Rational Relationships: The Illusion of Transparency

The illusion of transparency is a common cognitive bias wherein people overestimate both the degree to which their internal thoughts are apparent to those around them and the degree to which they understand the internal thoughts of others.

The classic example was a 1990 Stanford study where test subjects would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song (e.g. Happy Birthday or The Star-Spangled Banner) with their finger across from another test subject, who was supposed to listen to the taps and guess the song. Before the listener guessed, the tapper was asked to predict whether the listener would be able to guess correctly. Tappers predicted that listeners would guess correctly about 50% of the time. Listeners actually guessed correctly about 3% of the time.

The disparity came from the fact that tappers couldn’t help but hear the song in their heads as they tapped the rhythm, and had an enormous amount of difficulty imagining what it was like not to know the song. Try it yourself! Tap out the rhythm to a song, and try to imagine trying to guess what song it is. It seems much easier than it actually is. Meanwhile, the listeners are just hearing a sequence of taps with no context for what they mean, and tend to have no idea what the song could possibly be.

It’s not difficult to see how this could affect our relationships. The number one piece of relationship advice that tends to be given, especially in nonmonogamous relationships, is to communicate. The reason that this advice is so popular is because of the illusion of transparency. We tend to assume that our partners know what we want and how we feel to a much greater extent than they do. Likewise, we tend to assume that we understand how our partners feel to a much greater extent than we actually do.

Like most cognitive biases, the best way to avoid the negative consequences of the illusion of transparency is simply to be aware of it and expect it. If you want something from your partner, and you think it’s obvious, say it anyway. There’s a strong chance that your partner simply wasn’t aware of what you wanted. If you think you’re giving your partner what they want, make sure to check in periodically. It’s likely that there may be an issue that you weren’t aware of that your partner thought was obvious. This can happen with big topics, such as whether to have children, and small topics, such as what to have for dinner.1this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement We can overlook the fact that a partner is preparing to leave or the fact that a partner is deliriously happy.

Some people find it romantic to imagine a situation where partners “just know” what each other are thinking without having to say anything. Romantic as it may be, it’s a dangerous ideal precisely because it reinforces and encourages the illusion of transparency. In the real world. it’s almost always better to say what you’re thinking, even if you think your partner already knows.

Wesley Fenza is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His practice areas include divorce, criminal defense, and civil litigation. If you are in need of legal advice, please contact him.

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1. this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement

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