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No presumptions, please

Knowing what a group thinks of you may be easy; not so guessing individual opinions.  Photo: H. Vibhu 29-04-2008

Knowing what a group thinks of you may be easy; not so guessing individual opinions. Photo: H. Vibhu 29-04-2008

Each of the following statements involves making a presumption: “I know she will get angry when she sees my text message.” “He always tries to put me down whenever he gets an opportunity.” “I better play down my new job as she is bound to feel jealous.” The statements may refer to a manager, a mother or a mate. They stem from a presumption that we know another person’s mind. And, in the course of a day, we make umpteen such presumptions routinely. Further, we make them so automatically that we fail to notice what they really are — our view of what we think is going on inside another person’s head. But how accurate is our ability to read another person’s mind?

In his book , Mindwise, psychologist Nicholas Epley refers to our ability to read others’ minds as our “sixth sense.” He argues that our sixth sense “works well” many a time, “but not nearly as well as we might think.” And this should make us pause and ponder, for our overconfidence in our capacity to intuit others’ thoughts and feelings can result in misunderstanding, injured feelings, job losses and broken relationships. As the consequences of our misreading minds can indeed be severe, perhaps, we need to cultivate a sense of humility when it comes to knowing others.

In a meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin in 1991, David Kenny and Bella DePaulo found that people are fairly good at estimating how others, as a group, view them. However, when it comes to deciphering how specific individuals regard them, people are not very accurate in their appraisals. Thus, if you have a feeling that people in your office generally like you, you are likely to be popular. However, if you have to specify how much each of your colleagues likes you, your estimates are likely to be off the mark. Likewise, you may have a sense of how your professors view you, but when it comes to identifying which professor in particular thinks you are an excellent student, you may be in for a surprise. The curt chemistry professor who barely talks to you may be the one who writes the most glowing recommendation when you apply to graduate school, while the physics lecturer with whom you share a warm rapport, may give you a more muted write-up.

In his book, Epley cites the work of William Ickes, who studies people’s mind-reading accuracy. According to Ickes’ research, while strangers can guess a person’s feelings or thoughts to about 20 per cent accuracy, our intimate friends and spouses do slightly better, averaging an accuracy of around 35 per cent. Epley’s point is that while we are not necessarily bad at guessing another’s mind, we are not as good as we think. Even those near and dear to us cannot infer every thought and feeling we are experiencing. Likewise, we, too, do not always know what is going on inside the heads and hearts of closest friends and family.

Fundamental attribution error

A classic social psychology phenomenon called the “fundamental attribution error” illustrates our weaknesses when it comes to judging others. Coined by Lee Ross, the term refers to our tendency to underestimate situational variables and overestimate dispositional ones when we view the behaviour of others. As a result, we may overlook contextual factors when we try to second guess what another person is thinking. For example, if an acquaintance is a bit brusque with you, you may jump to the conclusion that your acquaintance is possibly rude and does not like you.

On the other hand, if you were curt while talking to a friend, you may excuse your lack of social grace by telling yourself you were stressed or had a headache.

In order to avoid misreading minds, Epley has the following advice for us. Counter intuitively, thinking too much about “someone’s emotional expression or inner intentions when there is little else to go on,” actually leads us to make more mistakes. In fact, in a series of experiments that Epley conducted with his colleagues, people were less accurate in guessing another person’s emotions when they were asked to try and take the other person’s perspective. Thus, instead of trying to second guess another person’s views and feelings by taking their perspective, it is better to “get another person’s perspective.”

And this involves plain old words to find out what the other person is thinking. Epley advises us to “rely on our ears more than our inferences,” when we want to figure out what is on somebody’s else’s mind. Of course, there are chances that the other person may be evasive, indirect or even lie when we ask a direct question. But that does not mean that our reading of their minds is more accurate, as we too are prone to making errors more often than we think. At least, by asking, we are providing the person an opportunity to state what is on his or her mind. Finally, even when we do make inferences about our friend’s or colleague’s thoughts or feelings, we should always harbour the possibility that we could be wrong in our judgment.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 9:53:30 am |