Home > Memory > Reader, Do People Actually Know How You Feel? Welcome to Your Tape…

Reader, Do People Actually Know How You Feel? Welcome to Your Tape…

I recently got into this Netflix original called 13 Reasons Why. It’s an adaptation of a book with the same name that was probably on your summer “to read” booklist in middle school. It tells a story of a high school girl named Hannah who commits suicide and releases a set of cassette tapes to the people who were “instrumental” to her death. I put instrumental in quotation marks because we don’t really know what happened and we all know that memory could be untrustworthy; but that’s for another blog (This link will take you to another blog that talks about Confabulation). The question is why is this relevant in a blog about cognitive psychology?

Hannah from 13 Reasons Why

Each episode details a character’s “contribution” to Hannah’s death. I found that a lot of the problems found in the story were ones of communication. Hannah thought that everyone in her school had easy access to her insecurities, fears, and feelings even though that’s probably not the case. This is similar to when a nervous performer onstage experiences stage fright and believes that everyone in the audience can notice their anxiety. This phenomenon is a cognitive bias called illusion of transparency. I would say that almost everyone has had this experience and as inherently social creatures we tend to let other people’s perceptions, whether they might be true or not, influence our behavior. Think back to a moment when you did or didn’t do something because you felt that people were watching and judging you. That moment was probably a result of illusion of transparency.


This could be you. People tend to feel more nervous than others perceive them to be.

By definition this phenomenon is when a person thinks that their internal states are more apparent to others even if that’s not actually the case (Gilovich, Savitsky, & Medvec, 1998). A study by Savitsky & Golovich (2003) looked at how this cognitive bias affected public speaking. More specifically, they looked at how speakers tend to overestimate how nervous they appear to be. They found exactly that, 67.75 % of the participants thought that they appeared more nervous than their partners. The researchers then looked further into the illusion and studied the relationship between knowing about the illusion of transparency, being metacognitive (thinking about your own thinking), and the alleviation of anxiety. They found that the speakers that knew of the illusion rated their speech more positively and thought that they were more relaxed before the speech and less nervous during, than ones in the other conditions. Observers also rated the speakers who knew about the cognitive bias to be more confident. These results reflect our tendency to overthink situations when we are being vulnerable like when speaking publicly. This bias unfortunately gives us unnecessary stress. The researchers, however, gave us a clue on how to combat that. I personally don’t think that it’s easy to stop thinking about what other people think of us. However, if we thought about how our own perceptions of how other people think of us are most likely skewed and biased, our nervousness could decrease and other people might also find us more relaxed and confident. Metacognition could be the key to living a stress-free/low stress life. If only high school students like Hannah knew of this bias, then maybe things would have not gotten out of hand.


From looking at this bias in terms of public speaking, it seems like anxiety and the illusion of transparency have a special relationship. When an individual’s expectations about themselves don’t match up with other people’s, there is a cognitive dissonance that arises that I contend is probably not healthy for that person. This happens in 13 Reasons Why where a lot of the characters seem to care so much about how other students might perceive them. They go to great lengths to make sure that their reputation is not tainted. The show portrays high school students as individuals that are self-conscious and hyper aware of what is happening around them. A study by Brown & Stopa (2007) actually used self-awareness as a measure of the cognitive bias. They looked at the relationship between how anxious the participant was and how likely the same participant would report experiencing the illusion of transparency. They manipulated the participants’ anxiety by telling one of the groups that professionals will be checking their test results on a memory test (high anxiety level) while the other group’s results will only be seen by the experimenter (lower anxiety).  Both groups were overtly video taped during the process. The researchers

Metacognition helps decrease anxiety felt when experiencing the Illusion of Transparency

found that across the two anxiety conditions, participants reported experiencing the illusion of transparency at very similar rates. This meant that someone’s level of anxiety does not affect how much you feel the cognitive bias. You essentially do not have not have to be in a stressful situation to feel like everyone can read or see through you. This is reassuring! It means that it is normal to feel this way and everyone around us probably feels the same. I think a lot of people think that they’re alone in feeling like their every decision is being judged by everyone around them. I think it is our responsibility, as people who now know that it is a normal phenomenon, to help others understand that they are not alone. Personally, whenever I feel like I am being judged or that I was in a situation where I “wore my heart on my sleeve”, I always tend to replay those moments in my head afterwards. I always feel like it is such a personal experience and that no one really understands how I feel. I am happier to know that that’s possibly not the case.


