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

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
In this occasionally lively, but often tedious psychological study, behavioral scientist Epley draws deeply on various experiments and surveys, deftly exploring the ways that we get into the heads of those around us to navigate various social landscapes. Our abilities to read the minds of others, he states, “allow us to cooperate with those we should trust and avoid those we shouldn’t.” Moreover, this reading of minds “allows us to track our reputation in the eyes of others... and enables understanding between friends, forgiveness among enemies, empathy between strangers.” According to Epley, we often remain unaware of others because we fail to engage our capacity to understand their minds, often dehumanizing others and, in the worst case, stereotyping them. Epley suggests that we can behave more intelligently toward others by being smarter fighters, smarter leaders, and smarter neighbors. He encourages us to look beyond an individual’s behavior to the broader context in which certain behaviors occur, for actions reveal less about a person’s mind than they seem to. Epley forcefully, though unremarkably, concludes that “the secret to understanding each other comes through the hard relational work of putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly.” (Feb.)
From the Publisher
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. Mindwise stands 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

“Immensely readable….not only clear but enjoyable as well….a fascinating look at how people understand one another, the obstacles to that understanding, and the ways in which they can hone their natural mind-reading ability. Though it may not be the kind of mind-reading found in science fiction, Mindwise gives readers the tools to get one step closer to better grasping the minds around them.” —Amanda Wicks, Washington Independent Review of Books
 
“Epley’s account suggests that unless you genuinely value the perspective of others, and not just those that conform to your own, you are not going to understand them. Really effective smart thinking is not, therefore, just a means to an end: it has to be rooted in what we see as ends in themselves, the values by which we live.” —Julian Baggini, Financial Times

“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 Times bestselling 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

Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-14
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 (Behavioral Science/Univ. of Chicago School of Business) in this clever psychology primer. "[M]y goal is to describe your brain's predictable malfunctions that keep you from understanding the minds of others as well as you could," writes the author, who quickly points out how we get it wrong. At worst, we neglect our mind-reading ability on the grounds that another has no mind--i.e., dehumanization. German Jews and Native Americans were once viewed, and even legally labeled, as subhuman. Readers will nod sadly and agree that all men are brothers--except terrorists, of course, who are mindless psychopaths. We also do the opposite, writes Epley. We attribute minds to mindless entities that behave in unpredictable ways: hurricanes, the stock market, computers, cars, etc. Our mental tools provide imperfect insights: We know our own minds intimately, so egocentricity exerts too much influence. We label others as stereotypes. Although politically incorrect, stereotyping is not entirely inaccurate but emphasizes differences over similarities. We assume that a person's actions reflect his or her thoughts, but this is surprisingly undependable. The best way to determine what another person is thinking--proven by scientific studies--is to ask. Epley presents a steady stream of imaginative studies. Although readers will learn a great deal, they must remember that the author is a teacher and scientist, not a media guru, so his advice for improving mind reading emphasizes avoiding the usual mistakes. Oprah would not perk up. Epley ably explores many entertaining and entirely convincing mistakes, so readers will have a thoroughly satisfying experience.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307595911
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/11/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 126,546
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet 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. 

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Read an Excerpt

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 overall correlation between predicted and actual evaluations was 0. It’s not that our volunteers consistently thought they were more attractive than they were actually rated, but that their predictions of how attractive they would be considered from a single photograph simply bore no relation to how they were actually rated on the basis of that photograph. It is often said that love is blind, but our participants did not even have a chance to be blinded by any love. They were just blind to begin with.

The central challenge for your sixth sense is that others’ inner thoughts are revealed only through the façade of their faces, bodies, and language. Just as human beings have evolved the ability to use cues from that façade to see what truly lies beneath—to be mind readers—so, too, have human beings developed a skill to use their façade to mislead and misdirect others—to be liars and deceivers. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of “Does my butt look big in these pants?” knows that what you say to someone does not always reflect what you truly believe about them. And yet, time and time again, researchers have found that our attempts to guess when another person is telling the truth and when they are lying are just that: little better than guesses. When George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin, he felt like he had learned a great deal about the inner “soul” of this former KGB agent by reading his behavior. I wouldn’t bet on it. When one group of researchers evaluated decades of studies and hundreds of experiments that measured how well people could distinguish truths from lies, they found that people’s ability to spot deception was only a few percentage points better than a random coin flip: people were 54 percent accurate overall, when random guessing would make you accurate 50 percent of the time.7

