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Science-Based Secrets for Reading Other People’s Minds

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Science-Based Secrets for Reading Other People’s Minds

Imagine you’re really excited about a new idea for a collaborative project. You send an e-mail about it to a friend who you just know is going to be as excited as you. You’re waiting on pins and needles for a response, checking your inbox every hour. A couple of hours pass, then a couple more. You’re getting stressed and anxious, waiting on the edge of your seat for a reply. The next day goes by, and another day. You’re very confused about why you haven’t received a response. Why isn’t your friend writing you back? Doesn’t she like you? Is she upset with you? What’s wrong?

Has this ever happened to you? It’s happened to me many times. My Autopilot System goes into overdrive, imagining various negative scenarios and sending out stress-inducing hormones. Such catastrophizing is a common type of thinking error, one that research shows undermines mental and physical wellbeing.

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Another thinking error in this scenario is that one’s friend will share the same opinion that you do about your new idea. Studies on a cognitive bias called the “false consensus effect” indicate that our Autopilot System significantly overestimates the extent to which others agree with our opinions. This is especially true for those close to us, such as our friends and family. As a result, we make mistakes when we use our intuitions to predict the behavior of others around us, including our immediate social circle.

However, the false consensus effect applies more broadly as well. Our gut reactions tend to perceive “the public” as a whole as sharing our perspective. This problem is especially problematic when it causes us to overrate substantially the extent to which others will agree with our political opinions. Such overestimation undermines our ability to engage in healthy political discussions and contributes to political polarization. No wonder we don’t do well as intuitive psychologists!

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So how can we work against the false consensus effect? First, remember a previously-discussed strategy, namely that our mental maps never match the territory of reality. And our mental maps certainly do not match the mental maps of others!

To keep the latter fact in mind, here is a very useful mental habit to adopt: avoiding “failing at other minds.” What does that mean in practice? Essentially, when trying to imagine how other people think about the world, take a moment to stop and remember that their perspective is inherently different from your own. This is a specific case of a broader de-biasing strategy of imagining the opposite, in this case taking the perspective of the other person. And why is this helpful? Well, our intuitive theory of mind, the way we understand the minds of others, tends to model others as ourselves. Our Autopilot System perceives others as understanding the world and having the same idea of what is true as we do. Avoiding falling for this trap helps remind us of this problematic tendency, and work against it. Through developing this mental habit, we can be elephant whisperers and retrain our Autopilot System to have a more intentional approach to predicting the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. Thus, we can evaluate reality more clearly and gain greater agency by making more effective decisions that help us reach our goals.

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Now, what are the strategies for most effectively learning this information, and internalizing the behaviors and mental patterns that can help you succeed? Well, educational psychology research illustrates that engaging with this information actively, personalizing it to your life, linking it to your goals, and deciding on a plan and specific next steps you will take are the best practices for this purpose. So take the time to answer the questions below to gain long-lasting benefit from reading this article:

  • Are there any instances where catastrophizing has negatively influenced your wellbeing?
  • Has the false consensus effect ever steered you wrong in personal interactions? What about in your predictions of public opinions and political engagement?
  • In what ways, if any, do you think the mental habit of avoiding assuming others understand the world in the same way you do can help you have a better life and gain greater agency?
  • If you think it can be beneficial for you, what kind of plan can you make and what specific steps can you take to internalize this mental habit?

Featured photo credit: Smart Brain via lifehack.org

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More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Last Updated on January 27, 2022

5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

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5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

The environment of a typical office or a quiet library may sometimes lessen your productivity as the unchanging views fail to stimulate your senses and keep your brain running. If you are the kind that dislikes absolute silence or minimal noise when working, these unexpected places to work may boost your productivity level!

1. Coffee shops

Research has shown that an adequate amount of ambient noise stimulates your senses and keeps you alert. Where else better to find some chatter and clatter to boost your creative juices? Working in the coffee shop also guarantees something else: unlimited supplies of caffeine!

Caffeine wakes you up by fooling adenosine receptors and speeds transmitting activities up in your nerve cells.If you do decide to try this place out, make sure that your work computer is facing the coffee shop customers so you will be less likely to procrastinate or go to inappropriate sites because people are secretly watching you.

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If your workplace requires you to be in the office, try this website and/or phone app that provides you with sounds from coffee shops around the world. Want to work at a cafe in Paris? No problem, it’s just a button away.

2. Cafeterias

Similar to coffee shops, company cafeteria or food courts provide consistent noise and the smell of food. The aroma of food makes you look forward to your next break and should motivate you to complete your work.

The act of eating likewise keeps your brain alert and produces dopamine. But make sure only to snack and stay around 60% full so that each bite is rewarding and invigorating. Snacking every 90 minutes should keep your brain balanced enough to focus on the work at hand.

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3. Empty University Classrooms  

Whether or not you’re an university student, we have all been a student at some point in our lives. And when you’re in a classroom, your brain is primed to stay focused because you have been conditioned to concentrate in class. In comparison to your bedroom, where your brain is primed to relax, sleep and have fun, the environment of the classroom triggers your memory to stay alert (unless you never listened in class) and work.

If you do decide to try working in an empty university classroom, be sure to bring a studious friend. Once you see that your friend or coworker is working hard, you would feel guilty for procrastinate and be more competitive.

Ever heard of environmental context-dependent memory? Research has shown that environmental context influences the way we encode information. If you study in the same place you first learned the material, your chances of recalling the information are significantly increased. Use environmental cues to your advantage so you spend less time doing more work!

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4. Outdoors

Fresh air, sunlight, cool breeze. Talk about getting your vitamin Ds the natural way. A healthy body is crucial to being productive. If you have a porch, use it to maximize your productivity!

On a cool day, the crisp air is good for waking your brain up. If your work station is indoors and poorly ventilated, the build up of carbon dioxide will cause your brain to be less active, hence, less productive. Try to bring some work to a park nearby or an unsheltered town square where you are exposed to the sun. Fresh air will vitalize your brain and the warm sunlight will bring a smile to your face.

5. The Shower 

Many people experience their “Aha!” moments when they’re in the shower. Why is that? The hot water helps with circulation and improves blood flow to your brain, giving it more oxygen and nourishment to break down your work block.

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If you aren’t motivated to work or feeling bored, a good shower will not only open up your pores, but also give your brain a boost of energy. Keep a waterproof white board and markers in the washroom so you will never lose those wonderful ideas again!

Featured photo credit: Thomas Franke via unsplash.com

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