How Invisible Are You?

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.   But along with that people-watching comes a feeling of relative invisibility, that we are the ones doing the watching rather than being watched ourselves .   Still, 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, the 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 Tverskey 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. 

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post



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