These mistakes are no laughing matter. At times, they can have deadly serious consequences. Neville Chamberlain, as the prime minister of Great Britain, believed Adolf Hitler’s assurance in 1938 that peace could be preserved with Czechoslovakia and thus encouraged the Czechs not to mobilize their army. “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word,” Chamberlain said. He was wrong. Hitler was actually lying, having already mobilized his army to attack Czechoslovakia and needing to buy just a little more time to ensure a crushing invasion. Nearly seventy years later, American officials had learned not to trust scoundrels. They were therefore certain that Saddam Hussein was lying when he said, time and again, that he had no weapons of mass destruction. But again, like the majority of American people at the time, they were wrong.8 Americans went to war, mistakenly believing that Hussein was lying when he was actually telling the truth. It’s easy to see how understanding other people can be a daunting task if you are unable to tell when they are misleading you and when they are not.

Illusions of Insight

Although it may be challenging, perhaps reading the minds of others still isn’t very much of a problem in everyday life because our mind reading is finely tuned to those we know the best, such as our closest friends, relatives, colleagues, and spouses. Long-married spouses sometimes say they know each other so well that they can complete each other’s sentences. Really getting to know someone puts you in sync with them, you might think, so you’re able to understand each other’s thoughts without even uttering a single word. There is no doubt that friends, coworkers, and romantic partners think they know each other’s minds better than they know the minds of strangers. Is this confidence justified? Do we really know our friends and loved ones as well as we believe we do?

Again, the answer is no, but this answer comes in two parts. The first part is that you are indeed better able to read the minds of close friends and loved ones than those of strangers, although not by all that much. William Ickes, a pioneer in research on mind-reading accuracy, points out that in his experiments, “strangers read each other with an average accuracy rate of 20 percent” when videotaped and later asked to report their moment-by-moment thoughts and feelings.9 “Close friends and married couples,” he reports, “nudge that up to 35 percent.” So yes, you do know what your spouse or a close friend likes and dislikes more than a random stranger would, but the gain may be surprisingly modest. The second part of this answer, however, is that the confidence you have in knowing the mind of a close friend or romantic partner far outstrips your actual accuracy. Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.10

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Interviews & Essays

A conversation with Nicolas Epley, author of Mindwise

Q: When you say we are all already “mind readers,” what do you mean?

A:
I mean that every one of us, countless times a day, tries to understand the minds of others. There is no magic or mysticism or psychic nonsense in this.
Our daily lives are guided by our inferences about what others think, believe, feel, and want. We are, after all, members of one of the most social species on the planet. No human being succeeds in life alone. Getting along and getting ahead require coordinating with others, either in cooperation as friends,
spouses, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals. Does she really love me or not? Is he being truthful or lying?
How can I keep my employees happy? What do my kids, friends, customers, or adversaries really want? Understanding the minds of others is essential for social success because it enables you to anticipate what others are going to say before they say it, to know what others want before they choose it, and to predict an opponent's moves before he makes it. With the obvious benefits that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that it operates almost invisibly. We think about the minds of others so easily that we hardly even recognize when we're doing it, and rarely pause to consider that we might be wrong.

Q: Considering the breadth of psychological topics that exist, what led you to specialize in what you refer to as our “sixth sense”?

A:
Most people appear to think about other people in their daily lives more than they think of anything else. When you ask people what makes them happiest in their lives, they tend to talk about other people. When you ask people what makes them the most miserable in their lives, they also tend to talk about other people. I've found a topic—how thinking people think of other people— that seems to occupy more mental space than any other, that seems to guide wellbeing as much as any other. Even more interesting, our judgments are often wrong but rarely doubted, leaving many opportunities to make ourselves wiser about others. I simply can't think of anything more interesting or important to study. As a side benefit, I also think it gives me the best possible answer to “what you do for a living” in all of science.


Q: One of the most common psychological metaphors is that of the human mind as an iceberg. You argue that a house is a better metaphor. Why is that?

A:
The iceberg metaphor is typically used when explaining the limits of introspection. It is meant to describe that there are some aspects of the brain's working that are consciously inaccessible. Although the general point is obviously correct, this metaphor is misleading because it gives rise to the common myth that we use only 10% of our brains, and because it suggests that there are processes lurking beneath conscious awareness that we might be able to gain access to if only we could somehow raise awareness of them. There appear to be certain aspects of our minds that we can report on quite accurately, but other aspects that we have no access to whatsoever, and that introspection will never be able to have access to.

