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The Invisibility Cloak Illusion: We are more observant (and  yet, less observed) than all others

Wednesday, May 24, 2017
posted by Rita Handrich

This is the sort of article that can either amuse or terrify you. It will amuse you if you are charmed by all the ways in which we see ourselves as superior to others. And it will terrify you if you do not want to know that you are always being observed closely by everyone around you. The article even starts off creepily:

“People-watching is an age-old pastime. People notice and observe the people around them all the time—on trains, at cafés, waiting in line, at cocktail parties and office meetings, and beyond. Pretty much anywhere there are other people, we spend a good deal of time watching them, wondering who they are, and assessing what they are like. But despite all the watching people do of others people rarely feel as if they, themselves, are being observed as they go about their daily lives. Indeed, people feel relatively invisible.

Of course it is impossible that people (on average) observe others more than they themselves are observed. Yet this is precisely what we suspect people believe. We call this bias the invisibility cloak illusion. This is an illusion that prevents you from realizing that, whether you are on a plane, in a restaurant, or at a rodeo, when you stop watching people and taking in the social scene—when you turn your attention to whatever else you are doing—the people around you are likely to raise their eyes from whatever they were doing and watch you.”

It is just spooky. We first saw this article over at the BPS Research Digest and they poked fun at it (just a little) and poked special fun at a “particularly cruel experiment” from the year 2000, involving being required to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt—so we went to read the actual article. (We also have a blog post poking fun at a more recent Barry Manilow reference.) But we digress. Here is what the researchers did in today’s featured research.

First, the researchers verified the existence of the invisibility cloak illusion using online participants. Then, using Yale undergraduate students, they asked two participants of the same gender to sit in a waiting room prior to the experiment beginning. (We all know the experiment had already begun.) After seven minutes (precisely), the two participants were taken to separate rooms and told they were either the “observer” or the “target”. The observer wrote down everything they noticed about the target while the participant assigned to be the target wrote down everything they expected the observer would have noticed about them. Consistent with the invisibility cloak illusion, the observers produced more detailed notes about the target than the target predicted they would. But having read that old Barry Manilow experiment, our fearless researchers were not yet done.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if the spotlight effect (featured in the Barry Manilow t-shirt experiment where people required to wear the t-shirt felt exceptionally self-conscious) could co-exist with the invisibility cloak illusion. So they had half the target-participants wear a t-shirt with the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar on it. (We think they should have used a Barry Manilow t-shirt instead but perhaps it was deemed by the Yale Human Subjects Review committee to be unreasonably cruel—hence the Escobar attire.) They repeated the waiting room experiment with the only difference being the drug lord t-shirt foisted on one of the participants. They were left in the waiting room together for five minutes and then sent to separate rooms to once again answer questions as to what they had observed or what they thought had been observed about them. Again, observers listed more behaviors and characteristics than the target thought they would have observed.

An addition to this follow-up experiment was that the observer was asked how much they thought about the target’s shirt as they observed the target prior to the experiment. And here is where it gets even creepier—the target-participants thought the observers would look at their shirt much more when they were wearing the Pablo Escobar shirt supplied by the experimenters rather than their own shirt. The observers, however, “observed, noticed, and thought about the targets’ shirts equally across conditions, regardless of whether the target was wearing a provided shirt”.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this means it is particularly important that you and your client are always aware you are on-stage at all times when in the courtroom. The most important audience is, naturally, the jury, but this research would say everyone is watching you (although the researchers remind us frequently in the article that observers go to great pains to make it appear they are not watching you). Much like the inaccurate “better than average effect”, the invisibility cloak illusion tells us we are watched even as we watch (and apparently, we are judged even as we judge). Parties and witnesses sometimes believe they are only really being observed when they are giving testimony. Alas, it is so untrue.

The researchers sum it up this way:

“The invisibility cloak illusion consists in people believing they observe others more than others observe them. This belief appears to be pervasive and persistent, despite being logically impossible in the aggregate. 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.

People peer out at the social world and yet they feel relatively unseen, as if they are inconspicuous consumers of their social surroundings. However irresistible this sensation may be, it is not to be trusted. The sensation of observing others while remaining relatively unseen is a mirage, obscuring the reality that we are all equally exposed to one another.”

Obviously these researchers have no interest in comforting any of us and this research is not at all comforting. What it does do though is offer an uncomfortable reminder to us—we are never off stage and certainly never off stage in the courtroom or in professional activities. And neither is anyone else.

Boothby EJ, Clark MS, & Bargh JA (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 PMID: 27977221

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