Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley
Your brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better.
More time together did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.
Compared to the mental abilities of other species on this planet, our sixth sense is what truly makes our brains superpowered. The problem is that the confidence we have in this sense far outstrips our actual ability, and the confidence we have in our judgment rarely gives us a good sense of how accurate we actually are. The main goal of this book is to reduce your illusion of insight into the minds of others, both by trying to improve your understanding and by inducing a greater sense of humility about what you know - and what you do not know - about others.
Descartes was so certain about his introspective ability that he staked his own, as well as God’s, existence on it with his famous “I think, therefore I am”.
You are consciously aware of your brain’s finished products - conscious attitudes, beliefs, intentions, and feelings - but are unaware of the processes your brain went through to construct those final products, and you are therefore unable to recognize its mistakes.
People tended to select attractively enhanced images of themselves, thinking they were more attractive than they actually were. This is why most of the pictures taken of you seem to look so bad.
When you don’t know the actual facts about yourself, your consciousness pieces together a compelling story, much in the same way it does when you’re trying to read the minds of other people to make sense of why they act as they do.
Shoppers were first shown four pairs of stockings and asked to pick the best. In fact, the stockings were identical. The researchers found that the ordering mattered: shoppers preferred whichever stocking was on the far right (thereby evaluated last) four times more often than whichever stocking was on the far left (thereby evaluated first).
If you see someone hunched over, you will assume that they are not feeling very proud. Find yourself hunching over in the same way, even if only because you’re filling out a survey on a table with very short legs, and you may report being less proud of yourself and your accomplishments, too.
An illusion that we know our own minds more deeply than we actually do has one disturbing consequence: it can make your mind appear superior to the minds of others.
Naïve realism: the intuitive sense that we see the world out there as it actually is, rather than as it appears from our own perspective.
If the illusions you hold about your own brain lead you to believe that you see the world as it actually is and you find that others see the world differently, then they must be the ones who are biased, distorted, uninformed, ignorant, unreasonable, or evil.
The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.
Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child.
It can be easy to forget that other people have minds with the same general capacities and experiences as your own.
Distance keeps your sixth sense disengaged.
Your ability to understand the minds of others can be triggered by your physical senses.
Sit up straight and you’ll feel more proud of your accomplishments.
Furrowing your brow, as if you are thinking harder, can lead you to actually think harder.
Botox dulls your social senses right along with your wrinkles.
Medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is involved in making inferences about the minds of others. MPFC is engaged more when you’re thinking about yourself, your close friends and family, and others who have beliefs similar to your own. It is activated when you care enough about others to care what they are thinking, and not when you are indifferent to others.
A universal tendency to assume that others’ minds are less sophisticated and more superficial than one’s own.
Ubuntu: “a person is a person through other persons.” Your humanity comes from the way you treat others, the idea goes, not the way you behave in isolation.
Treat workers with respect, encourage them to think independently, allow them to make decisions, and make them feel connected to an important effort.
I stopped staring blankly and instead looked one of the boys directly in the eyes, smiled, and waved. It was like I flipped a switch in him. I suddenly wasn’t just a foreigner; I was a human being. He flew into a wide-eyed smile and a big wave.
Engage the minds of others more routinely instead of treating nearby neighbors as mindless objects.
Attributing a mind to a nonhuman agent is the inverse process of failing to attribute a mind to another person.
Too fast or too slow and the robot in these experiments was recognized as a mindless machine, but at just the right speed, closer to human speed, the robot seemed more mindful. It started to look like it might be thinking or planning or feeling something.
The concept of a mind can explain the behavior of almost anything.
Religious beliefs are intuitively compelling because minds are intuitive explanations for the behavior of almost anything.
Urban children are more likely to anthropomorphize animals such as cows and pigs and deer than are rural children. Why? Because rural children are likely to have considerably more knowledge about these animals, knowledge acquired through direct experience.
A man on one side of a river shouts to a man standing on the other side, “Hey, how do I get to the other side of the river?” The other man responds, “You are on the other side of the river.”
People are insanely self-conscious. People act like they’re always being watched. Even their house is a performance.
All of the world may indeed be a stage, and it’s easy to feel that we’re at the center of it.
The social spotlight does not shine on us nearly as brightly as we think.
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
Becoming aware of your own perspective liberates you from it.
“The media” are consistently accused of being biased but never found to favor those making the accusations.
People tend to exaggerate the extent to which others think, believe, and feel as they do.
Knowledge is a curse because once you have it, you can’t imagine what it’s like not to possess it.
