People are surprisingly poor at mind reading or what psychologists call ‘mentalising’, which is working out what other people are thinking.
For example, experiments suggest we rarely do better than chance at rating how likeable, intelligent or attractive others think we are.
So, who is naturally best at mind reading, why do some people fail so badly and what can they do about it?
4 signs you are good at mind reading
Mind-reading, or mentalising, involves understanding what other people are thinking from subtle cues in their language and behaviour.
In contrast, empathy refers to being able to read the emotions of others.
People who are good at mentalising tend to agree strongly with the following three statements:
- “I find it easy to put myself in somebody’s else’s shoes.”
- “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”
- “I can usually understand another person’s viewpoint, even if it differs from my own.”
People good at mentalising disagree strongly with this statement:
- “I sometimes find it difficult to see things from other people’s point of view.”
People with autism, in particular, are poor at mind reading.
It is probably no surprise that autism is four times more prevalent in men, who are consistently worse at mind reading.
Dr Punit Shah, study co-author, said:
“We will all undoubtedly have had experiences where we have felt we have not connected with other people we are talking to, where we’ve perceived that they have failed to understand us, or where things we’ve said have been taken the wrong way.
Much of how we communicate relies on our understanding of what others are thinking, yet this is a surprisingly complex process that not everyone can do.”
The ego blocks mind reading
Dr Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, argues that the biggest obstacle to mind reading and 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:
- 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.
- 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 to improve mind reading
The time-honoured approach for mind reading, including 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 on mind reading they conducted suggest the answer is 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.
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.”
One of the most obvious keys to mind reading is to pay attention to the person’s face and body language when you are trying to read their mind.
Few people do this as well as they think.
In fact, research shows that the young and the old are the worst at mind reading (De Lillo et al., 2021).
The reason is that both older adults and adolescents pay less attention to body language than those in between.
By ignoring more facial expressions, gestures and voice tones, the young and old get less information about other people’s mental states.
This means they find it harder to read other people’s emotions, intentions, desires and beliefs.
Naturally this also makes it harder to take someone else’s perspective and empathise with them.
Both empathy and perspective-taking are vital to enjoying social interactions.
Professor Heather Ferguson, study co-author, explained:
“Focusing less on people and their faces means that adolescents and older adults miss important cues, and this could lead to larger impairments in social interaction, or less opportunities to engage in social interaction with others.
During adolescence, 10-19-year-olds are still learning and developing peer relationships, so they are experiencing a rapid change in their social experiences and preferences.
For older adults, a substantial decline in social participation can lead to isolation, loneliness and poor health.
Both groups can therefore be significantly impacted by a lack of social engagement.”
The study, which included adolescents, younger adults and older people, used eye tracking technology.
The results showed that older people and adolescents spent less time looking at the face of the person they were talking to.
When walking around a busy environment, the young and old looked less at other people’s faces as they moved through it.
This is likely because of the extra processing required to navigate a complex social situation.
Mind reading motivation
Of course, how good we are at mind reading depends on our motivation.
Being high in a quality called ‘mind reading motivation’ is linked to all sorts of social advantages, research finds (Carpenter et al., 2016).
People high in mind reading motivation tend to notice and observe small pieces of social information.
Dr Melanie Green, a study author, said:
“We’re not talking about the psychic phenomenon or anything like that, but simply using cues from other people’s behavior, their non-verbal signals, to try to figure out what they’re thinking.”
People high in mind reading motivation enjoy trying to work out what others are thinking and feeling.
This has all sorts of advantages for them including being better at teamwork and at cooperating.
They also seem to gain a more nuanced understanding of those around them, Dr Green explained:
“Those high in mind reading motivation seem to develop richer psychological portraits of those around them.
It’s the difference between saying ‘this person strives for success, but is afraid of achieving it’ as opposed to ‘this person is a great cook.'”