The illusion of transparency was first defined in 1998, in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, by the research team consisting of Thomas Gilovich, Victoria H. Medvec, Kenneth Savistsy. It consists of ‘the tendency of people to overestimate the extent to which others can discern their internal states’. The name describes well the phenomenon that occurs when we think that others can, almost magically, look into us, and see our emotions, our thoughts, our desires. Transparency here, as you can see, has a very different meaning to the one we are used to see, in relation for example to governance.

Reading the research took me back, way back, and I found myself, fifteen years old, in the corridors of the school, hopelessly in love with the star of the student movement, while I wandered around trying to see him, telling myself that surely he must have seen the blushing, the languid looks, the paralysis that took hold of me every time I crossed his path and, linked to this, all the turmoil of emotions that the sight of him provoked in me. At the time there was a novel that had struck my imagination enormously, “The Princess of Clèves”, and the school corridor had become for me like the king’s court in which, almost as if on a stage, everyone was attentive to reading the feelings of others on their faces, in a communication made up of nuances, of glances given and not given, of heads turned, of palpitations all clearly or almost clearly seen, decoded, understood.

But this functioning and this attention on the others do not really exist, because everyone is much more concentrated and taken by what is happening inside themselves, an effect called spotlight, related to the illusion of transparency, which manifests itself in the idea of having a social spotlight on us. This is all the more true when the emotion that runs through us is strong. Of course, there are adjustments we make to moderate these illusions and disengage ourselves from our internal experience, but they are not enough. What we are left with is the feeling that what is going on inside us is much more visible than it really is.

Some examples of how this bias manifests itself are: when we are angry or upset with someone and we stop talking or we answer in monosyllables and we are surprised that the person in question doesn’t realise, doesn’t ask us what we have, etc. This is a situation I have often heard about in coaching, for example in relationships between managers and employees, but it is also very common in relationships between couples. The strong emotions that run through us, be they anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and which are present and in the foreground for us, are invisible or almost invisible for the relationships around us, be they professional or personal. Illusions of transparency and the spotlight effect can be attributed to anchoring and adaptation bias, according to the three researchers.  “When individuals try to determine how obvious their internal states are to others, they begin the process of judgment from their own subjective experience. The adjustments they make from this anchoring-adjustments that result from the recognition that others are not as aware of their internal states as they are – tend to be insufficient. The net result is a residual effect of one’s own phenomenology and the feeling that one’s own internal states are more apparent to others than they actually are.”

There are situations in which thinking about this effect can benefit us. Think, for example, during a moment of public speaking, when you may be feeling the sweat running down, you have the impression that your voice and hands are shaking and that everyone is noticing your agitation. Or during a job interview, when we are trying to turn a less than glorious moment in our CV into a positive one. Or, again, when we are telling a lie, and think of the popular belief that lies are obvious. In reality, agitation, anxiety, fear are much more perceptible to us. The person or persons in front of us will be caught in their own spotlight and will pay much less attention to us than we think.

The illusion of transparency and the spotlight effect can give us an idea of how distorted, illusory, superficial, distant from reality relationships with others can be in general, and of the difficulty of meeting the other person for what he or she is, beyond our projections and ego.

What can we do then to moderate these effects?

The tools of generative dialogue offer us a possible way for this encounter to take place. Generative listening allows us to temporarily silence our ego in order to open ourselves up to the experience of encounter, starting from a deep connection, which is not made (only) through rationality and words, but through the observation of the other, of the metaphors they use, of the emotional signals they send, of their life path. A connection in a space freed from our presence, from the need for reassurance, control, certainty… Generative speaking then helps us to build on the deep listening, allowing us to give names to what is present but also to what is implicit, new, surprising, in order to create a common ground of encounter. It is in dialogue that the illusion of transparency and the spotlight effect can be overcome.

But to enter this process requires an inner readiness to be Disturbed, Displaced & Disrupted, i.e. to accept that my own assumptions, or certainties, may be seriously challenged by this ‘real encounter’ with the other person, particularly when I discover that my explanations of why certain dynamics were happening in our relationship are no longer appropriate now that I realise that they didn’t have the information about me which, because of this “illusion of transparency bias”, I was so convinced that they had.