Home > Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, Language, Memory > No One Ever Understands Me! Ah, yes – The Illusion of Transparency

No One Ever Understands Me! Ah, yes – The Illusion of Transparency

Your world is collapsing. Okay no it’s not, but you are extremely stressed, sad, and worried. Do you ever wonder why no one seems to care that you’re feeling these things, or wish that someone would only ask if you’re okay? We all feel like this sometimes! But see, everybody else is not the problem. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t want to help (most likely); it’s just simply the fact that they may not even know you’re feeling like this. Think about the last time you gave a presentation in one of your classes or to a group of people. You’re standing up there, fidgeting, sweating, and you feel like your thoughts are jumbled and that your speech reflects that. You look into the crowd and see a girl twirling her hair – I must look like an idiot. You see someone else staring right at you and smiling – I must sound so stupid that he can’t help but stare directly at me. False! The girl is just bored and the boy is trying to show the teacher that he’s paying attention – so stop sweating and remain calm, you’re fine. These feelings are not out of the ordinary, in fact, they’re quite normal, and they can be attributed to the illusion of transparency.

That feeling when no one understands you…

The illusion of transparency is the tendency to believe that one’s internal states are more obvious to others than they actually are. We believe that the outside world can see and understand what we’re feeling and thinking, because we feel like we show our feelings, thoughts and emotions explicitly. However in reality, we overestimate the extent to which other people can tell what’s really going on inside our heads or what we’re trying to say. To test the theory out for yourself, watch this video to see if you can guess the song behind the rhythm! Or, to learn more about this illusion (after you’ve finished reading this post, of course), check out this other awesome post from the CogBlog! Additionally, many studies have been conducted that aim to look at why this happens, and to see if this illusion actually holds true when tested.

One Does Not Simply Make a Claim with No Evidence…


Let’s look at it through the lens of mental processes during language use. Mental processes, also known as cognitive functions, can be defined as everything that an individual does with their mind, such as perception, memory, and thinking. When people speak, they first formulate a message they want to convey, translate this message into a linguistic form (any meaningful unit of speech) and then they end with creating a plan for articulation (they speak) (as cited in Keysar, B., Barr, D. J., & Horton, W. S., 1998). Horton and Keysar (1996) considered two possible models when discussing this. First, they discussed the optimal design model, which states that speakers format their utterances and their language use so that their meaning is clear. The second model they discussed was a monitoring-and-adjustment model, in which speakers first plan their verbalizations egocentrically, without considering the perspectives of the people they’re talking to. Then, speakers will monitor their plans by trying to find the egocentric ones they’ve made. Egocentric plans for speaking are the plans that would rely on information unavailable to the person you are talking to in order for him or her to understand what you are saying. If an egocentric plan is found, the speaker adjusts their plan accordingly. After testing these theories, it was found that under pressure (limited time or a high stakes discussion), the illusion of transparency is seen.

We’ve all wondered this at some point!

With pressure, speakers don’t have the time and cognitive resources to monitor and adjust their statements, so they speak through an egocentric lens in which the other person cannot understand, although the speaker may think they will understand (Keysar et. al, 1998). Another way to say this is that speakers fall back on their own context (they talk egocentrically), regardless of whether the information is mutually shared and mutually understandable. For example, let’s say you’re on the women’s basketball team in college, and you and your teammates are having dinner with the new freshmen for the first time. You want to make a good impression (you’re under pressure), so when you talk to the freshmen you don’t realize that they most likely don’t understand why Sharpay from your cognitive psychology class doesn’t deserve to date the hot senior, Troy, on the men’s basketball team. You just talk to the freshmen like they just know whom Sharpay and Troy are, when in reality they don’t and therefore don’t understand the meaning of the conversation; you’re talking egocentrically. This result helps to tie language to the illusion of transparency because of the way we formulate our speech. Because we often formulate our speech egocentrically, we often fall victim to the illusion of transparency – people can’t just assume what we mean. Just think of an argument you got into with a friend or a significant other in the past. You or the other person has definitely said something along the lines of “I assumed you knew how I felt!” This reasoning mentioned above is behind the fault in that statement.

