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Illusion of transparency

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We believe we know what reality is like because of how we see it. However, research over the previous 50 years has demonstrated that our perception and reality are not always as similar as we assume.

The way we unconsciously see reality is altered has a variety of (often unfavorable) ramifications for our decisions and social conduct. In this post, I'd like to discuss a lesser-known bias: the illusion of transparency.

Table of contents:
  1. The Illusion of Transparency: Why aren't you as apparent as you believe you are
  2. What is the illusion of transparency?
  3. The broad significance of the illusion of transparency
  4. Examples of the Illusion of Transparency
  5. How does the Illusion of Transparency affect a presenter's mindset?
    1. Amplified anxiety and nervousness.
    2. Amplified embarrassment over small mistakes.
    3. The compulsion to apologize.
  6. What is the best way for a speaker to get through the Illusion of Transparency?
    1. Simmering frustration.
  7. How can you protect your audience from the Illusion of Transparency bias?
    1. Analyze your audience.
    2. Explicitly seek feedback.
    3. Pay attention to subtle clues.
    4. "Test" your audience to gauge their understanding.
  8. Conclusions

The Illusion of Transparency: Why aren't you as apparent as you believe you are

The illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias in which people exaggerate how well others see and understand their mental states. The observer's illusion of transparency is an overestimation of a person's ability to comprehend others' mental states. This bias is comparable to the symmetrical insight illusion.

What is the illusion of transparency?

Our propensity to overestimate how effectively others can understand our mental state from our behavior and facial expressions is known as the illusion of transparency. To put it another way, we believe we are more transparent than we are. Others are less able to see right through us than we believe. They are less conscious than we are of what we believe, mean, and feel.

One of the main reasons behind the illusion of transparency is that it is extremely difficult for us to break free from our point of view. We have a specific way of experiencing reality, and we believe that this is the correct way to do so and that others must perceive and interpret reality in the same manner.

Is the Illusion of Transparency the same for everyone in every situation? Holder and Hawkins' following study found no general gender difference in susceptibility to the illusion. However, some persons can acquire a degree of resilience to it (more on this later). The illusion does not affect us in the same manner in every scenario; for example, when we have a strong emotional response, whether good or negative, the illusion affects us the most.

The broad significance of the illusion of transparency

Overall, people can be influenced by the appearance of transparency in several settings when interacting with others. This cognitive bias comes into play when someone believes their emotional condition is more visible to others than it is. Remembering this and not instantly assuming that others can tell what you're thinking or feeling can help you gain confidence and communicate more successfully with others. Furthermore, knowing that other people are susceptible to this cognitive bias can help you avoid frequent misunderstandings and provide you an advantage in certain situations.

Examples of the Illusion of Transparency

Consider the following potential scenarios in which you could be susceptible to the Illusion of Transparency's effects:

  • If you speak a falsehood, you may assume that others (who have no prior knowledge of the truth of your remark) will be able to detect it far more easily than you.
  • If you have strong feelings of disgust or pleasure when eating or drinking, you are more likely to imagine that people at your table will know your thoughts on the food more frequently than they do.
  • If you're feeling guilty about not being prepared for a meeting, you're more likely to assume that your coworkers can sense your guilt than you do.
  • If you are unhappy that you did not receive the birthday present you expected, you are likely to assume that your friends are more aware of your displeasure than you are.
  • If you're worried during a job interview, you're inclined to feel the interviewers will pick up on it more than they do.

How does the Illusion of Transparency affect a presenter's mindset?

Speaking in front of an audience may be a very emotional event. As a result, the Illusion of Transparency can skew your thinking in a variety of ways when you're giving a presentation, including:

Amplified anxiety and nervousness.

