The illusion of transparency

We think we know that how we perceive reality is really what that reality is like. But research from about the last 50 years has shown in countless ways that our perception and reality are sometimes much less alike than we think. 

How we subconsciously perceive reality in a distorted way has all kinds of consequences (often negative) for our choices and our social behavior. In this article I want to talk about a not so widely known bias: the illusion of transparency.

What is the illusion of transparency? 

The illusion of transparency is our tendency to overestimate how well other people can read our mental state from our behavior and facial expressions. In other words, we think we are more transparent than we actually are. Other people can see through us less easily than we think. They are less aware of what we think, mean and how we feel, than we think. 

Probably a major reason for the existence of the illusion of transparency is that we find it very difficult to break away from our own perspective. We experience reality in a certain way and we think that this is the right way and that others surely must view and interpret reality in the same way. 

Guessing a song turns out to be more difficult than expected 

One of the first experiments to demonstrate the illusion of transparency was described by Griffin & Ross (1991). They asked people to sing a well-known song in their minds and tap along rhythmically on a table as they did it. People who listened to it were asked to guess which song it was. 

The interesting thing in this experiment was not how well the listeners could guess what the song was (they did pretty badly). Interestingly, the people who tapped rhythmically overestimated how well the listeners could guess the song. 

Lies, disgust and alarm: less visible than we think 

Gilovich et al. (1998) investigated the illusion of transparency in some typical social situations. First, they showed that liars tend to overestimate how well their lies can be recognized by others as lies. Second, they showed that people tend to think that their feelings of disgust by others are easier to notice than is actually the case. 

Third, they investigated the illusion of transparency in relation to the so-called bystander effect. This is the phenomenon that people are less likely to help those in need when more bystanders are present. Because of the illusion of transparency, people in such situations do not notice how alarmed other people are. They look calm so, they reason, they must be calm. Then they think, if everyone seems to be that calm, it must be me that I think something serious is going on here. Rather, the reality is that everyone is alarmed but not noticing it in others. 

Social Anxiety: Everyone sees how uncomfortable I feel 

Some people suffer from social anxiety. For example, they hardly dare to go out on the street or start a conversation with other people. The illusion of transparency can also play a role here, often in combination with another bias, the so-called spotlight effect
The spotlight effect means that we tend to overestimate how much attention other people pay to us. The combination of the spotlight effect with the illusion of transparency can therefore lead to the feeling: everyone looks at me and everyone sees how (badly) I feel (see Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999 and Brown et al., 2003). 

Fear of public speaking: they see how nervous I am 

Savitsky & Gilovich (2003) investigated the role of the illusion of transparency in fear of public speaking. They found that people with fear of public speaking generally overestimated how well their fear and tension are visible to the public. In response, these speakers often try to do something to diminish or hide their fear and, because of the illusion of transparency, they think that the audience often realizes and sees through this too, which in general is hardly or not the case. 

The researchers found that it helps to educate speakers about the illusion of transparency. By telling speakers that the audience is much less able to see what is going on in their heads, speakers felt less tension and the quality of their presentation improved (both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the audience). 

Negotiations: they know what I actually want 

The illusion of transparency also often plays a role in negotiations. Boven et al. (2003) showed that negotiators are often more able to spot what they would rather hide (for example: What price do I really want? Or: How important is it to me to make a deal?).  

Garcia (2002) showed that the illusion of transparency generally occurs more strongly with people in a weaker position of power in a negotiation. 

Managers: sure they understand my feedback

Schaerer et al. (2015) showed that managers tend to overestimate how clearly they have communicated their feedback to their employees. They assume that employees have been able to read their intentions better than this is actually the case. 

"He must be able to figure out for himself what I mean" 

The illusion of transparency can play a role in all kinds of conceivable situations. An example is a romantic relationship. I once heard someone say, “I'm not going to tell him what I think or feel. If he really cares about me then he should be able to figure it out for himself! ” The person who said this may not be aware of the illusion of transparency. 


I see at least three ways in which knowledge about the illusion of transparency can be useful to us. 

  1. It is helpful to know that the illusion of transparency exists. We need to be less afraid that other people can read our thoughts and feelings easily. Our own thoughts are more private than we realize. If we don't want them to know what we think and feel, then we don't have to worry so much that they will. 
  2. At the same time, if we find it important that other people really know how we feel or how we think, we need to be clear. We should not count on being able to figure out for themselves what is on our mind. They are probably much less capable of doing that than we hope. If we really want them to know what we think and feel, we have to tell it. 
  3. Finally, we must also realize that we ourselves are much less good at reading the minds of others than we think. That we perceive someone as calm, indifferent or angry may actually be wrong. If we really want to know what they are thinking or feeling, we have to ask.