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.


“Follow the Follower”: a Lesson in Strategy from Sailboat Racing

Sailboat racing offers the chance to observe an interesting reversal of a “follow the leader” strategy… The leader imitates the follower even when the follower is clearly pursuing a poor strategy. Why? Because in sailboat racing (unlike ballroom dancing) close doesn’t count; only winning matters. If you have the lead, the surest way to stay ahead is to play monkey see, monkey do.

The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life

America’s Cup is a prestigious sailboat race, and one of the world’s oldest international sports competitions. In 1983, the American boat Liberty was leading 3-1 against the Australian Australia II, in a best-of-seven competition. Since they needed only one more victory in order to win the cup, it appeared that Liberty was ready to extend the US’s 131 years long winning streak.

Right at the start of the race, Liberty took the lead when Australia II was penalized for crossing the starting line early. The Australian skipper then attempted to catch up by sailing to the left side of the course, in hopes of catching good winds. The American skipper decided to keep his ship on the right side of the course, believing that it would have more favorable winds.

Soon after this, the wind shifted in favor of the left side of the course, leading Australia II to win the race. Following this victory, Australia II went on to win two more consecutive wins, thus winning the cup and breaking the long-standing American winning streak.


Picture of a boat sailing.


What should have happened

In this situation, the speed of each ship depended on the wind, and each ship’s skipper can only make an educated guess regarding which course is the best to take.

Since the Liberty was already in the lead, if it had simply imitated the strategy of the runner-up, Australia II, it would have sailed at the same rate as her, thus maintaining the initial advantage, and winning the race. Regardless of how sureLiberty‘s skipper was that his course was the better one, the smarter strategy in this case would have been to imitate his runner-up.


Recognizing when the strategy is applicable

“Follow the follower” is by no means a strategy that always works. In the above scenario, there are only two ‘players’, and the only thing that matters in the race is whether you win or lose. However, if these conditions were different, the strategy may have been ineffective. For example, if the race had more than two ships, and changing course was not an immediate action, so that the leading ship couldn’t always adjust to match the runner-up, then the strategy wouldn’t necessarily work. This is because each follower can take a difference course, while the leader can only commit to one of those courses.

In addition, the original scenario discussed here is a relatively clean and simple view of reality. There could have been other considerations that affected the American skipper’s decision:

  • Maybe it’s considered more prestigious to win the race by a bigger gap, and imitating the loser’s strategy can be construed as a lack of confidence.
  • Perhaps there is a high cost or risk in changing course, which could have caused the ship to lose its advantage.
  • We also don’t know how confident the American skipper was in his choice of course; it’s possible that his calculation showed a very high probability that his original course was significantly better.

While these reasons don’t negate the fact that imitating the runner up was the correct choice from a purely strategic perspective, they offer some possible explanations as to why the American skipper made the choice to maintain his course. If, for example, the benefits (in terms of prestige) that come from winning the race by a large gap were significant enough to be worth a small chance of losing, then his choice may have been smart after all. Of course, it’s also entirely possible that the choice of strategy was driven by ego, and not from careful calculation.

This illustrates an important lesson regarding the applications of game theory in real life: reality is messy. There is a reason why simplified models are preferred in game theory; the more factors you add in, the more complicated the game becomes.


Summary and conclusions

  • In certain cases, the best strategy for the leader is to imitate his runner-up.
  • By doing the exact same thing as his follower, the leader can win a ‘race’ by maintaining his original lead. This is true even in cases where the follower select a non-optimal course.
  • Be selective in using this strategy, as it’s only applicable in certain cases. For example, it may not be relevant when there are more than two ‘players’.
  • Once you are familiar with the strategy, the important thing is learning to recognize situations where you can implement it.
  • Ego may lead people to avoid using this strategy. Make sure to overcome this issue in yourself, and to take advantage of other people’s failure to do the same.


The sailboat example and the rationale behind the strategy come from “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

I recommend it over the earlier version of the book (“Thinking Strategically”), because that’s what the authors themselves recommend. However, the difference between the two versions isn’t too crucial.

