Halfpoint/Shutterstock
Source: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

By Matt Huston

We do it at the mall, on busy streets, in subway stations, in the doctor’s office, and everywhere there are unfamiliar faces. We steal glances, wondering about the people around us and their lives. And we try not to get caught.

If we allow that people watching is a widespread activity, then it follows that those people are probably watching each one of us about as much as we are watching them. Yet new research, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that people-watchers wrongly assume otherwise.

In a series of six studies, subjects consistently tended to report that they believed they observed and thought about nearby people more than those people focused on them—even when that was generally not the case. The researchers, a team of psychologists at Yale University, propose a name for this bias: “the invisibility cloak illusion.” As if magically concealed from the scrutiny of others, they argue, we have a tendency to feel as though we’re more watcher than watched.

It makes a certain kind of sense that we would perceive ourselves as less visible than other people. “We always have access to our own thoughts about others but rarely have access to their thoughts about us,” explains Margaret Clark, who coauthored the paper with Erica Boothby and John Bargh. For most of us, an awareness that we have been watching and thinking about the man ahead of us in line at the airport likely overshadows any suspicion that we are being watched by several people behind us, especially if those people take pains to look away when we turn around.

The researchers captured evidence of this bias in online surveys with several hundred participants of various ages. For one thing, their responses highlighted beliefs that could underlie a sense of seeing without being seen: On average, participants estimated both that they were more socially observant than others and that they received less attention than the people around them did. More to the point, they also guessed that they would observe a random person more than that person would observe them.

Evidence of the illusion emerged in real-life settings, as well. In follow-up studies with Yale undergraduates—conducted outside a campus dining hall after students finished their meals and in an ad hoc “waiting room”—subjects’ scale-based ratings of how much they noticed and paid attention to those around them exceeded their estimates of how much others were doing the same to them. This held when they were asked about their dining hall companions, as well as when there was only a single stranger sitting near them at a table.

As the researchers write in their report:

“It cannot be true that, on average, people are noticing and observing others more than they themselves are noticed and observed. Yet everyday people experience the compelling sensation that social observations flow predominantly in one direction.”

Though the idea has yet to be tested, thinking that we see others more than they see us could serve as a source of comfort, according to Clark. A sense of knowing something about another person might impart a feeling of control and “reduce the anxiety that may arise from uncertainty regarding how to act with them,” she explains.

“On the other hand, having a sense that others know a lot about us may make us feel uneasy," Clark says. "How will they use that information? In good ways or bad?” Research by psychologist Emily Pronin and colleagues suggests, however, that people believe they know more about their peers than the other way around. Clark and colleagues suspect a diminished awareness of others’ attention may help feed that belief.

Despite the potential comforts, there could also be a social cost of underestimating someone else's level of interest in you, Clark says: “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."

Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University whose work includes the study of biases, says the new research reflects "our fundamental egocentrism." It supports the existence a distinct phenomenon, he says, but also "ties into so much research suggesting that our judgments are guided by our attention and what’s most accessible." In one experiment, the Yale team replicated evidence of "the spotlight effect," originally uncovered by Gilovich and colleagues: Students erroneously thought that their shirts received more attention from others if they were wearing unfamiliar shirts given to them by experimenters. But these relatively self-conscious students still underestimated how attentive their counterparts were to them overall.

Intriguingly, one of the findings suggests that even making direct eye contact with someone might not dispel the illusion. When about 100 Yale students were asked about their assumptions when they make eye contact with a stranger, less than a quarter said they believed it was typically a result of their being watched by (as opposed to watching) that person.

Even if the evidence stares us in the face, it seems, we may still play down the possibility that others are paying as much attention to us as we are to them.

References

Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2016). The Invisibility Cloak Illusion: People (Incorrectly) Believe They Observe Others More Than Others Observe Them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspi0000082

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