Media Center: ‘Mindwise’ by Nicholas Epley
WHO: Nicholas Epley
WHAT: MINDWISE: How We Understand
What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
WHEN: Published by Knopf February 14, 2014
WHERE: The author lives in Chicago.
WHY: “A clever psychology primer.
Animals and humans think, but only humans can understand what others are thinking. Without this ability, cooperative society is unimaginable. It’s a sixth sense, akin to mind reading, writes Epley in this clever psychology primer.
“’My goal is to describe your brain’s predictable malfunctions that keep you from understanding the minds of others as well as you could,’ writes the author, who quickly points out how we get it wrong. At worst, we neglect our mind-reading ability on the grounds that another has no mind—i.e., dehumanization. German Jews and Native Americans were once viewed, and even legally labeled, as subhuman. Readers will nod sadly and agree that all men are brothers—except terrorists, of course, who are mindless psychopaths.
“We also do the opposite, writes Epley. We attribute minds to mindless entities that behave in unpredictable ways: hurricanes, the stock market, computers, cars, etc. Our mental tools provide imperfect insights: We know our own minds intimately, so egocentricity exerts too much influence. We label others as stereotypes. Although politically incorrect, stereotyping is not entirely inaccurate but emphasizes differences over similarities. We assume that a person’s actions reflect his or her thoughts, but this is surprisingly undependable. The best way to determine what another person is thinking—proven by scientific studies—is to ask.
“Epley presents a steady stream of imaginative studies. Although readers will learn a great deal, they must remember that the author is a teacher and scientist, not a media guru, so his advice for improving mind reading emphasizes avoiding the usual mistakes. Epley ably explores many entertaining and entirely convincing mistakes, so readers will have a thoroughly satisfying experience.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“Useful! This book isn’t pop psychology but popularly written, genuine behavioral psychology.” —Ray Olson, BOOKLIST
“A brilliant and beautiful exploration of the mystery of other minds—and how we fail to solve it.” —Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
From the beginning of the book: I’m sure you have no trouble realizing that people occasionally misunderstand each other. Such conflict keeps newspapers and divorce lawyers in business. Surely you can also think of times when others have misunderstood your thoughts, emotions, or intentions. Maybe you’ve sent a sarcastic e-mail that your coworkers took to be serious, making you look like a jerk rather than a joker? Or had earnestness mistaken for belligerence, shyness mistaken for arrogance, generosity mistaken for cynical manipulation? We’ve all been there. In your cooler moments, you probably realize that even you sometimes misinterpret and misunderstand others, including the people you should understand best.”
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Q&A with the author:
Q: When you say we are all already “mind readers,” what do you mean?
A: I mean that every one of us, countless times a day, tries to understand the minds of others. There is no magic or mysticism or psychic nonsense in this. Our daily lives are guided by our inferences about what others think, believe, feel, and want. We are, after all, members of one of the most social species on the planet. No human being succeeds in life alone. Getting along and gett ing ahead require coordinating with others, either in cooperation as friends, spouses, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals. Does she really love me or not? Is he being truthful or lying? How can I keep my employees happy? What do my kids, friends, customers, or adversaries really want? Understanding the minds of others is essential for social success because it enables you to anticipate what others are going to say before they say it, to know what others want before they choose it, and to predict an opponent’s moves before he makes it. With the obvious benefi ts that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that it operates almost invisibly. We think about the minds of others so easily that we hardly even recognize when we’re doing it, and rarely pause to consider that we might be wrong.
Considering the breadth of psychological topics that exist, what led you to specialize in what you refer to as our “sixth sense”?
Most people appear to think about other people in their daily lives more than they think of anything else. When you ask people what makes them happiest in their lives, they tend to talk about other people. When you ask people what makes them the most miserable in their lives, they also tend to talk about other people. I’ve found a topic —how thinking people think of other people— that seems to occupy more mental space than any other, that seems to guide wellbeing as much as any other. Even more interesting, our judgments are often wrong but rarely doubted, leaving many opportunities to make ourselves wiser about others. I simply can’t think of anything more interesting or important to study. As a side benefit, I also think it gives me the best possible answer to “what you do for a living” in all of science.
One of the most common psychological metaphors is that of the human mind as an iceberg. You argue that a house is a better metaphor. Why is that?
The iceberg metaphor is typically used when explaining the limits of introspection. It is meant to describe that there are some aspects of the brain’s working that are consciously inaccessible. Although the general point is obviously correct, this metaphor is misleading because it gives rise to the common myth that we use only 10% of our brains, and because it suggests that there are processes lurking beneath conscious awareness that we might be able to gain access to if only we could somehow raise awareness of them. There appear to be certain aspects of our minds that we can report on quite accurately, but other aspects that we have no access to whatsoever, and that introspection will never be able to have access to.
I think a finished house is a better metaphor because it describes what we can and cannot know about own minds much better. With a house, you can describe its fi nished product quite accurately but cannot readily see the construction process that made it that way. You can’t go back and see the carpenters in action, or observe the decisions that put one wall here and another over there. The best you can do to understand the process of constructing a house is to imagine and guess. Our minds are similar because we seem quite able to report accurately on our brain’s finished products—from sensory experiences of pain and pleasure to feelings of conscious control and free will to strongly held beliefs and attitudes—but we are unable to report accurately on the construction of those products—the mental processes that created them. We can report feeling happy, but are only guessing when explaining why.
We can report loving our spouse, but are guessing when explaining why. Our introspection is blind to construction. What you can report on accurately when looking at a house captures that experience better than an iceberg.
What is the central challenge of our “sixth sense”?
I actually think there are two challenges. First, using our “sixth sense” when we should. Sometimes we fail to engage with the minds of others in a way that can lead us to treat others inhumanely, more like relatively mindless animals or objects. Second, using our sense accurately once we’re trying to understand other people. Our sense about the minds of others does not work like we think it does, and it often leaves us feeling like we understand others much more accurately than we really do.
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