I was thinking what topic to choose for writing. And stopped on this one. 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. With that in mind, I read Nicholas Epley’s new book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. 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 you do intuitively every day of your life, dozens of times a day, when you infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending. 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, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals”.
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 are somewhat predictable and, therefore, argues Epley, correctable. They happen in two ways:
ur 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? 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. Our most common mistakes come from excessive egocentrism, overreliance on stereotypes, and an all-to-easy assumption. All of these mistakes have the same basic consequence of leading us to think that others’ minds are more simplistic than they actually are.
The other aspect is that We have a lens problem. The lens shapes what we see. <strong>And we react to what we see. I’m right, and you’re biased.
But our Mind is such a Beautiful Thing.
Like atoms, 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. 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 seemed natural social relationship is to understand those beautiful creatures – people.
The project “YOU are the EU” is funded by the Agency for Mobility and EU programmes withing the program European Solidarity Corps.