Summer Series #4: We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves as much as we think: The illusion of transparency

Have you ever assumed your romantic partner understood your feelings about something without explicitly talking about the issue? Maybe you make a sarcastic comment about your partner’s choice of movie, thinking your tone of voice conveys your frustration and your feeling that your partner dictates decision-making in the relationship. In reality, it’s likely that your partner has no idea that you feel this way based on your comment alone. We expect that people (especially our romantic partners who know us so well!) understand our intentions and feelings from our facial expressions, vocal tone, or body language. But for the most part, they don’t. This is called the illusion of transparency.

The illusion of transparency occurs when people mistakenly believe that others know what they are thinking and feeling, or their motivations and intents. Put another way, people are better at hiding their internal states than they think they are. A common application of the illusion is in public speaking. Speakers assume their audience can detect their anxiety (an assumption that actually increases the speaker’s anxiousness) when the audience cannot. To combat the spiral of anxiety that happens when people think their audience can see their nervousness, having an awareness of the illusion can alleviate anxiety and improve the audience’s impression of the speaker. Just being aware of this illusion can help you project confidence, even if you truly feel a bit nervous – you can “fake it until you make it,” knowing that your insecurities are not that visible.

The illusion of transparency can get us into trouble when we assume our emotions are on our sleeve. For example, one advice-seeker on The Soothstream had an emotional meeting with a manager and was worried about the follow-up meeting:

My manager recently requested a follow up meeting... I'm weaning my 18 month year old and am worried I'm going to be too emotional to have a constructive conversation around my feedback.

The advice-seeker is worried about their emotions accidentally spilling out - whether it's from the hormones associated with weaning the 18-month old or the past interaction with the manager. In reality, the likelihood of her emotions being readily visible is low. I would advise this person to focus on the moment, forget about the past interaction, and to remember that their emotions are not as visible as they think.

Next time you find yourself in the midst of a miscommunication, or are worried about how you appear to others, remember that people can’t read minds. If you want them to know what you’re thinking, tell them. If you don’t, don’t sweat it.


This post was written by Sooth Intern, Elaine DiCicco

Elaine is a fifth year graduate student at Penn State pursuing a dual PhD in social psychology and women’s studies. Her research background covers stereotypes, race/gender bias, and work/life balance.