Whether we know it or not, we're all street-corner psychics. Without the ability to divine others' thoughts and feelings, we couldn't handle the simplest social situations—or achieve true intimacy with others.
By Annie Murphy Paul published September 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
If a baby starts to cry several hours after drinking his last bottle, his mother knows precisely what he's feeling: He's hungry. But suppose a woman's eyes brim with tears while she watches a DVD. Her husband sinks into the couch: What is she so upset about? She might tell him directly: "This movie is so tragic. It's all about a doomed romance." That may be true. But she could be thinking about how the story reminds her of her own marital troubles. Maybe she's feeling hurt because she thinks her husband should realize what's bothering her and acknowledge it. Or maybe she isn't even aware that her real-world concerns are intensifying her reaction to the fictional couple.
Quickly and unknowingly, he scours his mental files—on his wife's relationship history, on her reaction to the fight they had that morning, on the way she typically reacts to similar movies. He notes the particular quiver to her voice, observes the way she's curled up on the couch, watches the expressions flickering across her face. He takes in information from all of these channels, filters it through his own wishes and biases… until finally it hits him: She knows about his mistress!
Every day, whether we're pushing for a raise, wrestling with the kids over homework, 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 and author of The Mindful Brain. "It allows your brain to create a map of another person's internal state."
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.
The Great Trade-Off
It's astonishing that we can peer into each other's minds at all—but in truth we generally don't do it all that well. Strangers (who are videotaped and later report their second-by-second thoughts and feelings, as well as their assessments of their counterpart's thoughts and feelings) read each other with an average accuracy rate of 20 percent. Close friends and married couples nudge that up to 35 percent. And "almost no one ever scores higher than 60 percent," reports psychologist William Ickes, the father of empathic accuracy, who is based at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Our (limited) ability to mind read has ancient roots, says Ross Buck, a professor of communication sciences at the University of Connecticut. Over thousands of years of evolution, humans' systems of communication grew more sophisticated, as living and working arrangements became more complex. Mind reading became a tool with which to "create and maintain the social order," as Buck puts it. It helped to know when to affirm a commitment to a mate or defuse a dispute with a neighbor.
Of course, in order to advance our own interests, we still needed to conceal feelings from others at times, and even to lie. "We didn't always want to show exactly what we were thinking, because others could use that to gain the upper hand," says Buck. Our merely adequate mindsight, then, can be thought of as the product of a tug-of-war between the need to show and the need to hide our true selves.
This delicate balance between perceiving and concealing has served humans well over our long history, but Siegel worries that mind-reading ability is now on the decline in our culture. Today's obsessed-with-success parents spend so much time stimulating their children with structured activities, noisy toys, and Baby Einstein DVDs, they are not sitting still and being "present" with their kids. As a result, they deny children the opportunity to learn how to get in tune with another person, physically and emotionally—that is, to develop mindsight. A reasonable degree of mindsight is required, he says, for a civil society in which adults are kind to one another.
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. For starters: When we're trying to get inside someone's head, we comprehend the meaning of the words being spoken, we monitor facial expressions and body language, and we register the tone of voice and the cadence of speech.
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 University of Oregon. 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.
All Together Now
There's yet another, deeper level on which mind reading happens. Emotions are in a sense contagious, and we may sense what's on others' minds by "catching" what our conversation partners are feeling. Psychologists have long known that we tend to converge emotionally with others as we talk to them; without being aware of it, we copy them, altering our physiology from the outside in. Like the method actor who "becomes" her character, we start to "feel" what the other person is feeling. When we mimic other people's behavior, speech, rhythms, gestures, expressions, and physical attitudes, studies show, we gain a direct sense of their feelings and psychological attitudes as well.
Though smiles spread easily, negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones overall, probably because our brains are especially sensitive to negative information. And picking up someone's anxiety or fear triggers our own fight-or-flight response, which gets our heart racing and blood pumping. Research has shown that those who are most susceptible to emotional contagion do better at reading a person's negative thoughts and feelings than they do her sunnier ones.
Mind reading, however, is not a one-way process; it's a dynamic interaction, and this adds an additional layer of complexity. Siegel conceives of mindsight as starting with interoception—a sense of our own bodies and inner state. The more self-aware you are, the more easily you will recognize, for example, that you are suddenly tense. You might attribute that to your conversation partner: "Jane must be on edge about her job." And you may be right. If you begin to comfort her even before she's said she's worried about her career, you will come off as a caring, perceptive friend.
But you might be wrong. Jane could be fine while the tension you sensed was a figment of your own imagination. Say you grew up in a family where anger was not managed well, observes Siegel; you may tend to pick up on false threats. "Your internal mechanisms color your mindsight," he says. All our particular prejudices, biases, and memory distortions also affect our mindsight. We may read ulterior motives into straightforward statements if we have a suspicious worldview. Or we may see good intentions in evil ones if our take on others is more optimistic.
