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the illusion of transparency

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

Research tells us that what we're thinking and feeling is often less obvious to others than we think. How might we apply this knowledge in ways that ease and facilitate the thinking of others?

Research Reveals: The Illusion of Transparency

Studies show that we often overestimate the extent to which their thoughts, attitudes, and feelings are evident to others—a phenomenon termed the illusion of transparency.

For example, participants induced to lie overestimated the extent to which others could tell that they were lying, and in another study, participants asked to drink samples of good-tasting and foul-tasting liquids overestimated the number of people who could tell which liquid they were drinking. (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 1998).

From Research Toward Cognitive Kindness: Some Ideas

Now, how might we take that research finding and apply it toward cognitive kindness—i.e., apply it in ways that ease and/or improve the thinking of others in our every day lives?

One Idea: Broadcast Your Intentions

Imagine this—You're out for a walk and about to cross the exit from a parking lot. You notice a car pull out of a parking space and approach the exit. You're not sure whether the driver sees you and/or is planning to stop; the driver may be wondering something similar about you. The illusion of transparency tells us that even if we think our intentions are obvious, they may not be.

Why not broadcast your intention to walk behind, and not in front of the vehicle by angling your body accordingly and walking deliberately in that direction? By doing so, you've substantially reduced the otherwise considerable challenge for the driver of accurately anticipating your next move.

You've just been cognitively kind in multiple ways: You've freed up cognitive capacity for the driver and increased the driver's predictive accuracy.

Another Idea: Broadcast Your Interest, Exaggerate Even

Now imagine you're attending a presentation that you're keenly interested in. You'd expect this would be obvious to the presenter. Yet you also know about the illusion of transparency. What might you do?

Intentionally broadcasting—exaggerating even—indicators of your interest can liberate some cognitive capacity for a presenter trying to figure out whether the audience cares. Lean forward, nod your head, make eye contact, and given your knowledge of the illusion of transparency, embody each of these with a bit more gusto than you might feel is necessary.

Imagine, too, how a similar approach can benefit a range of interactions, including everyday conversations and more significant discussions. Communicating your interest more obviously to someone with whom you're in conversation can reduce the cognitive effort that person might otherwise dedicate toward determining your motives and engagement, freeing it up for more expansive thinking.

And Yet Another Idea: Use Your Words

Explicitly articulating what you're thinking, feeling, and wondering is an even more direct approach toward cognitive kindness that emerges from findings on the illusion of transparency. If our internal states are in fact less obvious to others than we believe them to be, then being intentional and direct in communicating these can be a significant act of cognitive kindness. Using our words can relieve others from the cognitive challenge of trying to figure out what we're thinking and feeling, and of trying to decipher actions and reactions that seem nonsensical or even antagonistic precisely because our thoughts and feelings are not as obvious as we might think. Psychological research shows us that we are not as transparent as we believe. In so doing, it also reveals that using our words more intentionally and more often can be a profound act of cognitive kindness.

Collaborating Toward Cognitive Kindness: More Ideas—Your Ideas

In what other contexts and ways might we apply our knowledge of the illusion of transparency toward greater cognitive kindness? How might it change what we aim to communicate, how we choose to communicate it, and with whom? How might we bring this to our various roles—leader, doctor, patient, teacher, student, parent—to name a few possibilities? How might we bring it to our various realms and modes of communication and our choices among them—in-person conversation, phone call, email, websitel—to name a few?

We might consider:

  • our many personal and professional spheres

  • individual, organizational, and societal levels

  • interactions, policies, and processes

  • systems and spaces

I hope you'll share your ideas in the comments!


Want to know more about the illusion of transparency?

Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others' ability to read one's emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 332-346.[PDF]

Gilovich, T., & Savitsky, K. (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. [PDF]

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