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The illusion of asymmetric insight

by Andrew Taylor

Did you ever get the feeling that everyone around you is showing a version of themselves, but not their whole self? Did you start to believe that you could see this performance game in your friends and family, and that you actually knew the real self they were trying to obscure? You might even believe that you know better than they do -- because you can see through their facade -- what they want or need or think or believe. You're onto them. They're not fooling you.

If you answered yes to the questions above, do you also believe that your friends and family feel exactly the same way about you and your masks? Or do you tend to feel that your personas are subtle and elegant and impenetrable?

In individual and group interaction with others, this disconnect is called the 'illusion of asymmetric insight,' described rather well and disturbingly in this post online (viaLifehacker):

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.

The bias goes a long way to explain the polar and vitriolic opposition between political parties these days (the other side is full of idiots, who don't understand the real world...or are intentionally lying about it). But it's also a trap that captures many a cultural manager when they think about their audience, their community, their donors, their supporters, their detractors, and those ambivalent to their existence. 'City council members are idiots for not understanding the true value of what we do.' 'Audiences who came once and never returned didn't get it, or weren't committed enough to the work.' 'Donors who give us money do so because they love what we love.' 'Those who stop giving must have felt offended or ignored.'

In truth, we don't know what motivates or inspires others as much as we think we do. And others don't know what motivates or inspires us. We can talk about it as openly as possible. We can short-circuit our natural leap to conclusions about motives and needs of those around us (leading with a question rather than an assumption often helps). But we're never going to know.

So much of artistic expression and experience offers new ways to see and understand the other...either the unfamiliar culture or character, or the stranger in ourselves. It might be wise to carry that spirit into the ways we manage our organizations, and the ways we engage those we encounter along the road.