Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

March 17, 2014 by Shane Parrish

“The main problem is that we think we understand the minds of others, and even our own mind, better than we actually do.”

Despite the fact I do it countless times a day, I’m sometimes terrible at it. Our lives are guided by our inferences about what others think, believe, feel, and want. Understanding the minds of others is one of the keys to social success. With that in mind, I read Nicholas Epley’s new book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

While we can understand what others think, believe and feel, sometimes we’re wrong. The book’s goal is to bring “your brain’s greatest ability out of the shadows and into the light of scientific inspection.”

That ability is our sixth sense.

I am going to tell you about the kind of mind reading you do intuitively every day of your life, dozens of times a day, when you infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending. The kind that enables you to build and maintain the intimate relationships that make life worth living, to maintain a desired reputation in the eyes of others, to work effectively in teams, and to outwit and outlast your competitors. The kind that forms the foundation of all social interaction, creating the web of presumptions and assumptions that enables large societies to function.

This sixth sense is always on. A great example is the feeling you get when a co-worker calls in sick and you’re confident they’re lying. In this way Epley believes we’re all mind readers.

It’s easy to understand why. You and I are members of one of the most social species on the planet. No human being succeeds in life alone. Getting along and getting ahead requires coordinating with others, either in cooperation as friends, spouses, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals.

We’re so good at this sixth sense that it operates at an almost unconscious level. As philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Some of us, however, are better at mind reading and social understanding than others.

That we cannot read anyone’s mind perfectly does not mean we are never accurate, of course, but our mistakes are especially interesting because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding. Our mistakes lead to ineffective solutions to some of society’s biggest problems, and they can send nations into needless wars with the worst of consequences.

Our mistakes are somewhat predictable and therefore, argues Epley, correctable. They happen in two ways:

Our mistakes come from the two most basic questions that underlie any social interaction. First, does “it” have a mind? And second, what state is that other mind in?

We can make mistakes with the first question by failing to engage our mind-reading ability when we should, thereby failing to consider the mind of another and running the risk of treating him or her like a relatively mindless animal or object. These mistakes are at the heart of dehumanization. But we can also make mistakes by engaging our ability when we shouldn’t, thereby attributing a mind to something that is actually mindless.

Once we’re trying to read the minds of others, we can make mistakes with the second question by misunderstanding others’ thoughts, beliefs , attitudes, or emotions, thereby misunderstanding what state another mind is in. Our most common mistakes come from excessive egocentrism, overreliance on stereotypes, and an all-to-easy assumption that others’ minds match their actions …

All of these mistakes have the same basic consequence of leading us to think that others’ minds are more simplistic than they actually are.

Let’s take a closer look at when we “fail to recognize the fully human mind of another person,” which is the essence of dehumanization. This can happen “any time you fail to attend to the mind of another person, because this can also lead you to believe that another person has weaker mental capacities than you do: a lesser mind.” In the book Epley describes how doctors used to believe that children could not feel pain, how employers often think of employees as mindless (which leads bosses to over-estimate the importance of money and underestimate the intrinsic incentives like autonomy, pride, and mastery), and how we generally lack consideration for other people in certain social settings.

Enemies think of each other as unfeeling savages. Consider the story of how Brut Champagne got its name.

When the French began making champagne for the British, the champagne makers quickly learned that the Brits preferred much drier champagne than the French did. In fact, the French found this version to be unpalatable. They named this inferior champagne brut sauvage, for who could have such unsophisticated preferences other than a savage brut? The joke was eventually on the French: brut is now the most popular variety of champagne in the world.

The Lens Problem
We have a lens problem. The lens shapes what we see. And we react to what we see. “I’m right, and you’re biased.”

The lens in your eye filters light onto your retina, allowing you to see the world before your eye. Likewise, our own minds serve as a lens made up of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge through which we perceive the world. If you look at an object through two different lenses, such as a telescope versus a microscope, then the very same object will look very different.

… This is a problem because you look through a lens rather than at it directly, which can make it hard to tell that your vision is being affected by it. Similarly, research makes it very clear that people have a hard time recognizing the ways in which their own perceptions are biased by the interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge that they view it through. This handicaps our ability to understand the minds of others in two ways. First, people tend to overestimate the extent to which others believe, think, and feel as they do. This kind of egocentrism is a chronic mistake. Second, when people find out that others perceive the world differently than they do, the inability to recognize one’s own bias leads people to think that others are the ones who are biased. The fingerprints of the lens problem are at the center of almost any difference of opinion.