Ever tried to get driving directions from a local?
Tappers estimated that listeners would identify the song correctly, on average, 50 percent of the time. In fact, listeners guessed correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.
The lens problem affects anyone who has unique knowledge of anything: the boss who understands a proposal inside out and is trying to convey the ideas to new clients, the inventor who knows precisely why her invention is so important speaking to impatient venture capitalists, or the coworker who is “just teasing” a new hire who knows nothing of the teaser’s friendly intentions. The expert’s problem is assuming that what’s so clear in his or her own mind is more obvious to others.
Consider how they would be judged by someone looking at their photograph.
Ambiguous mediums like email and texting and Twitter are such fertile ground for misunderstanding.
Those actually receiving the messages, however, could understand the speaker’s intention only when the speaker was on the phone. They could hear the sarcasm dripping from their voice regardless of whether they were actually using their voice or typing with their fingers. Those receiving the message, of course, could hear the sarcasm only through the speaker’s voice and heard nothing from the speaker’s fingers.
Believers might be even more egocentric when reasoning about God’s beliefs than when reasoning about other people’s beliefs.
If God is a moral compass, then the compass seems prone to pointing believers in whatever direction they are already facing.
You can’t judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. You hear it so often because the advice is so routinely ignored - by the rich who judge the poor as lazy and incompetent, the sober who judge the addicted to be weak and immoral, and the happy who can’t understand why the depressed don’t just “snap out of it.”
Learn that someone is a member of a different group than you, and you will drop egocentrism and pick up a stereotype to reason about that person’s mind instead.
Liberals favor a more equitable distribution than do conservatives, but by how much? The difference between Democratic and Republican presidential voters was only 3.5 percent. Expecting a 40 percent gap between poor and rich when the actual gap was only 3 percent.
How your brain thinks of groups of anything: Instead of remembering exact details, you extract the “gist” of the information. The “gist” of a group is not its individual members but, rather, its average.
Women tended to think men would be more sexist than they actually were, exaggerating the differences between men and women.
Where our stereotypes go wrong: getting too little information, defining groups by their differences, and being unable to observe the true causes of group differences directly.
Each of us views only a small slice of the world’s people, hears only haphazard bits of highly selected evidence from news outlets or other sources, and talks to only a narrow group of generally like-minded friends.
Stereotypes about majority groups also look to be more accurate than stereotypes about minority groups, simply because larger groups provide more observational evidence than smaller groups.
When you go on a trip, much of your experience involves doing the same thing for long stretches of time - flying, driving, sleeping, standing, waiting, walking - but the story you tell your friends afterward is all about the different things you experienced.
You define yourself by the attributes that make you different.
A man who claims to be searching for himself is looking for a sense of distinction.
Consider the common stereotype that women are more emotional than men: Men and women watching the same emotionally evocative scenes show the same emotional reactions, on average, of the same intensity. Where men and women differ is in the outward expressions of their emotions, with women being more expressive than men. But when people watch these men and women, they infer that women are feeling more emotion than men because they are showing more emotion than men.
There are real differences in what men and women want but even larger similarities.
Those who write about gender are more attentive to differences than to similarities.
The differences among men and women are far larger than the differences between men and women.
Consider politics: people on opposing sides of each issue consistently assume that the other side is more extreme than it actually is. Real partisanship increases partly because of imagined partisanship on the other side. Israel and Egypt were disputing ownership of the Sinai Peninsula in 1976. Instead of fighting a zero-sum battle, the two sides came together and figured out each other’s actual interests. Israel wanted security, and Egypt wanted sovereignty. The Israelis didn’t want the Sinai Peninsula; they just didn’t want to be attacked from it. The solution reached at Camp David was to give the land back to Egypt but to create a demilitarized band along the border. Israel got its safety, and Egypt got its land.
When groups are defined by their differences, people think they have less in common with people of other races or faiths or genders than they actually do.
Ignoring real group differences is every bit as mistaken as exaggerating them.
The elderly can behave differently than the young, blacks differently than whites, and women differently than men because of stereotypes about these groups rather than because of any inherent differences.
The questioner asked difficult questions and, therefore, looked bright. The contestant answered incorrectly and, therefore, looked dim. This is the correspondence bias, inferring a mind that corresponds with observed actions.
Common sense infers that the players are of unequal intellect rather than on an unequal playing field.
Those living in collectivist cultures and those generally more concerned with social norms and interpersonal harmony (such as in Southeast Asia) are, broadly speaking, more likely to recognize when people’s actions reflect the dictates of their roles and environments rather than their corresponding states of mind, compared to people in cultures that place an emphasis on individual freedom and choice.
