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SPSP Book Review: Mindwise by Nicholas Epley

Nicholas Epley’s Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

by Kathleen D. Vohs, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

One of humans’ most special attributes is that we recognize that others have different inner lives than our own. To be sure, because it can go wrong in so many ways, mind-reading (thinking about others’ minds so as to understand them) is the source of much comic relief, anxiety, and conflict. Maybe what’s most laudable is that people care enough to even try to read others’ minds.

Or is it? A recent book, Mindwise, by Professor Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, takes two positions. Mindwise details the many ways that people discount and neglect others’ minds, which is known as dehumanization. Not appreciating that others have minds can produce deadly serious consequences, such as abuse, homicide, and genocide. From this perspective, one might think that the answer is to attribute fully human minds to all we encounter.

Not so fast, says Epley. Mindwise takes a second position, which is that at times people assume sophisticated minds when they shouldn’t. Errors of this kind include imbuing material objects with intentions (as alluded to by signs near photocopiers that read, “Don’t let the copier know you are in a hurry. It smells fear.”). This and other displays of anthropomorphism are arguably less problematic than dehumanization in terms of consequences but are not to be discounted, for they offer important insights into people’s use of mind-reading skills. For instance, people assume a mind when facing an outcome that needs to be explained. Why did the dog wet the carpet after you yelled at him, the car not start when it always has before, the copier break down just after you got to the front of the line by telling everyone you have to make copies? Other times people perceive minds when they crave a personal connection. I illustrate this idea when teaching by discussing a town in Japan (I envision it to be like the town of Niagara in New York state) that reinvented itself by catering to couples made up of a (human) man and his virtual girlfriend. People will go to great lengths to believe there are minds in mindless creatures to fulfill basic belongingness needs.

What is one to do about mind-reading errors? Commonly-suggested antidotes include studying people’s behaviors to gleam what’s on their minds or mentally transporting oneself so as to see the world from their eyes. These strategies produce limited or counterproductive effects, according to Epley. He advocates perspective-getting instead. Perspective-getting means asking people about their thoughts, feelings, or desired outcomes. And then it requires really hard listening, without ego or preconceived notions. The value of talking to people is illustrated by a story told by Professor Anuj Shah, of the University of Chicago, at a meeting of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (SESP) earlier this month. As he described it, a program aiming to reduce impulsive violence among young men (called Becoming A Man) uses this exercise: One young man is given a ball. The other young men are instructed to get it out of his hand. What ensues is typically physical force, and the ball is relinquished. Afterwards, the leader asks whether anyone had thought about just asking for the ball, resulting in scoffs at the notion that it would work. When the ball-holder is asked whether he would have given up the ball if asked, the answer often is yes. The power of perspective-getting.

Epley is a world-renowned scholar with many accomplishments in the science of mind-reading, which makes him an ideal author to write on this topic. Epley’s book is a terrific example of a style of writing that is based in the author’s own research and goes beyond it to interweave findings from our field and other sciences, news events, and personal stories. In a testament to Epley’s writing, I saw studies I knew already in a new light. I tabbed corners of pages, circled passages, and snapped images of paragraphs to send to colleagues. In addition, Epley writes with an incredibly human style. That style is on display when Epley opens the book by describing a trip to Ethiopia with his wife to pick up their newly adopted son and daughter (who are siblings). The trip included meeting their father, where Epley yearned to know what he was thinking and feeling. This poignant and visceral scene captures how difficult it is to know someone else’s mind, and how valuable a skill it can be.

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