We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency bias can improve relationships, job performance, and more.
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
When we experience strong emotions, we tend to think it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, we may assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.
That’s not true. Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up on is known as the illusion of transparency. It’s a fallacy that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.
For example, you arrive at the office exhausted after a night with too little sleep. You drift around all day, chugging espressos, feeling sluggish and unfocused. Everything you do seems to go wrong. At the end of the day, you sheepishly apologize to a coworker for being “useless all day.”
They look at you, slightly confused. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘You seemed fine to me.’ Clearly, they’re just being polite. There’s no way your many minor mistakes during the day could have escaped their notice. It must be extra apparent considering your coworkers all show up looking fresh as a daisy every single day.
Or imagine that you have to give a talk in front of a big crowd and you’re terrified. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Afterward, you chat to someone from the audience and remark: ‘So that’s what a slow-motion panic attack looks like.’
‘Well, you seemed like a confident speaker,’ they say. ‘You didn’t look nervous at all. I wish I could be as good at public speaking.’ Evidently, they were sitting at the back or they have bad eyesight. Your shaking hands and nervous pauses were far too apparent. Especially compared to the two wonderful speakers who came after you.
No one cares
“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to pick up on subtle cues related to the feelings of others. If you’re annoyed at your partner, they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your coworkers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about the next time they have to do any public speaking or when they can get a coffee.
In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make even the slightest effort to conceal your inner state, you’re quite able to hide it altogether from everyone.
Our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This egocentric bias leads to the spotlight effect—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.
Take the case of lying. Even if we try to err on the side of honesty, we all face situations where we feel we have no option except to tell a lie. Setting aside the ethics of the matter, most of us probably don’t feel good about lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. In one study, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught about half the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about a quarter of the time—a rate low enough for random chance to account for it.
“Even if one is neither vain nor self-obsessed, it is so extraordinary to be oneself—exactly oneself and no one else—and so unique, that it seems natural that one should also be unique for someone else.” ― Simone de Beauvoir
Understanding how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.
Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views.
Likewise, if you think you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.
As Dylan Evans writes in Risk Intelligence: How To Live With Uncertainty,
The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice it can be done.
The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.
“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
Set yourself free
Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Guess what? No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.
Back to public speaking: We get it all wrong when we think people can tell we’re nervous about giving a talk. In a study entitled “The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety,” Kenneth Savitskya and Thomas Gilovich tested how knowing about the effect could help people feel less scared about public speaking.1 When participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected.
But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.
The sun revolves around me, doesn’t it?
In psychology, anchoring refers to our tendency to make an estimated guess by selecting whatever information is easily available as our “anchor,” then adjusting from that point. Often, the adjustments are insufficient. This is exactly what happens when you try to guess the mental state of others. If we try to estimate how a friend feels, we take how we feel as our starting point, then adjust our guess from there.
According to the authors of a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,”
People are typically quite aware of their own internal states and tend to focus on them rather intently when they are strong. To be sure, people recognize that others are not privy to the same information as they are, and they attempt to adjust for this fact when trying to anticipate another’s perspective. Nevertheless, it can be hard to get beyond one’s own perspective even when one knows that.
This is similar to hindsight bias, where things seem obvious in retrospect, even if they weren’t beforehand. When you look back on an event, it’s hard to disentangle what you knew then from what you know now. You can only use your current position as an anchor, a perspective which is inevitably skewed.
If you’re trying to hide your mental state, you’re probably doing better than you think. Unless you’re talking to, say, a trained police interrogator or professional poker player, other people are easy to fool. They’re not looking that hard, so a mild effort to hide your emotions is likely to work well. People can’t read your mind, whether you’re trying to pretend you don’t hate the taste of a trendy new beer, or trying to conceal your true standing in a negotiation to gain more leverage.
The illusion of transparency explains why, even once you’re no longer a teenager, it still seems like few people understand you. It’s not that other people are ambivalent or confused. Your feelings just aren’t as clear as you think. Often you can’t see beyond the confines of your own head and neither can anyone else. It’s best to make allowances for that.