they tend to distance themselves from a romantic partner they perceive as flawed in situations in which it seems the flaw would reflect negatively on them.6

The good news? If we tend to overestimate how much others are paying attention to us,2 it’s also likely that we’re also overestimating how much our partners are inviting ridicule upon us. So, keeping that in mind, let your embarrassing partner let loose.


1 Armstrong, J., Stanton, S. C. E., & Campbell, L. (2016, January). Basking in reflected shame and glory: Emerging evidence for a vicarious spotlight effect in close relationships. Poster presented at the 16th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Diego, CA.

2 Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one's own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 211–222

3 Agnew C. R., Van Lange P. A., Rusbult C. E., Langston C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939–954.

4 Aron A., Aron E. N., Smollan D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596–612.

5 Brown, J. D., & Han, A. (2012). My better half: Partner enhancement as self-enhancement. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 479-486.

6 Lemay, E. P., & Clark, M. S. (2009). Self-esteem and communal responsiveness toward a flawed partner: The fair-weather care of low-self-esteem individuals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 698-712.

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