Part of the article:
” People in new situations instinctively form groups. Those groups develop their own language quirks, in-jokes, norms, values and so on. You’ve probably suspected zombies, or bombs, or economic collapse would lead to a battle over who runs Bartertown. In this study, all they had to do was introduce competition for resources and summer camp became Lord of the Flies.
What you may not have noticed though is how much of this behavior is gurgling right below the surface of your consciousness day-to-day. You aren’t sharpening spears, but at some level you are contemplating your place in society, contemplating your allegiances and your opponents. You see yourself as part of some groups and not others, and like those boys you spend a lot of time defining outsiders. The way you see others is deeply affected by something psychologists call the illusion of asymmetric insight, but to understand it let’s first consider how groups, like people, have identities – and like people, those identities aren’t exactly real.
Hopefully by now you’ve had one of those late-night conversations fueled by exhaustion, elation, fear or drugs in which you and your friends finally admit you are all bullshitting each other. If you haven’t, go watch The Breakfast Club and come back. The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage. This concept – actors and performance, persona and masks – has been intertwined and adopted throughout history. Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William James said a person “has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” Carl Jung was particularly fond of the concept of the persona saying it was “that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.” It’s an old idea, but you and everyone else seems to stumble onto it anew in adolescence, forget about it for a while, and suddenly remember again from time to time when you feel like an impostor or a fraud. It’s ok, that’s a natural feeling, and if you don’t step back occasionally and feel funky about how you are wearing a socially constructed mask and uniform you are probably a psychopath.
Social media confounds the issue. You are a public relations masterpiece. Not only are you free to create alternate selves for forums, websites and digital watering holes, but from one social media service to the next you control the output of your persona. The clever tweets, the photos of your delectable triumphs with the oven and mixing bowl, the funny meme you send out into the firmament that you check back on for comments, the new thing you own, the new place you visited – they tell a story of who you want to be, who you ought to be. They satisfy something. Is anyone clicking on all these links? Is anyone smirking at this video? Are my responses being scoured for grammatical infractions? You ask these questions and others, even if they don’t rise to the surface.
The recent fuss over the over-sharing, over the loss of privacy is just noisy ignorance. You know, as a citizen of the Internet, you obfuscate the truth of your character. You hide your fears and transgressions and vulnerable yearnings for meaning, for purpose, for connection. In a world where you can control everything presented to an audience both domestic or imaginary, what is laid bare depends on who you believe is on the other side of the screen. You fret over your father or your aunt asking to be your Facebook friend. What will they think of that version of you? In flesh or photons, it seems built-in, this desire to conceal some aspects of yourself in one group while exposing them in others. You can be vulnerable in many different ways but not all at once it seems.
So, you don social masks just like every human going back to the first campfires. You seem rather confident in them, in their ability to communicate and conceal that which you want on display and that which you wish was not. Groups too don these masks. Political parties establish platforms, companies give employees handbooks, countries write out constitutions, tree houses post club rules. Every human gathering and institution from the Gay Pride Parade to the KKK works to remain connected by developing a set a norms and values which signals to members when they are dealing with members of the in-group and help identify others as part of the out-group. The peculiar thing though is that once you feel this, once you feel included in a human institution or ideology, you can’t help but see outsiders through a warped lens called the illusion of asymmetric insight.
How well do you know your friends? Pick one out of the bunch, someone you interact with often. Do you see the little ways she lies to herself and others? Do you secretly know what is holding him back, but also recognize the beautiful talents he doesn’t appreciate? Do you know what she wants, what she is likely to do in most situations, what she will argue about and what she will let slide? Do you notice when he is posturing and when he is vulnerable? Do you know the perfect gift? Do you wish she had never went out with so-and-so? Do you sometimes say with confidence, “You should have been there. You would have loved it,” about things you enjoyed for them, by proxy? Research shows you probably feel all these things and more. You see your friends, your family, your coworkers and peers as semipermeable beings. You label them with ease. You see them as the artist, the grouch, the slacker and the overachiever. “He did what? Oh, that’s no surprise.” You know who will watch the meteor shower with you and who will pass. You know who to ask about spark plugs and who to ask about planting a vegetable garden. You can, you believe, put yourself in his or her shoes and predict his or her behavior in just about any situation. You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you.
In 2001, Emily Pronin and Lee Ross at Stanford along with Justin Kruger at the University of Illinois and Kenneth Savitsky at Williams College conducted a series of experiments exploring why you see people this way.
In the first experiment they had people fill out a questionnaire asking them to think of a best friend and rate how well they believed they knew him or her. They showed the subjects a series of photos showing an iceberg submerged in varying levels of water and asked them to circle the one which corresponded to how much of the “essential nature” they felt they could see of their friends. How much, they asked, of your friend’s true self is visible and much is hidden below the surface? They then had the subjects take a second questionnaire which turned the questions around asking them to put themselves in the minds of their friends. How much of their own iceberg did they think their friends could see? Most people rated their insight into their best friend as keen. They saw more of the iceberg floating above the water line. In the other direction they felt the insight their friend’s possessed of them was lacking, most of their own self was submerged.
This and many other studies show you believe you see more of other people’s icebergs than they see of yours; meanwhile, they think the same thing about you.
The same researchers asked people to describe a time when they feel most like themselves. Most subjects, 78 percent, described something internal and unobservable like the feeling of seeing their child excel or the rush of applause after playing for an audience. When asked to describe when they believed friends or relatives were most illustrative of their personalities, they described internal feelings only 28 percent of the time. Instead, they tended to describe actions. Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing. You can’t see internal states of others, so you generally don’t use those states to describe their personalities.”