Can we become better mind readers?

How we sabotage our innate gift of understanding each other’s minds and what we can do about it

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

‘A person is a person through other persons.’ — Ubuntu saying

The idea of superpowers has always fascinated us. From the magical creatures in mythical lore to comic book heroes, we can never seem to get enough of characters whose abilities far exceed the realm of possibility. But like Neo in the Matrix, we too have a power we are unaware of, a skill so obvious that we don’t even consider it special. I talk of course, of our power to read each other’s minds. Now even though we’re no match for Professor X, our ability to sense the thoughts of others is quite remarkable and has allowed us to cooperate our way to civilization and all its trappings. It is no exaggeration to say that it is this social aspect of our existence, rather than our biological reality, that separates us from other animals.

However, this superpower too has its limitations as is proven by the existence of conflict in life, ranging in intensity from minor squabbles among spouses to geopolitical struggles between nations. The problem is that when it comes to understanding the minds of others we are just not as good as we think we are, even with those we are quite close to. Despite having the essential tools to sense others’ minds, we consistently and predictably fail to do so. Discounting for cases marked by genuine inability to engage with others (as in the case of autistic people), why do we so reliably fail to comprehend the minds of one another? More importantly, is it possible to remedy this situation and become better at wielding this sixth sense? The answer, as Nicholas Epley explores in his book Mindwise, is yes.

Thanks to evolution, we have already been endowed with the machinery to read minds. When faced with an object of interest — whether human or non-human — this machinery primarily tries to answer two questions: ‘does it have a mind?’, and ‘what is it thinking?’. How well we answer these two questions is what determines the degree and quality of connections we form with others. Usually, our mind-reading apparatus responds so fast to these questions that we barely even notice it’s happening. The judgments we form of others are based directly on these subconscious evaluations, and this is where the first seeds of error are sown.

Construction — How the mind creates reality

‘There is no unique picture of reality.’ — Stephen Hawking

The first step to discovering how we think about the minds of others is to understand how our own thinking works. When we see, hear and feel things happening out in the world, we are not mere spectators but active creators of this unfolding reality. Our five senses only feed raw material into the brain, which then recreates our experience of reality based on our memories and experiences. This process of construction can be seen clearly in the case of color blindness: the fact that some people experience color differently tells us that color is not an objective reality but something that our mind creates.

The key point is that this process of construction happening inside our heads is completely unknown to us, even if we can feel ourselves thinking. However, when we engage our rational mind to explain things, we are not really getting access to the hidden machinations of the brain, rather we are just making up explanations based on the behavior we observe in ourselves. This ignorance of construction leads to what is called naïve realism, i.e. believing that what you perceive is the actual reality rather than a creation of your brain.

What this means is that when someone does not share our view of reality, we invariably consider them wrong or biased, rather than acknowledging that we might be wired to perceive things differently. When we try to makes sense of others’ actions or point-of-view without being aware of this hidden process at work, we predictably fail to connect with their minds. An understanding of why we make such systematic mistakes is crucial if we are to become better at understanding the people in our lives.

Does it have a mind?

‘The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.’ — Eli Wiesel

Despite the errors that our sixth sense is prone to, there is an even more egregious fault that we are often guilty of: that of not engaging this power at all. Contrary to what we might believe, this sense does not get activated on its own, but only when we make the effort to do so. Under certain specific circumstances, such as when we are dealing with someone very different from us, we can begin seeing them as relatively mindless, i.e. lacking in the deep emotions, thoughts and beliefs that we have yourself.

The ability to understand others’ minds is governed by specific parts of the brain that light up especially when we think of people in our circle, such as our friends or family. However, dealing with strangers or those very different in terms of culture or lifestyle does not goad those brain parts into action. This means that we end up considering these ‘others’ as something less than human because of the perceived lack of mind in them. As a consequence, not only do we perceive others as having less free will than we do, but also consider them less capable of feeling intense human emotions such as shame, guilt and embarrassment. The process of dehumanization, which has allowed humans to inflict terrible atrocities such as war and slavery on each other, begins precisely in this way: when we fail to engage our sixth sense to appreciate the humanness in each other.

