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Mind-Reading Mistakes


Explanations > Relationships > Mind-Reading Mistakes

Mind-reading | Over-confidence | Self-importance | Personal bias | Assuming conscious thought | So what?


One of the ways we assess other people is by watching other people and attributing intent to them. This can help us what to do or say next. It can also go seriously wrong.


We all try to read the minds of other people, developing a 'theory of mind' around their motivation and thoughts. We become quite skilled at this, certainly enough to interact, persuade and display sympathy. Reading body language and the nuances of how people speak especially allows us to understand moods, emotions and general intentions.


Problems can arise when we become over-confident in our mind-reading ability, especially when we try determine the exact detail of thoughts. Effectively what happens is that we first guess their general thoughts, then we put words to these thoughts.

The more concrete the imagined thoughts become, the more confident we become that this is an accurate assessment. This then become a confirmation spiral as our need to be right drives us to imagine and seek further evidence to support our assessment.


Quite naturally, we are each in the middle of our own universe which, modesty aside, makes us pretty important. We think about ourselves quite often, and not just in glowing positive terms.

A common trap based on this self-importance is that we often tend to think they are thinking about us when in fact they are thinking about other things (quite possibly themselves). This can lead to significant mind-reading errors and consequent social confusion that can make us appear overly self-focused (which of course we are, even though we seldom admit it).

Personal bias

We all are affected by bias in our thinking, which can be positive, negative or harmless. This is shaped by many factors, for example where a risk-averse person sees risks as bad or where greed gives a strong money focus.

Personal bias is quite natural and can even be helpful, for example where risk aversion keeps us out of harm's way. Problems can occur when we do not realize our biases and see our views as unbiased and normal. This blindness often leads to the assumption that others see things the same way as us. While we may share many biases with friends they also have their own distortions, which serve only to make our mind-reading more wrong (and with strangers this can be much worse).

Assuming conscious thought

People have two ways of thinking and acting. Sometimes we think carefully and make conscious choice. But we are constrained by time and so have to make many choices quickly, so we use habit, heuristics and other short-cuts. This is mostly done by our unconscious minds.

When read the minds of others we often assume their decisions were carefully considered. Hence when they say or do things that hurt us or of which we disapprove, we assume a negative intent, that they deliberately set out to upset us.

So what?

Watch your own mind-reading and catch these errors before they lead you to do something that you may later regret.

Also watch others as they read your mind. Many strange ways of behaving can be explained by people attributing thoughts to you that you have not had.

See also

Theory of Mind, Theories about decision errors, Attribution Theory, Communication


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