I think a finished house is a better metaphor because it describes what we can and cannot know about own minds much better. With a house, you can describe its finished product quite accurately but cannot readily see the construction process that made it that way. You can't go back and see the carpenters in action, or observe the decisions that put one wall here and another over there. The best you can do to understand the process of constructing a house is to imagine and guess. Our minds are similar because we seem quite able to report accurately on our brain's finished products—from sensory experiences of pain and pleasure to feelings of conscious control and free will to strongly held beliefs and attitudes—but we are unable to report accurately on the construction of those products—the mental processes that created them. We can report feeling happy, but are only guessing when explaining why. We can report loving our spouse, but are guessing when explaining why. Our introspection is blind to construction. What you can report on accurately when looking at a house captures that experience better than an iceberg.

Q: What is the central challenge of our “sixth sense”?

A:
I actually think there are two challenges. First, using our “sixth sense” when we should. Sometimes we fail to engage with the minds of others in a way that can lead us to treat others inhumanely, more like relatively mindless animals or objects. Second, using our sense accurately once we're trying to understand other people. Our sense about the minds of others does not work like we think it does, and it often leaves us feeling like we understand others much more accurately than we really do.


Q: You say that people sometimes “fail to recognize the fully human mind of another person,” and that this is the essence of dehumanization. History has some extreme examples—such as the Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II, or the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s—that show the disturbing results of this. How does dehumanization happen on a more day-to-day basis?

A:
It 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. Subtle versions of such dehumanization are all around us. In the book, I describe how doctors used to think of children as being unable to feel pain, how employers can think of their employees as mindless machinery and thereby be completely insensitive to their pain, how people riding on trains can treat their fellow passengers like mindless objects, and how enemies can think of each other as unfeeling savages.
Even your refrigerator may have one relic of such an example. 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.

I think these more common and subtle examples have major consequences. In war, such as in Iraq, the tendency to think of the enemy as an unfeeling savage can lead to counterproductive strategies (such as “shock and awe” in the Iraq War). Recognizing that enemy soldiers can think and feel just as one's own soldiers do leads to more effective strategies (such as efforts to reduce animosity by “winning hearts and minds” in Iraq). At work, the tendency to dehumanize one's employees can lead bosses to overestimate the importance of money in motivating workers and to underestimate the power of intrinsic incentives like pride and self-respect. And in life more generally, a tendency to subtly dehumanize others can lead us to overlook important sources of social connection that would otherwise make us happier. Strangers on trains, for instance, tend to sit mere millimeters apart and completely ignore each other, treating each other more like furniture than like actual persons. In fact, treating strangers like fully mindful human beings and actually engaging them in conversation actually makes us happier, whether it's on trains, in cabs, or on busses, all places where we conducted our experiments.

We would compete better, lead smarter, and be happier if we more easily recognized that other people, from random strangers to bitter enemies, have a fully human mind just like our own.

Q: What is the “lens problem” and how does it handicap our ability to know what others want?

A:
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. Similarly, people with a different interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge can look at the very same event and view it very differently. Conservatives are likely to evaluate a liberal policy more negatively than liberals do because of their differing beliefs. Fans of opposing sports teams are likely to interpret the very same “questionable call” by a referee very differently because of their differing allegiances. Or consider the Onion's satirical newspaper headline: “Majority of Parents Abuse Children, Children Report.”

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. When Bill Clinton was impeached, he claimed a vast right-wing conspiracy was biased against him. When Sarah Palin was called out for making questionable statements at political rallies, she blamed the “lamestream media” for its biased coverage. This is not an isolated issue limited to one political stripe; people on both the right and the left tend to see the moderate media as biased against their own position simply because moderate opinions differ from more extreme ones, a phenomenon referred to as the “hostile media bias.” When commentator Juan Williams was fired from National Public Radio for making ambiguously racist remarks, conservative
Senator Jim DeMint tweeted, “The incident with Juan Williams reminds us the only free speech liberals support is the speech with which they agree.” When other people don't share your views, the all-too-common response that comes straight from the lens problem is, “I'm right, and you're biased.”

Q: Why is taking someone's actions into account not always indicative of their thoughts--don't actions speak louder than words?

