By Nicholas Epley, Vintage Books, February 11, 2014, 978-0385351676

Nicholas Epley gives us perspective on taking someone else’s perspective. Mindwise expresses the point of view that we can only get into someone else’s head by actually asking them. If we attempt to guess people’s motives from their actions, we’ll be as right as using a coin flip. The closer we are to someone, e.g. spouses, the less likely we are to be right about our inferences.

I tend to think that I’m good at seeing a problem from someone else’s point of view. This book makes me rethink my presumed skill. Rather just do my best, and ask as many direct questions as we can. Sometimes we can’t so don’t make assumptions. For example, why did so many people stay behind during Hurricane Katrina? TV pundits and the head of FEMA blamed them for not listening. The majority were poor and had no means to leave. “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus.”

[k79] Instead, I am going to tell you about the kind of mind reading you do intuitively every day of your life, dozens of times a day, when you infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending. The kind that enables you to build and maintain the intimate relationships that make life worth living, to maintain a desired reputation in the eyes of others, to work effectively in teams, and to outwit and outlast your competitors.

[k88] Your sixth sense is running in high gear nearly all of the time, from the moment you get up in the morning and dress to impress to when you lie awake at night wondering whether others find you intelligent or not, trustworthy or not, or really love you or not.

[k111] This ability is one of your brain’s greatest because it allows you to achieve one of the most important goals in any human life: connecting, deeply and honestly, with other human beings.

[k121] the truth is that you are likely to understand much less about the minds of your family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, competitors, and fellow citizens than you would guess.

[k124] our mistakes are especially interesting because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding.

[k243] And what our respondents wanted to find out most was what these other people thought of them. The majority wanted their brainoscope to work like a magical mirror, Narcissus 2.0.

[k255] These experiments suggested that people are pretty good, overall, at guessing how a group of others would evaluate them, on average.

[k264] Although you might have some sense of how smart your coworkers think you are, you appear to have no clue about which coworkers in particular find you smart and which do not. As one author of the study writes, “People seem to have just a tiny glimmer of insight into how they are uniquely viewed by particular other people.”

[k271] These studies found that people are only slightly better than chance at guessing who in a group likes them and who does not (the average correlation here was a meager .).

[k284] Across two different experiments, the overall correlation between predicted and actual evaluations was 0. It’s not that our volunteers consistently thought they were more attractive than they were actually rated, but that their predictions of how attractive they would be considered from a single photograph simply bore no relation to how they were actually rated on the basis of that photograph.

[k321] Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.

[k355] In fact, the length of a couple’s relationship was not correlated with accuracy at all in this study. More time together did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.

[k475] the interesting thing about the planning fallacy is that despite having so much experience committing it ourselves, we so consistently think that our own mistakes are things of the past rather than the present.

[k582] Attraction is a powerful feeling that we can report on quite clearly, but our conscious understanding of its construction is empty.

[k597] If you need something, you can’t just ask. You have to ask and give a reason. If this association has become so well learned that it runs unconsciously, like riding a bicycle, then virtually any reason given for a request should unconsciously trigger a compliant response.

[k625] Decades before psychologists made any of these discoveries about the full reach of unconscious processes, Carl Jung said, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” Jung didn’t know the half of it.

[k660] No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they’re interested in understanding storytelling. You can ask people what they are thinking or feeling or wanting–the finished product of some mental processes–and expect to get a solid answer, but asking why they think or feel or want invokes nothing but theoretical guesswork.

[k711] When your friend tells you that the red apple is brown, who do you think needs to visit the eye doctor? Naive realism suggests an answer: they do. It calls to mind a famous line of George Carlin’s: “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

[k829] Until the early 1990s, for instance, it was routine practice for infants to undergo surgery without anesthesia. Why? Because at the time, doctors did not believe that infants were able to experience pain, a fundamental capacity of the human mind.

[k936] Nonphysicians who watched these videos had the same reaction I do, with the neural regions that are active when actually experiencing physical pain firsthand also being active when watching other people experiencing pain. It quite literally hurts to watch someone else being hurt. The physicians, however, showed virtually no response in these physical pain regions at all. Instead, the physicians showed activity in a very different part of the brain, most notably a relatively small spot in their medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).

[k980] Although many scientists have little patience for explanations of behavior based on free will, there is no doubt that you and I feel like we have it.

[k983] The finding from careful research is that most people answer these questions by claiming that they have more free will than others do.

[k999] This lesser minds effect has many manifestations, including what appears to be a universal tendency to assume that others’ minds are less sophisticated and more superficial than one’s own.

[k1012] Many African traditions speak of a concept known as ubuntu: “a person is a person through other persons.”

[k1039] They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself. It is the very motive that John McCain, while campaigning for president of the United States, said all people wanted: “to serve a cause greater than their self-interest.”

[k1043] One suicide bomber’s father said, “My son didn’t die just for the sake of a cause, he died … for the people he loved.”

[k1045] It’s easy to see how mischaracterizing the minds of terrorists can lead to faulty military strategies.

