Perceptual ability helps achieve intimacy and meet others’ needs

–Annie Murph Paul, Psychology Today Magazine

If a baby starts to cry several hours after drinking his last bottle, his mother knows precisely what he’s feeling: He’s hungry. But suppose a woman’s eyes brim with tears while she watches a DVD. Her husband sinks into the couch: What is she so upset about?

Quickly and unknowingly, he scours his mental files — on his wife’s relationship history, on her reaction to the fight they had that morning, on the way she typically reacts to similar movies. He notes the particular quiver to her voice, observes the way she’s curled up on the couch, watches the expressions flickering across her face. He takes in information from all of these channels.

Every day, whether we’re pushing for a raise, wrestling with the kids over homework, or judging whether a friend really likes our latest redecorating spree, we’re reading each other’s minds. We constantly make educated guesses about what another person is thinking and feeling.

“It’s a perceptual ability I call mindsight,” says Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist at the University of California-Los Angeles and author of “The Mindful Brain.” “It allows your brain to create a map of another person’s internal state.”

Mind reading of this sort — not to be confused with telepathy — is a critical human skill. It’s the way we make sense of other people’s behavior and decide on our own next moves. Mind reading enables us to negotiate, compete, cooperate, and achieve emotional closeness with others.

Do it poorly and it can lead to conflict born of misunderstanding. It can make us feel lonely within a relationship. It can even incite violence: Abusive husbands typically — and inaccurately — attribute critical thoughts to their wives.

Decades of research on mind reading now reveal how it works, who’s especially good at it, and how we can improve our ability. It’s the only way to achieve true intimacy and the only way to love someone for who he or she really is.

The great trade-off

We generally don’t peer into each other’s minds very well.Strangers (who are videotaped and later report their second-by-second thoughts and feelings, as well as their assessments of their counterpart’s thoughts and feelings) read each other with an average accuracy rate of 20 percent. Close friends and married couples nudge that up to 35 percent. And “almost no one ever scores higher than 60 percent,” reports psychologist William Ickes at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Our (limited) ability to mind read has ancient roots, says Ross Buck, a professor of communication sciences at the University of Connecticut. Over thousands of years of evolution, humans’ systems of communication grew more sophisticated, as living and working arrangements became more complex. Mind reading became a tool with which to “create and maintain the social order,” as Buck puts it.

Of course, in order to advance our own interests, we still needed to conceal feelings from others at times, and even to lie. “We didn’t always want to show exactly what we were thinking, because others could use that to gain the upper hand,” says Buck. This delicate balance between perceiving and concealing has served humans well over our long history, but Siegel worries that mind-reading ability is now on the decline in our culture. Today’s obsessed-with-success parents spend so much time stimulating their children with structured activities, they’re not sitting still and being “present” with their kids. They deny children the opportunity to learn how to get in tune with another person emotionally.

Reading body language is a core component of mind reading. It can reveal a person’s most basic emotions. Researchers have shown that when watching a body’s movements reduced to points of light on a screen, observers can still read sadness, anger, joy, disgust, fear, and romantic love. We’re primed to read emotion into movement–even when there’s very little to go on.

Facial expressions are also cues we use to know what others are thinking. Despite the 3,000 different expressions we may deploy each day, it’s the fleeting microexpressions that betray many feelings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us are terrible at detecting them. Still, we tend to focus on others’ eyes, and that helps us. The many surrounding muscles make eyes a richer source of clues than other parts of the face: downcast in sadness, wide open in fright, dreamily unfocused, staring hard with jealousy, or glancing around with bored impatience.

All together now

There’s yet another, deeper level on which mind reading happens. Emotions are in a sense contagious, and we may sense what’s on others’ minds by “catching” what our conversation partners are feeling. Psychologists have long known that we tend to converge emotionally with others as we talk to them; without being aware of it, we copy them, altering our physiology from the outside in. When we mimic other people’s behavior, speech, rhythms, gestures, expressions, and physical attitudes, studies show, we gain a direct sense of their feelings and psychological attitudes as well.

Of course, the same mind-reading skills that help you be a compassionate friend and supportive partner can be used to hit loved ones where it hurts. Think of a long-married couple who torment each other with intimate knowledge: He knows she’s thinking about her long-lost brother and makes a quip about how she never took care of her siblings anyway; she senses he’s contemplating his business failures and confirms that he has, in fact, screwed up everything he’s ever tried.
For anyone in a relationship, the art of mind-reading demands knowing when to probe and when to leave well enough alone, a strategy that calls for an old-fashioned virtue: discretion.

Ickes calls it “managing” empathic accuracy. “Couples with discretion know when to go into their partner’s head, and when to stay the hell out,” he says.

That means letting your partner come to you sometimes, instead of jumping in and completing his or her mental sentences. It also means not overreacting to thoughts you’ve divined that are threatening.

Fortunately, we get more than one chance to read someone correctly. A wise mind-reader continually refines her initial assumptions about what someone else is experiencing.
Being in sync with another human being can be a transcendent experience, and one that’s worth the effort. To know another and to be known yourself, says Siegel, “is the heart of empathic relationships.”

How to be a better mind reader

  • Get to know the other person. “Our empathic accuracy improves with how well we know our conversational partner,” says William Ickes. “If you interact with someone over the course of at least a month, you’ll be much better able to read their thoughts and feelings.”
  • Ask for feedback. Studies demonstrate that we can quickly improve our empathic accuracy by finding out whether our guesses are on target.
  • Pay attention to the upper part of the face. Phony “social emotions” tend to be expressed on the lower half of the face, while “primary emotions” leak out across the upper half, mostly around the eyes.
  • Be expressive. Emotional expressiveness is reciprocal; we respond to others’ self-revelations with outpourings of our own.
  • Relax. Conversation partners tune into each other’s posture and breathing, says Lavinia Plonka, author of “Walking Your Talk.” If you’re tense, take a deep breath, smile, and try to project openness.


Annie Murph Paul, Psychology Today Magazine