Whether we know it or not, we're all street-corner psychics. How we divine the thoughts and feelings of others.
Every day, whether we're pushing for a raise or judging whether a friend really likes our latest redecorating spree, we're reading each other's minds. Drawing on our observations, our databank of memories, our powers of reason, and our wellsprings of emotion, we constantly make educated guesses about what another person is thinking and feeling.
Throughout the most heated argument or the most lighthearted chat, we're intently collecting clues to what's on the other person's mind at the moment. "It's a perceptual ability I call mindsight," says Daniel Siegel, UCLA psychiatrist.
Mind reading of this sort—not to be confused with the infallible superhero kind of telepathy—is a critical human skill. It's the way we make sense of other people's behavior and decide on our own next moves.
Mind reading enables us to negotiate, compete, cooperate, and achieve emotional closeness with others. It lets us figure out when we're being manipulated or seduced. It's how we know when someone finds our jokes hilarious or is humoring us out of politeness. Mind-reading ability is perhaps the most urgent element of social intelligence.
Do it poorly and the consequences are serious: It can lead to conflict born of misunderstanding. It can make us feel lonely within a relationship. It can even incite violence: Abusive husbands typically—and inaccurately—attribute critical thoughts to their wives; that's why they lash out. Difficulty divining others' thoughts and feelings—"mindblindness"— characterizes autism and is what makes the condition so socially debilitating.
Decades of research on mind reading (or, as psychologists call it, empathic accuracy) now reveal how it works, who's especially good at it, and how we can improve our ability to divine others' thoughts—even when our conversation partners may not know their own minds.
The thoughts and feelings of others, including those closest to us, are far from transparent; that makes mind reading the only way to know someone beyond the mere surface. It's the only way to achieve true intimacy. And the only way to love someone for who he or she really is.
Seven Sides of a Sixth Sense
If everyday mind reading is a sixth sense, it's a very complicated one that relies on all the other senses and fully exploits our cognitive and perceptual abilities.
Not all mind reading moments are created equal, however. There are break points, times where the interaction changes color and tone. A break point could follow an awkward pause or the entrance of someone else into the discussion, explains Sara Hodges, a professor of psychology at the
We don't have to pinpoint our partner's every fleeting thought and emotion, but we'd better gauge these moments right, because they carry more weight. "If you're reading someone pretty accurately but then miss the point where they go from laughing along with you to feeling teased in a hurtful way, or if you miss the point where a light conversation turns serious, then all your other points of accuracy may be blown, and it's going to reveal that you're not very empathically accurate."
Reading body language is a core component of mind reading. It can reveal a person's most basic emotions. Researchers have shown that when watching a body's movements reduced to points of light on a screen, observers can still read sadness, anger, joy, disgust, fear, and romantic love. We're primed to read emotion into movement—even when there's very little to go on.
Facial expressions are also cues we use to know what others are thinking. Despite the 3,000 different expressions we may deploy each day, it's the fleeting microexpressions that betray many feelings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us are terrible at detecting them. Still, we tend to focus on others' eyes, and that helps us. The many surrounding muscles make eyes a richer source of clues than other parts of the face: downcast in sadness, wide open in fright, dreamily unfocused, staring hard with jealousy, or glancing around with bored impatience.
We know even more about someone's mind from the way the components of conversation fit together—someone's words, gestures, and pitch of voice may seem either aligned or incongruous. But despite all we glean from body language and voice tone, Ickes finds, it's the content of speech that contributes most to our success at mind reading. Words matter.
For anyone in a relationship, the art of mind reading demands knowing when to probe and when to leave well enough alone, a strategy that calls for an old-fashioned virtue: discretion. Ickes calls it "managing" empathic accuracy. "Couples with discretion know when to go into their partner's head, and when to stay the hell out," he says. "You may have a pretty good idea of what's going on in there, but you respect your partner's boundaries, and your partner respects yours."
That means letting your partner come to you sometimes, instead of jumping in and completing his or her mental sentences. It also means not overreacting to thoughts you've divined that are threatening, but fleeting: Your boyfriend may enjoy watching that attractive actress on the big screen, but it's your hand he's holding in the movie theater.
Fortunately, we get more than one chance to read someone correctly. A wise mind reader continually refines her initial assumptions about what someone else is experiencing. "The good friend isn't necessarily the one who immediately understands—it's the one who cares enough to keep trying to understand," says Hodges. "You always have another chance to guess the other person's thought or emotion, another chance to get in sync."
Being in sync with another human being can be a transcendent experience, and one that's worth the effort. To know another and to be known yourself, says Siegel, "is the heart of empathic relationships."
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)