It also seems as though those instances are very salient parts of my memory. In fact, some researchers explained that the illusion of transparency could be explained in terms of memory. A study by Golovich, Savistky, et. Medvec (1998) described the bias as a “curse of knowledge”. They meant that people who experience this illusion tend to have a hard time making correct judgments of how others would react to a similar stimulus. This is because all their decisions are based or filtered through their personal experiences. People then tend to assume that others have had the same experiences as they’ve had . This supports the idea that this cognitive bias is based on memory. When making decisions or appraisals, like thinking about how other people might perceive our behavior, we use prior experiences and information that have been encoded in out long term memory store. It our way of filtering that we information to decide the most plausible outcome given the circumstances of our situation. A study by Anderson & Pichert (1978) explains this phenomenon. Participants were either given the role of a robber or a house buyer. Then they were asked to read a story about a house. After a few minutes of buffer time they were asked to do a free-recall of details about the story. The researchers found that the participants recalled details about the story based on the role given to them. Or more likely, participants recalled events based on what they thought their given roles would recall. The results reflect the fact that people tend to recall details based on their past experiences. The participants were primed to think like their roles when they were given them in the beginning of the experiment. So it would not be surprising if high school students, who were bullied, process information based on their negative experiences. This mindset was probably what caused Hannah and the other people in the show to feel these negative emotions. There are definitely a lot more factors to suicide than this blog is talking about. I know that I would not be able to conceptualize such a subjective experience for everyone, but I think this blog is a good start. Thinking about how priming can powerfully affect people’s memories and knowing that the illusion of transparency could be explained as a memory induced bias, we now have a task at hand.

People remember and make decisions based on our experiences and the primed roles around us.


Unfortunately, this bias seems more negative than positive, especially in the context of this show. When we experience it we tend to have a self-focused view of the world and go through unnecessary anxiety thinking about how others might perceive us. Our lives are all aggregates of our experiences and these experiences affect our decisions, behavior, and even what we remember. Because this bias is such a selfish experience, in that in essence it’s you having a hard time placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, it is never easy to know when someone is feeling judged or vulnerable around us. I know that it’s too late for Hannah now. No one really reached out to make sure she’s okay and she never really let people in because of her fear of being judged. She did not know that it was normal to feel that everyone had access to her deepest emotions. She also did not know that her negative experiences, being bullied, could subconsciously place her into a cycle of negative thoughts and decisions. Most importantly, no one around her recognized just how severe her anxiety was to her. The first study showed that people tend to rate their own nervousness much higher than other people’s around them. Who are we to say that the anxiety others feel is not real for them. I personally thought that I was good at reading people and being “empathetic”. It is a shame that we are less likely to notice other people’s negative feelings as easily as we think we do. Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to be more sensitive and aware of others around us. We never really know who is having a bad day. So I challenge you to go up to a random person and greet them with a smile. A smile might not do anything for them and they might find you weird, but for that one person who was having a rough time, a quick smile could make their day.

After reading other blogs I found similar cognitive biases that could help you understand my cognitive bias more and apply it to more situations that you might face. 

The Fat Lady is Singing, but Nobody is Listening: The Spotlight Effect

What Do High School Musical and the 2016 Election Have in Common? Status Quo Bias.


Anderson, R. C., & Pichert, J. W. (1978). Recall of previously unrecallable information following a shift in perspective. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 17(1), 1-12. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(78)90485-1

Brown, M. A., & Stopa, L. (2007). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders,21(6), 804-819. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.11.006

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

Heald, S. L., & Nusbaum, H. C. (2014). Speech perception as an active cognitive process. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience,8. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00035

Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2003). The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,39(6), 618-625. doi:10.1016/s0022-1031(03)00056-8

  1. skbarr20
    April 27th, 2017 at 16:28 | #1

    Very informative post! A great way to link cognitive psychology with popular culture (although I somewhat resent Netflix for its detrimental effects on my productivity). I used sources by many of the same authors in my own post on the spotlight effect because the two biases are so closely related. I believe they are, to some extent, the same thing, only the spotlight effect deals with external phenomena and the illusion of transparency relates to internal phenomena. Thus, they can be studied using very similar methods. I found your detailed descriptions of the experiments to be very useful in understanding this bias. This is definitely something I’ll keep in mind next time I’m giving a speech!

  2. April 30th, 2017 at 19:01 | #2

    Hi Josh! I recently finished watching the show and I really liked it. Kinda – liked it. I think your blog post does a great job explaining the underlying reason for Hannah’s transparency and tragic death, but I would like to ask if there is another way to explain the transparency?
    Like you already said that the definition of the internal transparency phenomenon is “when a person thinks that their internal states are more apparent to others even if that’s not actually the case (Gilovich, Savitsky, & Medvec, 1998)”. I believe that you post, and the reasoning behind for “13 reasons why” is a great way to link our academic knowledge with procrastination. I find it hard to believe that so many of us could fall under internal transparency bias, and to be honest, I think that we needed to see the show, and we needed your post.

