Knowing Your Own Mind
An interview with Nicholas Epley
What is your friend thinking right now? What about the person sitting next to you? The one across the room? The one who just walked by? Behavioral science professor Nicholas Epley’s recent book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, seeks to explain how we intuit the thoughts and desires of people around us—and why we so often get it wrong. Mindwise deals with the advanced social cognition of human relations, and why it often fails. Here, we sit down with the author to discuss how well we can predict others' behavior, from everyday social interactions, to broader trends of segregation and class, and ultimately to the explanatory power of philosophy itself.
Intuitively, it might seem obvious that we don’t know what someone wants unless they tell us. But as Mindwise's subtitle implies, there are other factors to consider in our interpretation of those around us—small subliminal signals we to consider when we try to decipher whether someone is uncomfortable, lying, interested in us, or eager to get away. Even with all these clues, however, our conclusions aren’t always right.
Take, for instance, that oft-quoted classic of the English canon, Pride and Prejudice. When pompous, stodgy, long-winded Mr. Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth, Elizabeth gets the feeling she’s not really being heard: despite her persistent refusal, Mr. Collins insists that she is merely acting with elegant female coquetry. When she does not get her point across, she finally gives up and leaves him to the “silent contemplation of his successful love.” While the comedy of the scene lies in Mr. Collins’ astonishingly dense self-deception, his misreading is not that far off from the common misunderstandings that occur in everyday social situations.
“Shelves in the closet. Happy thought indeed.”
It’s these social misunderstandings that Epley tries to address in his book. Mindwise deals with the failure of humans—despite their high level of social cognition—to perfectly predict others’ desires, thoughts, and actions.
If at times the arguments seem obvious, it’s because the phenomena the book describes—our habits of thoughts and actions—are so instinctive to us that stating them explicitly isn’t particularly mind-blowing. Rather, Mindwise gives us the same pleasure of self-recognition as do Freud or literature that tells us about human nature. By explaining our behavioral patterns and the reasons behind them, Epley hopes the book can help us judge ourselves more accurately and add to our knowledge regarding our own and others’ behavior.
Questions about human nature have traditionally been the concern of humanistic intellectuals (as in, for example, the debate over tabula rasa). However, with the advent of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology, books like Epley’s Mindwise, with research and empirical evidence, are much more powerful in resolving these age-old debates. Epley also weighs in on the explanatory power of science in philosophical questions—how henceforth the two disciplines may overlap and become complementary.
In your book, you reference Narcissus as a way of explaining how people look for a “magical mirror” of themselves when interacting with others. Do you think people look for sameness in other people? If so, what about finding diversity in your friends?
The strongest predictor of attraction and friendship quality is similarity. We like people who are similar to us, homophonous. Diversity is a challenge for intergroup relations. If you look around the city of Chicago, for instance: Chicago is a very diverse city, but it’s segregated. There are communities where Caucasians live and communities where African-Americans live. There’s huge segregation in this city. And that speaks to what psychologists find in research on attraction—that we tend to like being around and associate with people who are like us over people who are not like us. And that’s a challenge for real diversity.
How many University of Chicago undergraduates seek out elderly senior citizens to be their best friend? How many intelligent University of Chicago undergraduates go out to rural Illinois to farming communities to look for best friends? In fact we self-select to enter groups that are highly homogenous.
And so when you’re talking about not wanting someone like you, well, maybe not 100% like you, that’s right. But maybe like, 98%. When you think about all their attributes—education, religion, big political beliefs, age, socioeconomic status—people are highly similar to their friends on those big dimensions. When you’re talking about seeking people who are different than you, you’re talking about small wrinkles on those, not the big ones.
One study that you mention in your book finds that couples’ knowledge of each other doesn’t correlate with the length of their relationship. Why do you think that is?
What we find in our experiments is that the longer you’re with somebody, the more confident you get about your understanding of them. You think you know more about them, but that confidence tends to outstrip the actual gains in accuracy.
Why don’t couples who have been together know each other really well? I think the answer is that you don’t talk about it. The couples who understand each other better are more open and transparent and provide glimpses into their minds with their mouths. But in most relationships, there are lots of things that just don’t ever get discussed. You don’t know everything about your partner.
Do you think relationships would be better if people had more in-depth talks, or is there such a thing as too much honesty?
It could hurt your feelings, but the thing is people tend to get over it pretty quickly. I think the gains that would come from truly understanding your partner–whether they really loved you or not, whether they really cared for you or not, or whether they really shared your beliefs and values or not–would outstrip the unpleasantness that comes from being open with each other. In relationships, it’s not always good to feel good. You could be with somebody who’s wrong for you.
I’m a firm believer in accuracy. I’m less of a believer in hedonism, which is feeling good. You ought to really understand what your partner is like. Is your partner really committed to you, or not? You ought to really know that. And if they’re not committed to you and that makes you feel like crap, that’s probably a good thing.