Remember Kathryn Schultz on what happens when someone disagrees with us?

Perspective Taking
Most of us are taught that we should put ourselves in the shoes of others to better understand their thoughts and feelings but this may not be the best strategy.

Everyone from Dale Carnegie to Barack Obama has suggested that the true way to understand other people is to honestly put yourself in another person’s shoes. My research, however, suggests that this does little or nothing to increase how accurately you understand the minds of others. The main problem with this solution to social misunderstanding is that it relies completely on being able to use knowledge that a person already has in his or her head to understand another’s perspective. But if you have a mistaken understanding of another person to begin with, then no amount of perspective taking is going to make your judgment systematically more accurate. When we ask husbands and wives, for instance, to predict each others’ attitudes, those we tell to adopt the other person’s perspective as honestly as they can actually become a little less accurate than those who do not adopt the other person’s perspective. In conflict, we find in our research that opposing sides tend to misunderstand each other even more when we ask them to honestly adopt the other side’s perspective. Perspective taking can have many beneficial consequences in social life, but systematically making people understand each other better does not seem to be one of them.

Epley prefers “perspective getting” to increase understanding.

If you actually want to understand the mind of another person, you have to get that person’s perspective as directly as you possibly can. You do that in one of two ways, either by being the other person or by having the other person tell you honestly and openly what’s actually on his or her mind. Court judges understand, for instance, what waterboarding feels like when they actually experience it directly, as the journalist Christopher Hitchens did, or when they listen to another person’s honest report of the experience directly, as you can by reading Christopher Hitchens’ account of his experience in Vanity Fair.

The Mind is a Beautiful Thing

You’ve never actually seen a belief, smelled an attitude, or poked a feeling. No intention has ever walked past you on the sidewalk. You can’t weigh a want. Like atoms before electron microscopes, minds are inferred rather than observed. They exist only as a theory each of us uses to explain both our own and other people’s behaviour. … But what a marvelous theory it is. Human beings have been explaining one another for millennia without ever referencing a single neuron because the sense we’ve evolved is of such practical value. Mental concepts like attitudes, beliefs, intentions , and preferences are so highly correlated with whatever is actually going on in the brain that we can use our theory about other people’s minds to predict their behaviour.

And in part, this ability to reason about the minds of others is what makes us human. We live in groups, large or small, and key to that social relationship is to understand people’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions, etc. The bigger the group the harder this is. Not only do you have to keep track of more people but you have to keep track of more possibilities.

Mindwise is a fascinating exploration of understanding other people.

 

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want Hardcover – Deckle Edge

by Nicholas Epley  (Author)

You are a mind reader, born with an extraordinary ability to understand what others think, feel, believe, want, and know. It’s a sixth sense you use every day, in every personal and professional relationship you have. At its best, this ability allows you to achieve the most important goal in almost any life: connecting, deeply and intimately and honestly, to other human beings. At its worst, it is a source of misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, leading to damaged relationships and broken dreams.
How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? How well do you really understand the minds of those closest to you, from your spouse to your kids to your best friends? Do you really know what your coworkers, employees, competitors, or clients want?
In this illuminating exploration of one of the great mysteries of the human mind, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make. Why are we sometimes blind to the minds of others, treating them like objects or animals? Why do we sometimes talk to our cars, or the stars, as if there is a mind that can hear us? Why do we so routinely believe that others think, feel, and want what we do when, in fact, they do not? And why do we believe we understand our spouses, family, and friends so much better than we actually do? Mindwise will not turn other people into open books, but it will give you the wisdom to revolutionize how you think about them—and yourself.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Despite its brand-name-sounding title (used only in the four-page afterword), Epley hasn’t created a slick, marketable method. And this book isn’t pop psychology but popularly written, genuine behavioral psychology, based on the findings of carefully constructed experiments. Its subject is the so-called sixth sense, by which humans descry what others feel, think, and know, and which we variously call intuition, sympathy, and mind reading. The experiments Epley describes verify its reality and, more important, that it isn’t nearly as reliable as we assume; indeed, it’s only modestly better than chance at rightly ascertaining particulars (e.g., opinions, preferences, details), even those of spouses, family members, and bosom friends. A number of attitudes get in the way of accurate mind reading, including egocentrism, anthropomorphism, and dehumanization. Proceeding from research findings, Epley analyzes those impediments before turning to the means for improving the sixth sense, which turns out to be asking questions of those we are trying to “read.” Furthermore, Epley enjoins, the right kind of questions will ask what rather than why. Unexciting? Useful! –Ray Olson

