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How Well do You Really Know Your Acquaintances? The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

Have you ever found yourself questioning the decisions of those around you, perhaps as if you had better insight into the thoughts and emotions of a person than they did themselves? Or do you ever catch yourself making internal judgments towards others in a way that pushes aside the legitimacy of one’s own self-understanding? “Why is she doing that? She should know herself better!” These are behaviors that can be understood through a phenomenon commonly referred to as the illusion of asymmetrical insight, a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to think we understand other people better than they understand themselves and us. To put it into other words, Kathy (person #1) would be experiencing the illusion of asymmetric insight if she thinks she knows Kathy (herself) better than Jake (person #2) knows Jake (himself) or Kathy (person #1).

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight in Action

This bias can be seen in individuals throughout varying contexts, and is also very common among social, political, and religious groups. Multiple studies have explored the manifestations of the illusion of asymmetric insight, many of which attribute the bias to reasons outside our level of consciousness. In other words, we do not have full awareness of when this phenomenon is occurring due to the fact that it is an automatic processes (a process that is quick, easy, requires little cognitive resources, and has the ability to occur without full attention, as opposed to controlled processes, which are slow, difficult, and require cognitive resources and full attention).

So why do we experience this phenomenon so frequently without even realizing it?

One empirical study conducted by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky, and Lee (2001), (click here to read full article), examined our tendency to idealize our own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge over the knowledge of our peers, an idea that links to naïve realism, which is ones tendency to sense that our own perceptions and judgments are reflections of some “objective reality” (Pronin, Kruger, Savitsy & Lee, 2001). In other words, it states that we tend to believe that when others around us do not simply share an assessment of us, they must be seeing matters in an inaccurate or biased manner. In Experiment 2 of Pronin’s study, the research team tested whether or not roommates showed this asymmetric insight and naïve realism by instructing participants to fill out questionnaires with prompts such as, “how well do you know yourself? How well do you know your roommate?”, so on and so forth. Results indicated three things: that participants believed they knew their roommates better than their roommates knew them, that their own knowledge about themselves exceeded their roommate’s self-knowledge, and finally that the difference between the participant’s own self knowledge and their roommate’s knowledge of them was more pronounced than vice versa (their roommate’s self knowledge and their knowledge of the participant) (Pronin, et al., 2001). In other words, the participant believed that their own self-knowledge surpassed their roommate’s self-knowledge, and that their roommate’s knowledge of them (them being the participant) was much less accurate. So, how might this have an effect in group settings?

In the same study, researchers found a similar pattern in regards to in-group and out-group assessment. In psychology, an in-group refers to those who share our particular qualities, and an out-group refers to those who do not. In this particular study, the in-group believed their group understood the out-group better than the out-group understood the in-group or themselves. As one might expect, this could be detrimental in a group on group confrontation, for example, when assessing an opposition in a political debate, a trial, etc., as false assumptions about out-group self-knowledge may arise and form miscalibrated judgments of what the opposing side may or may not know in the midst of an argument. It’s the same feeling you may get when you are in the middle of a two sided debate in school, and you know for certain you have a counterargument that the opposing side will not be able to rebuttal because you know much more about your group and your topic than they every could…and then they rebuttal, making clear they were perfectly aware of the point you just made all along.

So why exactly do situations like these occur? In order to fully capture how this phenomenon operates on a day-to-day basis, we must turn to the specifics of cognition. A study conducted by Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec (1998), (click here to read), assesses a similar bias, the illusion of transparency. In this study, experimenters found that there is an inclination for us to believe those around us can discern our mental states. In other words, we believe that the true nature of ourselves, or our internal “beneath the surface” thoughts, feelings, and emotions, are revealed in everyday life more than they actually are. Understanding how we overestimate the extent to which others understand us and how we understand ourselves can help us recognize our tendency to overestimate how well we understand those around us. An explanation to both can be found in a cognitive process commonly referred to as metacognition.

What exactly is metacognition and how might good or bad metacognition affect the illusion of asymmetric insight? Metacognition is our ability to access what we know and don’t know. If we lack this competence, it may lead to overconfidence and an inability to properly access what we know and don’t know about someone’s own self knowledge, leading to possible false assumptions of individuals. Studies show that people tend to hold miscalibrated judgments of their abilities in social and intellectual realms due to the fact that those who are unskilled in these domains suffer from not being able to properly recognize what they don’t know (Kruger, J., & Dunning, D., 1999). In a study by Kruger & Dunning, 4 experiments were conducted, all of which highlighted a dramatic dip in ability to self-predict test outcomes for individuals scoring in the bottom quartile of the test, due to a lack of metacognitive ability or capacity to distinguish accuracy from error (Kruger, J., & Dunning, D., 1999). The study infers that perhaps those who lack this metacognitive ability, or “low ability” individuals, are those who may be more likely to experience the illusion of asymmetric insight because they are incapable of properly assessing what they do and do not know about a person. It is important to recognize that this relationship has not yet been directly examined in an empirical study, however, given previous data from studies such as Kruger & Dunning’s the possibility is probable, and would be an interesting route to explore in future studies.


