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Its Official: Mind Reading is a Joke!

Photo by Dorothy Thomas (https://dorothyjoseph.com)

Imagine you are visiting your friend at another college for an event. Because you got into a lot of traffic, you have to go to directly there and meet your friend. All you know is that it is some sort of celebration towards success, and, thinking it’s semi-casual,  you go with your skirt, t-shirt and sneaker look. Once you get there, you realize everybody is dressed up in formal dresses and blazers. You feel embarrassed about your look and feel that everybody is aware of that. You feel that everyone can see how awkward and uncomfortable you feel. In your case you have just experienced the Illusion of Transparency effect: the tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which their inner thoughts, feelings, and attitudes ‘leak out’ and are seen by others. You thought everybody was reading your mind, but in reality they probably never even noticed you were there.

How does it happen, that we feel so alarmed, nervous and even disgusted by ourselves? We will look at how the illusion of transparency affects everyone, but affects them differently depending on the individual. The bias is easily explained through looking at social anxiety and its close connection to egocentrism, including gender, and the spotlight effect. The bias is typically measured by comparing an individual’s predicted estimates of how apparent his or her internal stimuli (e.g., how nervous one feels)  and external states (e.g., how nervous one appears) with the actual estimates of observers.


While the illusion transparency affects everyone, it has an especially big role in people with social anxiety. People with social anxiety of phobias have a fear of judgement/negative evaluation of others around them and the Illusion of transparency adds towards this fear. That social phobia facilitates the illusion of transparency, and the illusion of transparency does the same the other way around. They play into each other.  In the study by Brown and Stopa (2006), participants were asked to complete a memory task while being socially evaluated. People in the high social evaluation condition ended up thinking that they were going to get worse evaluation feedback than people in the low social condition, which means that people with really high social pressure directed towards them experience an even greater their fear of being judged. In other words, social anxiety makes the illusion of transparency effect is even greater.

An interesting observation is, that the illusion of transparency has a different effect for gender but not for age. The study of Rai Mitchell, Kadar and Mackenzie form 2014, asked men and women to read to an audience. As a result, the females of the study thought that they looked much more nervous than the audience actually thought that they looked. The male participants, on the other hand, thought that they were much more entertaining than the audience thought that they actually were. This shows how males and females judge the impression they have on other people in very different ways. No differences between adolescent and adult judgments of their impressions was found.

Another easy example for this is a study by Clark & Wells, wherein one half of the participants were told to observe the facial expressions of the other half while they were drinking different samples of different tasting drinks, one of which had a rather bad tasting substance. The drinking participants were supposed to make it seem like there was no difference within the taste. The participants had to estimate whether the observers were able to tell when they were drinking the bad tasting substance or not. Most participants guessed that their reactions and feelings were so revealing to the observers that they must’ve been able to tell the difference easily. And yet, according to the observers it was extremely hard to tell which drink was being consumed only by the judgement of the reaction. With this study Clark & Wells proved how much we can overestimate how well other people can judge our inner state. 

This bias really fits into the field of cognitive psychology. As so much about this is about recognition. If we know ourselves well, we can even use cognitive psychology to overcome these fears that the illusion of transparency brings to us. If I know that I have the pattern of getting extremely nervous in front of people and that I start assuming they can sense that, I can recognize that and remind myself that this is a common problem that really only effects myself.

The Illusion of transparency is about only thinking of yourself without any ability to emphasize correctly towards how other people are thinking within the nature of human judgement.  People assume that others are aware of or attentive to the same thing that they themselves are. The illusion of transparency represents a more general difficulty people have distinguishing between internal stimuli and external perceptions — a difficulty that can impair one’s ability to take others’ perspectives and see things (including oneself) as they are. Kinds, at some point it’s important to realize that not everything is about ourselves. But also, lets stop overthinking what others might think. We don’t even know exactly what we ourselves want half of the time. So why bother trying to understand what ‘they’ are thinking?  Let’s just make the best out of it.




Brown, M. A. (2007). The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social anxiety”. Journal of anxiety disorders  21 (6), 804

Clark, and Wells. “Illusion of Transparency.” Psychology, 2004, psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/decision-making/illusion-of-transparency/.

Rai R., Mitchell P., Kadar T. et al. Curr Psychol (2016) Adolescent Egocentrism and the Illusion of Transparency: Are Adolescents as Egocentric as we Might Think?. 35(285), 62-111.

Rai, Roshan, et al. “The Illusion-of-Transparency and Episodic Memory: Are People Egocentric or Do People Think That Lies Are Easy to Detect?” SpringerLink, Springer, Dordrecht, 29 Dec. 2011, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12646-011-0138-2#citeas.

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