Bookshelf: Lost in Translation

Reading others is an essential human skill—but it's not failsafe.

By Kelly Holmes, published on March 11, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Think about the people you know best: Can you guess what they're thinking at any given time? As a social species, humans have the ability to pick up on the thoughts and emotions of others. This allows us to develop complex relationships, cooperate, and empathize in ways that are unrivaled by other animals. But this characteristically human intelligence has its flaws.

In Mindwise, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley shows how biases and errors can easily intrude. In fact, he argues, we routinely misread social situations and misperceive other people's intentions, leading to potentially damaging conflicts. We also mistakenly feel as though we're living every moment on center stage, leading us to magnify any embarrassing episode. We even fail to understand the workings of our own minds.

Part research digest, part self-improvement manual, Mindwise suggests ways to avoid the most common perceptual traps and explains how we can better see each other, and ourselves, for who we truly are.

A: Who Likes You?

We have a pretty good sense of how we're generally perceived by others—but we're fairly oblivious to how specific individuals see us. In one study, people working in groups were asked to predict how other members would rate them on different traits. When predicting the average judgment of the whole group, the participants performed well. But when asked to determine how any one person felt, they did only slightly better than they would have with random guesses.

B: Watch The Tone

Epley's team asked volunteers to deliver either sincere or sarcastic messages via phone or email. The senders felt confident in their ability to convey the proper tone in either medium, and recipients believed they were interpreting things accurately. In reality, the meaning was clear only when spoken; in emails, the true intent was lost. This exemplifies the lens problem: We underestimate how much our interpretation differs from others' because of our knowledge and intentions.

C: Explain Yourself

We have a knack for coming up with explanations for our actions and preferences, even if they are totally wrong. In a study conducted by Swedish researchers, participants were asked to choose the more attractive of two headshots. The twist: After a photo was chosen, researchers secretly switched it with a different one before asking participants to justify their choices. The ruse didn't stop three quarters of participants from singing the praises of the faces they "picked."