Figuring other people out is not a bad thing. It’s actually an adaptive trait we have, which should definitely be enhanced in various ways. Trying to figure out others in order to predict behavior and adjust yourself accordingly is reasonable, but the problem starts when people actually believe that their predictions are infallible and live in a sort of mind reader delusion or thinking that their judgments cannot contain any error.
Self-delusion can be pleasing and sufficient for a modest mental activity. Actually, self-delusion can be seen as a very effective coping mechanism. People alter their ideas to model a world where they can have the illusion of control. There are many biases people use to make sure that they maintain that illusion about the world. But let’s talk a bit, before that, about one of the other mechanisms, a sort of magical thinking where people actually consider that they can read the minds of others with great precision. This mind reading is also correlated with a sort of Know-it-all behavior as we will see further. Also, we will analyze the cognitive biases that fuel this inner circular belief system. I will not debate right now whether there is this paranormal possibility or not, as I am only approaching this problem from an epistemological point of view.
First, I want to mention the problem called The Problem of OtherMinds which regards our inner life and, most importantly, other people’s inner lives. As an epistemological problem, this is concerned with how our beliefs about mental states other than our own might be justified. On the other hand, there’s also the problem of us being able to form a concept of mental states other than our own, which is perhaps the key to solving the first. We could go for the most extremist point of view on the matter, which is metaphysical solipsism and consider that no reality exists other than our own mental activity or state and that the external world has no independent existence. But the solipsist’s tragedy is the fact that they will have to convince people that they are a figment of their imagination, the solipsist’s imagination. But we managed to distance ourselves from the sub-main point, which was the fact that according to The Problem of Other Minds, it is rather difficult to perceive the inner world of other people, let alone draw conclusions based on what we might perceive. Even philosophers agree, that embracing one Philosophy of the Mind or other, will not entirely solve this. But let’s get back to the main point: self-delusion in prediction.
It seems that people who self-delude themselves have a problem with comprehending the fact that people have minds, other minds, different than their own minds. Also, extending one’s mental product to other people’s minds greatly influences our perception of reality and our inner self, in a biased way. The problem with mind reading is not the attempt to read minds and predict behavior, that is normal after all, but the fact that some people are so sure of their own predictions and false knowledge they might produce they might engage in disastrous behaviors and ways of thinking.
Here are few theories that may explain people’s need to actively try and read other’s minds and predict their behavior:
“Later researchers elaborated on Piaget’s initial findings and theorizing to show that young children do not reliably distinguish between what they know and what others’ know (Perner, 1991; Wimmer & Perner, 1983), do not provide sufficient information to identify ambiguous references in communication (Deutsch & Pechmann, 1982; Sonnenschein & Whitehurst, 1984), and rarely distinguish between the way an object appears to them and the way it would appear to someone else (Flavell, 1986).” (Whole article here: http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/nicholas.epley/EpleyCompass.pdf)
It seems that this egocentric judgment can be still seen in humans as they rarely find out that other’s perceptions differ from their own, thus diminishing their mind reading power.
Attempting Mind Reading As A Coping Mechanism
We all have coping mechanisms in order to tolerate stress or avoid sadness and conflict. I’m not saying that coping mechanisms are bad, but some people might use them as an escape from reality. Reality is not just the exterior world, but also their mind and the things that they are willing to acknowledge about themselves. This means that they will live with a distorted view about themselves and the world. Predicting and trying to read the minds of others while flirting, for example, has been proved to be a difficult task for both men and women. It seems that women usually misread that the men are less interested in them, while men believe that women are much more interested in them compared with how interested they are in reality. This might be a coping mechanism for both sexes. Women might use the less interested coping mechanism in an attempt to diminish their expectations in order to avoid disappointment as men tend to be less committed, while men might use this self-delusion to stroke their ego and avoid acknowledging failure. Some people have this so rooted in their personality, they would be lost without it and they will constantly live in denial, being unable to see when others prove them wrong. This can be extremely distressing for those around them and counterproductive for them as they cannot reach authentic self-knowledge and not even a correct image regarding the outside world and people, as they model everything to be a part of their coping mechanism puzzle. We can say that they are the people who constantly live in a cognitive dissonance related to almost everything that would shatter their inner world.
