- A psychology study suggests that we underestimate how much people pay attention to us. We think we walk around in an "invisibility cloak".
- But when they do pay attention to us, people aren't necessarily focusing on the flaws that we're fixating on.
- There are some benefits to realising that other people are thinking about you as much as you're thinking about them.
I like the catchy term that scientists recently came up with to describe a common psychological phenomenon: the "invisibility cloak illusion". I don't quite like what it describes.
According to the scientists, and their 2016 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we incorrectly assume that other people aren't paying nearly as much attention to us as we are to them.
That is to say, while you're bobbing along to music during your morning commute, casually taking note of the fidgety fellow on your right, there's a good chance said fidgety fellow is casually taking note of you and your lack of rhythm.
Consider one study described in the 2016 paper.
A pair of students were asked to bide their time in a "waiting room" before an experiment — little did they know, they were already participating in the experiment. After sitting in the waiting room, the students were asked to indicate how much they'd noticed the other person in the room (their behaviour, mannerisms, and appearance).
They were also asked to indicate how much they thought the other person had noticed the same things about them.
As one of the paper's authors, Erica J. Boothby, writes in a New York Times op-ed, "Although people surreptitiously noticed all kinds of details about each other — clothing, personality, mood — we found that people were convinced that the other person wasn't watching them much, if at all."
I learned about this phenomenon while reading "Cringeworthy" by Melissa Dahl, which explores the science of awkwardness in everyday life. Dahl describes the "invisibility cloak illusion" in the context of a related psychological phenomenon, called the "spotlight effect."
In 2000, psychologists found that people aren't paying nearly as much attention as we think they are to the things we're self-conscious about. In a now well-known study, students walked around a party in a Barry Manilow T-shirt and ended up wildly overestimating how much the other party guests noticed their attire.
The title of the Times op-ed says it all: "You're too focused on what you're too focused on."
There are benefits to realising that other people are thinking about you as much as you're thinking about them
Reading through the research, I thought back to the day I somehow showed up to work in boots that were heavily stained with dirty snow. As soon as I realised, that was all I could think about every time I passed a co-worker in the hallway. And while I haven't taken a poll, I'm guessing that few co-workers actually took the time to look down at my shoes and take account of my slovenliness.
On the other hand, as I've been writing this article, donning my metaphorical invisibility cloak, my co-workers may have been noticing everything from how loud I'm typing to how much I'm slouching. Who knew?
The point here isn't to feel self-conscious whenever you're in public. Instead, as Boothby suggests in The Times op-ed, it's to understand how miscommunication can happen. For example, she writes: "Employees pull their hair out in frustration while bosses obliviously believe their instructions are simple and straightforward."
Meanwhile, Margaret S. Clark, another author on the paper, told Psychology Today that it's worth remembering how much other people may in fact be thinking about you. Clark said, "If I want to go out to lunch with you, and I think that I'm thinking it more than you're thinking it, then I might be hesitant to ask."
So: Remove your invisibility cloak and ask. The other person might be pleasantly surprised, and relieved.
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