In college, a friend and I were walking to class and talking about the presentation we had coming up. “You’ll do great,” she said. “You’re the most confident person I know.” I almost burst out laughing. I told her to stop trying to make me feel better, and that it wasn’t going to help my nervousness. I was not confident. In fact, I dreaded the thought of the presentation and had trouble sleeping several nights leading up to it. I was a mess inside. But apparently, it wasn’t visible – at least not externally. 

As Tupac once said, “Dyin’ inside, but outside you’re lookin’ fearless.”

This effect has been studied extensively in psychology and occurs more frequently than we think – it’s called the Illusion of transparency. We believe that our emotions, which can feel particularly strong to us, are easily recognizable by others by simply looking at our faces. In reality, this is rarely the case. 

In one study, people were asked to lie to another group; the liars thought that it was obvious they were lying, but most people couldn’t tell!

Another study asked people to rate the reaction to people liking/disliking a soft drink; but they did a poor job of rating whether or not they actually liked that drink.

Simply looking at a facial reaction wasn’t enough information. In both cases, “people think their emotions are more obvious to others than they actually are (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999).”

It’s not just our facial features, though. We overestimate how frequently people understand us at multiple levels. For example, if you hum the tune to a song to a friend, it’s SO OBVIOUS what the song is, right? (check out this video for a great example) It makes sense in your head, but 9 out of 10 times, the person listening can’t figure out what that tune is.

Ditto when you try to be sarcastic or joke in an email; unless you put a winky face, it’s very likely going to be misinterpreted by someone. 

This illusion has implications for how we communicate. We believe that others can see how we feel – but they can’t. This results in a lot of frustration and mismanaged expectations (“I thought you meant this”). The simple solution is to be explicit in saying, “this is how I am feeling,” or in explaining, in detail, “this is what I mean.”

Likewise, instead of assuming you know how someone feels, ask them. The Effectiviologity blog suggests that getting feedback from people you trust is an effective method:

“Specifically, you can ask them how well they were able to detect your thoughts and emotions in specific cases that you are wondering about, such as during a public presentation. Since you will usually overestimate their ability to “read” your internal state during such times, getting actual feedback can help you see just how much the illusion of transparency affects you, which will help you account for it better.”

Lastly, it also should give you more confidence in speeches. While you may feel nervous, most people can’t tell, and in fact, might think you really nailed it!

Check out this article and this article if you’d like to read more about The Illusion of Transparency. 

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