[k1049] “The concept of ‘shock and awe,’ “ said retired Pakistani general Talat Masood, “could drive moderate and uncommitted civilians toward anti-Americanism.” One of the most popular songs in Pakistan in 2007, in a region being hit by ten drone strikes per week, included the lines “America’s heartless terrorism,/Killing people like insects,/But honor does not fear power.” Shock and awe seems like a poor strategy for fighting warriors who love their cause as much as we love ours.

[k1093] By thinking that their employees have simplistic motives, bosses overlook the actual depth of their employees’ minds and therefore fail to offer their workers what really motivates them.

[k1127] In one large survey of happiness, for instance, having positive relationships with friends and family members was the only necessary ingredient for being very happy.

[k1153] Your ability to engage with the minds of others is one of your brain’s greatest abilities. You’ll be happier if you actually use it.

[k1239] This means that attributing a mind to a nonhuman agent is the inverse process of failing to attribute a mind to another person. Anthropomorphism and dehumanization are opposite sides of the same coin.

[k1263] That is, minds can be triggered by your perceptions, by your need for an explanation, and by your social connections. To understand when people might recognize a mind where no mind exists, we have to understand how each of these tricks can trigger our sixth sense.

[k1448] Hume understood this when he argued that the universal tendency to anthropomorphize nature stems from our nearly universal “ignorance of causes.”

[k1493] To find this out, the researchers took advantage of a very reliable scientific result. It’s called the mere-presence effect. If you are doing something simple, such as easy math problems, you’re likely to perform better if you have a real person watching you than if you’re alone. But if you’re doing something difficult, such as very difficult math problems, you are likely to perform worse when you have another person watching you.

[k1752] Thinking that others should give you more credit than they actually do is just a small part of our larger egocentric tendencies.

[k1795] Others may not give us much thought, but when they do, they generally cut us more slack than we’d imagine, because they’re not ruminating on our mistakes as much as we are ourselves.

[k1810] Becoming aware of the power of your own perspective is the very thing that enables a broader perspective.

[k1846] Ask those parents to name when the world got more dangerous, and they will tend to give you a date very close to the birth of their first child. The world has remained the same (if anything, it has gotten markedly less dangerous22), but having a child changes the lens through which you view it.

[k1915] Knowledge is a curse because once you have it, you can’t imagine what it’s like not to possess it.

[k1914] This example illustrates what psychologists refer to as the curse of knowledge, another textbook example of the lens problem. Knowledge is a curse because once you have it, you can’t imagine what it’s like not to possess it.

[k1965] Other people generally know less about you than you know about yourself, and to understand what others think of you requires stepping back from the microscopic lens through which you view yourself.

[k1993] Those actually receiving the messages, however, could understand the speaker’s intention only when the communication was clear (that is, when the speaker was on the phone). With e-mail, they were no more accurate than you’d expect from a coin flip.

[k2001] Here you can see why ambiguous mediums like e-mail and texting and Twitter are such fertile ground for misunderstanding. People using ambiguous mediums think they are communicating clearly because they know what they mean to say, receivers are unable to get this meaning accurately but are certain that they have interpreted the message accurately, and both are amazed that the other side can be so stupid.

[k2013] Twitter does not allow others to understand your deep thoughts and broad perspective. It only allows others to confirm how stupid they already think you are.

[k2030] Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, once told a reporter that he was just a banker “doing God’s work.” I believe that this assessment is open to debate.

[k2082] I have described two different versions of egocentric biases, one produced by differences in attention (the neck problem) and the other produced by differences in interpretation (the lens problem). Of these two, I believe the existing evidence suggests that the neck problem is easier to overcome than the lens problem.

[k2093] And you can reduce the anxiety that comes from believing that you are in the center of the social spotlight if you just pause for a moment and consider everything others are likely to be thinking about in their lives (almost none of it having anything to do with you).

The lens problem, in which two people view the very same event differently, appears much harder to overcome. You’ve probably heard the old saying that you can’t judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. You hear this because it’s true, but you hear it so often because the advice is so routinely ignored–by the rich who judge the poor as lazy and incompetent, the sober who judge the addicted to be weak and immoral, and the happy who can’t understand why the depressed don’t just “snap out of it.”

[k2108] You cannot simply try harder to view the world through the eyes of another and hope to do so more accurately, because the lens that biases your perceptions is often invisible to you.

[k2121] Before actually experiencing it live on his radio show, Chicago shock jock Erich “Mancow” Muller was also convinced that waterboarding wasn’t that bad and shouldn’t be considered torture. “The average person can take this for fifteen seconds,” said marine Sergeant Clay South just before subjecting Mancow to the procedure. “He’s going to wiggle, he’s going to scream, he’s going to wish he never did this.” In fact, the sergeant was wrong. Mancow lasted only seven seconds. “It was way worse than I thought it would be, and that’s no joke,” he said. “It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back…. It was instantaneous … and I don’t want to say this: absolutely torture.”

