It’s human nature to always assume that people around you are not paying any attention to you. Well, a new study is suggesting that we could be wrong. This phenomenon has been termed the “invisibility cloak illusion.” It’s a catchy term but you may not like what it means. According to a paper published in 2016, we often mistakenly assume that people around us aren’t paying as much attention to us as we are to them. In other words, when you’re sitting on the morning commute next to a peculiar guy busy taking notes on every inch of him, he’s probably doing the same thing without you even noticing.
The 2016 paper did one simple test to try to understand this phenomenon better. Two students were requested to bide their time inside an empty waiting room. The students were told that they were part of an experiment and had to wait for a few minutes before they could begin. What they didn’t know at the time is that the experiment had actually begun the moment they entered the waiting room. After a while, the students were asked how much they had noticed the other person in the room. Things like mannerisms, behavior, and appearance were the main areas of focus. They were also asked how much they think the other person had noticed them.
The study concluded that even though people surreptitiously identified many details about each other, they were often convinced that the other person wasn’t really paying attention to them. According to one of the writers in the paper, Erica J. Boothby, she first learned about this concept reading while “Cringeworthy” by Melissa Dahl. The book explores the science of awkwardness in normal, everyday life.
The 2016 study somewhat contradicts another paper published in 2000 that arrived at almost a different conclusion. The research found that people were not paying as much attention as we thought to some of the things we were already self-conscious about. The 2000 study involved students walking around a party with a Barry Manilow t-shirt. When the students were interviewed after the party they ended up massively overestimating how much other party guests had noticed their t-shirts when in reality, they actually didn’t.
The takeaway from this 2016 study is simple. People will notice you just as much as you’re noticing them. However, the aim of this paper is not to make yourself conscious every time you’re around people. The study just wants to inspire people to remove their “invisibility cloak” and interact with other people in a fulfilling manner.
Think of it this way. Let’s say there’s this coworker you really want to have lunch with. You have been thinking about it all day but because of the invisibility cloak, you may incorrectly assume that this other person is not thinking the same thing as you. So instead of asking, you let it go and miss out on the opportunity. This 2016 paper wants you to get rid of this cloak and simply ask for the lunch date.