Illusion of transparency

“I believe my thoughts and feelings are more accessible to others than they actually are.”

Definition

The illusion of transparency manifests itself mainly when we try to understand other peoples’ judgment of us; we feel that we are "transparent" to others. A person who exhibits this bias overestimates the ability of others to access their internal emotions and thoughts which are, in fact, only “in their mind” [1]. The bias most often appears when we know we are being observed by someone else [4], in contexts where we trying to hide certain thoughts or emotions from our observer.

Example

You are invited to eat at a friend's house. Once served, you realize that the food is not at all to your liking. You try to cover up your dislike out of respect for your friend. However, you are convinced that your host can see through your acting, and that they know (although they hide their emotions) that you don't like the dish, even if you don't give any discernible clue of your disdain. This perception is probably biased: your host cannot, a priori, know what you are thinking.

Explanation

When we interpret the way others judge us, we find it difficult to let go of our unique point of view of ourselves (that is, our self-awareness) [2]. This can be explained by the fact that we have privileged access to our internal states. It is because we have direct access to our thoughts and emotions, or in other words, because we are transparent to ourselves, that we overestimate the ability of others to "read" our inner thoughts and emotions. We mistakenly think that our thoughts are as obvious to others as they are to ourselves.

Consequences

This bias seems to affect all of our interactions with others. In some cases, the person who thinks they are transparent also thinks that the emotions or thoughts that “leak” from their actions can be misused [1]. These thoughts can cause one to feel anxious, vulnerable, and to experience communication problems. If we take the specific example given above, the person might think that their host perceives their dislike: they could then try to hide it even more. This cover-up could easily then become overdone, and the situation would become tense or uncomfortable. Another consequence of the illusion of transparency is that it can hamper our communication with others. By assuming that others perceive our emotions or thoughts, we fail to make them explicit to our interlocutor, while expecting them to be aware of how we feel. [1].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Focusing our attention on our actions rather than on our inner states: do I really leave clues about my thoughts and my emotions?

  • Being more explicit about our thoughts and emotions when we interact with others. This can limit the negative elements of the illusion of transparency bias.

  • In general, consider that others do not have the same access to our inner states that we do.

How is this bias measured?

The illusion of transparency is most often measured by laboratory experiments. For example, participants are asked to hide a particular emotion (e.g. joy) in front of a camera or witness, while they watch a video that should elicit that emotion. They are then asked to assess whether their emotion was well concealed. The illusion of transparency bias is demonstrated when the participants feel that they have not or not sufficiently concealed their emotion, whereas an observer could not detect it or judges that it was well concealed [4].

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

This bias has social or individual repercussions:

This bias is empirically demonstrated:

References

[1] Gilovich, Thomas, Victoria H. Medvec & Kenneth Savitsky (1998). The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 332-346. (Meta-analysis)


[2] Vorauer, Jacquie D. & Michael Ross (1999). Self-Awareness and Feeling Transparent: Failing to Suppress One’s self. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 415-440.


[3] Keysar, Boaz (1994). The Illusory Transparency of Intention: Linguistic Perspective Taking in Text. Cognitive Psychology, 26, 165-208.


[4] Kleck, Robert E. & Carol L. Barr (1995). Self-Other Perception of the Intensity of Facial Expressions of Emotion: Do We Know What We Show? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(4), 608-618.


See more:


Gilovich, Thomas & Kenneth Savitsky (1999) The Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency: Egocentric Assessments of How We Are Seen by Others. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(6), 165-168.

Tags

Anchoring heuristic, Availability heuristic, Need for security, Interpersonal level

Related biases

  • Curse of knowledge

  • Spotlight effect

  • Hindsight bias

  • Construal effect

Author

Fabrice Valcourt, masters student in philosophy, Université du Québec à Montréal.

Translated from French to English by Susan D.  Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Valcourt, F. (2020). Illusion of transparency, trans. S. D. Renaud. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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