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Know What I'm Thinking?

Understanding How We Can Improve Our “Mind Reading” Skills

By Heather Caruso | Research by Nicholas Epley
Published: October 24, 2008
Woman looking in handheld mirror

Image by Getty Images

Much of everyday behavior is directed toward understanding, responding to, or attempting to change how we are seen by the people around us. We can be easily led astray, however, by common errors in these perceptions. New research shows us that when we want to better understand how others see us, we should start by changing the way we look at ourselves.

 

Do your coworkers like you? Does your boss think you are impressive? Do your subordinates think you are fair? Questions like these cross everyone’s mind every day, and the answers we give ourselves help us determine how to get along in the world. Knowing the extent to which your coworkers like you might make you more or less likely to invite them out to lunch. When you get the impression that your boss is disappointed in you, you can tell that it is time to put more effort into your work. Having an accurate understanding of what others think of you can be essential to getting along in life — and to getting ahead in the workplace.

This kind of everyday “mind reading” isn’t easy to do. Past research has shown, for example, that people often do little better than chance when it comes to accurately identifying those who find them attractive, intelligent, or likeable. Even with close friends, an individual’s accuracy in detecting others’ impressions of him- or herself is likely to be far from perfect.

However, the situation is not hopeless, according to new research conducted by professor Nicholas Epley and coauthor Tal Eyal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In three experiments, Eyal and Epley show that changing the perspective people take when they think about themselves can help them more accurately predict what other people will think of them.

A key reason people have trouble understanding how they are viewed by others is that they can’t get out of their own heads when they try to take another person’s perspective.

“Getting beyond yourself turns out to be very difficult,” Epley said. “You can’t look at yourself through a lens that’s not colored by your own beliefs about yourself. The problem that people have intuiting other people’s impressions of them is that we just know too much about ourselves, rather than that we know too little about others.”

Epley and Eyal explained that we observe the events of our everyday life in one long, continuing stream of experience — as in a movie. We can use every minute of that experience to shape our impressions of our lives, our behavior, and ourselves. But no one takes note of our lives as closely as we do — friends, family, and acquaintances pop in and out for various parts of the experience, so they often only get the gist of what is going on, missing many of the details. The impressions they form of us are thus based more on “the big picture,” and less on the fine-grained information about our behavior and experiences that we use to form our beliefs about ourselves. Nevertheless, we often act as if others observe us just as we observe ourselves, and this tendency makes us bad at mind reading.

“The difference in the lenses through which we look at ourselves and those through which other people look at us is a major source of mistakes when people are trying to understand how they are viewed by other people,” Epley said. “Our research suggests that if we are going to intuit other people’s thoughts accurately, we have to look at ourselves through the same lens that other people look at us through.

Am I Hot or Not? Three Experiments

Epley and Eyal conducted three experiments to demonstrate that the level of detail at which we think of ourselves influences our accuracy in everyday mind reading. The structures of all three studies were straightforward and simple. Inspired by popular websites like HotorNot.com (where people post pictures of themselves online to find out how hot people think they are), Epley and Eyal had each study participant begin by posing for a yearbook-style photograph, which the individual could then view on a computer screen. The researchers then prompted the individuals to think of themselves at different levels of detail, and subsequently asked them to anticipate how an opposite-sex observer would evaluate their attractiveness. When participants could be brought to see themselves from more of a big picture perspective, focusing on a more general and less fine-grained “lens” that others use to view them, Epley and Eyal predicted that participants would do a better job of anticipating how attractive others would find them to be.

In the first experiment, the authors drew on an insight from established research revealing how different time frames prompt people to think of themselves at different levels of detail. When considering the present moment, people tend to think of themselves at a very fine-grained level, focusing on specific features of themselves in their surrounding context, such as “The gray in my hair is so visible in this harsh light!” When thinking about themselves in a future context, however, people are likely to pay less attention to such peculiar characteristics and adopt more general perspectives on themselves which better approximate the lens through which they are viewed by others (e.g., “That person has nice hair.”). The researchers capitalized on this tendency by telling some participants that their pictures would be evaluated by the opposite-sex observer that day, while telling others that the evaluations would take place three months in the future. As expected, the people thinking about themselves being evaluated in the future formed more accurate expectations of the attractiveness ratings they eventually received from independent observers.

Epley elaborated on his findings using an analogy to viewing maps: “You can look at yourself from the street level or you can look at yourself from the satellite level. Other people see you from the satellite level, so if you think of yourself from that big picture perspective, you’ll tend to be more accurate.”

In the second and third experiments, Epley and Eyal pitted their strategy for increasing mind reading accuracy against the time-honored advice, “Put yourself in their shoes.” Using a paradigm very similar to the first experiment, the authors explored whether instructions or individual tendencies to take another’s perspective could improve mind reading accuracy as effectively as changing the level of one’s perspective on oneself. Neither instructing participants to take the opposite-sex observer’s perspective nor relying on participants’ own tendencies to spontaneously engage in such perspective-taking helped to improve their accuracy in anticipating attractiveness ratings. It was only when participants were helped to think of themselves through a less fine-grained “satellite-level” lens that they showed significant improvement.

Mind Reading at Work and Elsewhere

We can benefit from better mind reading skills in nearly every moment of our lives; perhaps the most important of those moments are those we spend at work. If we poorly understand the impressions we make on passing acquaintances on the street, the consequences are not likely to matter very much or for very long. Misreading the minds of our friends and family is likely to be much more consequential, but the intimate nature of those relationships facilitates communication that may readily highlight and correct the errors before they get too far out of hand. At work, however, misperceptions are much harder to resolve and can have serious implications for collaboration, job satisfaction, and performance.

If we do not have a good sense for the things people in our workplace are thinking when they look at us, the authors suggest, we could find ourselves investing our time and energy in the wrong ways.

“If we think about ourselves under a microscope while others look at us through binoculars, we are going to get things wrong,” Epley said. “We’re going to worry about small things that we shouldn’t worry about, or we’re going to take pride in low-level details that other people don’t care about. Other people don’t sweat our small stuff, nor do they relish it, and neither should we when trying to understand what others are thinking of us.”

If you have ever tripped in front of your boss and been convinced that you came off as a total idiot, you know what Epley is talking about. If you ever considered switching jobs because you were convinced that your coworkers did not value the painstaking effort you put into your work, you probably can relate as well. Indeed, because the research speaks to anyone whose decisions—at work and elsewhere—depend on being able to reliably monitor the impressions other people have of them, the research speaks to everyone.

Seeing the Big Picture

Thankfully, the first step toward better mind reading is a simple one.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Epley said. “You need to think about yourself in general.”

For example, in predicting that you will be promoted, you may be better off focusing on the trends that are apparent in your job performance over time, rather than obsessing over minor, passing fluctuations. People around you are likely to need some help from you to take notice of fine-grained details in your life or behavior.

“While we live our own lives under a microscope and we are present all the time when we do things, other people are not there with us,” Epley noted. “That’s a problem for intuiting other people’s thoughts because we tend to evaluate ourselves in much finer detail. We look at ourselves from the street view, whereas other people are looking at us from space.”

Last Updated 5/14/09