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Transparency Bias: Why Visual Cues Can Be Deceptive

The illusion of transparency is a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others. Another manifestation of the illusion of transparency is a tendency for people to overestimate how well they understand others’ personal mental states (Shatz, 2022).

As a poker player, I’ve learned that having a “poker face” is crucial to conceal any natural reactions that could reveal how excited or terribly nervous I am about the current situation. Despite this, many poker players still try to assess the physiological response of their opponents to the cards on the table or the current game situation. This is where the concept of a “tell” comes in – a supposed indicator of whether the player is displaying strength or weakness.

While successfully identifying a “tell” can give you an advantage especially against less experienced players, it’s important to note that this approach is not foolproof. Even the best poker players can be misread or misinterpreted, and a “tell” may not always indicate a player’s true hand. Experienced poker players often train themselves to avoid displaying “tells”, making it even more difficult to read them.

Transparency bias helps us recognize that we don’t always see things as clearly as we believe we do, and that others don’t always see us in the way we expect. By understanding how this cognitive bias affects us, we can leverage it to our advantage in our work, relationships, and interactions with and in the world. For example, we can make a conscious effort to communicate with more clarity and empathy, and avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on incomplete information.

Transparency bias helps us recognize that we don’t
always see things as clearly as we believe we do, and that others
don’t always see us in the way we expect.”

Remember that our thoughts and feelings are NOT always obvious to the world.

I recall being reprimanded by a family member who once told me “couldn’t you tell that I didn’t like that?” However, what is obvious to one person’s internal world may not be obvious to me. It is our responsibility alone to express our thoughts and emotions to those around us. It can be unfair to assume that others can discern and understand the nuances of our feelings and thoughts, especially when they differ from our own.

On the other hand, relying solely on visual cues to understand another person’s state of mind can be problematic. If we assume that others will react to stimuli and events in the same way we do, it reflects a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to investigate the nuances of other people’s lives.

By relying on our own limited perspectives, we risk living in a shallow interpretation of the world, missing out on opportunities to deepen our understanding of how people interpret and experience the world around them. This can lead to deep misunderstandings and cause people to experience conflict, loss, and even separation.

To avoid transparency bias in our work and relationships, try these simple tips:

  1. Ask better questions: When someone expresses a thought to you, go deeper and intend to ask follow-up questions to more fully understand the nuance of their thoughts. You may hear something new that surprises you and opens you up to a new world and new train of thought.
  2. Reveal your ‘why’: Don’t assume others know your emotional state. When we assume others should know your emotional state, we’re stripping away the opportunity to be known and share the ways our teammates, family, and friends can love us specifically and uniquely. Our ‘why’ deserves to be heard – do not shy away from that. Instead, be clear and direct about your thoughts and feelings in an empathetic way.
  3. Be intentional: Avoid making assumptions and relying on hints. It’s our ego that gets in the way and tells us we’re being easily transparent to others. Instead, we must remove our ego and take the time to learn about others and express who you are. This will help you avoid misunderstandings and connect more deeply with those you care about.

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The Architects for Restorative Communities (ARC) Project is a trusted organizational effectiveness consulting firm, with a team of trainers that average 20+ years of experience

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