It's called the "invisibility cloak illusion."

We all engage in people-watching whenever we are surrounded by other people.   Whether it's a train station,  a cocktail party, a line at the bank, a cafe, or just walking down the street, we watch and wonder about the people around us. Along with that people-watching comes a feeling of relative invisibility, that we are the ones doing the watching rather than being watched ourselves .But whenever we turn our eyes away from people-watching and start paying attention to some other task, that is when other people begin watching you instead, something that we rarely consider.  

According to researchers, the invisibility cloak illusion stems from the belief that we are much more socially observant than the people around us. This means that, while we watch and wonder about other people as much as possible, we often think that people around us are less aware.This illusion occurs because, while we are fully aware of our own impressions and speculations about other people, we have no idea about what those other people are thinking unless they choose to share with us, something that rarely happens except in exceptional circumstances.  

To better understand what is happening, it is important to consider the groundbreaking research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on cognitive biases.  When people make judgments about other people in social situations, they often depend on specific biases such as the availability heuristic, i.e., that we attach more significance to thoughts that come to mind easily.  This is why we consider thoughts about other people as being more important than thoughts about inanimate objects. And so, as we look around us, we tend to focus our thoughts on the people we see and what they happen to be doing. Which is why people-watching can be so addictive. 

What adds to the sense that we are relatively invisible to others is that people tend to be as discreet as possible about their people-watching.Just because other people aren't sharing their observations with us, it's easy to pretend that they are not as observant as we are.   Of course, people may share their people-watching observations with anyone they happen to be with but, for the most part, that only applies to something remarkable enough to comment on.   For most of us, what we are seeing tends to be extremely private and not to be shared with others.  

Even if you happen to be with other people and you are sharing your impressions, you are going to be careful about what you say.  If a friend has spinach stuck in his/her teeth or has a zipper undone, you are going to be as diplomatic as possible to allow them to save face.  And when total strangers are doing something out of the ordinary, you are going to pretend that you aren't interested. If they happen to glance in your direction, you look away and otherwise appear as innocent as possible. Just think of it as the first rule of people-watching...

An article recently recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology presents some recent research evidence on how the invisibility cloak illusion works in practice.  Outlining a series of studies conducted by psychologist Erica Boothby and a team of Yale researchers, the article also explores some of the cognitive biases that makes this particular illusion possible.  

In the first two studies, participants recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform were questioned about their own experiences with people watching as well as their lay opinions about how observant people are in general. The results showed that people generally regard themselves as more observant than the people around them and also believe in their own ability to keep this hidden when they are people watching.  These findings also provided evidence of the invisibility cloak illusion in action since most participants indicated that avoiding eye gaze made them believe they were relatively unseen by the people they were watching.

The next two studies were conducted using students recruited immediately after leaving a popular Yale dining hall.  All participants completed brief questionnaires which randomly met one of three conditions:

  • How much do we watch others (self-other condition)  -  participants were asked how often they found themselves noticing other people (aside from people they happened to be with).   They were also asked if they were curious about others, including what they might be thinking, as well as how much attention they paid to non-human aspects of the dining room (as opposed to people watching).
  • How often do people watch you  (other-self condition) - participants were asked how visible they felt to scrutiny by other people in the room (again, not the people they happened to be with).  
  • How often do other people observe others (other-other condition) -  participants were asked about their opinion about how much people-watching was going on in general (that didn't involve the participants or the people they were with).

Again, results showed that participants tended to think of themselves as more observant than the people around them. This belief seemed to be limited to people watching in particular rather than simply observing their immediate surroundings.   Overall, people are more aware of other people while paying relatively little attention to inanimate objects (presumably because people are more important to us than objects).  

But does the invisibility cloak illusion only apply when we are among people we don't happen to know?  What about when we are at social gatherings with friends?   To put this to the test,  Boothby and her co-researchers repeated the last study except that the questions participants were asked focused exclusively on the people they happened to be with.  Again, the 153 study participants were randomly assigned to three groups in terms of the questions they were asked and, once again, the results matched those of the previous study.   Even when we're with friends, we tend to think of ourselves as being more observant than the people we're with, mostly because we're only aware of what we are thinking about them rather than vice versa.

In summarizing their research findings, Boothby and her colleagues suggest some possible explanations for what seems to be happening.  Whenever we are people watching, we typically do our best to make sure nobody catches us at it. This means  averting our gaze and looking uninterested whenever someone happens to glance in our direction only to resume the people watching when they are looking elsewhere. For experienced people watchers, glancing at people out of the corner of our eyes or when appearing to look somewhere else altogether becomes standard practice.  

To quote Erica Boothby and her coauthors, "whenever I look at someone else, I get (a) confirmation that I watch other people, but typically (b) disconfirmation that those people are looking at me, while being oblivious to (c) the other people in the room who are watching me."  It is this sense that we are successfully concealing our people watching while ignoring the fact that other people are doing exactly the same thing that makes the invisibility cloak illusion so common.

There is also a sense of comfort in the idea that we know more about other people than they know about us. This can give us a feeling of control that our keen social awareness would give us the upper hand  in predicting, or even controlling, what other people are going to do.  And still, no matter how much control we believe this may give us, we really can't rely on this kind of belief considering the underlying premise is so false.  

So spare a thought to what other people might be thinking the next time you are people watching at a coffee shop or library. More often than not, what they are going to be thinking about is you.  

References

Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2017). The invisibility cloak illusion: People (incorrectly) believe they observe others more than others observe them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(4), 589-606.

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