Why do we feel that others can read our mind?
Illusion of Transparency, explained.
What is the Illusion of Transparency
The illusion of transparency occurs when we overestimate the degree to which other people can perceive our personal thoughts, emotions, and mental states. Individuals experiencing this cognitive bias tend to believe that their internal experiences are more visible to others than they actually are.
Where this bias occurs
Priya is about to pitch a creative idea at a team meeting. As she prepares to speak, her mind races with self-doubt and anxiety. Although Priya has prepared well for her presentation, she’s never been comfortable speaking in public. Convinced that her nervousness is clearly visible to everyone in the room, she imagines her colleagues scrutinizing her every gesture, facial expression, and stumble on words for signs of hesitation. Some are looking down at their cell phones, others are writing or typing on their devices. Priya tells herself that these are clear signs that her audience have zoned out of her presentation because they know she’s doubting herself.
In reality, Priya’s co-workers perceive her as confident and articulate, and are just engrossed in their own thoughts and agendas. The illusion of transparency deceives Priya into believing that her internal emotional state is transparent to others. It even contributes to her misinterpreting her colleagues’ behavior during the presentation. The gap between her perceived vulnerability and the team's obliviousness to it becomes evident during the coffee break when a colleague expresses genuine admiration for Priya's engaging presentation.
This workplace anecdote exemplifies how the illusion of transparency can distort our perception of everyday social interactions, making us feel like those around us can read our mind. Rather than focussing on delivering her idea, Priya was distracted by negative thoughts about her colleagues’ reactions. Priya's conviction that her audience could detect her inner turmoil highlights our tendency to overestimate the external visibility of our internal emotions.
Debias Your Organization
Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.
The illusion of transparency bias can have a profound effect on our behavior, self-perception, and well-being. One notable consequence of this bias is the heightened self-consciousness individuals may experience in social or performance-oriented situations. Believing that their internal emotions are more visible to others than they truly are, individuals may feel an increased pressure to conform to perceived expectations, leading to heightened anxiety and self-doubt.
Similarly, this bias can have an impact on our self-expression and the way in which we communicate with other people. Individuals might refrain from expressing their true feelings or concerns due to the illusion that others can easily discern their emotions. For example, a couple in a relatively new relationship might feel like their partner knows how they feel toward them and underestimate the need to talk about their feelings. Over time, the illusion of transparency can contribute to a cycle of miscommunication, as individuals modify their behavior based on a flawed assumption of transparency.
The illusion of transparency can have systemic effects that permeate various aspects of society, influencing communication, decision-making, and organizational dynamics. In institutional settings, for example, leaders who succumb to this bias may assume that their intentions and emotions are clear to their teams, even if they are not. This misalignment can potentially lead to misunderstandings and diminished productivity.
In legal and judicial systems, the illusion of transparency can affect courtroom proceedings. Driven by a belief that their emotions or credibility are obvious to judges and jurors, witnesses may change the way their behave on the stand. Likewise, this bias can also influence the perception of guilt or innocence, as jurors may erroneously assume they can accurately gauge a defendant's feelings based on external cues.
On a broader societal level, our belief that others can read our mind can contribute to the perpetuation of social norms and encourage conformity. Imagine an individual whose opinions on current issues are different from those of his family and close friends. The individual’s assumption that their internal thoughts are transparent to others may lead them to adjust their behavior so that they appear to conform with societal expectations. Ultimately, this can reinforce existing social structures and hinder the acceptance of diverse perspectives and alternative ways of thinking.
How it affects product
Have you ever gone out and bought something, like an item of clothing, with the belief that this product could say something about your identity or lifestyle?
The illusion of transparency can significantly influence consumers' perceptions and behaviors related to products. Customers may choose products based on the belief that their preferences and motivations for selecting a particular brand are transparent to others.
Imagine a young professional who has just purchased a luxury designer handbag. She chose the item because the brand is associated with prestige, wealth, and social status, and she’s trying to make an impression in her new workplace. However, the woman overestimated how transparent her intentions are to others, and assumed that the perceived status associated with the brand would be readily apparent to everyone around her. Unfortunately, her new colleagues didn’t realise the handbag was designer and some didn’t even notice it.
Awareness of the illusion of transparency is also important in the realm of UX research and product design. The aim of UX research is to gain a deep understanding of what potential users of a product or service need and want in order to enhance the design process. Test participants are often invited to use, and perform tasks with, the product or service and then provide their feedback through an interview. However, influenced by the illusion of transparency, test participants may not fully explain their experience of, or emotions toward, a product due to their assumption that their mental state is clear to the researcher. If UX researchers are unaware of the potential impact the illusion of transparency can have on their test participants’ responses, this can lead to incomplete or inaccurate data and flawed conclusions.