[k2167] Yet having little or no direct contact rarely leaves anyone dumbfounded. Your opinions about the minds of others cover a much “bigger space” than your direct observations, pieced together in your imagination from things you’ve read and heard from others.

[k2233] Nevertheless, almost all of the people shown the test circle in this experiment mistakenly reported that it was in the set. People make this mistake so consistently because the test circle on the right is the average size of the circles in the set on the left.

[k2237] No training in statistics required, no math book to reference, no Google search needed. Your memory may be mistaken, but it’s not stupid.

[k2253] When reality sits clearly before your eyes, your brain’s statistician is brilliant.

[k2268] Men and women tended to respond in ways consistent with their gender roles, with men expressing relatively more competitive and meritocratic attitudes and women expressing relatively more cooperative and egalitarian attitudes.

[k2277] The three-pound meat loaf between your ears can calculate the average qualities of geometric shapes in half a second without even breaking a sweat. What leads our brain’s brilliant statistician astray when thinking about other people? The short answer is that we live in what decision scientist Robin Hogarth calls a “wicked environment,” one that gives imperfect data to your brilliant statistician.

[k2304] The less we know, the more our stereotypes mislead.

[k2427] The sad fact is that real partisanship increases partly because of imagined partisanship on the other side.

[k2646] Only a fool would infer that a person who slips on an icy sidewalk wanted to fall, but the contextual forces that contribute to our successes and stumbles are routinely less obvious than ice on a sidewalk.

[k2667] If you had money to pay for an extended hotel stay, a relatively small family to move, a car to get all of you there, or had far-away friends to stay with, you could choose to leave. If you had no money for an extended hotel stay, no car to get you out, a large family to move, and no long-distance friends to stay with, what choice did you have?

[k2665] Compared to those who left, those who stayed were disproportionately poor, had a geographically narrower social network, had larger families (both children and extended members), had less access to reliable news, and were considerably less likely to own a car. If you had money to pay for an extended hotel stay, a relatively small family to move, a car to get all of you there, or had far-away friends to stay with, you could choose to leave. If you had no money for an extended hotel stay, no car to get you out, a large family to move, and no long-distance friends to stay with, what choice did you have? Little (or none) of this broader context is captured when news cameras zoom in on people standing on rooftops or wading through floodwater. Believing that those who stayed chose to do so is therefore like believing the Earth is flat or that the questioner is brilliant.

[k2675] The point is that the difficulty of observing broader circumstances makes it easy to assume that actions reveal much more about a person’s inner mind than they actually do.

[k2728] By age one, human infants have become experts at associating people’s actions with their underlying intentions. By age three, kids have become so accustomed to this association that they apply it almost everywhere.

[k2758] More important, misunderstanding the power of context can lead us to design ineffective solutions to important problems.

[k2760] You can hear this thinking rolling right out of Michael Brown’s mouth when explaining how to avoid repeating the disaster following Hurricane Katrina: “We’ve got to figure out some way to convince people that whenever warnings go out, it’s for their own good.”

[k2764] Many who stayed wanted desperately to leave but couldn’t. They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus.

[k2781] However, recent mega-experiments involving tens of thousands of students and teachers, costing roughly $80 million in all, found that paying students and teachers for improved performance was completely ineffective. Writes Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who directed the research, “I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

[k2788] Longer school days, shorter summer breaks, and fewer vacations improve student achievement. If you want students to do better in school, a good place to start is to have them spend more time in it.

[k2864] Wisdom comes partly from knowing our limits and, therefore, being able to correct for them. But wisdom also comes from recognizing our strengths and trying to improve on them.

[k2952] scientific credibility of claims about microexpressions is currently weak, at best. First, our intuitive sense that our emotions leak out and are clearly visible to others looks to be more of an egocentric illusion than objective reality.

[k3049] We’ve now looked many times for evidence that perspective taking–actively trying to imagine being in another person’s circumstances–systematically increases mind reading and have yet to find any supportive evidence.

[k3116] Getting your partner’s perspective by asking them directly works much better than taking your partner’s perspective by using your imagination.

[k3117] Getting perspective was far more effective than taking perspective. You can see the results in the figure above. Those who first asked for their partner’s thoughts cut their overall error rate nearly in half compared to those in our control condition, and they did even better than that compared to those in the perspective-taking condition.

[k3121] If you want to know, ask rather than guess.

[k3182] In How to Break a Terrorist, military interrogator Matthew Alexander describes how he enabled detainees to provide the truth that led U.S. forces to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Instead of pressuring suspects until they crack from intimidation, fear, and pain, the new and more effective interrogation approach is one that establishes rapport and reduces fears of punishment.

[k3196] For my son, this first required controlling my own temper and reducing his fear. We did this with a quick five-minute cooling-off session.

[k3200] We then developed a household policy of complete immunity as long as you tell the truth. This combination of delay and immunity has worked wonders for us.

[k3365] If maintaining a misunderstood population of hostile enemies is important to you, then it’s probably best not to meet them.