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Confessions of a mind reader

When I performed as a mentalist, some audience members were convinced that I could actually read their minds. Full disclosure - I couldn't. I never claimed to have supernatural powers and I did call my demonstrations "psychological illusion" but nonetheless, the illusion was so strong that afterwards some people would ask me about my “gift.”

The illusion of mind reading

So I am pretty good at pretending to read minds. But when it comes to actually being able to read minds, I’m terrible. Breaking news - you’re not very good at it either. The illusion for us, though, is that we think we are good at mind reading. That can cause some major issues for us.

In the broadest sense we actually do read minds. We do it whenever we infer what other people are thinking or feeling. This is an important part of effective communication, fostering good relationships, and displaying empathy. Even some animals seem to have the ability to sense what another individual is thinking. In his book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley calls mind reading our 6th sense. It’s also called “theory of mind” and is a key part of emotional intelligence.

Mind reading becomes problematic when we think we know more than we really do, which is most of the time. You may be able to correctly surmise that your spouse is annoyed at you for leaving your socks on the floor, but you may have no idea how she feels about you for doing it. She may think it’s just a minor quirk in your personality or she may feel like it’s another example of you not caring about her and her needs. Make an assumption at your own risk!

So many problems

The big issue isn’t that we feel we generally know what someone else is thinking, but that we subconsciously convert the feeling of “might be thinking” to “definitely thinking.” The desire for certainty drives many of our cognitive illusions, and that is the case with mind reading.

Epley points out, ““That we cannot read anyone’s mind perfectly does not mean we are never accurate, of course, but our mistakes are especially interesting because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding. Our mistakes lead to ineffective solutions to some of society’s biggest problems, and they can send nations into needless wars with the worst of consequences.”

Sounds like a big problem.

We see it whenever media pundits make statements about political figures and their motivations, especially when the pundit finds their actions objectionable. We also see it when a certain type of behavior triggers us emotionally. You may see someone not wearing a mask during a pandemic and immediately think, “That person thinks rules don’t apply to them - that they matter more than everyone else.” You may be right, but there are probably different thought processes that went into their behavior.

Another common example is group mind-reading. I find it funny when the stock market has a small rise or fall and the media “experts” attribute it to consumer sentiment or something a CEO said or something that happened in Greece. That’s called the narrative fallacy, where we create a narrative to explain an event. In this case they are claiming they can read the minds of investors. They don’t want to tell you the truth - that they have no idea why the market fluctuated.

We are less likely to be correct in our attempts at telepathy when we try to mind-read people we don’t know very well. Experiments by psychologist William Ickes show that we are only 20% accurate when attempting to know what strangers are thinking. Unfortunately, even with people we know well, like spouses and close friends, we are only accurate 35% of the time.

The solutions

To combat the tendency to feel like we know what other people are thinking, you must do one of two things:

1) Embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what someone else is thinking. Since you are most likely to be incorrect, don’t be quick to judge others based on what you think they think. My thoughts and beliefs come from a complex mix of ingredients including life experiences that you have not had. Let it go, Elsa.

2) Ask. If it’s important to you to know what someone is thinking, ask them to tell you. Most of the time they will either tell you the truth or decline - they will rarely lie about their own thoughts and feelings.

Finally, engage in active listening. Make an attempt to actually communicate and intentionally share your thoughts and listen to theirs instead of pretending to be a mentalist. Then you won’t have to guess and be wrong at least 65% of the time.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner, decision performance expert, speaker, author

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