What’s on your mind?

People have the capacity to be able to figure out what others are thinking. But there are lots of traps involved, according to research reported in Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise.


For most of my life, I thought I was no good at guessing what other people were feeling. I marvelled at the capacity of friends who, through their powers of intuition, could understand other people.

Then a few years ago I was a subject in a research project on “personality coaching.” After taking a comprehensive psychological test, I met with a coach, had a look at my personality profile and decided what if any aspect of my personality I would like to change. Many other subjects chose to reduce their anxiety or depression, but I scored very low on “neuroticism.” Instead, I chose understanding others’ feelings, something I thought I was poor at. Over ten weeks of coaching, I was encouraged to think about and practise some ways to improve.

I’m not sure whether I actually improved, but I discovered I was better than I had thought at picking up on the emotions of people I knew, for example when talking on the telephone to my PhD students.


Now I’ve read Nicholas Epley’s illuminating book Mindwise (Penguin, 2014) and learned that my original view was probably more accurate, namely I’m not that great at deciphering others’ emotions. However, my view of others’ skills was skewed. Most of them are probably not very good either. Epley reports that those who are poorest at understanding others are the most overconfident in their abilities.

Epley is a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago and does research on what he calls “mind-reading.” This is not extra-sensory perception but rather using our senses to understand — in the words of the subtitle of his book — “what others think, believe, feel, and want.”

Mindwise is an engaging treatment of research findings in the area. Epley uses a variety of examples, including from his own life, to illustrate insights. He has packaged this material into a logical framework, progressing through various dimensions of mind-reading. The book is the best sort of popularisation: it conveys key ideas in an understandable, engaging way while being faithful to the original research.

Knowing yourself

Compared to understanding others, it should be far easier to know our own thoughts. But actually it’s not.


A book that greatly changed my thinking is Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wilson reported on research showing that there are parts of our minds that we cannot consciously access. He recounts a famous experiment in which young men acted on the basis of an incorrect assessment of their own emotions. Wilson concluded that, in some circumstances, the person sitting next to you knows as much about what you are feeling as you do yourself! It’s hard to believe, but the research is convincing.

Epley, covering some of the same ground, devotes a chapter to “What you can and cannot know about your own mind,” offering numerous fascinating observations about a key shortcoming of the mind. When you feel happy, for example, you usually know, but you seldom know why you’re happy, and systematically make incorrect assumptions about the reasons. Epley says we know what mental products are like as completed products but don’t have a clue about how they were created. Therefore, to make sense of our thoughts and emotions, we manufacture a plausible story and “we’re left with the illusion that we know more about own minds than we actually do.” (p. 30).

When pollsters ring to ask about your voting intentions, they now ask who you would vote for if the election were held today. In doing this, pollsters draw on psychological research. They don’t ask who you would vote for in a few weeks or months, because most people do not know their own minds well enough to accurately predict their future preferences.

Then there is the issue of bias. People assume that others are biased, not themselves, and hold fast to their own illusions. Not understanding one’s own mind in this case leads to mistakes in reading the minds of others.

Adam Goodes

Take the case of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football star and former Australian of the Year. For the past two years he has been subject to booing by spectators every time he has the ball, something unprecedented in persistence. Many commentators attribute this to Goodes being an Aborigine and, furthermore, outspoken in opposition to racism. Those who boo or otherwise criticise Goodes say they aren’t racist. However, it’s quite possible that they do not understand their own motivations. To justify their beliefs and behaviours, they come up with rationalisations, such as that Goodes has been playing unfairly, a view that conveniently ignores the dozens of other footballers who play the same way. Hardly anyone these days admits being a racist. In this case, others may be able to read the minds of those who defend booing better than they can themselves.

Dehumanising others

One of the most serious flaws in the human mind-reading system is caused by proximity. The part of the brain engaged by the system is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). People close to us stimulate greater activity in our mPFC: they are seen as having minds. By the same token, those who do not trigger mPFC activity are seen to be mindless and hence less than human. This psychological distancing is the source of mistaken judgements and underlies many crimes and atrocities.


