Sometimes we feel like our emotions are laid out like open books to others and our attempts to hide them are fruitless, but what can other people read from our facial expressions, speech patterns, and general behavior? This has been tested experimentally and something interesting was found.
In a study in which people gave extemporaneous speeches, participants were asked to rate their own nervousness (). This was compared to audience ratings. The results showed that people tend to overestimate how nervous they appear around others. And this is a consistent finding. We believe that others can read more into our expressions than they really can.
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In other studies, participants have been tested trying to hide the lies they were telling, as well as their displeasure at a bad-tasting drink and even their concern about an emergency. In all cases, people thought their emotions were more evident to others than they really were (). In a follow-up to the public speaking study, some participants were told they didn’t look as nervous as they felt. They gave such good speeches that their nerves did not disturb them.
Psychologists call this the “illusion of transparency.” It’s the idea that we feel like our emotions are transparent to others when in reality they are not, or at least not as transparent as we think.
You can test this illusion by tapping the beat of a song and asking a friend to try to guess what it is. When this study was conducted, people assumed that listeners would succeed about 50% of the time (Newton, 1990; doctoral dissertation). In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to guess. The listeners in this study succeeded less than 3% of the time. This was despite the fact that the songs were very well known: they were “Happy Birthday” and the National Anthem. When doing this with a friend, you are in awe of them as it seems so obvious to you. You can hear the chords playing in your head as you beat the beat, but you forget that your friend can’t.
The same can be said of written communication. When you write an email it seems perfectly obvious what you want to say but language is open to interpretation and sometimes meanings get twisted or lost on the way from one mind to another. None of this means, of course, that our thoughts and feelings are totally impenetrable to others. However, it is important to keep in mind the illusion of transparency as it affects much of our daily lives and helps explain arguments that begin with: “But I thought it was obvious what I felt…”
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