The Invisibility Cloak Illusion: People (Incorrectly) Believe They Observe Others More Than Others Observe Them

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Whether at a coffee shop, in a waiting room, or riding the bus, people frequently observe the other people around them. Yet they often fail to realize how much other people engage in the same behavior, and that they, therefore, also are being observed. Because it is logically impossible that people, on average, are the subjects of observation more than they are objects of it, the belief that one watches others more than one is watched is an illusion. Several studies show that people incorrectly believe that they observe others more than other people observe them. We call this mistaken belief the “invisibility cloak illusion.” People believe that they observe others more than do other people and that they are generally observed less than are others (Studies 1–3, 5, 6). The illusion persists both among strangers in the same vicinity (Study 2) and among friends interacting with one another (Study 3), and it cannot be explained away as yet another general better-than-average bias nor is it the result of believing one has more thoughts, in general, than do other people (Studies 2–3). The illusion is supported by a failure to catch others watching oneself (Studies 1b, 4) and it is manifest in the specific contents of people’s thoughts about one another (Studies 5 and 6). Finally, rendering a feature of one’s appearance salient to oneself fails to interrupt the illusion despite increasing one’s belief that others are paying more attention specifically to that salient feature (Study 6).

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