Improve Your Mind-Reading: Focus on the Big Picture You

Don’t sweat the small stuff – instead focus on the big picture you.

We are surprisingly poor at working out what others think of us. Experiments suggest we rarely do better than chance at rating how likeable, intelligent or attractive others think we are.

So how can we be so bad at reading other people’s minds and what can we do about it?

Writing in the latest edition of Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Dr Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago argues that the biggest obstacle to our understanding how we are viewed by others is our egocentric bias. We are all stuck inside our own heads.

The egocentric bias means that when we try to imagine how we are seen by others, we can’t help but be biased by the way in which we see ourselves. Effectively to read others’ minds, we first read our own minds.

Unfortunately it turns out that we often don’t see ourselves as other people see us. Here are two major reasons why:

  1. Attentional bias: we assume others are paying much more attention to us than they really are. People usually don’t notice the details we think they do.
  2. Construal bias: We see everything filtered through our own beliefs, attitudes and intentions, especially when situations are ambiguous or when our own beliefs, attitudes and intentions are very different from our mind-reading target.

How can we improve our mind-reading?

The time-honoured approach for finding out what others think of us has been to try and take their perspective. In a series of unpublished studies, though, Tal Eyal and Nick Epley found that this was not effective in increasing people’s accuracy.

Instead three experiments they conducted suggested the answer was to think about yourself at a higher level of abstraction. Participants in one condition were asked to focus on central and defining features of the self rather than low level details. They were then able to judge what others thought of them more accurately.

Dr Epley explains: “You can look at yourself from the street level or you can look at yourself from the satellite level. Other people see you from the satellite level, so if you think of yourself from that big picture perspective, you’ll tend to be more accurate.”

“While we live our own lives under a microscope and we are present all the time when we do things, other people are not there with us,” notes Epley. “That’s a problem for intuiting other people’s thoughts because we tend to evaluate ourselves in much finer detail. We look at ourselves from the street view, whereas other people are looking at us from space.”

» There’s a video with Dr Epley explaining the research and more details here.

[Image credit: nataliej]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 1 July 2008

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