The Illusion of Transparency and AI
When we interact with an AI system, such as ChatGPT, we often talk to it and ask it questions as if it were a real person. The AI mimics the type of dialogue we would have with our best friend and after some time we build up a rapport with the machine. This leads us to believe that the AI system has the ability to perceive and understand our intentions and emotions accurately.
Imagine you have an urgent presentation coming up and you’re running out of time to finish it. You’ve been working with AI for a few weeks and have developed an affinity with it, so you decide to use it to get the presentation done. You give the AI some brief instructions to write the presentation, but don’t add any details on style and tone because you assume it already knows what you want. The system returns a generic response which is far from what you were expecting, and you become frustrated with your online friend. Your expectations of what the AI system could perceive about your internal intentions and the reality of your interaction were very different.
That said, neuroscientists have been making significant advances in developing AI that can read our brain’s activity. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, have developed a non-invasive AI-based decoder that can translate brain activity into a continuous stream of text1. In other studies2,3, “deep learning” models have been developed to reconstruct visual images from participant’s brain activity.
It’s going to take some time until mind-reading AI machines are available to the general public. Until then, clear communication about the capabilities, limitations, and inner workings of AI systems can help manage user expectations and ensure more informed and effective interactions with AI technologies.
Why it happens
According to psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Kenneth Savitsky, and Victoria Husted Medvec4, the illusion of transparency occurs because individuals can’t adjust from the ‘anchor’ of their own phenomenological experience when attempting to understand another’s perspective. In other words, because we spend some much time analysing and being acutely aware of our internal states, we find it hard to shift our focus to other people’s perspectives. As a result, we feel that our emotions and thoughts are ‘leaking out’. We think to ourselves, ‘if I am experiencing what’s going on in my head so strongly, everyone around me must be too’.
The same process occurs with the spotlight effect, a cognitive bias which describes our tendency to overestimate how much other people notice our external appearance. As the name suggests, this bias makes us feel like the social spotlight is always shining more brightly on us than it actually is.
Both the illusion of transparency and the spotlight effect are variations of the egocentric bias, our tendency to focus on our own perspectives when examining events or beliefs. Egocentric anchoring is a mental heuristic which helps us to make decisions and form judgments quickly and easily. It’s much more efficient for our cognitive system to assume that other people’s perspectives align with our own, rather than going to the effort of trying to understand what their perspectives actually are.
The way we process and store memories is also an important factor contributing to egocentric biases such as the illusion of transparency. Think back to a memorable event from last year, such as a family celebration or a holiday. When reflecting on your memories of this past event, you probably find that they focus on what you experienced and did, with other people’s actions and emotions blurred in the background. We arrange our experiences and memories around ourselves because self-referential information is easier to recall in the future.
Why it is important
Focussing too heavily on our own internal states, and misinterpreting the extent to which others can perceive them, can cloud our judgments. As a result, we may put unnecessary pressure on either ourselves or those around us, leading to misunderstandings and additional stress.
One area where understanding of the illusion of transparency is important is mental health. Imagine you have a friend who has been struggling recently with problems at work and difficulties in their relationship and appears to be unhappy. You keep checking to see how they are doing, but they always reply with ‘I’m fine, I’ll be ok’, so you don’t push the conversation further. Your friend, however, thinks that their low mood and emotional distress are perfectly clear to you and wonders why you’re not offering more help.
If someone who is struggling with their mental health assumes that the people around them can perceive how they feel, they may not reach out for the help they need or express their feelings verbally. This can make the individual feel even more isolated with their negative thoughts and lead to a delay in them getting appropriate support.
Equally, in situations where we are already feeling nervous or anxious, our belief that other people can read our minds and see our vulnerability can lead to increased anxiety.
It's important to be aware that the illusion of transparency can have detrimental effects on our performance in stressful situations. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to have a group task as part of a job interview, especially if the role requires excellent people skills. In these situations, everyone in the room wants the job and is aspiring to perform better than everyone else. As a candidate it’s natural to feel nervous, but if we start to convince ourselves that the other applicants can clearly perceive our inner feelings, we may focus more on our anxiety than on performing the task to the best of our ability. The same can be said for public speaking; the more we preoccupy ourselves with the belief that everyone can read our mind, the less we focus on the task at hand.