In addition to metacognition, mental representations play a large part in how we perceive others. Information from the environment needs to be converted into perceptions and these need to be recognized through a cognitive process called pattern recognition, the act of assigning meaning to perceptual inputs. It takes an ability to apply top down information (information that includes context, concepts, prior knowledge, and expectations), to make sense of what we are exposed to. So, in order to come to an interpretation of a specific behavior, we must react to specific inputs from our environment, in the case of the illusion of asymmetric insight, the behavior of an individual. The interpretation we make of others and those around us heavily depends on how we are able to integrate the input with our 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.

If we believe we know more about other individuals than they know about us, as in the case of the illusion of asymmetric insight, this would suggest that we may be completely disregarding the fact that those around us have the same top-down knowledge we have that allows us to make judgments about others and their self knowledge levels. One may then ask, if we know others around us have the same top down information and prior knowledge about the world as we do, then why do we still make assumptions that our levels of self knowledge and knowledge about others accedes those around us?

As explained before, much of this phenomenon occurs outside our level of consciousness due to automatic processes. We usually do not realize the bias is taking place because we are unaware of the presence of a stimulus, or perhaps unaware of the effect the stimulus has on our judgment or actions. So even though we may be aware that those around us have the same ability to read others as we do on a cognitive level, when faced in a situation where a stimulus is present, automatic processes take over and an assumption is made without any real intention or consciousness of the bias. So in other words, we are not intentionally “starting” up the processes, and we are unable to stop the process due to the uncontrollable nature of automatic processes. So, even if we know better, there is no way to fully stop this bias from occurring.

So why is it important that we understand how the illusion of asymmetric insight works? As just addressed, it is hard to know when this bias is occurring in the moment, however acquiring a simple knowledge of what goes into the bias can help people in everyday interactions and relationships. Understanding the illusion of asymmetric insight gives us an opportunity to heighten our awareness and perhaps help us point out false assumptions others may be making about those around us without realizing it. Though we may not be able to change when or if this bias occurs within ourselves directly, recognizing the presence of a bias such as this through communication in personal, professional, and everyday contexts will only strengthen our understandings of others.


Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.2.332

Johnson, J.T., Struthers, N.J., & Bradlee, p., (1988). Social knowledge and the “secret self”. The mediating effect of data base size on judgment of emotionality in the self and others. Social Cognition. 6, 319-344.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Nisbett, R., Wilson, T. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, Vol 84(3), Mar 1977, 231-259.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

Pronin, E., Kruger, J., & Savitsky, K., Ross L (2001). You don’t know me, but I know you: the illusion of asymmetric insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81(4).

Espinosa, O., (2017). “You Don’t Know Me.” Orlando Espinosa. N.p.

  1. May 3rd, 2017 at 19:04 | #1

    Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the informative post! Your discussion on metacognition was really interesting! I also read the Kruger and Dunning (1999) article for my cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In one of the studies they conducted (Study 4: Competence Begets Calibration), Kruger and Dunning (1999) found that participants could formulate more accurate judgments of their performance (and improve their metacognition) after receiving critical feedback from an expert. Do you think that critical feedback will play a role in eliminating the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight?

    Your application of the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight in social contexts was interesting as well. To follow up on your discussion of the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight in the in-group and out-group assessment, Pronin, Kruger, and Savitsky (2001) also discussed the role of the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight in political parties. Specifically, liberals and conservatives rated that they knew the other group better than the other group knew them (conservatives thought that they knew liberals better than liberals knew them). This is because members outside a certain group (out-group) make judgments based on what they perceive of a certain group (in-group) and judge that certain group based on their behavior/ignore the context that group is in. The “inability” to understand the in-group reminded me of social egocentrism, which was a topic discussed in Lifespan Development last semester. Social egocentrism refers to the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Granted, it is difficult for us to develop social egocentrism, but I wonder if these two processes are related in any way.

    The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight was a nice contrast to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Although both processes are caused by a deficit in metacognition, the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight focused on making our social decisions whereas the Dunning-Kruger Effect focused more on performance. It was interesting to consider metacognition in a new context.

    Pronin, E., Kruger, J., & Savitsky, K., Ross L (2001). You don’t know me, but I know you: the illusion of asymmetric insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81.

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