Science Shows Us How To Read Minds (Really)

Science Shows Us How To Read Minds (Really)

Research has shown that people spend much of their time trying to figure out what others think.  Does this person like me?  Does he/she find me attractive?  In effect, we attempt to “read minds.”

Unfortunately research also shows that we are notoriously inaccurate in our mind reading.  One study showed that the accuracy of people’s guesses about whether people in a group liked them were based purely on chance – like flipping a coin.

So how can we increase our ability to know what others really think of us?  How can we more accurately peer into the minds of others?

A study done by Tal Eyal and Nicholas Epley shows how.

In this study 106 students at the University of Chicago were put into two groups Targets and Observers.  Targets posed for a picture and were told their appearance would be rated by someone of the opposite sex.

Half of the Targets were told that their photo would be rated today (near condition) and the other half were told it would be rated later (distant condition).  They were then asked to write down how they thought an observer would describe their photo and how the Observer might rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (very).

The second group called Observers were shown the photo, asked to describe it and rate it on the same scale.

The results:  Students who were asked to imagine how they’d be rated by someone a few months in the future were far more accurate in their judgments of how attractive they’d appear to another person.


An analysis of their self-descriptions showed that those in the distant condition were using what’s called a high level of mental construal (thinking abstractly) to think about themselves and so did the Observers.  These students were more accurate in their predictions because their level mental construal matched that of the Observers.

Usually, people think of themselves in a low level of mental construal – that means we see ourselves in fine-level, detail, as if with a microscope.  Another way of saying it is we see ourselves in concrete terms.  For example, we’ll notice the exact way our hair is placed and how it is different from yesterday instead of just thinking “my hair looks well-groomed” which would be more abstract.

Others, especially strangers, often view us using high level abstractions – tall, skinny, fat, happy, sad, Asian, black etc.  Because we use a different level of construal when thinking of ourselves than when others think of us, we tend to make less accurate judgments about what they think of us.  And because thinking about the future causes people to think abstractly, students in the distant condition thought about themselves more abstractly just as the Observers did.

But why do we use a low level of construal when thinking about ourselves and a higher level when thinking of others?

It all has to do with social distance.  When people are close to you, you have more knowledge of them and use low level construal.  And there is no person closer to you than yourself and no person for whom you have greater knowledge.  You know not only your own behavior but your intentions behind the behavior.  You know what your present and past habits are.  You know how you look today and how you looked at various other points in your life.

Others who don’t know you as well are likely to use broad generalizations to describe you for two reasons.  One you are not as close to them as they are to themselves so the greater social distance will lead them to thinking about you using higher level construals.  And second, they have less information about you than you do, so they have little choice but to use high level abstractions when thinking about you.

However, because social distance and knowledge are the key factors deterring what level of construal a person uses in thinking about you, you don’t need to raise your level of construal quite as much to read the minds of people close to you as they may already see you more concretely because the social distance between you will be much smaller than with a stranger.

This technique of thinking about yourself from a future perspective though can help us read the minds of strangers or those who are socially distant from us such as an acquaintance or your bosses boss much better than before.

What do you think of this study?  Please leave your comments below.

Subscribe without commenting