Review

Praise for Nicholas Epley’s Mindwise

“Animals and humans think, but only humans can understand what others are thinking. Without this ability, cooperative society is unimaginable. It’s a sixth sense, akin to mind reading, writes Epley in this clever psychology primer….Epley ably explores many entertaining and entirely convincing mistakes, so readers will have a thoroughly satisfying experience.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This book isn’t pop psychology but popularly written, genuine behavioral psychology, based on the findings of carefully constructed experiments. Its subject is the so-called sixth sense, by which humans descry what others feel, think, and know, and which we variously call intuition, sympathy, and mind reading. The experiments Epley describes verify its reality and, more important, that it isn’t nearly as reliable as we assume; indeed, it’s only modestly better than chance at rightly ascertaining particulars (e.g., opinions, preferences, details), even those of spouses, family members, and bosom friends….Useful!” —Booklist

“’Mindwise’ is good reading for negotiators, the makers of public policy, heck, for anyone who interacts with other people, and that should be all of us. Mr. Epley is a genial, informative host in this tour of some of the most interesting findings in the social psychology of understanding one another, which he calls “mind-reading.” His examples are drawn from the headlines as well as the peer-reviewed literature, and he keeps things going at a quick pace without dumbing-down the science.” David J. Levitin, The Wall Street Journal

“Psychologist Nicholas Epley’s Mind-wise provides a guide to understanding the minds of others. His engrossing book outlines the strategies that we use: projecting from our own minds, using stereotypes, and inferring from others’ actions.…Epley is a lucid and magnetic host, and his book…is crammed with evidence-based research.” Leyla Sanai, The Independent

“Nuanced, authoritative and accessible.” —Nature

Since Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Freakonomics there has been a vast output of books on behavioural science. Many have been quite poor—formulaic books supporting obvious conclusions at unnecessary length. Mindwisestands out from the crowd. It is surprising, intelligent, and convincing. It continues to make worthwhile points in every chapter (after about chapter two most books of this kind are repeating themselves) and the author tells you things you don’t know without straining for effect. You emerge from reading it understanding both yourself and others better, which is not a bad dividend from reading fewer than 200 pages.” Daniel Finkelstein, The Times

“What to expect of a book with such a title? In this neuroscience-obsessed age, the best guess would be an enthusiastic account, illuminated with dramatic, if misleading, colour images of the brain regions that light up when people placed inside an MRI scanner are asked to think about their social relations. Or, by contrast, philosophical reflections on free will, the intentional stance and theories of mind. Refreshingly, however, Mindwise is free of such neuro- or philosophical ruminations; it takes for granted that we and our fellow humans have minds, and can exercise free will. Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the Chicago Booth business school, by and large takes the internal workings of our brains for granted, and focuses instead on the common – and sometimes uncommon – sense of how we understand our own thoughts and actions, and, above all, read the thoughts and intentions of others.”Steven Rose, The Guardian

“This is a fascinating exploration of what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make” Podacademy.org

“One of the smartest and most entertaining books I have read in years.  At a time when there are dozens of popular social science books to choose from, Epley’s masterpiece stands out as the cream of the crop.” —Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics

Mindwise is a brilliant and beautiful exploration of the mystery of other minds—and how we fail to solve it. Insightful and important, Mindwise is one of the best books of this or any other decade.” —Daniel Gilbert, New York Timesbestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness

“What is it like to be someone else? How can we get into other people’s heads? These questions have challenged the greatest thinkers in Western philosophy, and they obsess every one of us as we try to deal with our family, lovers, friends, enemies, colleagues, and allies. In Mindwise, the distinguished social psychologist Nicholas Epley offers a lively and fascinating tour of the latest science on how we figure out (and all too often fail to figure out) what everyone else is thinking.”
—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought 

