Everyday Mind Reading

Exploring and improving "empathic accuracy," our ability to guess the thoughts and feelings of other people.

The Man Who Measured Mind Reading

The Man Who Measured Mind Reading

I must have been about 11 or 12 years old when I first heard about the field of psychology. Living in a small Iowa town just west of Des Moines, I was an expert on comic books and Mad Magazine in those days and not much else.

Hearing that the field of psychology was concerned with "the study of the mind," I immediately (and erroneously) jumped to the conclusion that most psychologists spent their time either reading other people's minds or trying to figure out how to read other people's minds. I thought that some day, when comic books, satire, and science fiction (my newest enthusiasm) had begun to lose their appeal, I might look into this psychological study of mind reading.

Flash forward to my college years. I completed the hours for my English major in just over two years, and realized on the way to class one day that I was starting to find it boring. On the other hand, I liked the fact that my minor area, psychology, was so reliably open-ended and lacking in closure. Every time you did a study in the attempt to answer a question, the data opened up new and interesting questions that you hadn't considered before. Some people would find that frustrating; I liked it. I understood that if I developed a research career in psychology, I would probably never be bored.

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About a year after completing my Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided to study the initial interactions of pairs of strangers (for a more complete account of this period in my iife, see Chapters 2 and 3 in my 2003 book, Everyday Mind Reading). After spending about 10 years studying how people's personality traits and characteristics affect their initial, unstructured interactions, I figured out a way to measure how accurately the new acquaintances could infer each other's thoughts and feelings. And, with this discovery, the study of empathic accuracy ("everyday mind reading") was born.

Here's how we do it. We bring the strangers together for the first time outside our social interaction lab. At this point, they realize that they will be participating in the study together. Without introducing them to each other, the experimenter escorts them into a lab room that looks a lot like a waiting room. The strangers are seated together on a couch, and are asked to wait a few minutes while the experimenter runs a quick errand. By the time the experimenter returns (6 minutes later), we have unobtrusively captured the new acquaintances' initial interaction on audiotape and videotape, using a concealed camera and microphone.

Of course, in order to use the tapes as data, we have to obtain the participants' permission. So we explain the reason for not telling them about the taping in advance (they wouldn't have interacted as naturally with each other if they had known), and then asked them to sign a release form letting use use the tape of their interaction as a data source. If they both agree, fine. If either or both says no, that's okay too; we simply erase the tape on the spot.

If they both agree to release the tape and participate in the next phase of the study (another consent form), they are seated in separate cubicles. A large TV monitor faces into their cubicle (it's on the other side of a window between the cubicle and our control room). By using a start/pause control that is connected to a VCR, they can each view a separate copy of the videotaped interaction in which they both just participated.

Their first task is to start the videotape, let it play until the first point at which they distinctly remembered having had a particular thought or feeling, and then pause the tape to write the content of that thought or feeling (in sentence form) on a standard thought/feeling reporting form. They then start the tape again, stop it to write down the next thought or feeling they had, and continue doing this until they have each completed a listing of all of the thoughts and feelings they had during their interaction together.

Their next task is to try to "read" each other's minds. We explain that they will now see the videotape of their interaction again, but this time we will pause it for them at each of those points when the other person (the interaction partner) reported having a thought or a feeling. Their job, at each of these "tape stops," is to try to infer the specific content of the thought or feeling that their interaction partner reported and to write it down (again, in sentence form) on a standard thought/feeling inference form.

By the end of the experimental session, we have lists of each acquaintance's actual thoughts and feelings and lists of the inferred thoughts and feelings they thought their interaction partner had reported. We then ask trained raters to compare the content of each actual thought or feeling with the content inferred by the interaction partner and rate the accuracy with which the interaction partner was able to infer the content of the actual thought or feeling. An aggregated (combined) measure of these individual accuracy scores gives us an overall index of empathic accuracy. It's a direct measure of how well one interaction partner was able to "read" the other interaction partner's mind.

My colleagues and I have been doing empathic accuracy research for about 20 years now, and I'll tell you about the the results of that research in future blogs. In the meantime, I think it's both amusing and ironic how my erroneous childhood assumption about what psychologists study (minds and how to "read" them) eventually led me to devote the largest part of my research career to the study of "everyday mind reading." There is perhaps less distance than there once seemed to be between the boy who speculated about mind reading and the man who measured it.

Dr. William Ickes is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. For the past 20 years he has been studying empathic accuracy ("everyday mind reading").

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