Have you ever heard the saying “The eyes are the windows to the soul”? How is it possible to see someone’s soul through their eyes. The fact is, we can learn a lot about others from their facial expressions, and other people can tell a lot about us from our faces. Even newborn babies seem to understand the importance of faces. Research shows that babies as early as 9 minutes after birth, prefer to look at faces rather than any other objects and by the time they are two weeks, babies can already imitate the facial gestures of adults. This ability is very important for their development because it helps them to later learn how to speak and to think.
Now is this always true? We would like to reflect on this
Do you believe this? Because you may be feeling that most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what you are thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up is also known as the “ Illusion of transparency”.
Is it our misconception that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts?
We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency can improve relationships, job performance, and more.
How many times we have experienced strong emotions and you tend to think that it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, you assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.
Right? No wrong! You will be surprised that it’s not always true.
Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. This is the gap between our subjective experience and what other people are experiencing about us.
It’s these assumptions that lead us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.
For example, you arrive at the office exhausted, you have had a fight or a family argument. You seem to lack focus in your work at the office, you are making mistakes, you are missing meetings. Everything you do seems to be going wrong. At the end of the day, at an office get together, which you reluctantly attend, Over a drink you tell your colleagues, “Sorry boss ! had a bad day at work, I was a little mentally disturbed”.
You may be surprised if one of them looks at you, slightly confused and says “ Why, what happened, I did not notice, ‘You seemed fine to me.” And You think, clearly, maybe he is being polite. All your co-workers to you seem to be showing up looking fresh and motivated every day.
This is something which I have personally encountered, which I think must be true for all of us who fear the stage. When we have to talk in front of a big crowd. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Later when you chat with someone from the audience and maybe tell them: ‘I was very nervous today, don’t you think ?’ I have been surprised when I have in those days, had people come to me and say ‘We enjoyed your speech, was so thought-provoking, you were so confident, ‘You didn’t look nervous at all.’
Now there is a disconnect, while you hear what they say, you tell yourself, these guys were not listening, they must be sitting at the back or they were busy on their phones. Your shaking hands and nervousness were far too apparent. You also had a powerful and well-known speaker before you, who spoke so confidently. Is this an illusion of transparency?
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon – that every human creature is constituted to be, that profound secret and mystery to every other.”? Charles Dickens
We then raise the next question which is, Does no one care?
Is the reality, that other people pay much less attention to you than you think? Maybe true!
Maybe they’re often far too absorbed in their own worlds and problems to pick up the feelings of others. You could have instances where you’re annoyed at your partner but they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your co-workers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about their speech or when they can get the next coffee break, etc.
In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling all the time, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make efforts to conceal your inner state, you may-be able to hide it all together from everyone.
Sometimes, our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This leads to the “Spotlight effect”—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.
Take the case of lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. As per a research conducted, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught 90% of the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about 10% of the time—a very low rate indeed.
What do we then do?
Understanding the Spotlight effect and how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.
Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views. This is true in personal as well as business transactions. I was interacting with a well-known expert in a Merger and acquisition transaction and he told me that there were numerous instances of deals falling through due to small misunderstandings rather than bigger fundamental reasons. The perception created in the minds of the acquiring company and its executives made a huge difference to the value they attributed to the target company.
Likewise, in our personal and professional lives, if you think, you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double-check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.
As Dylan Evans in his book, Risk Intelligence: How to live with uncertainty states “The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice, it can be done.”
The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. I am sure we have experienced this, in this period of COVID 19 and dealing with the lockdown. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s Razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.
Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Once we start to think that no one really cares about your nervousness in speech or your family arguments at work, you may start feeling a sense of freedom.
A situation, where this can be used by us in our professional and personal lives could be while speaking publicly or on stage, where you can tell yourself that people cannot tell you are nervous about the speech. As per the research conducted, it is found that when participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected. But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. The same way this can also be used in our personal relationships and also at work.
It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.