Can the illusion of transparency affect our relationships in other ways too? Why yes, it can! Have you ever told a lie and just “knew” that the person you lied to knows that you weren’t telling the truth? It’s okay; you don’t have to lie to yourself about a time you lied! Let’s say you have a study buddy for your cognitive psychology class, and you study every week together. But then, he or she asks you out on a date when you really don’t feel that way about them. So you lie and say that you just “don’t have time to date right now.” You leave the conversation and immediately know that the look on your face and the explanation you gave and your outward appearance gave away your lie. But wait, did it actually?

Buddy the Elf knows!

In one study, researchers examined the illusion of transparency and how it ties into lies. Through two experiments, it was found that people have some ability to recognize lies, that they may overestimate this ability, and that participants overestimated the extent to which their own lies were easy to detect (Rai, Mitchelll & Faelling, 2012). Basically, the results from this study concluded that people typically think that it is easier to detect when somebody is telling a lie than it actually is. So don’t worry for now, your study buddy probably couldn’t tell that you were lying to them! In the second experiment, it was found that a listener often knew that a speaker was lying, but not as much as the speaker thought they would. I know, you are now worried again about your study buddy! Although people can often realize that they experience doubt when hearing a lie, they overestimate how easy it actually is to detect lies. When people lie, it was shown that they sometimes think their lies are more explicit than they really are. So, although there is some illusion of transparency in lying, be sure to tread through dishonesty waters carefully!

You Gon’ Learn Today: What the Illusion of Transparency Can Teach You


There are definitely some useful takeaways that we can learn from the illusion of transparency that we can apply to our everyday lives. First, communication is key. If this blog post taught you anything, it’s that we cannot assume that other people know what we are trying to say or what we are feeling.

Be a mule, not an ass!

Here’s the thing; people can be really ignorant when it comes to understanding others. Most of the day-to-day tiffs and even bigger arguments we have with other people occur because there is a lack of communication. The illusion of transparency communicates the idea well – people are not that great at understanding the inner feelings, attitudes and thoughts of others! So just be upfront. Second, don’t lie! Remember, the illusion of transparency works both ways for lying in that 1. You think your lies are easier to detect than they actually are, but 2. Although overestimated, people do have some ability to realize when they are hearing a lie. So be careful, and just remember that the truth is the best route. Lastly, when giving a speech, remember to relax! You often have an exaggerated sense of how obvious your nervousness is to the audience. It was found that when an audience was surveyed, the speaker’s emotions were not as evident to the audience as the speaker thought they were (Savitsky, & Gilovich, 2003). If you want to learn more about this study, and why you shouldn’t be that nervous to speak in public, click here. But for now, just try to be as cool as a cucumber!

Hopefully by this point, you’ve learned a sufficient amount about the illusion of transparency. I’m definitely going to assume that you have regardless of actually knowing if you have, though (wink, wink).



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 Science8(6), 165-168. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00039

Keysar, B., Barr, D. J., & Horton, W. S. (1998). The egocentric basis of language use: Insights from a processing approach. Current Directions In Psychological Science7(2), 46-50. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep13175613

Keysar, B., Lin, S., & Barr, D. J. (2003). Limits on theory of mind use in adults. Cognition89(1), 25-41. doi:10.1016/S0010-0277(03)00064-7

Rai, R., Mitchell, P., & Faelling, J. (2012). The illusion-of-transparency and episodic memory: Are people egocentric or do people think that lies are easy to detect?. Psychological Studies57(1), 58-66. doi:10.1007/s12646-011-0138-2

Savitsky, & Gilovich, (2003). The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology39 (6): 618–625. doi:10.1016/s0022-1031(03)00056-8

  1. tecime20
    March 6th, 2018 at 17:22 | #1

    Very, very interesting, how the egocentrism of this bias goes two ways. On the one hand, you have the self-destructive aspect: the “everyone can see right through me, they can see that I’m nervous/lacking confidence/lying/etc, I must look like an absolute fool”; on the other, the self-absorbed: “my personal experience/emotion is relevant no matter the situation, even if the other person I’m speaking to has no idea what I’m referring to.” The cognitive ties to language (that most human blessing and evil), in terms of production and use, or misuse, were nicely explained. The lying study was particularly fascinating; even at the level of the mental processes we seem possessed of some sort of moral compass, if the fear of being caught in a lie is so salient that we automatically assume the person being lied to will be able to tell.