Attempting to Read Minds In Order To Manipulate
This is probably why the term reading minds and the whole idea was invented in the first place. People like to manipulate other people, it’s that simple. But this need may have an underlying issue. A person who likes manipulating loves being in control or feeling superior, which is connected to a need to raise self-esteem. Actually people who overly-predict, plan, or constantly try to read the minds of others are actually looking for some stability in an attempt to control and cope with reality. But, as I mentioned several times in this article, this is just an illusion of control.
Cognitive Biases used by in mind reading attempts and over-prediction
The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight - It seems that people show an asymmetry when they start thinking about how much knowledge they have about other people and how much other people can tell about them. It seems that six studies suggested that people believe that the knowledge of their peers is greater than their peers’ knowledge of them. So we believe that we know more about other people than they know about us and the term for this is “naive realism”. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/81/4/639/
Mind Projection Fallacy – this occurs when people are sure that the way they see the world reflects the way the world really is and they can even go as far as thinking that there are imagined objects in reality. Here’s an article that explains this phenomenon in detail. http://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/articles/prob.as.logic.pdf
Confirmation Bias http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/c/confirmation_bias.htm – this is probably one of the main tools used in mind reading self-delusion.
Youarenotsosmart.com http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/ made this simple:
“The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.
The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.”
The confirmation bias is actually derived from your ability to filter the information around you. This means that you are prone to see information that confirms your beliefs. I will give you an example: women, when thinking they were pregnant, started seeing everything that was related to motherhood. They started seeing a lot of pregnant women, children, articles in the newspaper related to that, etc. This doesn’t mean that the universe was trying to tell them something, it just means that they were focused on filtering information based on their interest. The same applies with mind reading: we get an amount of information about a person but we filter it through our own preconceptions. This is why preconceptions are bad in the first place, they keep us from thinking clearly and seeing the whole picture. Whenever that person shows behavior that is against our preconceived idea about them, we ignore it or attribute it to some other instance like being an exception. But when they show a certain behavior that confirms our theory, we obviously believe that and our theory gets stronger. How many times have you actually tried to find counterarguments to your strongest beliefs? Whenever I believe something the first thing i do is try to find arguments on the internet or in books that support that idea. Later, I wake up and start looking at different opinions. The same happens to people when trying to read the minds of others. It seems that the “most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively” as it is easier to see how the data you receive supports your position rather than denies it. http://www.skepdic.com/confirmbias.html
Overgeneralization – well isn’t this the mother of all fallacies? Overgeneralizations actually means recognizing those qualities in a person or a thing which we have seen before and extending those qualities to the whole population. When it comes to the logical fallacy called hasty generalization this means that people will make an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence and without considering all of the variables. Statistically speaking, your conclusion does not represent the whole population, although you use it like it does.
Selective perception - is the personal filtering of what we see and hear so as to suit our own needs. Much of this process is psychological and often unconscious. Have you ever been accused of only hearing what you want to hear? In fact, that is quite true. We simply are bombarded with too much stimuli every day to pay equal attention to everything so we pick and choose according to our own needs. This leads to the Halo Effect, which means that you will evaluate or judge people, events, places, etc. only by a single trait or experiment creating a prejudice in your judgment. People will often try to perceive further interaction with somebody based on one element or a very few elements. http://lilt.ilstu.edu/rrpope/rrpopepwd/articles/perception3.html
Psychological projection or projection bias – this is a defense mechanism where people deny their own attributes that they see in other people or the outside world. It reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of these impulses without letting the conscious mind recognize them. People who unconsciously believe that they have failed will often blame others for self-failure, for example.
Trait ascription bias – this is quite interesting as it shows people’s capacity to flatter themselves at an unconscious level. They see themselves complex and different from the other world, like a unique snowflake as Palahniuk described this. However, they see others as definitely much more predictable and simple in behavior and thought. Obviously, there is an explanation for this, we can analyze our inner world and access it better than we can do it with others. But, unfortunately, this is the source of prejudice and stereotyping which is not a lucid view upon the world.
Overconfidence Effect – this refers to “someone's subjective confidence in their judgments is reliably greater than their objective accuracy, especially when confidence is relatively high.” Actually there were studies that showed how people rated their answers in quizzes as 99% certain but were wrong 40% of the time. In short, overconfidence seems to be an example of miscalibration of subjective probabilities and probably another coping mechanism. http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/on_overconfidence/
Wishful Thinking – there are many mechanism involved in wishful thinking and some might say that it is quite an adaptive cognitive bias. However, when it really alters our perception of the world, it becomes a really bad cognitive bias. What wishful thinking actually means is the fact that we tend to believe to be true what we wish to be true. There have been quite a lot of studies showing that subjects will usually predict positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes (just search the internet and you will find quite a few). Wishful thinking is also a well-known logical fallacy.