“‘Know thyself,’ commanded the Oracle at Delphi. Mindwise shows us why that’s so hard to do, yet so vital as the starting point for understanding others. Epley writes with scientific authority, grace, and deep humanity. You’ll come away from this book understanding the African concept of Ubuntu: A person is a person through other people.”
—Jonathan Haidt, NYU Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind

“Why are we often so terribly bad at figuring out what other people are thinking? Nicholas Epley is one of the smartest and most creative social psychologists alive, and in his extraordinary new book, he explores the powers and the limits of our capacity for ‘mindreading.’ Epley is a clear and engaging writer, and Mindwise is replete with fascinating insights into human nature.”
—Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, Yale University, author of Just Babies

“Too much of life’s misery comes from misunderstanding what others are thinking, and from assuming that those we love must know what is (obviously!) on our mind. Mindwise is a highly enjoyable and informative book by one of psychology’s rising stars that will make you spend less time in pointless arguments and more time in rewarding relationships. Gaining some wisdom about the minds of others will be painless and priceless.”
—Richard H. Thaler, Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago

About the Author

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has written for The New York Times and published more than fifty articles in two dozen journals in his field. He was named a “professor to watch” by the Financial Times, is the winner of the 2008 Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and was awarded the 2011 Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association. He lives in Chicago.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1

An Overconfident Sense

A lot of leaders are coming here, to sit down and visit. I think it’s important for them to look me in the eye. Many of these leaders have the same kind of inherent ability that I’ve got, I think, and that is they can read people. I can read fear. I can read confidence. I can read resolve. And so can they—and they want to see it.

—former U.S. president George W. Bush

I’m sure you have no trouble realizing that people occasionally misunderstand each other. Such conflict keeps newspapers and divorce lawyers in business. Surely you can also think of times when others have misunderstood your thoughts, emotions, or intentions. Maybe you’ve sent a sarcastic e-mail that your coworkers took to be serious, making you look like a jerk rather than a joker? Or had earnestness mistaken for belligerence, shyness mistaken for arrogance, generosity mistaken for cynical manipulation? We’ve all been there. In your cooler moments, you probably realize that even you sometimes misinterpret and misunderstand others, including the people you should understand the best. Not often, it might seem, but at least sometimes.

More often, though, our sixth sense leaves us feeling like George W. Bush, with considerable confidence in our ability to understand others. Bush even had this clear sense after meeting Vladimir Putin for the first time: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”1 Whether accurate or not, our first impressions are formed quickly and easily, and are therefore held with considerable confidence. Seeing someone for only fifty milliseconds, faster than the blink of an eye, gives us enough time to form an impression of their competence.2 These snap judgments matter. In one experiment, politicians who looked more competent than their rivals after a fleeting glance were significantly more likely to win their election (about 70 percent of the time), suggesting that those snap judgments put people into our most powerful positions.3 Your sixth sense works quickly and is not prone to second-guessing.

So just how accurately do we understand the minds of others? For many years, psychologists have been trying to answer this question by putting mind reading to the test. We might, for instance, ask you to look at pictures of people who are happy or sad, proud or ashamed, elated or afraid, to see how accurately you can recognize each emotion.

Or we might ask a group of people to tell us how much they like you, then ask you to predict how much each of these people will report liking you, and then compare your predictions with the other people’s actual rating to assess your accuracy.

How well do we perform on these tests? Are we as socially skilled as we think?

Mirror, Mirror

To get a sense of your actual abilities, let’s start with what is likely to be a very common and important bit of mind reading: trying to guess another person’s impression of you. Much of our everyday life is spent trying to understand how we’re being evaluated in order to help us create just the right impression. Does your boss think you are intelligent? Do your coworkers like you? Do your employees understand your instructions? Does your neighbor find you trustworthy? Does your spouse really love you? Or perhaps more important if you are young and single, do others think you are attractive?

In fact, knowing what others think of you appears to be one of the most common things you might want to know about the minds of others. In one survey, Mary Steffel and I asked an online sample of five hundred Americans to imagine that we had invented a “brainoscope” that would allow us to see into the minds of others. We asked our respondents to imagine that this device would allow them to know what others are thinking and feeling with perfect accuracy. We then asked our respondents to tell us who they would use their brainoscope on and what they’d want to learn about. Somewhat to our surprise, our respondents were not interested in understanding the minds of the rich, famous, or powerful. Instead, the vast majority wanted to peer into the minds of those closest to them, particularly spouses and dating partners but also bosses, family members, and neighbors. Interestingly, they wanted to get a look at the minds of those they presumably knew the best. And what our respondents wanted to find out most was what these other people thought of them. The majority wanted their brainoscope to work like a magical mirror, Narcissus 2.0.

