Embrace Possibility Mindwise by Nicholas Epley

Mindwise by Nicholas Epley

Mindwise Book Cover by Nicholas Epley

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Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

  • Published: January 2015
  • ISBN-10: 30774356X
  • EP Rating: 5 out of 5 (must read)

EP Main Takeaway:  We are strangers to ourselves. We think we know why we do certain things but more often than not, the story we tell ourselves is not the driver for our behaviors. It's important to identify the unconscious triggers for your actions.

We all see things through our own lens and often mistakenly assume we are experiencing the same situation in the same way as other people. It is easy for us to assume we know the intentions of another person's actions and be completely wrong. Instead of perspective-taking, we should shift to perspective-getting. The best way to understand others is not reading their body language or taking their perspective, it's doing the hard relational work to put people in a position to tell you their minds openly and honestly. Even then, be aware that they themselves may not know the true reasons for what they are doing. Strive to see others in their full and varied details and resist the temptation to see others as like us, like others in the group they're a part of, or like what their behaviors infer.

Our notes:

Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want - Nicholas Epley

To more smoothly move through life, you want to be adept at understanding what others are thinking and feeling.

We tend to misread another person when we:

  • treat that person as a mindless animal or object; or treat something mindless as mindful (pleading with a car or phone to work)
  • misunderstand others' thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, or emotions

We tend to have a general sense of our impression on others but we don't have an accurate sense of how the other person perceives us. For example, we may think we come across as caring but we may actually be seen by particular individuals as being manipulative. Our confidence in knowing the mind of others far outstrips our actual accuracy - the longer we are familiar with someone or the more we know about them, the more we believe we know them but that's not true. We are terrible at figuring out who is lying to us.

There can be a significant disconnect between how you think about yourself and how you actually behave. For example, you might think you are an honest person but you may still behave dishonestly. A test you can try: Predict when you will finish one of your most important tasks and write down the due date for the best, realistic, and worst-case scenarios. There is a good chance you won't complete your task by even your worst-case scenario (planning fallacy)

We construct our beliefs. It's not something we are born with. Unconscious beliefs are responsible for what we do habitually in life. Conscious beliefs are responsible for making sense of what we do so we can explain it to ourselves and others. The issue is that these two belief systems are not hard-wired together and there is a split between thought and action. We often act unconsciously and rationalize consciously. When we feel happy, we are only guessing at the reason why! We don't know for sure.

How we think we are going to act is usually different than how we would actually act. We are strangers to ourselves because we miss the neural reasons for our conditioned behavior. Neurons that fire together are more closely bonded together. To take advantage of this idea, think of your daily triggers and associate them with the feelings you want to begin becoming aware of your unconscious beliefs. A few unconscious behaviors include:

  • Attraction - we are attracted to symmetry even though we can not consciously perceive or recognize it. If you want to be more aesthetically pleasing to others, take action to show more symmetry in your face.
  • Us vs. Them - when we set up this construct, the people we place in the "Them" category is often seen as "lesser than" which allows us to act towards them in ways we would not act towards those in the "Us" category. It is easy to place people in the "Them" category if they are different from us or physically separated from us.
  • Helping others - another learned pattern is complying with requests when given a reason. Researchers did a study where they had participants use three different, specifically worded requests to skip the line at a photocopier:
    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”
    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

    Here are the results:

    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”: 60% compliance.
    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”: 93% compliance.
    • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”: 94% compliance.
    • Just using the word because triggered the automatic response of the other person to comply. The reason didn't even matter.

We are often just guessing and rationalizing when we try to explain our actions. It is possible that we acted for another reason altogether beyond our awareness. We falsely believe we know why we do things so it is not helpful to ask others why they did something because they are most likely making up their response.

Naive realism = the intuitive sense that we see the world as it actually is as opposed to what it appears like from our own perspective. This idea is what makes you think other people are wrong or biased if they can't see what you see or they don't agree with you.