Because there's a direct correlation between having a good map of your own mental state and drawing accurate maps of other people, Siegel believes that attentiveness or mindfulness—which can be increased through practices like meditation—can "stabilize the lens of mindsight. It helps you see your interior world with more clarity. As you further develop mindfulness, you can look to your increased self-knowing as the material from which you draw empathic inferences."
Skill at sensing your own feelings and interpreting all the clues your conversation partner is giving off qualifies you for truly advanced feats of mind reading: identifying those thoughts of which even the person having them is not aware. "The ability that separates the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is the ability to discern a thought or feeling the other person hasn't yet fully recognized," says Hodges. "They're not lying or concealing their emotions, they're just still sorting them out. And you can help them with that."
Those who can do this are the most valuable kind of friend, the ones who can lead others to deep realizations about themselves. But they must guide gently, Hodges cautions. A comment like "It seems that you're feeling a little sad about this—could that be right?" will be more readily accepted than a presumptuous "I know what you're really feeling."
ABC's of Mind Reading
The ability to read minds actually begins at birth, newborns prefer faces to any other stimulus, and babies just a few weeks old are able to imitate facial expressions. By two months, infants can perceive and respond to the emotional states of their caregivers; by one year, "children monitor adults' expressions and use them to guide their behavior," reports Nancy Eisenberg, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and an expert on emotional development. At 2 years of age, children can infer others' desires from the direction of their gaze; at 3, they can label facial expressions as happy, sad, or angry.
By age 5, children have acquired a rudimentary ability to read others' minds; they possess a "theory of mind." That is, they understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own.
Children hone their mind-reading skills by eavesdropping on adult conversation, from which they discern the complexities of social rules and interactions. Play with peers provides opportunities to practice reading the minds of other kids, necessary preparation for knowing what's going on in grownups' minds. Such abilities unfold seamlessly in the normal course of development. But they may be impaired in abused or neglected youngsters. Children from violent homes, for example, may be overly sensitized to angry expressions, seeing anger where it doesn't exist; severely deprived children, such as those raised in institutions, may lack the ability to clearly identify any emotions at all.
Sophisticated mind reading of the "I know that you know that I know" variety emerges only in late adolescence. That's because the ability to hold in mind the subjective perspectives of several people at once—and to integrate what you understand of the world and of the particular person you are encountering—often requires a fully developed brain. The natural narcissism of teenagers may lead them to interpret others' thoughts and feelings in the most self-centered way possible: When a mother panics because her daughter arrives a few minutes after curfew, the daughter will likely think "Mom's trying to control me again!" instead of the more accurate "Mom is upset because she was worried about me."
Ickes is eager to shoot down one of the oldest canards about mind reading—that women have some intuitive advantage. With UT colleague Tiffany Graham, he found "virtually no evidence" that women are better mind readers than men. So why the persistence of the gender stereotype? "It may be not an ability gap, but a motivation gap," says Ickes. "In everyday life, women seem to be more easily motivated to try hard to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling."
Support for such an interpretation comes from a study in which researchers offered cash bonuses to participants for accurately reading others' minds. The payments "wiped out any difference between men's and women's performances," suggesting that men can read minds as well as women when they want to. The trouble is they don't always want to.
The role of motivation in accurate mind reading helps explain another counterintuitive finding: Newly married husbands and wives are very good at sensing each other's states of mind. But just when we expect them to get even better at it, because they know each other more intimately, something unexpected happens: Empathic accuracy actually ebbs after the first year of marriage.
Why should those who know each other better do worse at understanding each other? They become a bit arrogant, confident that they know each other, and perhaps less motivated to put effort into reading each other, Ickes suggests. That lack of motivation may affect marital dynamics; sociological data show that marital satisfaction also plunges after one year. No matter how long you've been married or in a friendship, Ickes observes, assuming you know what someone's thinking kills mind-reading accuracy.
Research on mind reading offers more surprises. You might think that high scorers on tests of sensitivity would be great mind readers. But they aren't. Neither are professional listeners: A study of psychics found that they were no better at mind reading than the rest of us. Psychotherapists prove no more accurate than laypeople in making inferences based on facial expressions; however, they're significantly more accurate in making inferences based on language.
And shared experiences (of, for example, new motherhood, alcoholism, or parental divorce) don't help us get into other people's heads—a fact that may come as a surprise to the millions of people who participate in support groups.
What Helps Can Also Hurt
So what does matter to effective mind reading? Advanced education, high intelligence (especially verbal intelligence), open-mindedness, and good mental health abet empathic accuracy. Everybody does better when reading people they know—but people who are better than average at figuring out strangers are also superb at reading those in their inner circle. Then, too, some people are easier to read than others. They talk more and use more gestures, providing the rest of us with a detailed map of their thoughts and feelings.
Of course, the same mind-reading skills that help you be a compassionate friend and supportive partner can be used to hit loved ones where it hurts. Think of a long-married couple who torment each other with intimate knowledge: He knows she's thinking about her long-lost brother, and makes a quip about how she never took care of her siblings anyway; she senses he's contemplating his business failures and confirms that he has in fact screwed up everything he's ever tried.
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."