Breaking through the Illusion of Transparency

Powell Street Station by davitydave

Powell Street Station by davitydave

Dejected, jobless, and without a plan for the future, Zoë Keating faced a dilemma: she was broke. To make her share of the rent, she needed a quick $250. Out of desperation, she resolved to try to earn some cash by playing her cello during rush hour at the busy Embarcadero and Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations.

To say the least, this prospect went over poorly with her newly reignited performance anxiety, yet onward she marched. At first, mortified at having so many potential spectators, Keating stuck to the Bach Cello Suites she knew best. “I was totally convinced that every single person was analyzing my technique.” She laughed. “I’d play the same few pieces over and over because I knew my bow placement was okay, or I was using the correct fingerings.” To fall under so many uncaring eyes was horrifying at first. What if they could tell how nervous she was? What if she made a mistake?

But then something unexpected began to happen: commuters thanked her for being there. “People would come up and say, ‘My mind was so fixated on what a terrible day I was going to have, and hearing you play made my day better,’” Keating recalled. “Even if I’d gotten the technique wrong, people would hand me a five-dollar bill and say, ‘That was fantastic!’ That was the first sense I ever got that musicians might have a role in enriching the world.”

Performing wasn’t just a pain-endurance exercise, or a battle for perfection; it could actually be rewarding. (The fact that she was pulling in $50 an hour in donations helped amplify this positive feeling.) Soon, she started stretching her wings a bit. “After playing the same thing four times in a row, I’d decide to flip the page to a Bach suite I didn’t know so well, and I’d see if I could make it through to the end, just sort of enjoying that I’d never played it before,” Keating said. “In other words, I allowed myself to play the music without worrying about all the little things – ‘Is your shoulder too high? Is your vibrato correct? And it was fun.”

Over time, as she became more immersed in her musical exploration, her stage fright at those BART station recitals transformed. She still felt nervous, but suddenly it seemed much more manageable – helpful, even. “This is the interesting part,” Keating told me. “I can actually remember playing in the subway.”

Busking in the BART station, Keating was accomplishing a few things, psychologically speaking…by exposing herself to her fear without running away, Keating was letting her brain slowly habituate to the idea of performing for an audience. Over the hours, as the realization dawned in her unconscious mind that these commuters weren’t going to descend on her like starving jackals, her perfrontal cortex taught itself to soothe the amygdala’s reaction to the crowd. This principle also explains why programs like Toastmasters are so effective at treating public speaking anxiety: by delivering speech after speech, regularly welcoming their fear, participants learn that standing behind that lectern isn’t really a threat to life and limb; it’s something they can handle.

But neuroscience aside, Keating was also coming to an important conscious insight: her listeners couldn’t see through her like she’d thought they could. “These people were anxious to get to work on time,” she said. “They didn’t care that I had a pinky waving in the air the wrong way.” No one really saw her nervousness. If people stopped to listen, that meant they were enjoying the music, not judging her.

Keating had finally broken through one of the most pervasive misconceptions underlying performance anxiety, the “illusion of transparency” bias. Put simply, we tend to believe that our internal emotional states are more obvious to others than they truly are. Ask a subject in the psych lab to tell a lie, and she’ll belive she’s shown more clues about the fib than she actually has…”If your heart is pounding, you think everyone can see it,” said Paul Salmon, the stage fright expert. “When you’re physiologically activated, your senses become more highly attuned and you magnify the impact of these things. It’s like you’re under the microscope.”

The illusion of transparency bias is powerful, but it’s also easy to correct. In one 2003 study, for example, the psychologists Kenneth Savitsky and Thomas Gilovich found that simply explaining to subjects that their stage fright isn’t obvious to others made them perform better – and with less anxiety – than two control groups when they gave a speech later on.

Almost immediately, Keating’s musical world began to open up…As she built her confidence, she began experimenting with solo compositions that blended her classical training with the electronic music she had studied in college, tapping and tweaking her cello to produce a dynamic range of sounds that she could loop and layer. Today, she makes her living solely through her music, jetting around the world to perform; her first album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, has been a steady seller on iTunes since its 2005 release, while her second, 2010’s Into the Trees, debuted at number seven on the Billboard classical chart.


"You're sort of in this three-dimensional landscape of sound and that's where I really like to be with my music. Like when I'm on stage, that's where I am. I'm not on stage in front of you, I'm in this landscape of sound. I can almost see the way the music happens, but that's not seeing people playing and it's not seeing somebody conducting.

It's not seeing an audience watching it. It's very much like this feeling of, What does the sound look like?  The sweep of the sound, the way it moves up and down, or rushing forward." 

~ Zoë Keating