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The Illusion of Transparency: Why You Are Not As Obvious As You Think You Are


The illusion of transparency is our tendency to overestimate how well other people 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. Basically, since our own emotional state is generally clear to us, it’s difficult for us to internalize the fact that it’s not as clear to others.

In the following article, you will learn more about the illusion of transparency, and about how accounting for it can help you become more confident, and communicate better in various situations.

The illusion of transparency

“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 occurs because people have a natural egocentric bias, which causes them to rely too heavily on their own perspective when trying to consider the perspective of others. Essentially, because you spend the vast majority of your time considering your thoughts and actions using your own perspective, it’s hard for you to adjust when trying to think how others see you.

Specifically, even though other people don’t have as much insight into your thought process and emotional state as you do, and even though rationally you know that they don’t, it’s difficult to remember this when you intuitively think about what others know about you.

As such, we naturally assume that other people know how we feel and what we think, because we know how we feel and what we think, and because it’s difficult for us to remember that other people don’t have as much insight into our emotional state as we do.

Examples of the illusion of transparency

In addition to the notable way in which the illusion of transparency influences you during public speaking, as we saw earlier, this cognitive bias also influences you in various other scenarios.

For example, a set of experiments on the topic showed 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 other people 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.

Accounting for the illusion of transparency

Now that you are familiar with the illusion of transparency, meaning that you understand how and why it affects you, it’s time to take advantage of this new knowledge. You can do that by being aware and accounting for how this bias influences your own self-perception, and by accounting for how it affects other people’s thought process.

Below are a few examples of specific cases where understanding the illusion of transparency can lead to notable benefits.

Public speaking and increased confidence
Simply being aware of the illusion of transparency can allow you to deliver speeches more confidently. For example, 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.”

Note that while this study showed how accounting for the illusion of transparency can make you more confident when it comes to public speaking, it’s highly likely that this method can also work in other cases, and make you more confident in general. As such, if you find yourself in a situation where you are feeling nervous and in need a confidence boost, remember the text above, and take a moment to try and account for the illusion of transparency.

Hiding your lies and identifying liars

As we saw earlier, liars often assume that the person they are lying to can tell that they’re lying, even when they can’t. You can take advantage of this in two ways:

  • If you are the one lying, you should remember that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person that you are lying to, which could help you relax and lie more effectively.
  • Conversely, if you suspect that someone is lying to you but you aren’t sure, remember that they probably feel that their lie is more obvious to you than it really is. Use this to pressure them, and to get them to reveal the truth.

Better negotiation skills

In negotiations, people tend to believe that their motives and intentions are more transparent to the other negotiators than they actually are. Similarly to lying, there are two main ways in which you can take advantage of this phenomenon here:

  • Understanding that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person you are negotiating with, can help you relax and maintain a more confident position.
  • Conversely, knowing that the other person is probably overestimating how well you can read them can help you pressure them, and gives you an advantage in the negotiation process.

Better communication in relationships

The insights on the effect of the illusion of transparency in negotiations also have important implications for relationships. This is because in informal negotiations, such as picking a place to eat or deciding whether to pursue a romantic relationship, it’s possible that the other person isn’t as aware of your preferences as you think they are.

This means that the person you are with often can’t tell what you actually want unless you express it directly, even if you’re sure that they can. Because of this:

  • 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 hints that are less subtle.
  • 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.
  • 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 try to solve it by addressing the problem openly.

Note that these tips are relevant in various types of relationships, ranging from romantic relationships to workplace interactions.

Accounting for the illusion of transparency in general
Overall, there is no limit to the type of situations where people might be influenced by the illusion of transparency. Essentially, this cognitive bias plays a role each time someone assumes that their emotional state is obvious to others.

Remembering this, and not automatically assuming that others can know what you think or how you feel, can help you become more confident, and communicate more effectively with others. Furthermore, understanding that others may also be influenced by this cognitive bias, can help you avoid many common miscommunication issues, and can give you leverage in certain situations.

Summary and conclusions

  • People overestimate how obvious their emotional state is to others, due to a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency.
  • This bias is attributed to our inability to adjust from the anchor of our own point of view when attempting to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes. Essentially, since we can easily see what we think and how we feel, it’s difficult for us to remember that other people don’t have the same access to our mental information, even if we rationally know that they don’t.
  • The illusion of transparency affects us in a wide range of situations, from making us think that the crowd can tell how nervous we are when we give a public talk, to assuming that other people know what we think during a negotiation.
  • Understanding how the illusion of transparency affects your mental state can be beneficial, since reminding yourself that your emotions aren’t as obvious to others as you intuitively think, can help you become more confident, and communicate better.
  • In addition, understanding how this cognitive bias affects other people can also be beneficial. For example, it might give you leverage in a negotiation situation, or it might help you communicate better when having relationship difficulties.


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