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You Are Not So Smart As Me

Naniette Coleman's picture

Haunting is supposed to be reserved for bad movies and Halloween, none-the-less I have been haunted for several weeks now. You have heard my rants about the importance of translating academic work for use by pragmatists and practitioners.You may have thought that I was finally putting this topic to rest. You thought wrong. I have yet another installment to share.

Back in 1998, Thomas Gilovivh, Victoria Husted Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky published a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The goal of the paper was, by way of three studies to “provide evidence for an illusion of transparency, or a tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which others can discern their internal states."  The authors believed that “people often mistakenly believe that their internal states “leak out” more than they really do. The authors attribute this bias to a tendency for people to adjust insufficiently from the “anchor” of their own phenomenological experience when attempting to take another’s perspective. Evidence for this illusion is provided by showing that liars overestimate the detectability of their lies and that people believe their feelings of disgust are more apparent than they actually are. A final pair of experiments explores the implication of the illusion of transparency for people’s reluctance to intervene in emergencies. All three sets of studies also provide evidence consistent with the proposed anchoring and adjustment interpretation.”

Fast forward twelve years to David McRaney, a journalist and founder of a website entitled “You are not so smart”.  David is described as follows: “David McRaney is not a psychologist or an economist. He is a journalist writing about what those super-smart and hard-working people are discovering on these topics and doing his best to translate it for the rest of us. He welcomes criticism of his work and assistance in clarifying the concepts. Most of all, this blog should promote discourse and provoke thought. Do your own research.” Not a bad place to test the idea that translations of great academic works can be helpful to lay people, in the hands of someone who writes for a living and likes to “translate” tough concepts. So what might David have to say about Thomas Gilovivh, Victoria Husted Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky’s masterpiece? Less than you might think and more than you might think.

The piece is called "The Illusion of Transparency."  Over the course of seven, at times, triple spaced pages, in twelve point font (as compared to Gilovivh, Medvec and Savitsky's fourteen, double column, single spaced font pages in eight point font), David teases out the best of Gilovivh, Medvec and Savitsky from the 80’s, 90’s and today. David also introduces a few other academics for a less exact but more entertaining literature review while still leaving room for meteors, public speaking nightmares and David Letterman. In the beginning, David basically says the important take away is “your subjective experience is not observable, and you overestimate how much you telegraph your inner thoughts and emotions” and at the end of his piece, you have not forgotten that lesson. I would call that progress.

Whether you read the original piece by Gilovivh, Medvec and Savitsky, which I would encourage, or the translation by McRaney, which I would also encourage, the lesson is the same. When negotiating, do not assume that your opponent has super powers. He/she/they cannot read your mind let alone every body language that you accidentally or purposefully project. It would be a mistake to assume that you are more powerful than you actually are (within reason) but possibly a greater mistake if you assume more than humanity from your “opponent.”

"Pumpkin Pi" photo courtesy of Flickr user jpstanley


Submitted by Anonymous on
Grammatically speaking, the title should've been, "You are not as smart as me".

The name of the website referenced in this blog post is The title for the blog is drawn from that website. I can only hazard a guess, but I believe the writer and founder of the website is poking fun at the authors of, what he consideres to be, overly complex academic pieces by choosing a grammatically incorrect title for the website.

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