The Illusion of Transparency in Negotiations

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Research Reports
The Illusion of Transparency in Negotiations
Leaf Van Boven, Thomas Gilovich, and Victoria Husted Medvec

The authors examined whether negotiators are prone to an “illusion of transparency,” or the belief that their private thoughts and feelings are more discernible to their negotiation partners than they actually are. In Study One, negotiators who were trying to conceal their preferences thought that their preferences had “leaked out” more than they actually did. In Study Two, experienced negotiators who were trying to convey information about some of their preferences overestimated their partners’ ability to discern them. The results of Study Three rule out the possibility that the findings are simply the result of the curse of knowledge, or the projection of one’s own knowledge onto others. Discussion explores how the illusion of transparency might impede negotiators’ success.


n most cartoon depictions of negotiators in action (a tiny fraction of the cartoon universe, we admit), negotiators are shown with dialog bubbles depicting their overt comments and thought bubbles revealing their private thoughts. These conventions convey the different levels at which negotiators operate: Some of their wants, wishes, and worries are conveyed to the other side, but some are held back for strategic advantage. Because one task in negotiation is deciding how much information to hold back (Raiffa 1982),

Leaf Van Boven is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Campus Box 345, Boulder, Colo. 80309. Email: Thomas Gilovich is a Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, Department of Psychology, Ithaca, N.Y. 15850. Email: Victoria Husted Medvec is the Adeline Barry Davee Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, 2001 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Ill. 60201. 0748-4526/03/0400-0117/0 © 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation

Negotiation Journal

April 2003


it follows that part of the phenomenology of negotiation is monitoring how well one has conveyed what one wants to convey and concealed what one wants to conceal. Do negotiators know how well they have conveyed or concealed their preferences? Typically, negotiators know what they have and have not said, of course, so they may generally have a good idea what their partners know about their preferences. But how well calibrated are negotiators’ assessments of what they have conveyed and concealed? We explored one source of potential miscalibration, namely, whether negotiators experience an illusion of transparency, overestimating the extent to which their internal states “leak out” and are known by others (Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec 1998). Most research on the illusion of transparency shows that people overestimate their ability to conceal private information. But there is also evidence that people experience the illusion when trying to convey private information. Individuals who were asked to convey emotions with facial expressions alone overestimated observers’ ability to discern the expressed emotion (Savitsky 1997). Likewise, participants who were videotaped while exposed to humorous material thought they had been more expressive than observers subsequently rated them as being (Barr and Kleck 1995). These findings suggest that, when trying either to conceal or convey information, negotiators may experience an illusion of transparency, overestimating what their partners know about their preferences. Whether they do so is important, because previous research has shown that the likelihood of (optimal) settlement is often contingent on accurate perceptions of what others know about one’s own preferences (Bazerman and Neale 1992; Raiffa 1982; Thompson 1991). We conducted three different studies to examine whether negotiators experience an illusion of transparency in...
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