How to Easily Improve Your Handwriting Speed

Handwriting is one of those skills that you generally learn as a kid, and then never try to actively improve it as you grow up. However, being able to write faster has some significant benefits, which are especially important for people who often need to write things by hand, such as university students:

  • Increased automaticity, which lessens the burden on working memory (i.e. you don’t have to actively concentrate on the act of writing, and you can focus on thinking what you want to write).[1,2]
  • Improved academic performance on exams.[2,3]
  • Better overlap between mental generation of output and text production (i.e. you can write immediately as you form your thoughts without a delay).[4,5]

Below is a collection of tips and strategies, which can help you improve your writing speed. Some of these can be implemented immediately with no effort, while others require a bit of practice. You don’t have to do everything that’s listed here. It’s fine to pick out even a single aspect that you want to focus on; you’ll still see a significant improvement in a small amount of time, and for only a minimal amount of effort.


Picture of a pen resting on a notebook.


Fix your technique

Good technique: Use your fingers as guides, and move the pen using the forearm and shoulder muscles. This allows you to write quickly without tiring out or getting cramps.

Bad technique: “Drawing” the letters using your fingers. Moving your wrist constantly. Repeatedly picking up your hand from the paper in order to move it across as you write. These issues slow down your writing, and cause your hands to cramp and tire out.

How to get it right: In order to get a sense of which muscles you should use, try holding your arm in front of you, while writing large letters in the air. Remember these movements, and try to implement them when you write on paper.


Don’t grip too tightly

People tend to this this subconsciously, especially when they try to write fast. However, this slows you down and tires your hand. Make sure to consciously remind yourself not do this, until it becomes natural.


Hold it whichever way is convenient

Surprisingly, your grasp (the way you hold the pen in your hand) doesn’t have much of an effect on writing performance.[5,6] As long as you’re comfortable, you can just stick with whatever works for you. Also note that when writing for extended periods of time, it’s natural to sometimes vary the way you hold the pen, so this is not necessarily indicative of a problem. If you decide that you still want to focus on this, it’s generally advisable to go with the “dynamic tripod grasp”.[6]


Maintain a Good Posture

Don’t slouch over the paper as you write. It puts unnecessary strain on your arm, and it’s bad for you anyway.


Use The Right Pen / Pencil

This one is easy to do without making any effort to change your writing technique. Things to pay attention to:

  • Use a good pen that doesn’t require you to press hard on the paper. This alone can make a huge difference, and a good pen doesn’t cost more than a few dollars, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just buy one.
  • Pen thickness: Use a pen that isn’t so small that you end up having to squeeze it tightly. If necessary, put a small rubber grip on it. The right size obviously depends on how big your hand is, so experiment and find out what works for you.
  • Line thickness: there are advantages and disadvantages to different thicknesses (e.g. 0.5mm versus 0.9mm). Again, this is personal, so experiment and find what’s right for you.


Improve Your Writing Style

The best thing to do is to simplify the way you write the letters. This means that you should try to get rid of excessive marks and styling, as long as you can maintain legibility.

Regarding letter size: In theory, if you decrease the size of your letters, you need to move your arm less when you write, which should enable you to write faster. However, this is not necessarily true in practice, and reducing the letter size might end up slowing you down by making it more difficult for you to write. Since this is also something that varies from person to person, try to experiment and see what works for you.


Hardcore Mode: Use a Shorthand Writing System


A sample text written in Gregg shorthand


Shorthand systems use simplified symbols and rules which take less time to write than regular orthography. The symbols can replace letters, common letter combinations, sounds, or frequently-used words. You can either learn an existing system, or develop your own. Commonly-used shorthand variants include Gregg, Pitman, and Teeline.

One of the ways to benefit from the use of shorthand without having to put a lot of effort into learning it, is to focus only on a small number of words which appear frequently in the language.


Examples of frequently-used words written in Pitman shorthand


Keep in mind that the more you rely on shorthand, the more difficult it is for others to decipher your notes. This can be either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your perspective.


Summary and Conclusions

  • Improving your handwriting speed can have significant benefits.
  • There are a lot of things you can do in order to write faster, such as loosening your grip, writing with your arm, and maintaining a good posture.
  • It’s not necessary to put a lot of effort into this. Even focusing on a single, minor adjustment can make a big difference.