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How to Read People’s Minds: Everyday Mind Reading

Is there a psychological explanation for ESP?

Although there is no research evidence to support mind-reading via extrasensory perception (ESP), there are individuals who are extremely skilled at reading others’ body language and making educated guesses about what they are thinking or feeling. Psychologist William Ickes calls it “everyday mind-reading,” and there is evidence that we can develop our perceptual skills and become better at reading other people’s feelings and thoughts.

Here’s how:

Nonverbal Decoding Skill. Much of our ability to tap into others’ feelings and emotions is through individual differences in “reading” others’ nonverbal emotional expressions, particularly through facial expressions and tone of voice. To give you a sense of what a skilled nonverbal decoder can do, watch a professional “mindreader” or “mentalist” at work on stage. The “mentalist" seems to have some sort of ESP, but is actually reading the nonverbal cues of audience members. The mindreader says, “Someone here has recently experienced a loss of a family member,” and then looks for subtle reactions. Zeroing in on the person who reacts, the mentalist probes around and watches for reactions. It’s not ESP, it’s highly-developed nonverbal decoding skill. The way to improve your ability to decode nonverbal cues is through systematic practice. Here is a guide for improving nonverbal decoding skill.

Consider the Context. It isn’t enough to be a good decoder of nonverbal cues. To really be an everyday mindreader you need to consider the context. The same nonverbal behaviors in different contexts mean different things. Imagine a wife and husband in a group discussion. You notice the wife gently squeezes her husband’s hand. If it occurs during a lull in a conversation, it likely is a sign of affection. If it occurs after someone else has said something provocative, it might mean “pay attention” or “remember what I told you?” If it occurs after the husband has said something, it might mean “keep quiet!” Context matters.

Deception Detection Strategies. One might be motivated to become an everyday mindreader in order to tell if others are lying or telling the truth. I’m sorry to tell you that research shows that we are simply not very good at detecting deception. There are some rare individuals, however, who have exceptional ability to detect lies. Psychologists Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan labeled these people “wizards” of lie detection. How do they do it? The wizards look for inconsistencies in nonverbal behavior, or between what a person is saying and how they are saying it. They also analyze the context. Importantly, they don’t fall prey to mental shortcuts when it comes to lie detection, such as believing that a liar won’t make eye contact, or will look in a certain direction when lying. Research actually shows that liars engage in more eye contact than truth-tellers. Good liars know all about the mental shortcuts people are prone to. (Here is an earlier post that might help you in improving at lie detection.)

So, how do you become a better everyday mindreader?

1. Get Motivated. It’s not easy to be a good nonverbal decoder, so you have to have the dedication to do it.

2. Practice. Reading body language and contextual cues require a great deal of practice. Importantly, you need to practice in a way that allows you to assess your accuracy. In other words, if you don’t know the “truth,” you can’t learn to become more accurate.

3. Don’t Take Mental Shortcuts. Don’t assume that a certain nonverbal cue always means the same thing. Don’t fall prey to stereotypes about people and their body language. For example, several studies suggest that deception is better detected by focusing on the liar’s words, rather than their body language. In other words, is the lie plausible? Are the verbal and nonverbal cues consistent?

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Ekman, Paul (2009). Telling Lies (revised edition). NY: Norton.

Ickes, William (2003). Everyday Mindreading. Prometheus Books.