We're All Watching Each Other More Than We Think

Research has referred to this phenomenon as the invisibility cloak illusion.
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Research has referred to this phenomenon as the invisibility cloak illusion.
An illustration of an eyeball inside an upturned glass.

We all know what it’s like to feel we're being watched. Teenagers are particularly familiar with the discomfiting sense that everyone around them is scrutinizing their risky new haircuts, cool new shoes, or grease-stained T-shirts. Bad news, youth of the world: According to a recent series of studies, we’re being watched even more than we think.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Researchers from Yale University surveyed students exiting a dining hall. Respondents reliably felt that they'd observed their fellow diners (strangers and friends alike) more than their fellow diners had observed them. Of course, it's a mathematical impossibility that every student was more socially observant than average. But that's how most of them felt. Students in another dining-room survey were more likely to interpret instances of eye contact as moments when they'd been caught looking—not when they'd caught someone else doing the same. And, in a related study, students fell wildly short in estimating how much another student had observed about them in a waiting-room interaction.

The study's authors took these results as evidence of an "invisibility cloak illusion." Stuck inside our heads, we all know how much we’re watching others, but fail to grasp just how much everyone else is watching us—in part, the researchers speculated, because this ignorance makes us feel secure. "To the extent knowledge is power," they wrote, "we should feel more powerful if we believe we are observing others more, and so have more knowledge of them, than they do of us." We often conceal our information-gathering by averting our gazes when caught. After all, no one wants to be the nosy gawker at a party. It turns out, though, that most of us probably are.

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