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

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

 

The illusion of transparency is our tendency to overestimate how well other people can discern our emotional state. This cognitive bias is attributed to our inability to properly adjust from the anchor of our own point of view when attempting to see ourselves from another person’s perspective. Basically, since our own emotional state is generally clear to us, it’s difficult for us to internalize the fact that it’s not as clear to others.

In the following article, you will learn more about the illusion of transparency, and about how accounting for it can help you become more confident and better at communicating with others.

 

What is the illusion of transparency

The illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their internal state, in terms of their thoughts and emotions, is more apparent to other people than it actually is. For example, in the domain of public speaking, the illusion of transparency causes people who feel nervous about delivering a speech to assume that their anxiety is more obvious to the audience than it is in reality.

The illusion of transparency occurs because people have a natural egocentric bias, which causes them to rely too heavily on their own perspective when trying to consider the perspective of others. Essentially, because you spend the vast majority of your time considering your thoughts and actions from your own perspective, it’s hard for you to adjust when trying to think how others see you.

This means that even though other people don’t have as much insight into your thought process and emotional state as you do, and even though you rationally know that they don’t, it’s difficult for you to remember this when you intuitively think about what others know about you.

As such, we naturally assume that other people know how we feel and what we think, because we know how we feel and what we think, and because it’s difficult for us to remember that other people don’t have as much insight into our emotional state as we do.

 

Examples of the illusion of transparency

In addition to its influence on you during public speaking, the illusion of transparency also influences you in various other scenarios. For example, a set of experiments on the topic showed several instances where the illusion of transparency affects people in everyday situations:

  • Liars significantly overestimate how well other people are able to detect their lies.
  • People who are feeling emotional distress assume that their distress is more obvious to others than it is in reality.
  • People eating something that tastes bad assume that their disgust is more apparent to observers than it actually is.

 

How to reduce the illusion of transparency

Be aware of the bias

The simplest thing you can do in order to reduce the impact that the illusion of transparency has on you, is to simply be aware of it.

For example, in one study on the topic, researchers examined how telling people about the illusion of transparency influenced their ability to give a public talk.

Accordingly, before giving their talk, some of the participants in the study were told that the audience likely won’t be able to pick up on their anxiety and nervousness as much as they would expect. They were told that this occurs because when we experience strong emotions, we assume that others will be able to notice them, but that, in reality, observers aren’t as good at noticing speakers’ nervousness as we generally expect.

This simple act of informing people of what the illusion of transparency is and how it affects them had a notable impact on their public speaking, and 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.

Overall, this demonstrates how simply being aware of the illusion of transparency can help you mitigate its influence, and become more confident. Though the study in the above example showed this in the context of public speaking, it’s highly likely that the benefits of increasing awareness of the illusion of transparency translate to other domains as well, such as confidence in private discussions or during negotiations, as we will see later.

This technique for debiasing the illusion of transparency is especially useful, since it’s so easy to implement, and requires no additional effort beyond being aware of it. As such, if you find yourself in a situation where you are feeling nervous and you need a confidence boost, take a moment to relax, and try to remember that the illusion of transparency is likely making you more anxious than you need to be.

 

Use self-distancing techniques

In addition to simply being aware of the illusion of transparency, you can further reduce its influence on you by using self-distancing techniques, which can help you reduce the egocentric bias that promotes the illusion of transparency in the first place.

Doing this entails creating psychological self-distance when you’re trying to estimate how well other people can read you. You can create this distance by trying to vividly imagine how you are observed by others, from a perspective that is different than your own.

Such perspective can be anything that isn’t a first-person perspective, meaning that you can either try to view yourself directly from someone else’s perspective, or you can try to see yourself from a generalized external perspective. The more you commit to trying to see things from a new perspective, the more clearly you will be able to think about yourself in an unbiased manner, so try to visualize this external perspective as best as you can.

 

Get feedback from others

Another thing you can do to help yourself internalize the way that the illusion of transparency affects you is to ask for feedback from people that you trust.

