Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Imagine. The super-power of a sixth sense, so often the realm of TV, movies and sci-fi, yet a gift bestowed upon each of us; the amazing ability to read the minds of others. This is not the soundbite of a supernatural shopping channel, but rather the subject of scientific investigation by a professor of behavioural science.

Nicholas Epley, a social psychologist and the 2011 winner of the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award, outlines a psychological ability that straddles the conscious and subconscious, peeking only periodically beyond the curtains of intuition and into the introspections of our gaze.

But what if our perceived ability to read and understand the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and wants of others is, in fact, deeply suspect? It is an ability that we can take for granted yet, Epley says, if we apply it with only minimum thought and energy, the consequences of 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”.

So how do we get this mind-reading ability so wrong? And how can we improve it? These are the two main questions that run through the heart of Mindwise and build upon the growing popularity of Daniel Kahneman and the interface between the behavioural and social sciences.

What happens when our psychological “vision” encounters problems, and we experience our sixth sense developing a “mindblindness”?

A first problem Epley highlights is the issue of failing to acknowledge the existence of human minds because we consider people as “below” ourselves. History holds a litany of dehumanising examples, ranging from the atrocities of the Nazis to the disturbing classification in the early 1990s, by the Californian state police, who referred to crimes involving young black men as NHI – No Humans Involved. In these circumstances, we fail to engage our “intuition”.

The opposite also happens. We extend rational thought to things that are actually mindless. Epley highlights how we anthropomorphise “mindful” deities, cars, computers and even alarm clocks. But how can psychology help to explain this? According to Epley: “Lacking any other suitable explanation, the concept of a mind can explain the behaviour of almost anything.”

In ways similar to how Paul Dolan, in Happiness by Design, encourages us to identify more with our real feelings of happiness, rather than our reflections on how happy we think we should be, Epley presents a rather simple axiom to improve our ability to mind-read others: “The science is clear. You don’t try to adopt another person’s perspective and guess better.”

But if we can’t ask, what else does science tell us to do? Well, in a book that explores what Epley calls “one of our brain’s greatest abilities”, it is not immersed in the blueprints of brain architecture or neuroscience. Some experiments make use of brain technology, and the obligatory fMRI scanner, but mostly Epley weaves together historical narratives, with entertaining anecdotes that tessellate perfectly with a wide array of interesting and diverse psychological studies. These range from the seminal, such as Stanley Milgram and his “obedience test” (1963) to the less well known Alan Slater et al (1998) and “Newborn babies prefer attractive faces”.

Similar to how Steven Pinker made the understanding of language acquisition entertaining and accessible in The Language Instinct, Epley writes a book accessible to a general audience. It is highly informative, and provides a comprehensive review of research literature. After such an entertaining romp through the past, though, the stark and simplistic scientific formula to improve our “real sixth sense” of mind-reading seem a rather bland “Just ask what someone is thinking.”

This may, however, merely serve to support and underline the assertion by some that science and scientists trade in organised doubt, and as Antonio Damasio states in Self Comes to Mind: “even with the help of powerful neuroscience techniques available today, we are unlikely to chart the full scope of neural phenomenon associated with a mental state, even a simple one.”

That said, Epley provides an interesting and theoretical approximation for how we can identify the flaws of our mindreading abilities and seek to improve them. Not a fun answer, but a very enjoyable and highly recommended book.