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

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