You recognize intrinsic motivation more easily in yourself than in others.  We tend to think others are always in it for the money or other superficial reasons while we are in it for more meaningful reasons. To fight against this faulty thinking, treat workers with respect, encourage them to think independently, allow them to make decisions, and make them feel connected to an important effort. See workers as mindful human beings who care about doing a good job not lesser minds worried about getting a paycheck.

Find ways to routinely engage with those around you - wave, smile, and strike up a conversation. Look for ways to find overlap in your attentional experience of the same situation.

Sometimes we are triggered to engage with the mind of another and other times we are not. These triggers come through our senses and by inferences:

  • Perceptions: if it looks, walks, or talks like it has a mind, we are triggers to think something is mindful. For example, fake eyes and motion at human speeds may make something seem mindful. If you speed up motion beyond what is human, a person may seem mindless.
  • Explainable: If an object seems to act unpredictability, that might also make it seem more mindful since it may look like the object is making choices about how to behave. This again is our tendency to attribute meaning to explain behaviors even when there is no good reason. We often see desires and goals when we observe starts and stops. We use strength to explain intensity. We may infer beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and emotion to explain the direction and nature of an action. For example, when Spotify plays a random song that is aligned with our exact mood at the moment, we may find it to be mindful.
  • Social connection: when we find someone or something closely connected to our own mind, we will tend to engage and take notice. Liking something, feeling a connection to it, or even wanting to establish a connection with it, gives that thing a mind.

Minds often tend to operate more similarly than differently - understanding your own mind can give you insights into the mind of others.

When we seek to read someone, we rely on 3 strategies:

1. Project from our own mind

It is easy to be self-centered and focused on our own experiences, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, knowledge, and visual perspective. We don't outgrow these childhood instincts but can overcome them by more careful and reflective thinking. A good example is when we are buying a gift for someone else. If we are not thinking about it, we will choose what we like (if you like books, you will end up gifting books). If you want to know what to gift someone else, closely observe what they tend to gift to others.

For any given situation, you may be focused on different things than other people (spotlight - what you observe) or you may be focused on the same thing and your evaluation is different (lens - how you observe it). This creates a potential for miscommunication because even though your views are unique to each other, you feel like you're experiencing the same thing. We tend to believe we are more likely than others to experience common events and less likely than others to experience less likely events. Just because you are looking at the same thing, it doesn't mean that others will evaluate it as you do (Barry bonds homerun ball dispute).

We overclaim our contribution to positive and negative activities because we can recall them easier than the work of others. If you're working on a team, you will always feel like you are pulling more weight than others just because you're fully aware of all the things you're doing and assume the other person is only doing what you see. Relax if others don't seem to appreciate your work; they are not watching you because they don't really care what you're up to. (Quote from Casablanca: "you despise me don't you", "if I gave you any thought, I would")

Some advice:

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind"

The problem with lenses is that you look through it and not at it so you may not recognize it. It is difficult to tell when your own view is distorted by it.

  • When your own views are one-sided, a balanced account will necessarily differ from your own perspective, and errors will always seem to come from the other person (hostile media effect). Parents seeing the world as more dangerous after having their first child.
  • People tend to exaggerate the extent to which others think, believe and feel as they do
  • The expert's curse is a lens problem. The expert lens helps you notice subtle details but you lose the bigger picture that a novice would need. There is a tendency to assume that what's so clear in your mind is more obvious to others than it actually is. That's why experts may not always make the best teachers.
  • We know so much about ourselves and that's why we have such difficulty understanding what others think of us. We naturally assume others know, think, believe, or feel as we do (serious, sarcastic email experiment). The more unknown or ambiguous the other person's mind, the more you project your own perspective on that person.
  • You don't overcome the lens problem by trying harder. You overcome it by actually being in that perspective or hearing directly from someone who has been in it. Find ways to experience the view you're deciding on.