    A point you didn’t explicitly address here, but that may apply, is the disconnect between our subjective and objective experiences and knowledge. I’m wondering whether people that are well aware of this bias are better able to separate themselves from its effects, or if they are just as prone to egocentric assumption errors as the less-informed.

  2. bacollin
    May 7th, 2017 at 13:35 | #2

    This post really made me think about my own thoughts not only when I give presentations, but when I speak to new people in general. During presentations, you explain that it is so common for the presenter to feel as though the audience is bored or making fun of them. I am definitely one of those people. I even get nervous when just simply having a conversation with someone I have never met before because of the fear of what they might be thinking of me. I feel relieved after reading this post knowing that I’m not the only one!

    I found the study you included about lying to be especially interesting. Lying is something that we all worry about, and I have met plenty of people who claim that they are great liars and no one can ever tell, but this study proves otherwise. It shows that people are able to detect lies, which isn’t surprising. What surprised me is who the people telling the lie felt as though they would easily be detected. I wonder if there are studies that test the context of each lie: Who is the participant lying to? What kind of lie are they telling? Does the participant lie often?

  3. April 20th, 2017 at 19:03 | #3

    I thought it was interesting how you linked this to the mental processes in during language use. The study by Rai et al. caught my attention and it made me wonder why we would all engage in telling lies if we thought that people would see right through us (even though the other person might not be able to tell that we just lied to them). I also liked the closing statement about relaxing during a speech as it made me reflect on how I feel when I’m the one talking versus how I feel when I’m just in the audience.
    When you wrote about cognitive resources in terms of the monitoring-and-adjustment model, it made me wonder if this model draws on automatic and controlled processes. We all know that automatic processes do not require attentional and cognitive resources, while controlled processes demand a lot of our attentional resources. This model suggests that speakers plan their verbalizations egocentrically(is this an automatic process?) Do the speakers then engage in a controlled monitoring process of their plans? When we are under pressure, we don’t have enough time to engage in a controlled monitoring process, so we rely on the automatic egocentric perspective. Maybe this is too much of a stretch to try to categorize this dual process model as controlled and automatic?

  4. eholland
    April 19th, 2017 at 15:22 | #4

    Such an interesting article! I wrote about the illusion of asymmetric insight and the two definitely seem to overlap (I actually used an illusion of transparency article in my blog!). Just as in the illusion of asymmetric insight, mental representations play a large role in how we believe others perceive us. Information from the environment needs to be converted into perceptions and these need to be recognized through pattern recognition, so we can assign meaning to perceptual inputs. It takes an ability to apply top down knowledge, knowledge that includes context, concepts, prior knowledge, and expectations, to make sense of what we are exposed to. We react to specific inputs from our environment, in the case of the illusion of asymmetric insight, a behavior of an individual, and come to an interpretation of that behavior by going through this process. This interpretation heavily depends on how one is able to integrate the input with their prior knowledge. Therefore if we have previously stored knowledge of a person, it may inhibit our ability to think clearly about incoming information about that same person. Therefore, in the case of the illusion of transparency, we may be completely disregarding that those around us have top-down knowledge as we do, leading us to believe others do not understand our feelings and needs, when in reality they have the proper contextual information to gauge exactly how we are feeling.

  5. April 19th, 2017 at 15:03 | #5

    I thought it was interesting how you linked this to the mental processes in during language use. The study by Rai et al. caught my attention and it made me wonder why we would all engage in telling lies if we thought that people would see right through us (even though the other person might not be able to tell that we just lied to them). I also liked the closing statement about relaxing during a speech as it made me reflect on how I feel when I’m the one talking versus how I feel when I’m just in the audience.

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