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Overestimating How Closely and Accurately Others View Us

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Although the self-concept is the most important of all our schemas, and although people (particularly those high in self-consciousness) are aware of their self and how they are seen by others, this does not mean that people are always thinking about themselves. In fact, people do not generally focus on their self-concept any more than they focus on the other things and other people in their environments (Csikszentmihalyi & Figurski, 1982).

On the other hand, self-awareness is more powerful for the person experiencing it than it is for others who are looking on, and the fact that self-concept is so highly accessible frequently leads people to overestimate the extent to which other people are focusing on them (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999). Although you may be highly self-conscious about something you’ve done in a particular situation, that does not mean that others are necessarily paying all that much attention to you. Research by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000) found that people who were interacting with others thought that other people were paying much more attention to them than those other people reported actually doing. This may be welcome news, for example, when we find ourselves wincing over an embarrassing comment we made during a group conversation. It may well be that no one else paid nearly as much attention to it as we did!

There is also some diversity in relation to age. Teenagers are particularly likely to be highly self-conscious, often believing that others are watching them (Goossens, Beyers, Emmen, & van Aken, 2002). Because teens think so much about themselves, they are particularly likely to believe that others must be thinking about them, too (Rycek, Stuhr, McDermott, Benker, & Swartz, 1998). Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that teens can become embarrassed so easily by their parents’ behaviour in public, or by their own physical appearance, for example.

People also often mistakenly believe that their internal states show to others more than they really do. Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec (1998) asked groups of five students to work together on a “lie detection” task. One at a time, each student stood up in front of the others and answered a question that the researcher had written on a card (e.g., “I have met David Letterman”). On each round, one person’s card indicated that they were to give a false answer, whereas the other four were told to tell the truth.

After each round, the students who had not been asked to lie indicated which of the students they thought had actually lied in that round, and the liar was asked to estimate the number of other students who would correctly guess who had been the liar. As you can see in Figure 3.7, the liars overestimated the detectability of their lies: on average, they predicted that over 44% of their fellow players had known that they were the liar, but in fact only about 25% were able to accurately identify them. Gilovich and colleagues called this effect the “illusion of transparency.” This illusion brings home an important final learning point about our self-concepts: although we may feel that our view of ourselves is obvious to others, it may not always be!

Figure 3.7 The Illusion of Transparency  

Key Takeaways

  • The self-concept is a schema that contains knowledge about us. It is primarily made up of physical characteristics, group memberships, and traits.
  • Because the self-concept is so complex, it has extraordinary influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and we can remember information that is related to it well.
  • Self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves, helps people respond more positively to events that they experience.
  • Self-concept clarity, the extent to which individuals have self-concepts that are clearly defined and stable over time, can also help people to respond more positively to challenging situations.
  • Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept. Differences in the accessibility of different self-schemas help create individual differences: for instance, in terms of our current concerns and interests.
  • People who are experiencing high self-awareness may notice self-discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves. This can, in turn, lead them to engage in self-affirmation as a way of resolving these discrepancies.
  • When people lose their self-awareness, they experience deindividuation.
  • Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings; public self-consciousness refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and the standards set by others.
  • There are cultural differences in self-consciousness: public self-consciousness may be higher in Eastern than in Western cultures.
  • People frequently overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to them and accurately understand their true intentions in public situations.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. What are the most important aspects of your self-concept, and how do they influence your self-esteem and social behavior?
  2. Consider people you know who vary in terms of their self-complexity and self-concept clarity. What effects do these differences seem to have on their self-esteem and behavior?
  3. Describe a situation where you experienced a feeling of self-discrepancy between your actual and ideal selves. How well does self-affirmation theory help to explain how you responded to these feelings of discrepancy?
  4. Try to identify some situations where you have been influenced by your private and public self-consciousness. What did this lead you to do? What have you learned about yourself from these experiences?
  5. Describe some situations where you overestimated the extent to which people were paying attention to you in public. Why do you think that you did this and what were the consequences?


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