research digest

Readings: Understanding Misunderstanding

mindwiseMindwise: How We Understand What Others Believe, Feel, and Want (Alfred A. Knopf: 2014) Nicholas Epley

How well do you really know what others think? In Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science, explores how, and how well, people truly understand each other.

Chicago Booth Magazine: What prompted you to write Mindwise?

Nicholas Epley: I have been studying how our brains make sense of other people for nearly two decades. Psychological scientists now know a great deal about how this sense operates and serves as our guide in nearly all of social life. We have a better understanding of how it at times creates misunderstanding about the minds of others, and also how we might become wiser about our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or anyone else in our lives. I wrote the book because I believe this knowledge can improve people's lives. It's written for anyone who has ever wondered what someone else could be thinking, feeling, wanting, or believing.

CBM: What, exactly, is the mind?

Epley: The mind is a collection of experiences we all have about ourselves - the ability to think (to reason, to plan, to deliberate, to make choices, to have beliefs) and the ability to feel (to experience emotions, have feelings, and hold preferences). The mind is also what we attribute to others when we assume that they can think and feel as we do. It is also how we dehumanize others when we infer that they are unable to think or feel as we do.

CBM: You refer to our ability to read the minds of others as our sixth sense - a sense that's often unreliable or inaccurate. Why are we so bad at knowing what others think?

Epley: I do not think we are bad in any objective sense - in fact, this ability seems to be what truly makes us unique and successful as a species on this planet. But when stretched to the limits, we are not as good as we think we are. I try to explain both the strengths and shortcomings of our attempts to understand other people, with the goal of making this remarkable sense even better.

CBM: What kinds of mistakes do we typically make when trying to understand each other, and why do they matter?

Epley: I think our mistakes come in two basic forms. The first is failing to engage our ability to consider the minds of others. This can lead to what is commonly referred to as "dehumanization," cases in which you treat other people as relatively mindless objects. Dehumanization leads to unhealthy interpersonal relationships, mismanaged profes- sional relationships, and even ineffective public policies. The second mistake is misunderstanding another person once you've engaged your ability to consider his or her thoughts, motives, intentions, or attitudes. The consequence is leading our personal and professional lives less successfully than we might otherwise.

CBM: What do you hope readers will take from Mindwise?

Epley: Both a sense of humility about themselves and a sense of humanity toward others. The ability to think about the minds of others - to be an intuitive psychologist - is one of the brain's greatest abilities. But it doesn't work as well as we think it does. When we make false assumptions about the minds of others, we can damage our personal and professional lives. The errors we make understanding others all lead to the same mistake - of assuming that others are more simpleminded than they actually are. A more accurate understanding of others is also a more humane understanding. - Nathaniel Grotte

Last Updated 1/16/14