A:
Yes, our minds are indeed revealed through our actions, but they are not revealed as simply or directly as we tend to think. One of the most profound mistakes in human judgment is to assume a simple and direct correspondence between a person's actions and their minds. A person who punches another is violent. A man who fails to help someone in need is selfish. A homeowner who fails to evacuate under a hurricane warning is an idiot. The problem with these simple inferences is that they overlook the context in which people are in and the complicated relationship that exists between a person's mind and his or her actions. As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of “does my butt look big in these pants” knows, what you say to someone does not always reflect what you truly believe about someone. Assuming a direct relationship between minds and actions oversimplifies the minds of others in a way that leads to severe misunderstandings. It also leads to terrible public policies intended to change people's behavior, from saving the environment to eliminating poverty to reducing obesity. Actions can speak loudly, but our intuitions also mistakenly suggest that they speak simply. Correcting this mistake would do more, I think, to improve humanity than any other.

Q: Why isn't putting yourself in the other person's shoes always the best strategy to understand their thoughts or feelings?

A:
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.


Q: There is a whole industry, it seems, built upon reading body language. You suggest this is not a good way to infer how someone is feeling or thinking. Why not?

A:
Two reasons. First, when actually held up to scientific scrutiny, our bodies do not appear to reveal as much about our inner minds as we think they do.
Even our faces can be very misleading. Someone who is suicidally depressed may not giveoff any obvious bodily cues to their inner turmoil. Bodies speak,
but only in whispers. Second, there is simply no evidence that being trained to read body language better actually increases people's ability to understand the minds of others. There is a cottage industry of books that promise to train you to read body language better, based on the promise that it will make you understand others more accurately. These books seem compelling because all of us feel like our own bodies are conveying what is on our minds fairly clearly, but that is itself an illusion. In fact, people overestimate how clearly their own bodies are revealing their emotions and beliefs to others. I
think the intuitive appeal of reading body language is based on an illusion we have about ourselves.

Q: You suggest a strategy of “perspective getting” in order to understand the minds of others most accurately. What does that mean?

A:
I'm afraid I have no little tricks or magical gimmicks for understanding the minds of others. The science on this is clear. 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. If you want to understand what it's like to be poor, you actually have to be poor or get a direct and honest report from someone who is actually in the throes of poverty. I'm afraid there is no magical conduit to the minds others, but it's easy to overlook the importance of getting someone's perspective directly.
Criminal interrogators have learned just how hard it is to enable someone to speak their minds honestly, and they have learned of the limitations. Getting someone's perspective is not easy, and I describe the challenges in detail. There is nothing that will make you understand other people, or yourself,
perfectly. But I do believe there is a lot we can do to understand others better.

Q: Has your research changed how you live your own life in any way?

A:
It has, in many ways. The most important message from all of this research is a lesson in humility. Our ability to understand the mind of others is one of our brain's greatest skills, but it doesn't work as well as we think it does, and we misunderstand other people far more often than we realize. Recognizing our own limitations is the most important step to understanding each other better. Recognizing that your own impressions could be wrong leads you to live your life differently in almost every aspect of it.

More specifically, I now talk to strangers on trains and planes far more often than I used to, I get far less anxious giving public talks than I once did,
and when I want to know what my wife want for her birthday, I ask far more often than I guess.


Q: Why is it important that we learn how to better understand the minds of others? Any historical events that might have been different if leaders had been more mindwise?

A:
So much of the world's conflict comes from a fundamental misunderstanding between minds that it's hard to know where to begin. If Neville Chamberlain had recognized that Adolph Hitler was lying when he promised not to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938, then the course of World War II would have been different.
If the United States military had recognized that terrorists fight more out of empathy for their own people than out of a stark moralistic nihilism, then I
think we would have been more effective and less destructive in Iraq. The list seems endless. But there are also many instances where wisdom prevailed throughout history and outcomes were much better than they might have been otherwise. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For a tense period in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of a nuclear World War III. The two nations got to this point after years of apparent provocations and perceived threats, fueled by misunderstanding and misinformation. It's terrifying, in hindsight, to see just how close we came to a two-sided nuclear war. This was averted, by all historical accounts, because Khrushchev opened a direct line of communication with
Kennedy at the conflict's most intense moment, allowing the two to share each other's perspectives and positions beyond the prying eyes of the world. This enabled a deep understanding about the motives and true interests of each side, enabling them to reach a resolution that would never have been found without each side gaining wisdom about the minds on the other side of this conflict. It's easy to imagine how history could look better if people had been wiser about the minds of others, but it's also easy to imagine how it could look much worse if people had been more foolish.

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