How to avoid it
We’ve all heard the saying “The truth can set you free”. Well, when it comes to avoiding the illusion of transparency, research suggests that knowing the truth about this bias could be the best way to release oneself from its effects.
In 2003, Savitsky and Gilovich conducted a study5 aimed at finding ways to overcome the illusion of transparency. Participants were asked to deliver impromptu public speeches and then rate how nervous they thought they appeared to their audience. The results showed that while the speakers believed they appeared highly anxious, their observers did not share this perception.
Savitsky and Gilovich ran the experiment again but with a slight modification. This time, the researchers provided some of the participants with an explanation of the illusion of transparency, enlightening them to the fact that their internal anxiety might not be as apparent as they thought. The speakers who were informed of the bias reported less anxiety and evaluated their speeches more positively than those who weren’t informed. Moreover, the audience feedback showed that informed speakers were perceived as more composed and relaxed than their non-informed counterparts.
Overall, the study confirmed that the illusion of transparency can exacerbate speech anxiety, but also found that knowing about it can be an effective remedy. Applying this to our day-to-day lives, understanding the illusion of transparency and its effect on our perception of others can help us to be less afraid that our thoughts leaking out.
Start by reminding yourself that your inner thoughts are more private than you think, and that other people probably don’t know what you’re feeling and thinking. By the same token, if you want someone to know exactly how you are feeling, it’s best to tell them in the clearest way possible.
If the illusion of transparency leads us to believe that our internal states are transparent to others, it makes sense that we may also overestimate the extent to which we can decode other people’s emotions and thoughts. Next time you jump to conclusions about what someone is thinking or feeling, take a moment to check with them to see if your assumptions are correct.
How it all started
The term illusion of transparency was first coined in 1987 by Dale Miller and Cathy McFarland6 in relation to pluralistic ignorance. The authors suggested that the illusion of transparency may explain why people believe that their private thoughts and feelings differ from those around them, despite everyone’s public behaviour being the same.
In 1998, Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec conducted three separate studies to provide further evidence for the illusion of transparency. The authors wanted to explore how participants’ intuitions about how they would be judged by others compared with how these participants were actually perceived by observers. They did this across three contrasting situations.
In the first study, the researchers wanted to know whether people who lie overestimate the detectability of their deception. They had groups of participants play a lie detection game during which each of them told lies and truths to the rest of the group. As the researchers anticipated, those who lied overestimated the likelihood that the other participants would be able to perceive their lie.
The second experiment looked at our ability to hide our feelings of disgust when presented with food or drink that we don’t like. Participants were asked to sit at a table and sample 15 drinks, some of which were a pleasant tasting red liquid and some which were a foul-tasting red liquid. Before starting the experiment, the participants were told that a videotape was being made of them tasting the drinks which would be later shown to a group of observers. While the observers’ job was to guess which drink the tasters were sampling, the tasters’ job was to conceal their reactions to the drinks and to make the observers task as difficult as possible. Just like in the first study, the participants who sampled the drinks overestimated the number of observers who would be able tell which drink they were tasting.
In the third and final study, the researchers looked at the how the illusion of transparency affects people’s reactions when faced with an emergency. Participants were brought to a laboratory room with five chairs facing a blackboard. The experimenter explained that their task was to unscramble as many anagrams as possible in 10 minutes, and emphatically stressed the importance of precisely following the rules of the study. One person was chosen at random to be the ‘writer’ and everyone else designated ‘solvers.’ In fact, the writer was a confederate, or a secret research actor, and their role was to gradually break the rules of the experiment so as to create maximum alarm among the participants. Unsurprisingly, participants felt they appeared more concerned about the disruptive behavior to the other group members than they actually did.
Across all three scenarios, participants fell victim to the illusion of transparency. The authors concluded that the bias occurs when a person’s estimate of how much an observer can discern their inner states exceeds the observer’s actually ability to do so.
Since Gilovich et al’s seminal article, several other studies have explored the illusion of transparency in various contexts, including business negotiations, criminal investigations, and romantic relationships.
Example 1 – Unheard melodies
One of the earliest and most cited examples of the illusion of transparency is a study conducted by Stanford University doctoral student Elizabeth Newton in 19907. Newton recruited college students to participate in an experiment as either ‘tappers’ or ‘listeners.’ In each pair, the tapper was asked to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song (chosen from a list of 25 songs) while the listener tried to guess the song from the taps.