Savitsky and Gilovich conducted follow-up research to see if public presenters are prone to the illusion of transparency. Yes, it's a resounding yes! Their findings indicated that when a speaker is apprehensive, they exaggerate how much the audience can detect their anxiety. This worsens the situation by creating a negative feedback loop. The assumption that the audience can identify anxiety readily might lead to increased uneasiness. The speaker then believes that the audience can sense their anxiety. And so forth. And so forth. This loop of anxiousness can devour a speaker's cognitive concentration, potentially resulting in poor performance.

Amplified embarrassment over small mistakes.

Let's say you realize you've made a mistake by arranging your intended presentation in the wrong sequence. You, like many other speakers, maybe embarrassed by this circumstance. You may overestimate the likelihood that your audience members would perceive your discomfort due to the illusion of transparency. However, most audience members are likely to be oblivious of the sequencing error unless it was blatant (e.g., mixing up two historical occurrences).

The compulsion to apologize.

You may feel forced to apologize to your audience as a result of the preceding impacts. Because the listener is often unaware of the reason for the apology, this form of apology can be embarrassing.

How many of these behaviors are familiar to you from your speaking experience? What about other recent speakers you've heard?

What is the best way for a speaker to get through the Illusion of Transparency?

You may begin to decrease or remove the Illusion of Transparency's bias in your thinking now that you're aware of how it might affect you as a speaker. Simply reading this essay has aided you in reducing the impact of this prejudice to some extent.

Why? Savitsky and Gilovich's work on the Illusion of Transparency relates to public speaking fear provides the reason. They discovered that merely telling people about the Illusion of Transparency resulted in two significant gains in their minds:

  • The speakers felt more at ease since their anxiousness was less visible to the audience.
  • The speakers felt more assured about the quality of their presentations.
  • Moreover, the results of the study were backed up by feedback from their target audience:
  • Audience members reported feeling less anxious, and
  • The audience rated their talks as being of better quality. What are some ways that the Illusion of Transparency might sway your audience?

While a speaker at the front of the room is vulnerable to the effects of the Illusion of Transparency, audience members are also vulnerable depending on where they sit. The following are examples of possible effects on your audience members:

Simmering frustration.

Assume that a member of the audience in the front row is having difficulty following your presentation and that this dissatisfaction lasts for a long time, maybe throughout many sessions of a course you're presenting. This irritation can build up over time, generating a lot of internal stress. This audience member may believe (falsely) that you must know how frustrated they are if the Illusion of Transparency impacts them. Furthermore, if you do not address their (unspoken) issues, people may think that you are uninterested in them.

How can you protect your audience from the Illusion of Transparency bias?

You may use various ways to mitigate the negative effects of audience members' Illusion of Transparency bias. These are some of them:

Analyze your audience.

An in-depth audience study will reveal a lot about your audience is thinking and where they are most likely to have issues throughout your presentation.

Explicitly seek feedback.

Make it a practice to actively solicit input from audience members in a variety of methods. Please make an effort to identify problem areas in your presentations and work diligently to resolve them. This should be done before, during, after, and in between presentations.

Pay attention to subtle clues.

Even though your audience does not always express their feelings verbally (due to their overestimation of your ability to understand their mental state), subtle indicators are often accessible if you know what to look for. Negative facial expressions, closed body language, restless movements, frequent monitoring of technological gadgets, and a variety of other indicators might all indicate that your message is not being received.

"Test" your audience to gauge their understanding.

I frequently include informal exercises or dialogues in which I ask my audience questions about what I've just presented. For example, after presenting ten principles for good slide design, I show my audience slides and ask them to match each presentation to the concept it demonstrates. I can measure their knowledge in real-time by paying close attention to their replies (both what they say and don't say).


The illusion of transparency might make us feel that when we deliver a public speech, an audience can sense how frightened we are or that other people know exactly what we are thinking during a negotiation. The illusion of transparency arises because we are so accustomed to having unlimited access to our feelings and ideas that we find it difficult to recall that others do not.

Understanding how the illusion of transparency affects others may be useful in various settings, such as negotiations when convincing others that you can read their emotions provides you an advantage.

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