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

Nicholas Epley

(London Times)

'There's no art /To find the mind's construction in the face', Shakespeare had Duncan say about Macbeth - and, as usual, the Bard was right. This, at least, is the conclusion to be drawn from Mindwise. A comfortingly slim volume by Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, it consists of a series of empirical observations, via experimentation, about the ability we all have to understand others. And although Epley proclaims encouragingly in the preface that 'mind-reading is a superpower you already have', the chapters that follow confirm my own suspicion that we humans are pretty useless at it.

For example, he describes an experiment in which subjects are asked to say what they think people on screened interviews are feeling when the volume is switched off. The accuracy of the observers was barely better than random guessing. In other words, despite all the psychobabble about body language, our intelligence of others comes almost entirely from what they say. This, incidentally, suggests that if a witness chooses to wear a burqa in court, it in no way impedes a jury from making the necessary assessment of her veracity.

Depressingly for those of us who regard ourselves as having some sort of telepathic understanding of our wives or husbands, other experiments outlined by Epley show that all that we have gained over the years is greater (unjustified) confidence that we know what our spouses are silently thinking.

The business world has for decades sworn by a Dale Carnegie motto: 'Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.' But as Epley demonstrates, this is almost impossible, because we tend to have a distorted idea of what it actually means to be 'the other'. Carnegie's dictum might even magnify our misunderstanding. So, when President Obama told the UN that peace will come between Israel and the Palestinians 'when each side learns to stand in the other's shoes', Epley observes: 'If an Israeli imagines himself as a Palestinian, what kind of derogatory stereotypes is he likely to access in order to imagine a Palestinian's mind?' - and, presumably, vice versa.

The human tendency to think we are empathising when, in fact, we are merely superimposing our own fears and prejudices on others is seen in the way so many assume it is better not to have been born than to be born with disabilities. That is not the view of those who are congenitally disabled - or at least, they experience no more existential angst than occurs within the general population.

Having observed this myself as the father of a disabled person, I was not in the least surprised by the results of Epley's experiments. What did enlighten me, however, were his demonstrations of how little we understand of ourselves — how much we rely on stereotyping in forming our identities. Thus, societies in which there is great respect for the wisdom of the aged, such as China, tend to show a smaller degree of mental decline in the elderly - as compared, for example, with America. In other words, our intellectual performance is adversely affected by our misperceptions of what is going on within our own brains.

Almost poignantly, Epley explains how when black and white students at Stanford University were asked to perform IQ-type tests, a group of black students did worse when they were asked to give their race on a form at the start. As he notes: 'This effect has now been replicated so many times and in so many different ways that a large number of psychologists study little else.' Obviously, the same will work on the upside: Asian-Americans will do better in tests when asked to give their ethnic origin because they have a 'good' stereotype with which to conform.

Epley's findings might depress the reader: should we not conclude that we know little of what others think - and much less than we imagined about our own identity? Yes, but how wonderful to have this insight into the extent of our ignorance.

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