Failing to engage with others’ minds is akin to losing a part of our humanity, because we are simply not designed to be lone wolves; our very existence and our ability to thrive depends on our connection with others. It is exactly for this reason that the most famous study on happiness ever done concluded that it was the quality of our relationships that determined how happy we were. Further, recognizing others minds can also make us more socially aware and able to better act in a variety of social situations. For instance, leaders may begin to believe that employees are deeply conscientious beings who derive deeper meaning from their work rather than mindless morons who care only about money.

Egocentrism — Projecting your mind on others

‘Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?’ — George Carlin

Being human comes with a special ability, which other animals clearly don’t: believing they are at the center of the universe. This natural sense is at its peak when we’re infants and begins to be tempered down as we grow older. However, the feeling that whatever happens in the world is either for our benefit or to our detriment never really leaves us. As a result, we are too prone to not only claiming too much credit when things go well, but also blaming ourselves excessively when a setback occurs.

This egocentrism also has a major influence in how we interact with others. When dealing with people who aren’t that different from us, we tend to project our own minds onto their own in order to explain their behavior. This strategy, however, has two serious problems that prevent us from accurately understanding their minds: first, other people might not be paying attention to the same things as you are, and second, even if they are looking at the same things, they might be viewing them through an entirely different lens. The first issue is called the ‘neck problem’ and the second is known as the ‘lens problem’.

The neck problem leads us to imagine ourselves as the centre of our own universe, both in terms of the good and the bad. For instance, in a team environment we usually overestimate our own contribution while giving less credit to others in the group. The same dynamic applies to a marriage as well, where each spouse thinks they do more for the sake of the relationship than the other person. Another consequence of this syndrome is to imagine that others pay us more attention than they actually do. A big driver of anxiety is believing that others are noticing each and every flaw in us and are judging us negatively for them. The reality, however, is completely different: others aren’t really paying that much attention to you because they are busy worrying about themselves. Even if they do notice you, they are not obsessive about the mistakes you perceive in yourself.

The lens problem is more difficult to overcome, simply because it is extremely difficult to recognize that our individual perception of the world is colored by our unique experiences, beliefs and attitudes. The ignorance of this fact is one of the chief sources of conflict between people because when the reality perceived by others is different from our own, we invariably blame them for not seeing the truth. A specific case of the lens problem is what is called the curse of experience: when we know something well, it is near impossible to imagine what it felt like not knowing that thing before. This is highlighted most obviously when we consider a topic all of us are experts in: ourselves. Nobody knows us better than ourselves, simply because we spend the most time with our minds and are intimately familiar with its contents. Others clearly don’t have the same level of insight into your mind, therefore they evaluate you in a general way, comparing you to others of your kind. This is exactly why other people do not care about your little talents or imperfections — they simply can’t see them.

This kind of projection of the self happens more when the minds we are dealing with are unknown to us or when our modes of communication have inbuilt ambiguity, such as in the case of email and social media. That said, the neck problem is easier to overcome than the lens problem because one can simply direct attention as per the other person’s viewpoint. For solving the lens problem, we cannot just try harder to imagine another person’s perspective. The only solution is to actually experience the same perspective or hearing it directly from someone who has been in it.

Stereotypes — Thinking in averages

‘Stereotypes exist because there’s always some truth to stereotypes. Not always, but often.’ — Maz Jobrani

How our minds assess those of others varies with the context we are in. For instance, the act of projecting happens when another person is not too different from us. However, when the other person belongs to a completely different group, we fall back on stereotyping. This process, despite all its negative connotations is pretty accurate in determining the direction of differences between groups and serves as a quick way to size up the general, or average, characteristics of a group. Where it falls short, however, is in determining the magnitude of these differences. This subtle difference is where the problem with stereotyping lies.

The first problem with stereotypes is basically statistical in nature: the larger the group we are trying to assess, the more accurate we are with our stereotypes. A larger sample set simply provides us more visible evidence rather than leaving us to depend on second hand information or imagined characteristics. Secondly, stereotypes are problematic because they exploit our inherent tendency to focus more on differences, rather than similarities, between groups. Since groups by their very definition are defined in terms of their differences, we automatically end up overemphasizing differences, rather than searching for common ground. This is precisely why most negotiations go south because the participants assume from the outset that they are opposed to each other, rather than having common interests.