Most people trust what others tell them even when they might be lying.
The difficulty of disbelieving behavior that we naturally take at face value.
Misunderstanding the power of context can lead us to design ineffective solutions to important problems. If our intuitions tell us that people do what they want, then one path to changing their behavior is obvious: you need to make people want the right things.
Hurricane Katrina: “We’ve got to figure out some way to convince people that whenever warnings go out, it’s for their own good.” The main problem in Brown’s mind was that people didn’t want to leave, and so the solution is to persuade people more effectively the next time. This solution may create a great warning system that leaves just as many people stranded the next time. Many who stayed wanted desperately to leave but couldn’t. They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus. You can see the offspring of this error in many well-meaning interventions. The poor making unwise financial choices? Roll out a financial literacy program to make their minds smarter.
Much more effective for changing behavior is targeting the broader context rather than individual minds, making it easier for people to do the things they already want to do. To keep people from littering, add additional trash cans, and then to pick up existing trash that otherwise makes it look like everyone else is littering.
Paying students and teachers for improved performance was completely ineffective.
Assuming that a person’s mind corresponds directly to his or her actions misses the importance of context in shaping behavior.
As the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood that any one of them will help you actually decreases. The ideal number might be two: one to help you and the other to call an ambulance.
The tools at our intuitive disposal are simplifying heuristics that give imperfect insight into the minds of others. The mistakes they lead to create predictable errors that keep us from perfect understanding.
Provide simple shortcuts for understanding the minds of others, but they come at the cost of oversimplifying them.
After I mention that I’m working on a book about mind reading, my conversational partner assumes I’m writing about either body language (learning to read facial cues or physical gestures) or perspective taking (learning to imagine yourself in another person’s situation). Which approach does the scientific evidence support? Neither.
To predict how the storyteller was feeling at each moment, those who could only see the storyteller were significantly less accurate than those who could only hear the storyteller. Emotions were carried primarily on the speaker’s voice.
“Microexpressions,” very brief flashes of emotion lasting less than one-fifth of a second and shown either on the entire face or in just a small part of it: The scientific credibility of claims about microexpressions is currently weak, at best.
Most of us are better liars than we think we are.
Perspective taking consistently decreased accuracy. Overthinking someone’s emotional expression or inner intentions when there is little else to go on might introduce more error than insight.
Perspective taking exaggerated the perceived differences between the groups, thereby increasing distrust and enhancing selfishness.
What’s the best way to get someone a gift? The science is clear. You don’t try to adopt another person’s perspective and guess better. Instead, you adopt a different approach. You have to actually get the other person’s perspective, and perhaps the only way to do that is to ask what they want, or listen carefully while they drop hints, and then give it to them. That turns out to be widely applicable wisdom.
Nearly everything you know is secondhand: things you know only because someone told you.
The best predictor of empathic accuracy appears to be verbal intelligence. Knowing others’ minds requires asking and listening, not just reading and guessing.
Getting your partner’s perspective by asking them directly works much better than taking your partner’s perspective by using your imagination.
The main barrier to getting perspective is that others won’t tell you what you’d like to know. They lie, mislead, misdirect, avoid, or simply refuse to divulge the truth. The vast majority of these lies are told by a small number of chronic liars. Keep your cynicism in check. Many people will tell you the truth if you ask a direct question in a context where they feel at liberty to give an honest answer and you are open to hearing.
The main reason people lie is to avoid being punished.
Instead of pressuring suspects until they crack from intimidation, fear, and pain, the new and more effective interrogation approach is one that establishes rapport and reduces fears of punishment. People were more willing to admit to having done something immoral when confronted a few minutes after the event - when their fear had subsided a bit - than when questioned immediately after the incident.
It makes no more sense for a pollster to ask you why you’re voting for someone than it does for a doctor to ask you why you’re feeling sick. And so pollsters instead ask about what people think.
People know their feelings right now more accurately than they can project what they’ll be feeling months from now. Generally focus questions on the present rather than the future. Getting perspective fails if your direct questions turn speculative.
If you have to reiterate someone else’s point to their satisfaction, then you’ll find out if you’ve understood.
Understanding other people requires getting their perspective and then verifying that you’ve understood it correctly.
Technique for creating fast friends is to have two strangers disclose private thoughts or memories to each other.
The secret to understanding each other better seems to come not through an increased ability to read body language or improved perspective taking but, rather, through the hard relational work of putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly.