The Illusion of Transparency

By: Ilan Mann

April 29, 2020

The illusion of transparency is one of the most common causes of misunderstandings and missed opportunities  between people, between companies and their customers, between nonprofits and their donors, etc…

The illusion of transparency is on display any time you say or hear thing like “you know what I meant,” or “how could you not understand how I was feeling?”

Here’s one of my favourite games to illustrate the illusion:

Find a partner, and as obviously as you can, but without lip-syncing, hand gestures, or giving anything away, use a pen or your finger to tap out a popular song. It can be twinkle-twinkle little star, or a famous Beatles song.

Before they guess, ask yourself how likely you think it is that they will guess correctly. The average tapper in the original Griffin & Ross experiment (1991) guessed that there was a 50% chance that the listener would guess the song correctly.

The actual rate of success is 2.5% 

That’s the illusion of transparency at work. We think that everyone else can hear the melodies and lyrics in our minds as clearly as we can. Of course, they only hear a series of taps.

The same principle applies when people are giving speeches and think that the audience can see how nervous they are.

Just as others don’t know what’s going on in your head, they don’t know what’s going on in your organization unless you tell them. More importantly, your organization is not top of mind unless you communicate with them regularly.

That may seem completely obvious, but I can assure you that in practice it is not how people, companies, and organizations behave.

They behave as though everyone around them is as preoccupied with their business as they are. We spend every waking minute in our own heads thinking about the things with which we’re preoccupied – our jobs, families, hobbies, favourite sports teams, political happenings and candidates that we’re following – that we erroneously assume that others have had the same level of exposure.

In the political world, that can lead to an unintentional mismanagement of the relationship with voters or donors. The politician feels that they have been working hard between elections, running from closed-door meeting to closed- door meeting, from vote to vote, from reception to stakeholder event. When they’re not physically engaging with those aspects of their job, they are, in their own minds, planning and organizing.

They totally forget that all of those things happen behind closed doors on in the confines of their own thoughts, and are shocked to find, come election time, that voters  feel that they have neither interacted with them nor seen them at work since the last time they were asked for their vote. The illusion of transparency makes them think that they are going to ask for the vote of a voter who is very familiar with all that they’ve been doing for the last 2 – 4 years of their term. In fact, they’re going to ask for the vote of someone who has been impervious to their broadcast messages (be they on twitter or in the local newspaper) and has obviously not been following the goings on taking place in the politician’s head.

To avoid this misalignment of expectations, politicians, like consumer brands, nonprofit fundraisers, and salespeople, should find reasons to be in touch often, even if just to share with their voters the things that they incorrectly assume the voters already know.

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