The tappers confidently claimed that they could “hear” the lyrics and the full musical accompaniment as they banged away. When asked to anticipate how accurately the listeners could identify the songs, the tappers estimated a 50 percent success rate. However, contrary to their predictions, the listeners interpreted the taps as a sequence of seemingly unrelated sounds. In fact, the listeners only managed to accurately identify 3 percent of the songs.
Because the tappers experienced the songs so vividly in their heads, they were unable to adjust from the anchor of their own experience to consider what the listeners could actually perceive. This led them to wrongly assume that their audience were privy to the private concert going on inside their heads. This discrepancy between the tappers’ confidence in the clarity of their communication and the actual comprehension of the listeners highlights the illusion of transparency.
Alongside the illusion of transparency, this study also demonstrates the curse of knowledge, another variation of the egocentric bias. When we possess knowledge about something, we find it hard to imagine what it must be like not knowing that information. In the case of the tapping experiment, the tappers found it difficult to comprehend the fact that the listeners didn’t have the same level of understanding as them.
Example 2 – I’m innocent!
During police interrogations, criminal suspects may attempt to hide or withhold certain information, particularly if they believe that sharing that information could incriminate them or jeopardize their legal position. But to what extent do they think their interrogator can see right through them?
A study8 by psychologists Saul Kassin and Christina Fong at Williams College, Massachusetts, sought to find out more about what goes on behind the closed doors of police interrogation rooms. While the main objective wasn’t to explore the role of the illusion of transparency in criminal investigations, the researchers added an additional part to their experiment to see if the bias was present in this context.
The main experiment consisted of two parts. In the first, a group of participants were apprehended and interrogated over a mock crime, such as vandalism or shoplifting. Half of the group were guilty of the crime while the other half were innocent. the second part of the experiment, another group of participants were shown videotapes of the interrogations and asked to make judgments on whether they thought the suspects were guilty or innocent.
After each interrogation, the experimenters asked the suspects to predict whether the interrogator would judge them to be guilty or innocent, and to estimate how many of the observers from the second group would uncover the truth as well.
The findings of the study indicated that most suspects harbored a belief that their guilt or innocence was transparent to both the interrogator and the observers of the videotape. Of the 16 suspects, 13 of them believed that the detective would judge them correctly. In reality, the interrogator was only correct 6 out of 16 times, illustrating the stark difference between the suspect’s perceived and actual transparency.
What it is
The Illusion of Transparency occurs when we overestimate the degree to which other people can perceive our personal thoughts, emotions, and mental states. Individuals experiencing this cognitive bias tend to believe that their internal experiences are more visible to others than they actually are.
Why it happens
The illusion of transparency is a variation of egocentric bias, our tendency to focus on our own perspectives when examining events or beliefs. Research suggests that this bias occurs because individuals can’t adjust from the ‘anchor’ of their own phenomenological experience when attempting to understand another’s perspective. As a result, we feel that our emotions and thoughts are ‘leaking out’, even though those around us may be oblivious to our mental state.
Example #1 - Unheard Melodies
A 1990 study by a doctoral student at Stanford University found that individuals asked to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song tend to overestimate the likelihood that their listener will guess the correct song. Struck by the curse of knowledge, the tapper finds it hard to comprehend what it must be like not to know which song they are ‘hearing’.
Example #2 - I'm innocent!
Research suggests that during police investigations, suspects may fall victim to the illusion of transparency and believe that their innocence or guilt will be more transparent to an interrogator than it actually is.
How to avoid it
The best remedy for overcoming the illusion of transparency is to make ourselves aware of it and to reassure ourselves that our inner thoughts are more private than we think. With this in mind, if we feel it’s important that someone knows how we are feeling, it’s best to tell them in clear terms. Likewise, rather than trying to assume another person’s mental state, it’s better to ask them to clarify.
Related TDL articles
The illusion of transparency is closely related to the spotlight effect, another egocentric bias that affects the way we think others perceive us. Rather than overestimating the degree to which other people can perceive our inner thoughts, the spotlight effect causes us to feel like other people are more focused on us than they really are. Read this article to learn more about what the spotlight effect is, why it happens, and how we can avoid it.
The curse of knowledge, also known as the curse of expertise, describes our tendency to incorrectly assume that everyone knows the same amount as we do on a given topic. This makes it difficult to share and explain knowledge to other people because we can’t comprehend what it’s like not to know that information. Read this article to learn more about what the curse of knowledge is, why it happens, and how we can avoid it.