People from other cultures are harder to understand and are candidates for dehumanisation. Have you ever gotten to know a terrorist? Those who haven’t are prone to systematically misinterpreting their thinking and motivations. Epley says that terrorists are not psychopaths, but rather have an overwhelming empathy for their own group, connected with a contempt for other groups. “They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself” (p. 53).

When dehumanisation can be countered, the benefits can be enormous. Epley recounts the well-known story about a General Motors plant in California that was closed in 1982 due to abysmal productivity and quality control. Then GM entered a partnership with Toyota. The new Japanese management reopened the plant, rehired most of the same workers and started treating them as mindful humans with intrinsic motivations rather than as mindless ones interested only in money. Before long, the plant became a top performer. Despite this well-tested insight about the value of intrinsic motivation, bosses in workplaces around the world continue to treat workers as mindless drones who can only be motivated by fear or financial rewards.

Nimmi auto plant in Fresno, California

Because of inadequate understanding of the minds of others, most people are apprehensive of striking up conversations with strangers. Have you ever sat on a bus or train and noticed how people will space themselves out, avoiding sitting next to strangers? In one experiment, commuters were asked whether they would prefer to sit alone or talk to a stranger, and nearly all said sitting alone. Then they were asked to talk with strangers and nearly all found it more enjoyable. This shows that people are mistaken about the likely responsiveness of strangers and about their own emotional responses.

Minds when there are none

The capacity of humans to understand the minds of others can sometimes be deployed when it’s not appropriate, in what is called anthropomorphising, namely seeing things as having human qualities. Have you ever seen someone berating their computer, saying “Why do you keep causing me trouble?” This is anthropomorphising: the computer is attributed will or motivation.


Epley reports that inanimate objects are more likely to be seen as human when they are unpredictable. The computer that sporadically plays up is seen as more wilful than the one that always works – or never does. When something needs to be explained, we are more likely to infer the existence of a mind.

Another reason for attributing minds is appearance, for example a face. The animated feature film Cars is more engaging because the cars have big eyes and mouths, so the fiction that they can think and talk is less jarring. A feature titled Rocks showing expressionless rocks would be less likely to attract audiences.


Epley writes that the process of anthropomorphising is not mysterious: “Forming a connection requires you to consider another person’s mind, to adopt his or her perspective, to do your best to get into his or her head” (pp. 78-79), and this can occur with non-humans. He notes that musicians often form a personal bond with their instruments, even giving them names. I guess my mind-reading sense is unlikely to be triggered in this way. I’ve been playing the same clarinet for 50 years and never thought of giving it a name.

Someone else’s clarinet

It’s all about you

When trying to figure out what others are thinking, one of the biggest challenges is getting over egocentrism, in particular the assumption that others think the way we do. People were asked their views on a range of ethical choices, for example “Is it ethical to call in sick to get a day off?” Then they were asked how they thought others would answer, namely to estimate the percentage of others who would agree with them. On this question, 71% answered that it is ethical, and these subjects estimated 66% of others would answer the same way. So far, so good: 66% is close to 71%, so mind-reading seems to work. However, 29% answered that it is unethical, and these subjects incorrectly estimated 64% of others would answer the same way. On a whole set of questions, people thought the majority of others agreed with their answer, even when they were in minorities as low as 10%. This illustrates that, in the absence of specific knowledge about others, the usual assumption is that they think the same way we do.


Most people overestimate their own contributions to shared tasks, for example housework. They also overestimate their role in negative interactions, taking more than their share of responsibility for starting arguments. An excess of self-centredness leads to paranoia.

Another aspect of self-centredness is that most people think they feel emotions more strongly than others. This is because we feel our own emotions very strongly but have only indirect information about others’ emotions. On this particular aspect of self-centredness I can plead not guilty, because for most of my life I’ve assumed I don’t feel emotions as strongly as others (which, of course, could be true).