This isn’t such a bad idea. Knowing your own reputation can be surprisingly difficult. Consider, for instance, a study that analyzed a set of published experiments all sharing the same basic design.4 In these experiments, people working in a group would be asked to predict how the other group members would rate them on a series of different traits. Researchers then compared these predicted ratings to the other group members’ actual ratings on the very same traits. The traits varied from one experiment to another and included qualities like intelligence, sense of humor, consideration, defensiveness, friendliness, and leadership ability. The groups varied in familiarity, with the members of some groups being fairly unfamiliar with one another (such as having met only once, in a job interview) and the members of other groups being very familiar with one another (such as having lived together for an extended time as roommates). If people knew exactly what others were thinking, then there would be a perfect correspondence between predicted and actual ratings. If people were clueless, then there would be no correspondence between the two. Statistically speaking, you measure relationships like these with a correlation, where perfect correspondence yields a correlation of 1 and no correspondence yields a correlation of 0. The closer the correlation is to 1, the stronger the relationship.

First, the good news. These experiments suggested that people are pretty good, overall, at guessing how a group of others would evaluate them, on average. The overall correlation in these experiments between predicted impressions and the average actual impression of the group was quite high (.55, if you are quantitatively inclined). To put that in perspective, this is roughly the same magnitude as the correlation between the heights of fathers and the heights of sons (around .5). It is not perfect insight, but it is also very far from being clueless. In other words, you probably have a decent sense of what others generally think of you, on average.

Now the bad news. These experiments also assessed how well people could predict the impression of any single individual within a given group. You may know, for instance, that your coworkers in general think you are rather smart, but those coworkers also vary in their impression of you. Some think you are as sharp as a knife. Others think you are as sharp as a spoon. Do you know the difference?

Evidently, no. The accuracy rate across these experiments was barely better than random guessing (an overall correlation of .13 between predicted and actual evaluations, only slightly higher than no relationship whatsoever). Although you might have some sense of how smart your coworkers think you are, you appear to have no clue about which coworkers in particular find you smart and which do not. As one author of the study writes, “People seem to have just a tiny glimmer of insight into how they are uniquely viewed by particular other people.”5

But perhaps this is holding your mind-reading abilities to too high a standard? It’s hard, after all, to define traits like intelligence and trustworthiness precisely, so it might not be so surprising that we have difficulty guessing how others will evaluate us on these ambiguous traits. What about predicting something simpler, such as how much other people like you? Surely you are better at this. You learn over time to hang around people who smile at you and avoid those who spit at you. You must have a much better sense of who likes you and who hates you within a group. Yes?

I’m afraid not. These studies found that people are only slightly better than chance at guessing who in a group likes them and who does not (the average correlation here was a meager .18). Some of your coworkers like you and others do not, but I wouldn’t count on you knowing the difference. The same barely-better-than-guessing accuracy is also found in experiments investigating how well speed daters can assess who wants to date them and who does not, how well job candidates can judge which interviewers were impressed by them and which were not, and even how well teachers can predict their course evaluations. Granted, it’s rare that you are completely clueless about how you are evaluated. Accuracy tends to be better than chance in these experiments, but not necessarily by very much.

Perhaps, though, getting these broad and general evaluations right is still too much to expect of your sixth sense. What if we tried something simpler still, something specific and concrete that you’ve likely spent a considerable amount of time thinking and learning about? Can you accurately predict how attractive a member of the opposite sex will find you after being shown a photograph of you? You have, after all, lived a full life with yourself, looking at your face in the mirror every morning, and getting a sense of whether people tend to find you attractive or not. At certain points in your life (perhaps you’re at that point right now), you may have thought of little else. And yet when Tal Eyal and I ran a series of experiments in which we asked people to predict how attractive they would be rated by a member of the opposite sex who was evaluating a photograph we took of them, we found that people’s predictions were no more accurate than chance guessing.6 Across two different experiments, the over…

 

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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