The relationship literature in psychology really has a hedonistic bent to it, and that is: High-quality relationships are usually defined by peoples’ sense of satisfaction. It’s really a measure of happiness—how happy you are in this relationship—and not about dimensions that might be associated with accuracy. And so within the literature of relationship, it really is the case that something that makes you feel better about your relationship is better, even if it’s totally illusory, even if it’s a mistake. That’s considered to be a good thing. But I don’t think that feeling good is the right benchmark for the quality of a relationship.
If you learn more about your partner and find things you don’t like, you need to figure out: What can I do about it? Can I make it better? And that’d strengthen the relationship, not weaken it. You don’t want to think about a relationship only in terms of satisfaction, because that would skirt over all kinds of things important for you to understand, figure out, and work through as a couple.
Mindwise is undergirded by an assumption: that accuracy is a good thing—that actually understanding if your partner is telling the truth or not when they say they love you, is a good thing. It’s hard to make a case that you can navigate your life better with more inaccurate information than with more accurate information.
In one of your other studies, you asked people on the CTA to talk to strangers when they normally wouldn’t have. The results are counterintuitive: People unexpectedly felt better when they talked to the people they didn’t know. Socrates says that man is a social animal, but in real life, we expect talking to strangers to be unpleasant. Do you think Socrates is right? If so, why do we behave antisocially?
I think what this represents is an interesting demonstration of dehumanization. Although we are highly social animals, around other people with minds like our own, we can nevertheless treat other people like we would an animal or an object, like a non-person. On the trains of Chicago, in the buses downtown, in almost any kind of crowded public space, people are around each other, and they treat each other like objects. Like lampshades.
Why do people do that? Well, there are two possibilities. One is that talking to a stranger is really miserable. It’s really unpleasant. And so people are right not to do it. They’re doing the thing that is consistent with reality. But our data suggests that that’s not true. It’s not unpleasant to talk to a stranger. In fact, it’s the most pleasant thing people do on the trains, at least compared to sitting alone in solitude, doing whatever they would normally do.
So the other possibility is that we don’t understand what the consequences of social interaction are. We misunderstand what would happen if we talked to a stranger. And that seems to be the effect that we have. When we ask people to predict how they would feel if they talked to a stranger, sat in solitude or did whatever they normally do, they predict that sitting in solitude would lead to the most pleasant commute and that talking to a stranger would lead to a less pleasant commute. And they’re just wrong about that.
That raises another question, about why is it people think talking to strangers would be unpleasant. And there, I think the reason is that we misread the people around us.
For instance, the person sitting next to you on the train is looking at their iPad or reading their newspaper. You look at what they’re doing, and they’re not talking to you, so you assume they’re not interested in talking to you. They don’t want to. It would be unpleasant to start up this conversation with a random stranger who isn’t interested in talking to me. And when we ask people on the trains, how interested you are in talking to the person sitting next to you today, they tend to say they’re more interested in talking to that person than they think that person is interested in talking to them. They think other people aren’t as interested.
But notice the problem with that assumption about mind-reading and connecting with a random stranger. Believing that that would be unpleasant is itself self-fulfilling because you never find out that you could be wrong.
The only people we ever find who don’t think that talking to a stranger would be unpleasant are people who do it regularly. On the cabs leaving Midway Airport, we find that about 50% people on the cabs report talking to strangers—to the drivers. In these experiments, we’ve got a group of people we refer to as talkers and a group of people who say they don’t normally talk to the drivers. These are loners. Our talkers predict that talking to the cab driver would be more pleasant than sitting in solitude. That is, they do the exact opposite of what everybody else does. The loners do the exact same thing everybody else does on a train or in a bus. They think talking to the driver would be unpleasant.
When we run people in those actual experiments on the cabs, everyone is happier when they’re talking to the driver than when they don’t, whether you’re a talker or a loner.
Why are the talkers’ predictions different? I think it’s because they learn. The only way you would know that talking to a stranger consistently would be more pleasant than sitting there doing nothing is to actually do it sometimes. And then you found out. But most believe that engaging a stranger in conversation would be unpleasant and never collect the evidence or the data that would let them know what it’s really like and tell them that they might be wrong.
Another trope in your book is egocentrism. This recalls Leviathan, where Hobbes says no man considers himself inferior to other men in terms of wisdom and intelligence. How do we assume that other people are thinking like us?
Hobbes’ claim is about egoism—I’m better than you because I’m smarter than you. The data for that is actually kind of weak. IQ is something more concrete and specific, but egoism is thinking I am better than you by some criteria, often ambiguous and vague like “leadership”. People think they are above average in traits where the domain is a little ambiguous.
So take leadership ability. How good of a leader am I compared to you? Well, what does it mean to be a good leader? I don’t quite know. It’s not so clear. It’s pretty ambiguous. I might think a good leader is someone who is conceited and loud and tells others what to do and gets things done as a real hard driver. That’s consistent with maybe my personality. Someone who was quieter may think that a good leader is someone who leads through subtle influence, who doesn’t push them really hard and who lets other people discover their strengths and abilities. You might define leadership differently than I do, but notice that we’ve defined it in ways that reflect our strength--with ways modeling ourselves. Since we define leadership in a self-centered way consistent with ourselves, we are both superior leaders within our definition.
