Becoming better mind-readers - to work out how other people see you, use the right lens

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Jan 4, 2010 8:30 PMNov 5, 2019 2:07 AM


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We spend a lot of time wondering about what other people think of us. Do they find us attractive, intelligent, capable or trustworthy? Considering how often we mull over such questions and how confidently we arrive at conclusions, we are remarkablybad at answering them. We have a nasty tendency to use our own minds as a starting point when reasoning about other people's and we rely too heavily on stereotypes and other expectations. In short, we are rubbish telepaths.

Mind-reading is still the stuff of science-fiction (or quackery) but Nicholas Epley is more interested in the everyday version of the skill, where we try and intuit what others think. Regular readers may remember him from last month's post about how people rely on their own attitudes and beliefs when divining the mind of God. Now, together with Tal Eyal, Epley's back with research that tries to teach us how to be better mind-readers.

It's all about detail, or lack of it. We see ourselves in lots of detail, focusing on every single quality or imperfection. Others view us through a much broader and abstract lens. When it comes to ourselves, we're experts, privy to a wealth of knowledge that others don't have. We're also psychologically close, always aware of our state in the here and now.

In practice, when thinking about our attractiveness, we tend to focus on how our hair sits, the small wrinkles on our faces or the specific hue of our clothes, while others tend to notice higher-level features like ethnicity, height or overall presentation. You know that your hair looks much better today or that you've got a new spot, while a potential date knows none of these things. The same applies to other areas - presenters might rate the quality of their talks by fretting over every word or slide, while audience members pay more attention to overall content and delivery style.

It's this disparity between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us that makes us bad telepaths. The trick to more accurately working out how others see us is to view ourselves through a wide-angle lens rather than a microscope.

Epley demonstrated this through four experiments. First, he recruited 106 students and asked half of them to pose for a picture. They were told that the other group would rate how attractive they were in either a day or a month. They had to predict those ratings, and write a brief description of how they'd be perceived. In reality, all the judges gave their scores there and then. Epley reckoned that people would be better at predicting how others would judge them in the far future than in the immediate one, because we think about things in the distant future using a broad, high-level perspective - the same lens that others view us through.

Sure enough, the posers were significantly better at predicting the judges' marks if they thought they were being rated in a month than in a day. The descriptions also supported his explanation. When the posers had to think how they'd be perceived tomorrow, they mentioned specific traits such as "hair tied in ponytail" or "looks tired". If they had to read the mind of a judge one month in the future, they mentioned general details like "Asian" or "wears glasses". These are the same sorts of comments that the judges themselves wrote in their descriptions.

A second similar study found the same trends when students had to record a description of themselves for a few minutes. Again, they were told that a listener would use the recording to form an overall impression of them, either later that day or several months from now. And again, they were better at predicting the judges' actual scores if they were casting their mind into the future.

At first, this trick of looking at yourself through a less, detailed lens might seem a bit like another typical strategy used by would-be mind-readers - putting yourself in other people's shoes. But that's not what's at work here - in these experiments, people are very unlikely to know that other people are using different perspective to their own. Indeed, other studies have found that people aren't that good at taking someone else's perspective and the strategy has little value in terms of understanding how others see us.

Epley decided to pit both techniques against each other. He repeated his first experiment but this time, he asked some of the students to specifically try and put themselves in another person's shoes. They were told to adopt the perspective of another student, who might see their picture from a different viewpoint. This tactic didn't make them better at predicting their own scores - only making themselves think a month head worked.

Epley also asked some of the volunteers to fill in a questionnaire that calculated their tendency to view themselves in fine-grained or general detail, and their tendency to take the perspective of other people. As expected, the former measure had no bearing on their accuracy, but the latter one did. So changing the way people construe themselves is a better mind-reading strategy than encouraging them to put themselves in someone else's shoes.

This tactic might work for understanding how other people see us, but we're also interested in how our friends and loved ones feel about themselves. And for this mission, we need to put away the wide-angle lens. Remember that people look at themselves in finest detail - it's time to whip out that microscope.

In a twist on his first experiment, Epley asked the people who posed for the photos to say how attractive they found themselves. This time, the judges were asked to predict the scores that the models gave themselves and told that the photo was taken either earlier that day or a few months ago. And this time, they were more accurate if they thought the models had rated themselves recently.

Together, these four studies strongly support the idea that our failure as mind-readers stems from an inability to look at ourselves and other people with the level of detail that they would use. Correcting this mismatch won't allow us to become true telepaths - it's not going to suddenly allow you to guess someone's favourite colours or political preferences. It should, however, help us to better understand how people see themselves or each other, especially for people who are very different, or those who are unfamiliar.

If you want to understand how others see you, put away the fine-grained details and take a "big picture" look at yourself. If you're worried that other people will judge you too harshly for a mistake, try to zoom away from the details of the blunder and look at the various bits of info that people take into account when thinking about you. Likewise, if you want to understand how others see themselves, shelve the generalities that you would use and start focusing in on the minutiae that they pay attention to. As Epley says, "This strategy will not turn other minds into an open book, but it should, under the right circumstances, make other minds somewhat easier to read."

Reference: Eyal and Epley. 2009. How To Be Telepathic: Enabling Mind Reading by Matching Construal. Psychological Science in press.

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