Specifically, you can ask them how well they were able to detect your thoughts and emotions in specific cases that you are wondering about, such as during a public presentation. Since you will usually overestimate their ability to “read” your internal state during such times, getting actual feedback can help you see just how much the illusion of transparency affects you, which will help you account for it better.

 

Areas where you can benefit from understanding the illusion of transparency

Now that you are familiar with the illusion of transparency and understand how and why it affects people, you can account for it in your own thought process, as well as in the thought process of other people, in a way that benefits you. Below are a few examples of specific cases where understanding the illusion of transparency can lead to notable benefits.

 

Increased confidence during public speaking and other social activities

As we so saw far, simply being aware of the illusion of transparency can allow you to deliver speeches more confidently.

However, the benefits of reducing this cognitive bias aren’t limited just to public speaking. Rather, understanding that other people can’t always tell if you’re feeling nervous or anxious can help you feel more confident and less self-conscious in general, regardless of the activity that you engage in.

 

Hiding your lies and identifying liars

As we saw earlier, because of the illusion of transparency, liars often assume that the person they are lying to can tell that they’re lying, even when they can’t. You can take advantage of this in two ways:

  • If you are the one lying, you should remember that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person that you are lying to, which could help you relax and lie more effectively.
  • Conversely, if you suspect that someone is lying to you but you aren’t sure, remember that they probably feel that their lie is more obvious to you than it really is. Use this to pressure them, and to get them to reveal the truth.

 

Better negotiation skills

In negotiations, the illusion of transparency causes people to believe that their motives and intentions are more transparent to the other negotiators than they actually are. Similarly to lying, there are two main ways in which you can take advantage of this:

  • Understanding that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person you are negotiating with can help you relax and maintain your position more confidently.
  • Conversely, knowing that the other person is probably overestimating how well you can read them can help you pressure them, and gives you an advantage in the negotiation process.

 

Better communication in relationships

The insights on the effect of the illusion of transparency in negotiations also have important implications for relationships. This is because in informal negotiations, such as picking a place to eat or deciding whether to pursue a romantic relationship, it’s possible that the other person isn’t as aware of your preferences as you think they are.

This means that the person you are with often can’t tell what you actually want unless you express it directly, even if you’re sure that they can. Because of this, you should take the following things into consideration:

  • Don’t always assume that other people can tell what you want based on implicit hints. If you’re not sure that the other person knows what you want, then express what you want explicitly, or use hints that are less subtle.
  • Understand that other people may think that they are being obvious about what they want, when in fact they are using overly subtle hints. If you think that this may be the case, then either ask them explicitly what they want, or try to account for this subtlety when interpreting their actions.
  • 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 try to solve it by addressing the problem openly.

Note that these tips on how to account for the illusion of transparency are relevant for all types of relationships, ranging from those in your personal life to those in your workplace.

 

The role of the illusion of transparency in general

Overall, people can be influenced by the illusion of transparency in a wide variety of situations. Essentially, this cognitive bias plays a role each time someone assumes that their emotional state is more obvious to others than it really is.

Remembering this, and not automatically assuming that other people can know what you think or how you feel, can help you become more confident, and can help you communicate more effectively with others. Furthermore, understanding that other people may also be influenced by this cognitive bias can help you avoid many common miscommunication issues, and can give you leverage in certain situations.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • People overestimate how obvious their emotional state is to others, due to a cognitive bias known as the ‘illusion of transparency’.
  • This bias is attributed to our inability to adjust from the anchor of our own point of view when we try to see ourselves through someone else’s perspective. Essentially, since we can easily tell what we think and how we feel, it’s difficult for us to remember that other people don’t have the same access to the same mental information that we do, even if we rationally know that they don’t.
  • The illusion of transparency affects people in a wide range of situations, from making us think that a crowd can tell how nervous we are when we give a public talk, to assuming that other people know exactly what we are thinking during a negotiation.
  • Understanding how the illusion of transparency affects your mental state can be beneficial, since reminding yourself that your emotions aren’t as obvious to others as you intuitively think can help you become more confident and can help you communicate better with others.
  • In addition, understanding how this cognitive bias affects other people can also be beneficial. For example, it might give you leverage in a negotiation situation, or it might help you communicate better with your partner if you’re having relationship problems.