When someone says ‘it’s written all over your face,’ they’re claiming the expression on your face reveals your true feelings or thoughts, which might be different than the words you just said. However, most of the time it’s not true. Other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling.
It’s not written all over your face.
The illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias that causes people to “overestimate the degree to which their thoughts and emotions are apparent to others”. When we experience strong emotions, we think it’s obvious to people around us, especially those who know us well. There are many commonplace examples:
- People who are nervous about delivering a public speech believe their nervousness is more apparent to their audience than it actually is.
- People eating something that tastes bad assume that their dislike is more obvious to others than it actually is.
- Casual liars dramatically overestimate how well other people are able to tell that they are lying.
Overestimating how well people can infer our thoughts and emotions is based on seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. This egocentricity makes us believe there’s a spotlight shining on us, especially in social situations. However other people have their own thoughts and emotions – which are often strong enough for them to misread ours and perhaps ignore them altogether. Whatever we’re feeling isn’t written all over our faces.
Understanding the illusion of transparency can reduce our stress and anxiety. In one research study, two groups of people were asked to give presentations to an audience; one group was taught about the illusion of transparency effect before they gave the speech. This group reported being less nervous and gave better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s easier to focus on what you’re saying when you’re not worried about what everyone else is thinking.
In general, we can’t assume people know what we’re thinking or feeling. When we’re upset or angry, others may realize it and offer support. This can be especially frustrating with people who are close to us because we expect them to understand. In general, if we want someone to know our internal mental state, we have to explicitly tell them. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume we can read others’ body language and infer their thoughts and feelings. It’s safer to ask.
The illusion of transparency explains why people don’t understand you even when you think your feelings are written all over your face.