We also structure our worlds in a way that makes us look pretty good. Think about your ability to get along with other people. According to a survey of nearly a million high school students some years ago, the ability to get along with others was one they thought they were above average on. A quarter of people thought they were in the top 1 percent of that ability. Why? Notice you select yourself into communities of friends, people you get along with. You don’t hang out with people who spit at you or call you an idiot on a regular basis. You find people who like you, who you get along well with, so everybody has the experience that they get along well with others because they’ve selected themselves into a community of friends that they actually get along with.
There’s a self-centeredness to those communities. That I get along well with my friends doesn’t mean I get along better with others than you do. It just means that I happen to be fine at this. But believing you are good at this, you don’t think about how other people are good at getting along with their friends.
In your book, you talk about “expert ears,” which refers to the concept that as we become more highly specialized we might make miss the obvious. Is there any way around this kind of phenomenon—that the more specialized you are, the less creative or open-minded you might be?
This chapter is also about egocentrism. One of the ways that we reason about the minds of another person is that we use our own mind as a guide. That works great as long as other people have a mind that works just like ours. But there is a problem when there’s a gap between perspectives. Egocentrism works much less well when someone else’s perspective differs from our own. I’m an expert on my book but you are not. So when I’m trying to communicate something to you, it’s hard for me because I know this so well. It’d be hard for me to recognize how a novice on the material might interpret it. That alters their perspective on the topic in a way that makes it hard for them to see, sometimes, reality. This perspective gap can also make it hard to predict what somebody who doesn’t share that knowledge, who’s a novice, might think of these things. That’s the problem that comes with expertise. You have a hard time reasoning about people who have a different perspective on this than you do.
When you’re an expert on something, there are certain things you miss out in the world—things you can’t see anymore—that other people might be able to. The problem comes when you’re trying to make inferences about somebody that has a perspective on the world that differs from yours. It’s hard to realize that.
Is improving the accuracy of our understanding of other people something we can do just by understanding the limits of our understanding?
No, I don’t think so, but I think the moment you really get better at this is when you understand what your limitations are. There are certain things you can’t know about somebody, so you adopt a different approach. You don’t guess. You ask them. That’s it. There’s no magic, no mysticism, no trick in that. That’s the truth. You adopt a different route. You find out what somebody knows by asking them. This is the reason why we have language in the first place--to communicate what’s on our mind to others.
But understanding the limitations won’t necessarily tell you what the truth of the matter is. They won’t give you insight into the mind of another person. For that, I think you need a different strategy.
I read in War and Human Nature, by Stephen Rosen, that the author thinks psychology and science, and cognitive science are taking over the field that philosophers once held. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are getting answers to questions philosophers have asked, and they are finding out what is empirically right and not right. Do you think that, in the future, this will render philosophy obsolete?
I think it will take over certain aspects of philosophy. Psychology used to be the domain of philosophy as well. William James was a philosopher, but he stopped asking questions that were normative—what ought people do, how ought they behave—and started asking questions that were descriptive. How do people behave, what do they do? The great philosophers, the great Enlightenment philosophers, really were psychologists at heart. Spinoza was a brilliant psychologist. And Thomas Hobbes, too. Much of what he wrote was really about psychology, and so psychology pulled its way out of that aspect of philosophy.
I think philosophy has lost that certainly. You’re not going to be a philosopher making descriptive claims about what people actually do without talking to psychologists who are in the business of running experiments to find that out. In fact, there is now a branch of experimental philosophy that is trying to take classic philosophical problems and apply psychological science to try to figure what the answers actually are.
That said, there will always be realms of inquiry for philosophy too. I have lots of normative beliefs. I have beliefs about what’s right and wrong, and I believe those things very strongly. But that doesn’t come from psychological science. That comes from another place. That’s the realm of philosophy, the normative world. Philosophy and theology deal with what we ought to do. Science deals with what actually happens, with the natural world.
A behavioral approach to ethics doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. It assumes you have beliefs about that already—that you have an ethical compass. Most of us happen to have the same ones. Nobody thinks killing and stealing and maiming is okay. Nobody thinks that lying under any circumstance is alright. Most of us would rather get ahead by doing well rather than by cheating. We have a lot of shared moral values, so a question for a psychologist then, is why do people with those moral values that you and I have—otherwise good people—why do they do bad things? What is it about their worlds or what could it be about our worlds that could lead good people to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their ethics, with their moral compass?
I can tell you something about how you could design your life so that you would be more likely to follow your ethical principles and avoid ethical traps that lead us to do unethical things. That’s in the descriptive world about thoughts and decisions and actions. It’s not in the normative world about what’s really right or wrong. That will always be in the domain of philosophy, I think.
Austen, Jane, and Donald J. Gray. Pride and Prejudice: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2001.