The Illusion of Transparency

By Anupum Pant

Imagine learning something whilst a very experienced person speaks about a subject that he’s been working on for 35 years. Let’s say, we’re talking about a professor here. It’s pretty annoying to listen to them using mysterious abbreviations, jargon and what not. This is a very normal thing for humans to do. Because we are basically not smart. Our brains have their own ways to fail us.

I’m doing my graduate studies and it’s not very rare that I come across very learned professors who aren’t very good teachers. Being a good teacher, speaker or a textbook author isn’t the same as knowing stuff, and is possible to be one when you know one thing, and just one thing.

“The truth about illusion of transparency.”

Illusion of transparency is a tendency among people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others. That applies to learned professors, or even textbook authors.

Say you are presenting your work to a group of students in your class. Now, if you take a second to realize that the thing you’ve been working with, has made you so comfortable in it, that you unknowingly say out things that no one who has spent a considerable amount of time with that subject matter before can possibly understand. Which is, let’s give it, the state of almost all students who are sitting in front of you, trying to make sense out of what you are saying. You’ll never realize that. All you’ll know is that you are being very clear about what you are saying. To make it worse, a newbie in that field of study would explain it better because they’d know the state of minds of beginners – as they’d not be very far from it themselves.

The exact same thing works this way too. Let’s say you are a newbie presenter, and you are nervous on the stage when it comes to presenting to a group of people in front of  you. What makes you more nervous is the illusion of transparency.

Here, it’s only a matter of time that you start thinking that you are completely transparent and everybody in front of you can see how nervous you are. Even when no one is actually paying that much attention. It’s hard for you to make believe that people who are smiling are not laughing because they can hear your voice trembling. The kids whispering in each other’s ears are not whispering about how sweaty your forehead is, they are probably just trying to decide where they’ll be having dinner after you finish your talk. And that makes you more nervous and so on.

In 2003, Kenneth Savitsky and Thomas Gilovich did a study on this. And found that people clearly overestimated how nervous they look to the audience. Actually, very less people in the audience can spot that you are nervous. Most of the time no one can. So that’s no reason to be more nervous and spoil your talk.

They also found in their study that knowing about this effect makes it better and people are much less nervous on the stage, not thinking much about what’s going on in the audience’s mind while you are speaking. Knowing about it changes everything.

All textbook authors who wish to communicate a subject matter to the amateurs, all the professors, and all the presenters who wish to communicate their work to the audience better, must know about it.

If you are one, reading this right now, my job is done. You’ve turned into a better author, presenter and professor already.

more about it at [You are not so smart]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *