The Illusion of Transparency: Why You’re Not As Obvious As You Think You Are

“Individuals often believe their internal states are more apparent to others than is actually the case, a phenomenon known as the illusion of transparency. In the domain of public speaking, for example, individuals who are nervous about delivering a public speech believe their nervousness is more apparent to their audience than it actually is.”

The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety

The illusion of transparency is our tendency to overestimate how well others can discern our emotional state. This cognitive bias is attributed to people’s inability to properly adjust from the anchor of their own point of view when attempting to take another person’s perspective.[1,2] Basically, since our own emotional state is clear to us, it’s difficult for us to assume that it isn’t as clear to others.

 

Graph illustrating the difference between how much you think people know about you, versus how much they actually know.

 

A set of studies on the topic shows several instances where the illusion of transparency affects people in everyday situations:

  • When faced with a stressful situation, people assume that their emotional distress is more obvious to others than it is in reality.
  • Liars significantly overestimate how well others are able to detect their lies.
  • People eating something that tastes bad assume that their disgust is more apparent to observers than it actually is.

 

What you can do about it

Now that you are familiar with the illusion of transparency, it’s time to take advantage of that familiarity. You can do that by understanding how this bias influences your own self-perception, and by understanding how it affects other people’s thought process. Below are a few examples for how your understanding of this phenomenon can be implemented.

  

Public speaking– simply being aware of the illusion of transparency can allow you to deliver better speeches.[2] The following text was used by researchers in an experiment which showed that speakers who were informed of the illusion of transparency before giving a talk, appeared more composed and gave a better talk than speakers who were not told about it:

“It might help you to know that research has found that audiences can’t pick up on your anxiety as well as you might expect. Psychologists have documented what is called an “illusion of transparency.” Those speaking feel that their nervousness is transparent, but in reality their feelings are not so apparent to observers. This happens because our own emotional experience can be so strong, we are sure our emotions “leak out.” In fact, observers aren’t as good at picking up on a speaker’s emotional state as we tend to expect. So, while you might be so nervous you’re convinced that everyone can tell how nervous you are, in reality that’s very rarely the case. What’s inside of you typically manifests itself too subtly to be detected by others. With this in mind, you should just relax and try to do your best. Know that if you become nervous, you’ll probably be the only one to know.”

The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety

 

Identifying liars– as we saw earlier, liars will often assume that the person they are lying to can tell that they’re lying, even when they can’t.[3] If you suspect someone is lying to you, keep this in mind when questioning them, and use it as leverage and as a way to pressure them to say the truth. Conversely, if you’re the one doing the lying, keep in mind that the person that you’re lying to probably can’t read your emotional state as well as you think they can, and use this to alleviate some of your own pressure.

 

Negotiations– in negotiations, people tend to believe that their motives and intentions are more transparent to the other negotiators than they actually are.[4] Take advantage of this by realizing that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person you are negotiating with, and by taking into account the fact that they are also probably worried about you being able to read them too easily

In addition, there is another important takeaway point here. In negotiations and negotiation-like situations, including informal conversations with your friends or romantic partners, it’s likely that the other person isn’t as aware of your preferences as you think they are. This means that they often can’t tell what you actually want unless you express it directly, even if you’re sure that they can. Because of this:

  1. Don’t always assume that other people can know what you want based on implicit hints. Express what you want directly when necessary, or use less subtle hints.
  2. Understand that other people may think that they are being obvious about what they want, when in fact they are using overly-subtle hints. Either ask them explicitly what they want, or account for this subtlety when interpreting their actions.
  3. When each person in a negotiation assumes that they are sharing more than the other people involved (because they think that everyone else can easily read their intentions), they may end up closing up if they feel that the situation isn’t fair. This can lead to a problematic downward spiral where everyone keeps holding back more and more. Recognize when this situation occurs, and do everything to avoid it by addressing the problem openly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • People overestimate how obvious their emotional state is to others.
  • This is a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency.
  • Understanding how this phenomenon affects your own thought process and the thought process of others can be highly beneficial in many social situations.