Finally, stereotypes are problematic because in addition to overemphasizing differences, they lead us to believe that these are a result of something fundamental and inherent in the group, rather than arising from external reasons. For instance ‘poor people are poor because they are lazy’ or ‘women can’t help but be emotional’ and so on. The question worth asking is that do people in a certain group behave the way they do because of some deep characteristics or because they end up conforming to the stereotype that is expected of them? The really insidious effect of stereotypes is that they can be self-fulfilling, especially when we use them as windows into the souls of people.

It is when stereotyping overextends from just noticing differences to actually explaining them that real problems arise. Even if we recognize the differences between two groups accurately, we might completely miss the reasons why they are different. It is this mistaken understanding that is responsible for much of the strife between groups. Stereotypes exaggerate genuine differences between groups because they take small differences and use them to push groups further apart than they actually are.

Do actions speak the truth?

‘Taken out of context I must seem so strange.’— Ani Difranco

Despite their usefulness as shortcuts to gauge general behavior, stereotypes cease to be effective when the scope of our analysis whittles down from a group to a single person. In such a case, you begin to give more weight to what they do rather than who they are. This systematic way in which we correlate somebody’s actions directly with their mind is known as the correspondence bias. The obvious problem with this natural human tendency is that more often than not, the context in which an action is performed matters more than the action itself. By completely missing this background information, we might end up drawing inaccurate assumptions from people’s actions.

The ability to recognize the broader context in which a person is acting is always difficult because our minds process information by first believing it to be true. It is only when the rational, but slower, part of our brain kicks in that we reject the initially accepted proposition. It was the great Dutch philosopher Spinoza who first propounded this theory about how understanding is actually, believing. This is why we tend to focus only on visible actions and completely miss the context unless we think really hard about it. This is also why it is difficult to disbelieve insincere apologies and flattery, simply because the real motivations are not always apparent.

The consequences of being context-ignorant are all too common and prevent us from understanding others’ minds as well as we would like. When we focus only on visible behavior and its end results, we make mistakes such as assuming accidents were intentional or giving credit to people for successes beyond their control. At the scale of companies and societies, misunderstanding context can lead us to designing ineffective solutions that assume behavioral change is entirely dependent on an individual’s actions rather than her environment. Richard Thaler, in his book Nudge, shows how desirable outcomes, such as encouraging people to save more, come about by not telling people to do the right thing, but making it easier for them to do so.

Tying it together

‘Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.’— George Orwell

There is a strange irony at the heart of the human condition. Even though we have been shaped by evolution to be a social species, our ability to understand each other is far from perfect. We routinely and predictably make mistakes in understanding each other’s minds, and as a result end up at odds with each other more often than we should. Even the age-old advice of seeing through other people’s eyes has not worked because this strategy, more often than not, only perpetuates our existing biases of ego-centrism and stereotyping. When we take the perspective of an unknown mind, we are just using what we already know about them to assess a particular situation. This way, what we see might not be too different from what we already believed in.

The right way to understand someone else is not to take, but get their perspective. This distinction might just seem like wordplay, but there is an important truth hidden within it. Getting a perspective means asking the other person straight up about what they are thinking, rather than relying on our imagination. However, we are usually stymied in this attempt by a number of obstacles: first, we are so confident in our own knowledge that we feel we don’t need to actually hear others’ point of view. Second, people might not be completely honest with you. Third, sometimes people just don’t know themselves well enough, since real motivations are not always apparent to the conscious mind. Finally, even honest words might be misinterpreted by us.

Despite these obstacles, making the effort to actually hear others out is still our best option to understand their minds. Even more important is to create an environment where others — be it our family members, colleagues or subordinates — feel comfortable enough to share their honest thoughts. Being understood is an essential human need and important for creating strong bonds. By being more humble about our mindreading abilities and making a genuine effort to understand each other, we can not only prevent mistakes but also become happier ourselves.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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