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full expose of our shortcomings as everyday mind-readers
on 13 June 2015
Epley argues that we are overconfident in our understanding of ourselves and others. We don't know how other people are judging us - we don't know how attractive we are or how we are doing at a job interview. We also don't know how we will behave - people who said historically in the US that they would not serve non-whites generally did so, when put to the test by non-whites turning up for service in a historic experiment. Turning to the explanation of all this, Epley points out that we're not all that good at introspection or perception - we jump to conclusions about the world and we confabulate about ourselves. We can dehumanise other people at a distance from us - most notably it's easier to kill other people when you can't see the whites of their eyes (in war). And we can humanise the non-human - when we have a temperamental piece of machinery or car. We tend to see ourselves as at the centre of the world, and accept more than our fair share of credit or blame for joint enterprises. We worry too much about what other people think about us - they probably don't think about us much at all. When it comes to other people, body language merely 'whisper' and phone conversation we find a lot easier than email to pick up the nuances of communication. There is of course empathy (e.g. with our children when they hurt themselves) and also active reflection about what other feel (as with most doctoring) as well as blanking out the feelings of others.We use stereotypes to reason about other people when we don't know much about them. And we tend to ignore contextual factors when interpreting other people's actions - maybe the people who didn't flee Hurricane Katrina had large families and no transport, for example..
As to what we should do to improve matters, Epley doesn't go much for trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes - this leads to just thinking the worst about what they'd do so much better not to try. Nor is body language the key, in his view - micro expressions don't really seem to do the job, he says, drawing on experimental evidence. What he does recommend is asking other people where they are coming from and what they want - Kennedy and Khrushchev managed this during the Cuban Missile Crisis and if it works for them it works for anyone (better than anything else).
Actually at this point I remembered where we came in and the hoteliers who'd said they would not serve non-whites (when asked) but actually did so on autopilot when it came to it - which rather detracted from my confidence in the one 'take-away' message in the book.
Interesting then, but not much help in everyday living - except to make us aware of some of our shortcomings as everyday mind readers.