The best way to know other people’s minds is to put yourself in their shoes, new research suggests.
This is not what people expect, though.
Instead, people assume that reading facial expressions and body language is a better way of understanding the emotional states of others.
Study authors, Drs Haotian Zhou and Nicholas Epley said:
“People expected that they could infer another’s emotions by watching him or her, when in fact they were more accurate when they were actually in the same situation as the other person.
And this bias persisted even after our participants gained firsthand experience with both strategies.”
The results come from a study which tested different ways of reading emotional states.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes provided greater emotional insight than trying to read facial expressions.
Strangely, people do not appreciate the benefits of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.
They thought that reading facial expressions and body language would be better.
The experimenters gave people in the study hints about the best way to understand emotions, but still, they persisted with trying to read body language.
In one re-run, people attempted to read their own facial expressions from a month earlier in preference to empathising.
Zhou and Epley said:
“Our most surprising finding was that people committed the same mistakes when trying to understand themselves.
They dramatically overestimated how much their own face would reveal, and underestimated the accuracy they would glean from being in their own past shoes again.”
The study’s authors conclude:
“Only by understanding why our inferences about each other sometimes go astray can we learn how to understand each other better.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Zhou et al., 2017).