Availability Heuristic – Mind readers like to predict, a lot. Actually, that’s what they do. Of course, predicting is important and good when one has elementary statistics knowledge and doesn’t use anecdotes as proof. This is a mental shortcut that uses the ease with which examples come to mind to make judgments about the probability of events
Illusory Correlation - Illusory correlation is seeing a relationship that you expect in a set of data that has no relationship, for example false associations like overgeneralization and stereotyping.
The Focusing Effect - This bias occurs when people exaggerate the important of one aspect, event, trait, piece of information which influences the way they can accurately predict future outcome. This can also be extended to perceiving their well-being. When trying to mind-read people, there is also the tendency to take one trait and form a global opinion with that trait in mind. Also, the future opinions can be flawed by a certain focus a person has based on a preconception. It’s just like using a magnifying glass on some aspects and drawing conclusions based on our exaggeration. There is an interesting article that quotes a few studies in this direction for those interested:
Anecdotal evidence – I know a person who...I met somebody who... A friend of mine... – this is the form of anecdotal evidence and it’s an attempt to use personal accounts as an argument supporting some views of a group, experience, circumstance, etc. That’s wrong because you cannot extend your knowledge about those only based on your experience since you probably haven’t met a statistically significant amount of people.
Attentional bias - a person does not examine all possible outcomes when making a judgment about a correlation or association. It also seems to be an attention bias towards negative information regarding people, things or situations. It seems that people dislike loses more than large gains and they are prone to attribute causality to negative events rather than positive events. More about this and some studies regarding this can be found here http://psychology.uchicago.edu/people/faculty/cacioppo/jtcreprints/beingbadisnt.pdf
Choice-supportive bias – we tend to think that our choices are better than they actually were. We also attribute positive features to the choices we make and negative features to things we did not choose.
Illusory superiority or the above average effect– another cute cognitive bias very familiar to those involved in great self-delusion. It means that people will overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and underestimate their negative qualities in relation to others. You can probably imagine how many errors a person who thinks they can predict behavior and read minds can do when having this illusion. Actually, thinking that you are a mind reader with accurate descriptions is itself an illusory superiority. This reminds me of the Downing effect that describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to overestimate their IQ while people with an above average IQ will underestimate their IQ. I guess Bertrand Russell was right when he said: The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
Psychologist Fallacy – well it seems that this fallacy exists. It’s pretty similar to the fallacies described above and it refers to projecting your own mind’s properties into the external world. An observer presupposes the universality of their own perspective when analyzing a behavioral event. This makes us judge people based on our own set of rules, which may or may not be correct.
Illusion of validity – describes the state in which consistent evidence persistently leads to confident predictions even after the predictive value of the evidence has been discredited. Here’s an interesting article about its persistence in clinical environment: http://implab.hu/wiki/images/e/ed/Einhorn_Hogarth_1978.pdf
...and many, many more cognitive biases, but this article is already too big.
The mind-reading tendency is common to all people, some more than the others. However, the problem with this behavior is the fact that once people have moderate success with it or delude themselves that way, they will use in their everyday life. Unfortunately, they are unable to perceive other’s mental states directly and will have to infer them and there is a great chance that they will commit some error every time they do it. There is a variety of tools they can use such as: observations of behavior, second – hand reports, or simply intuition.
Obviously, none of these are precise and not even summing them up will lead to an infallible conclusion. Mind reading mistakes can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, social conflict, and poor decision-making. Also, let’s not forget that people can be imprecise when reading their own mind (their past mind or their future mind), which is very sad considering their attempts to read other people’s minds. An authentic understanding of self is another philosophical issue that is hard to be solved, so considering this fact and other circumstances how can people actually believe that they can actively read minds?
Well, in the end we must agree that people like control. Information is control for people, although if we analyze it we will see that having information about something is just an illusion of control. Also, the fact that our information might not be precise and we are using it as a base for having control is just a recipe for disaster, both in communicating with other people and personal development. In the end, our demeanor should be directed towards being less wrong not being superhumans who read minds and predict behaviors so that they feel less confused.