Understanding Others – Harder and More Useful Than You Realize

Few life skills are more useful than understanding what other people are thinking. Successful leadership demands an awareness of it. Meaningful projects inevitably require of groups  of people working together. Negotiating without it is close to impossible. Empathy – knowing and sharing another’s feelings – is vitally important to being a connected human. But empathy does not necessarily include cognition. We can all use some help with it comes to knowing what others are thinking and why.

How do our colleagues at work really assess that new business plan? What does our spouse want for a gift? How and why is it that certain groups are singled our for discrimination? How do we maintain social order and cohesion in times of stress? All of these questions rest, to some degree, on the ability of people to understand and communicate with each other. A college education can help with these questions and each discipline tackles them in slightly different ways.

MindwiseNicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago, brings great wisdom to the question with Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. Epley is a social psychologist with a gift for provocative experimentation. A very talented writer, he explains science without dumbing it down and makes even the most abstract points relevant and accessible. Mindwise is engaging and packed with utility. I have also had the pleasure of seeing Professor Epley in the classroom. He is an extraordinarily effective lecturer. Sit in his class and you will start wondering why you did not take consider social psychology as a major in college.

Epley disposes of many myths in his book. Our faith that we have great insight into the minds of others is at the top of the list. Experiments prove that we are always bad at determining how other individual’s evaluate us (though we do a better job when it comes to how groups think about us). We consistently make poor “snap” judgments (type 1 thinking – if you’re up on Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). Anchoring of data changes our “rational” preferences. Our minds regularly see patterns when none exist. Dehumanization and stereotyping is an all to common human fault.

A key finding, supporting by scads of research, is that all of us tend to see ourselves at the center of the universe. If we do not, who does? Ego-centrism distorts our interactions, expectations, and understanding of other people. Epley’s narrative contains chapter after chapter and research experiment after research experiment that undercut the concept of interpersonal certainty. TSA screeners cannot determine who is a terrorist through studying faces or body posture. It is impossible to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying by studying body posture. People regularly assure their bosses that everything is OK when it is not. We are deeply flawed creatures. Rest assured, though, Epley highlights our shortcomings with good humor and insight.

One of the more intriguing strands of research Epley examines are our thoughts and practice when it comes to isolation. He works in Chicago and his students have regular access to the city’s commuter railroads. As any train traveler knows, commuters regularly sit alone, avoiding eye contact and talking with each other. When asked why, commuters will report that they do so because they believe that others were enjoying their isolation and would not want to be intruded upon. Epley’s team solicited volunteer commuters to spark up conversations. Both seatmates reported a happier commute after the short exchange. Epley controlled for personality traits and other factors. It made no difference. People felt good about the human interaction. The bottom line is clear: we all feel happier when we connect with each other. Without the experiment serving as a catalyst, we fool ourselves into imagining that we prefer solitude.

Epley’s suggested solution to the problem of understanding the mind of another is refreshingly simple: ask questions. Do not make assumptions, question your stereotypes, be humble, and listen. It is not easy, but it works. I would wager that the strategy is equally effective in the classroom, at the negotiating table, at work, and at home. Mindwise offers a very helpful life lesson.

David Potash

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