Another aspect of a self-centred bias is called the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something, it is very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. The result is that highly knowledgeable people are sometimes poor teachers. Studies show that someone who has just learned how to use a mobile phone can teach a beginner more quickly than can an experienced user. The curse of knowledge is especially relevant to me as a university teacher. I try to counter it by setting up conditions for students to learn from each other. One of the counter-intuitive implications of the curse of knowledge is that I may be better at helping students learn when I haven’t previously taught a subject.



When you don’t know much about a person, it’s convenient to assume they fit a stereotype, about being a woman, an Egyptian, a plumber or a redhead. Epley describes research showing both the strengths and weaknesses of stereotypes. Most stereotypes accurately portray differences between groups. For example, those on the political right are more likely to support bosses against workers than those on the left. The shortcoming of stereotypes is that they give an exaggerated idea of how great the differences between groups are. The differences between right and left on many issues actually are fairly small, maybe 1/10 as great as the stereotypes might suggest.

Stereotypes thus can lead to clashes between groups that don’t really differ very much, because each group operates on the basis of its exaggerated idea of the views of the other group.

This is one reason why deliberative democracy has more potential than you might imagine. Put together a randomly selected group of 12 citizens (a so-called citizens jury), give them information about some subject, say genetic engineering or climate change, and have them try to reach consensus on a policy. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but hundreds of actual citizens juries show that it usually does. When people are brought together, get to know each other and exchange ideas, stereotypes give way to more realistic perceptions, and usually there is more commonality than initially imagined.


Most people are susceptible to “correspondence bias.” When someone acts violently, we may assume they are angry or aggressive. Many people in the US assume that the 9/11 terrorists hated America and wanted to destroy the American way of life, despite explicit al Qaeda statements about their real motivations.


Correspondence bias can reflect an assumption that other people’s actions are internally motivated rather than conditioned by the environment. If your friend Lauren walks by without saying hello, you may assume she is unhappy with you when actually she was just preoccupied and didn’t see you. Epley notes that people in collectivist cultures, such as in Japan, are more attuned to the existence of environmental influences and are less likely to be subject to correspondence bias.

Correspondence bias can have serious consequences. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005, officials assumed that those who had not been evacuated didn’t want to leave. The officials didn’t take into account the factors that constrained the desires of residents. Epley says “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus” (p. 151).

How to read minds

When someone looks to the side while talking to you, does this mean they’re lying? When they fold their arms and keep their distance, does this mean they’re resisting your views? A lot has been written about body language and how to interpret it. Despite reading several books on the topic, I have always thought I was poor at interpreting body language. According to Epley, I’m not unusual: it’s very difficult to learn a lot from it. If you’re going to try, it’s better to listen to someone’s voice rather than watch them.

Then there is perspective-taking: imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and thereby gaining insight into what they think and how they feel. I always thought this was valuable, but Epley cites many studies showing it is subject to serious shortcomings. We can imagine ourselves in someone else’s circumstances, but often this isn’t accurate at all.

There’s one method for figuring out what other people are thinking that is usually pretty helpful: ask them, and carefully listen to what they say. It seems obvious but, as Epley notes, in many cases people are overconfident in thinking they already know the answer, so they don’t bother to ask. A boss assumes a worker needs higher pay to work harder, or arrives late due to being slack, and doesn’t ask for the worker’s explanation.

The key to getting an honest answer is to reduce the threat of repercussions. Epley tells how he used this approach with his son. Performance appraisals at work are useless when employees fear reprisals for being honest.

Nicholas Epley

Mindwise is filled with insights. If figuring out what others are thinking is important to you, it could be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read. An important message is that most people are overconfident about their mind-reading abilities. As Epley concludes, “Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine” (p. 184).

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for useful comments.