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How Behavioral Science Can Make You a Mind Reader

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Understanding Misunderstanding

It was the perfect gift for her, without a doubt: A day spent as "trainer for a day" at the Shedd Aquarium in our hometown of Chicago. My wife loves dolphins. She would be thrilled: my gift would assure her that nobody knows, understands, and loves her like I do. She teased apart the wrapping paper, taking a minute to digest the brochure's fine print. Anticipation bound me like a knot, and then the reaction! "Oh," she said with a light sigh and a compassionate smile. I was wrong. Completely, painfully, surprisingly wrong. She never used the gift. Am I the only one who sometimes misunderstands those we are supposed to understand the most?

Apparently not. This is a personally embarrassing example of a scientific lesson I have been learning over the course of nearly two decades as a behavioral scientist. We simply do not understand others' thoughts, beliefs, emotions or intentions nearly as well as we think we do, even for those we presumably know the most. Consider a simple experiment that Mary Steffel, Tal Eyal, and I conducted recently. We asked romantic couples (55 percent married) to play something like The Newlywed Game, for science. One member of each couple reported the extent to which he or she agreed with a survey of 20 statements we provided on a scale ranging from one ("strongly disagree") to seven ("strongly agree"). The survey's questions ranged widely, from "I think our family is too heavily in debt today," to "If I had my life to live over, I would sure do things differently," and "I would rather spend a quiet evening at home than go out to a party." The other member simply predicted how the partner would answer each item.

How well did our couples know each other? By chance alone, our couples would have predicted roughly three out of 20 exactly correctly. But as our couples had been together for an average of 10.3 years, you won't be surprised to learn that they did better than chance -- albeit not by much. They predicted 4.9 out of the 20 items correctly. What's surprising is that the couples believed they had done much better, predicting that they guessed 12.6 out of the 20 items correctly. They suffered from the same illusion as me, thinking that they understood their other half much better than they actually did. Where does our understanding go so surprisingly wrong?

Three places, at least. First, we tend to be egocentric, assuming that others think, feel, and believe as we do ourselves. Remember when my President, Barack Obama, first visited your former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and brought a DVD set of the 20 best American films as a gift? That gift might be something that every American would love. The problem is that Gordon Brown was almost legally blind. A perfectly sighted American on Obama's staff might forget that movies are not as good when your eyes can't see them.

Second, we tend to stereotype, assuming that others' minds match the groups they are part of. This is not inherently misleading (learning that I am a Professor gives you some understanding of my beliefs, attitudes and preferences), but stereotypes also create systematic distortions. In particular, they focus on group differences more than group similarities, and so may exaggerate the differences between the minds of different group members. In politics, there is strong evidence that perceived differences between liberals and conservatives is considerably larger than the actual differences. And the differences between the minds of men and women can be wildly exaggerated. As a favorite definition goes, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, too." I'll add that men are people, too.

Finally, we too easily assume that others' minds match their behavior more simply than they actually do. Every actor who has ever been "typecast" knows this in detail. Leonard Nimoy got so tired of people treating him like the hyper-rational character he pretended to be on Star Trek that he titled his first autobiography, I am not Spock. People pretend, mislead, make mistakes and act with complex motives -- all subtleties we overlook when we forget the context of a person's actions. Actions speak, but not clearly.

I misunderstood my wife because I assumed that she would enjoy the aquarium experience as much as I would, that her love of seeing dolphins in the past meant she would love a behind-the-scenes experience with them in the present, and I neglected to consider her change in circumstances: we had a two-month old son and she temporarily lost her enthusiasm for stinky fish and wetsuits.

Misunderstanding is a sad fact of all relationships, one that our science suggests is much more common that you'd guess. When your beloved gives you precisely the wrong gift, it doesn't make them insensitive or stupid. It just makes them human. And if you're trying your best to give precisely the right gift, I recommend taking a dose of humility, refrain from guessing, and ask what your beloved wants most instead.

The Behavioral Science of Mind Reading

Science offers no magic tricks or mystical gimmicks to understand others' more effectively, but some approaches work better than others, and some that seem effective are not.

  1. Faces are overrated. In one experiment, observers were unable to tell whether someone had just won or lost a tennis match by looking at the person's face. Stage actors learn to comically exaggerate their facial expressions because faces are not always so expressive otherwise.
  2. Be wary of body language. There is virtually no evidence that learning to read subtle nonverbal cues systematically increases our understanding of others. In the U.S., the TSA has spent nearly one billion dollars training "behavioral analysts" to detect criminal activity in airports. It appears to be completely ineffective. Behavior is simply too easy to misread.
  3. Know you don't know. The biggest barrier to understanding another person better is believing you understand them already. Humility is a prerequisite for accuracy.
  4. Simulate the surroundings. The old adage that you can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in his shoes is true, but who has time for all of that walking? Learning more about the context that a person is in allows you to simulate what it is like to be them more accurately. Watching Leonard Nimoy play Spock may lead you to think that he is a very rational person, until you remember the context: he's only acting.
  5. Ask. There is no magic in this, but the truth is that the closest you can get to another person's thoughts is through their mouth. Putting people in a context where they can tell you their minds honestly and openly, and then asking the right questions, is the best way to understand what someone else thinks, believes, feels or wants.