    Another interesting thing I would like to reflect on from your post is study by Gilovitch et al. The public speaking study where participants had to practice public speaking, and later had to rate their own and their partner’s perceived anxiety on a 0 (not at all) – 10 (very) nervousness scale. It is interesting to see that the results showed how participants overestimated their own nervousness. This reminds me of another phenomenon that we have discussed in class, metacognition. If there is a way to be aware of your nervousness, and if that awareness could help us make rational decisions or help us calm down – it would be awesome.

    Later on, Gilovitch et al. looked at how the awareness of this bias could potentially make the nervousness go away. And yet, they found that if speakers knew of the illusion of transparency, they would say that their speech was overall more positive, and they also thought that they were more relaxed and less nervous both before and during the speech. I believe this is an important finding, and goes well with what I already suggested – metacognition. If awareness of the bias can help us lower the anxiety, then we could go to bed without fear of losing someone like Hannah again.

    Overall, I enjoyed reading your detailed descriptions of the experiments, and I found these to be very useful in understanding the transparency bias. I also have learned a thing or two about our experiences and decisions, which I think is important in our everyday life.

    Lastly, thank you for raising awareness of the importance of internal thoughts and transparency, and I will definitely keep this in mind next time I’m talking to close friends and relatives.

    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

  3. rtrobins
    April 30th, 2017 at 22:25 | #3

    Jos – I really like how you apply this post to the 13 Reasons Why series. I can definitely see the point that you are making about Hannah’s feelings of the illusion of transparency and how while they are very valid feelings, they are probably not accurate about what other people actually think of her. I had no idea that this cognitive bias was attributed to memory, but the study that you talked about by Anderson & Pichert (1978) helps me understand how memory plays a role in this bias. Additionally, I like how you integrate the role of context for what gets encoded in Anderson & Pichert’s experiment. It seems that priming can play a large role in what people are remembering on the recall task, which is also related back to the Savitsky & Golovich (2003) study that you mention in the beginning about how being primed with what the illusion of transparency is can act as a moderator.

    While reading this, I also saw some similarities between this cognitive bias and the spotlight effect. I wonder how different these two cognitive biases are, and how easy it is to disentangle their individual effects. On first thought I would think that they would perpetuate one another and result in a multiplied effect, especially during a task such as giving a speech in front of a crowd.

  4. May 4th, 2017 at 16:10 | #4

    Jos, what an insightful post! After just binge watching 13 Reasons Why, I found myself incredibly interested in how this bias could have effected Hannah’s perceptions of the events going on in her life, as well as the actions of those around her. It was interesting to read that her perceptions of events might have differed from the truth. I had not originally thought that there would have been a strong connection between memory and the transparency bias, but after you explained it, it made a great deal of sense. People will generally make judgements based off of information that they have based on their past experiences. This process of interpreting new situations and stimuli based on past experiences also seemed to relate to pattern recognition. I was very relieved to find out that the anxiety and awkwardness that I feel while giving a speech or performing in front of a crowd is not always apparent to everyone else, and is sometimes just in my head. I will most definitely keep that in mind next time I am in a performance position!

  5. Vianny Lugo Aracena
    May 6th, 2017 at 08:27 | #5

    This is a very interesting post, and interesting way to relate things to a new show (although I might add that a lot of mental health experts have said that this show is problematic for many reasons).

    For some reason I never thought how emotion/affect can affect cognition and vice-versa. When you talked about the studies that were looking into anxiety and performance depending on the role, it was a nice way to talk about the cognitive mechanisms underlying the process. I also like the explanation of the curse of knowledge that you mentioned, and how people ‘filter’ information based on their experiences. The idea of filtering information can be related to the early attentional models, and to the effects that defy the filter (the cocktail party effect).

    I also think it’s interesting how you mentioned that the bias is more negative than positive because of the anxiety produced, however, I’d like to argue that a bit of anxiety is actually good and it has been reported to increase performance! If we consider the Yerkes-Dodson curve (1908), the model says that anxiety is good up to a certain point, since performance increases with arousal. However, after the ‘cetain point’ has been crossed, the performance tends to decrease.

  6. jclutian
    May 9th, 2017 at 11:19 | #6

    @Adela, thank for the comment. I would contend the Golovich et. al probably thought of metacognition as a tool to eradicate the effect of the illusion of transparency. And from the results of the study it seemed to work. Writing this blog also made me more conscious about my everyday life. You really never know how someone must feel. What I didn’t really emphasize in this post, but will be more emphasized in the edit, is one implication of this illusion. To define it again, it is the tendency to think that other people have easy access to our internal states even if they do not Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (1998). On the flip side, who are we to say that those feelings of nervousness aren’t real? We then have this phenomenon that other people find it hard to read our emotions. This could be problematic because from an outsider’s perspective an individual could be very happy and emotionally stable even if they aren’t really feeling that way. I think we need to start to be more sensitive and be trained to actually be wry of the signs of anxiety. @Adela Ramovic

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