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Transparency bias occurs when one assumes that something is more understood (or understandable) than it really is, or more precisely understood than some unspecified objective measuring method used.

The idea is related to the Illusion of Transparency effect, where people will consistently over evaluate both their capacity to judge others’ inner lives and others capacity to judge theirs.

But what afflicts me the most is somehow tangent to this. It is the transparency of self to self illusion. That is, the tendency people have to assume they know more about themselves and their inner workings than they do. And also that, even if they do not know now, if they needed to know they could.

So for example, if you like cats, and i ask “but why do you like those stupid animals?”, most people will retort with reasons, myriads of them, not even stopping to think that maybe the reasons are experiences he lived long ago and can’t even remember, maybe things that happened to him when he was a baby or something like, or even processes and influences from realms like biochemistry or the collective-unconscious which he cannot begin to comprehend.

To give a better picture of it, in the words of Hubertus Bigend:

“[You don’t know in your heart.] The heart is a muscle,” Bigend corrects. “You ‘know’ in your limbic brain. The seat of instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. That is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped−up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent−wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda. And makes us buy things.”

Those punny examples might make it all sound somehow shallow, but this tendency has profound impacts on our very culture.

The obvious example is Descarte’s “Cogito ergo sum“. Transparency bias at the very core of his philosophical though (and since he had much more recognition than deserved, ours). But it gets even more pernicious.

Whole political campaigns and positions are held based in the notion that the individual can and will respond for it’s very purposes. The idea that demagogue politicians “buy” votes with petty favours is based on this bias. So is the terrible notion that poor voters will vote based on wants and educated voters will vote based on higher collectivist aspirations.

And if politics can be influenced by this bias, so can ethics and moralism. The ideas of good and evil are usually connected with conscience, and therefore with knowability of the self. Whether you can or cannot punish a misdeed seems to be connected with the implicit notion that the misdoer could will himself to not do what he did.

Finally, it seems to me that the biggest problem with the transparency bias is in our daily lives. We are constantly explaining our reasons to ourselves, perpetuating in the smallest things a fallacy. If i buy an ice-cream i did it for this, if i disagree with you it is based on that, if i am dissatisfied with my job is for that other reason. I know all my own reasons. Who could know me better than me? And so, i do not need to inquire, to understand that any more than i already do.

When you are so completely convinced that you know all your reasons to buy X or to say Y or to go to Z, it gets very difficult to convince you that maybe you don’t know why you vote for this candidate, why you believe in that religion or even why you can’t accept that your boyfriend did that instead of whatever — and consequently to nudge you into thinking better about those things.

I am not talking about instincts, here. To divide man in reason and instinct is juvenile — besides also being an example of transparency bias.

The question here is how to manage the incompleteness of information over oneself?. This is complicated, uncertain, and hardly generalizable, but nevertheless terribly important. Important enough to constantly deserve some energy, some thought. In every moment of life.


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  1. […] of transparency: is it really so bad? In a previous post i stated that people tend to assume they know more about their realities and inner lives than they […]

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