2. Use stereotypes

We rely on stereotypes if we see people as different. We lean on our own experiences if we see others as the same or similar to us. Stereotypes help us get the direction right but we typically get the magnitudes wrong. For groups, we remember the gist of our experience with them - we remind ourselves of our average mood with a particular group.

What leads to bad stereotypes:

  • Getting too little information about the group
    • If you analyze only part of the data, you're bound to look dumb
    • The less we know, the more our stereotypes mislead, but it's hard to know that we are missing info
    • Stereotypes mislead because they are based on expressions we can see rather than in experiences that remain invisible. There is more to the world than meets the eye
  • Defining groups by their differences - we are wired to see and notice differences.
    • It is difficult to observe the true causes of group differences directly
    • Noticing differences is not a problem but defining a group by their differences can be. Borderline cases get squished to fit definitions (thinking a short basketball player is taller than he is because we assume basketball players are tall).
    • It's important to remember that we are a lot more similar than we are different. It's easy to assume the other side is more extreme than they really are.
  • Stereotypes become self-fulfilling
    • If a group is not good at school and we identify as being part of that group, we will assume we are not good at school which may cause us to reduce our efforts to study.
    • Stereotypes are susceptible to confirmation bias - we can easily spot behaviors that confirm the stereotype and dismiss actions that go against what we expect to see.

3. Infer a mind from a person's actions

People mistakenly infer a person's emotions, motivations, and preferences from their expressions, choices, and actions. Judging a mind based on behaviors is flat-earth thinking.

We need to see and understand the other person's broader context - what's happening in their world. For example, someone who renounces their citizenship might do so because they hate their country or they are being forced to do so by a terrorist. Same behavior but two very different minds. When you don't look at the broader context, you will misread a person's actions. Know that our first instinct is to connect action with intention even though that may mislead us. It is difficult to disbelieve behavior that we naturally take at face value - insincere flattery is shown to be just as effective as sincere flattery.

To drive sustained change, change the broader context, not just the action. Create the right circumstances for your success. 

Emotions are mainly carried on the person's voice. Subtle body language cues are very hard to read.

It is extremely difficult to take someone's perspective unless we know where they have come from:

  • Overthinking someone's emotional expression or inner intention when there is little else to go on might introduce more error than insight. If you are wrong about the other person's perspective, the careful deliberation might lead to even worse misunderstanding and devastating consequences.
  • Perspective-taking forces people to look carefully and honestly into the minds of others and many times they assume the worst even though they have no idea if what they are seeing is correct.
  • Don't underestimate how current circumstances impact people

Best tactic: Ask directly or listen carefully when people drop hints about their preferences. Try harder to GET another person's perspective than to TAKE it when they reveal it to you. Knowing others' minds requires asking and listening, not reading and guessing. Your goal is to create a relationship where people are free to communicate openly with you. Be perspective-getting and not perspective-taking. 

Challenges with perspective-getting:

  • People may lie to you. People will more likely speak honestly 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 it. Must make it psychologically safe - diminish the fear of punishment. People more willing to admit wrong when they are dealing with someone cool and rational (immunity if you tell the truth)
  • People don't really know themselves honestly. They generally know accurately how they feel now than how they will feel in the future. Instead of asking Why, ask What. Convert Why did you do that? to "What were some of the key considerations for your decision?"
  • People's words may be unclear which leaves room for misunderstanding. Confirm what you're hearing to verify you understood what was said and what was meant.

When it comes to sharing your perspective, know that people cannot read your mind. Be more transparent when your perspective matters and when it's wanted from the other person.

The best way to understand others is not reading their body language or taking their perspective, it's doing the hard relational work to put people in a position to tell you their minds openly and honestly. Even then, be aware that they themselves may not know the true reasons for what they are doing. Strive to see others in their full and varied detail and resist the temptation to see others as like us, like others in the group they're a part of, or like what they do.

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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