There are times when people wish to conceal their thoughts, feelings, and emotions from others. Anxiety over approaching a potential romantic partner, feelings of disgust over a disagreeable entree one is served at a dinner party, nervousness over delivering a public speech, or uneasiness stemming from telling a lie—all are internal states that people may wish, for a variety of reasons, to keep private.
How well can people conceal their internal states, and how well do they believe they can do so? Research suggests that people are often better at keeping their internal states hidden than they believe—that people tend to overestimate the extent to which their thoughts, feelings, and emotions leak out and are apparent to others. This tendency is known as the illusion of transparency because people seem to be under the illusion that others can “see right through them” more than is actually the case. The illusion of transparency is similar to the predicament depicted in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, The Tell-Tale Heart. In that story, Poe’s character falsely believes that some police officers can sense his guilt and anxiety over a crime he has committed, a fear that ultimately gets the best of him and causes him to give himself up unnecessarily.
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Researchers have examined the illusion of transparency in a wide variety of different studies. In one experiment, for example, research participants were placed into a situation that was a mild version of the one from Poe’s story; that is, they were asked to tell a number of true and false statements to an audience and then to predict the success with which the audience could spot their lies. Just like in The Tell-Tale Heart, participants in that study believed that they had leaked more cues to their deception than they actually had, causing them to overestimate the degree to which the audience could detect their falsehoods. Although observers can sometimes tell when people are lying, most people are better liars than they realize!
In another experiment, participants were asked to keep a straight face as an observer watched them sip a number of different drinks, one of which had an extremely disagreeable taste. When participants tasted the disagreeable drink, they felt as though their disgust was “written all over their face,” despite their best efforts to conceal it, and that observers would therefore be able to tell which drink had been the disagreeable one based solely on their reactions. And yet, just like in the lie-detection study, observers who studied the tasters’ facial expressions were hardly able to tell which drink was which, and tasters overestimated the degree to which their disgust was perceptible by a considerable margin.
Other experiments have demonstrated the illusion of transparency in a number of other domains. In one study, individuals who took part in a negotiation thought that their privately held preferences—that is, which issues they valued highly and which ones were less important to them—were more apparent to their negotiation counterpart than was actually the case. In another study, research participants who gave extemporaneous speeches in front of a video camera believed that their nervousness was more noticeable than it actually was. In yet another study, participants who committed a mock-crime (e.g., pretending to steal some money) overestimated the extent to which an interrogator could detect their guilt. Although all of these various studies differ from one another in many ways, the basic finding is the same across all of them: People feel as though their internal sensations leak out of them more than they actually do. People are simply not as transparent as they think.
Why do people succumb to the illusion of transparency? The phenomenon appears to stem from what is known as an anchoring effect. When a person attempts to determine how his or her internal state appears (or, more accurately, does not appear) in the eyes of others, the person is likely to have difficulty getting beyond his or her own, private, phenomenological experience. In effect, individuals “anchor” their judgments on their own experience of their internal states, which can be quite powerful, and adjust insufficiently when they attempt to determine how things appear to others. It can simply be difficult to realize that the intensity with which one feels an internal state may not be matched by an outward expression that is equally as intense. As a result, people exaggerate the extent to which their internal states leak out and overestimate the extent to which others can detect their private feelings.
The illusion of transparency is similar to a number of other egocentric biases in human judgment. In particular, it resembles both the spotlight effect, people’s tendency to overestimate the extent to which others notice their appearance and behavior, and the curse of knowledge, people’s difficulty setting aside their own private stores of knowledge when they imagine how the world appears to others. In each case, people err in assuming that others are necessarily aware of or attentive to the same thing that they themselves are. Both of these phenomena may thus represent instances of a more general difficulty people have distinguishing between internal stimuli (e.g., how nervous one feels) and external perceptions (e.g., how nervous one appears)—a difficulty that can impair one’s ability to take others’ perspectives and see things (including oneself) as they do.
- Gilovich, T., & Savitsky, K. (1999). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency: Egocentric assessments of how we’re seen by others. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 165-168.
- Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others’ ability to read our emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 332-346.
- Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2003). The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 618-625.
- Van Boven, L., Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (2003). The illusion of transparency in negotiations. Negotiation Journal, 19, 117-131.