A while ago I read Mindwise (2014), written by Nicholas Epley. The subtitle is: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. I bought and read it, hoping to learn how it is that certain misunderstandings occur so that I might help prevent some of them or at least better fix them afterwards. Unfortunately, the book explains absolutely nothing. It does not at all cover why misunderstandings happen, it only shows evidence that they happen – sometimes even without us realizing it. The only advice given is near the end of the book and can be summed up extremely well by this quote on page 174: “If you want to know, ask rather than guess.”
Of course the way to know what someone is thinking and better understand them is to ask! That goes without saying and is what I always try first. Without some sort of communication at the beginning, how am I to know that there is even an issue to discuss? My problem is that people often will not explain their positions to me or else they explain them in so incoherent a way that I can make no sense of them. I read the book in order to learn how to avoid and/or fix misunderstandings that occur during conversation, not the unfounded assumptions that occur because no conversation is even attempted. Never have I been so angry at an author before for wasting my time.
There are many other things wrong with this book too: There is supporting evidence that is explained poorly, issues that are approached backwards, and hints of strange biases. It might be the worst-written non-fiction book I’ve ever read (I have read some fiction that is much worse).
Explaining Things Poorly:
It was reported that people are better able to discern emotional states from audial stimulus than visual, the evidence being a comparison between those listening to a tape of someone talking and those watching a video without sound. What is not mentioned is that by far the best way to know of someone’s emotional state (other than them directly telling you) is to know the situation they are in – and this can be known from what they are saying. Unless one is a good lip-reader, this information will not come from a video. The experiment as described is not even remotely a fair comparison, as it would be if the language of the speaker was unknown to the listener. Is this the way they actually did it?
It was reported that when shown statistics from two imaginary countries and asked which they would rather live in if their socioeconomic strata was chosen at random, liberals tended to choose the more egalitarian country and conservatives tended to choose the less egalitarian country. The point of the passage in the book was to show that while stereotypes often have a bit of truth to them, there is actually very little difference (barely measurable) between groups. What confuses me is why anybody at all would ever choose the less egalitarian one. That the results were anything other than 100% of liberals and conservatives choosing their best chance not to be poverty-stricken bewilders me. I must have missed something.
Could it be that there was more to the experiment than that? Could it be that the less egalitarian country also had more economic freedom? Perhaps it had a better climate or lower crime rates. This was never mentioned.
Also what bothered me is that people don’t assume liberals care more about equality because it is a stereotype, but because that is often part of the definition of liberal. Could I have misunderstood? Were these cultural or foreign-policy liberals that then fit the stereotype of also being economic liberals? If you are going to throw around terms like conservative and liberal, it would help to define them.
Another thing about stereotypes the author seemed to miss is that they are often not known from unfounded prejudice or personal experience, but from having read reports from sociologists. That people might think blacks or whites to be a certain way could simply mean that they are educated.
Another thing reported as having some sort of meaning was that people often assume that God believes the same way they do. This was mentioned in the larger context of claiming that people are quite overconfident in their ability to “read minds,” knowing what others are thinking and knowing whether another being even has a mind. However, it should not be surprising that people assume God agrees with them. The opposite should be surprising. If by “God,” people mean an infallible, omniscient being, then such a being always has the “right” beliefs. What beliefs do people have themselves? The beliefs that they believe to be right – by definition. Thus, whatever one’s set of beliefs and how they came by them, they must believe that they and God have the same beliefs. It is impossible for it to be otherwise. To say that God has a different belief than oneself is to say that one is wrong, and to say one is wrong is to say that one actually believes something other than what one believes, which is a contradiction. Am I missing something that should have been included in the text?
I also have questions about the three-truck experiment. When asked to hand the small truck by someone who could not see the smallest of three toy trucks from their vantage point, requiring people to reason that they must want the medium-sized truck, was it always made clear to people that the other person shouldn’t have any knowledge of the hidden truck? Where did the people enter the room from? How were they introduced? Could it be that children reaching for the wrong truck were not actually any worse at “putting themselves in others’ shoes,” but worse at understanding language and had assumed the other person lived there and had set the whole wall up? How many people verbally asked about the hidden truck before handing any of them over? How many asked why the other person couldn’t reach it themselves and became suspicious? Were the askers looking in the direction of the wall and possibly giving visual cues which truck they wanted? How many people might have assumed that any small truck would do and the smaller, the better? How many reasoned that if it was the wrong truck to give, they would be corrected and no long-term harm would come of it? I’m not sure that anything has been proven here.
Approaching It Backwards:
Other times, the author was not only confusing, but maddeningly deceptive. In one place, he accused people of assuming that intent matches action, meaning that when one’s actions are observed, people generally assume they meant to do it. After giving several examples of this assumption being wrong, including the assumption that people stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane because they were foolish rather than too poor to afford transportation or lodging elsewhere, I realized that the problem is not that intent does not match action, but that an action can be matched by more than one intent. The problem is that people wrongly assume one intent is in play when it is another, but nobody is wrong to think that people mean to do what they do. The author plays word games worthy of a great comedian to prove his absurd case and make the reader feel stupid.
After going on and on about how taking the other person’s perspective does little good in understanding them, which came as a great surprise to me, near the end of the book the author then springs the suggestion that we not “take perspective,” but “get perspective.” Again with the wordplay! How is one supposed to “get” without “taking?” What he finally explained was that the best way to know what someone is thinking or feeling is to ask. Of course it is!! How else is one supposed to take a perspective without first asking questions and listening? It goes without saying! Did he really think that his readers were so stupid that they were hoping to “put themselves in the others’ shoes” without first finding out where those shoes were, what they were made of, how many there were, and if they even had shoes? All along I had been wondering why the perspective-taking tactic was faring so poorly in the experiments done and at the very end of the book I find that it was because they weren’t even doing the most basic, foundational part of perspective-taking!! This is like wondering why your car won’t start when you are still sitting on the couch and haven’t even put your keys in it! At that moment I wanted to reach through the pages back in time and strangle Epley as he typed into his computer. I would have done it too, if not for physics.
Then there are all the strange offhand comments that peppered the pages that kept distracting me and making me wonder if the author was a total crackpot.
On page 25, he suggests that nobody but a trained evolutionary psychologist knows that symmetry is attractive. This might have been true at one time, but the word has been out for decades now. In fact, this commonly-cited dogma is beginning to be questioned by recent studies.
On page 62, he suggests that those who see evidence of purpose and intelligence in nature, inferring the existence of a deity, are spotting a mind where none exists, thus stating directly that there is no God. Epley isn’t just skeptical of claims of God’s intervention, thinking people often read too much into random events (I’m with him there), he’s a full-blown atheist!
On page 63, he lists a bunch of questions philosophers debate, such as whether animals and unborn fetuses have feelings. Hidden among the sensible examples is the question: “Are corporations persons, with rights to free speech that must be protected?” Who is out there claiming corporations are persons? They are persons in a limited legal sense having to do with ownership (which is what the recent court cases were all about), but nobody suggests that they are actual persons. Corporations have a right to free speech not because they are persons (though they are made up of multiple persons), but because the government is prohibited from regulating speech in the first place, whether the speakers are persons or not. The important issue is that the listeners are persons and they have a right to gather as much information from as many sources as possible. Since this is something only those on the far left make a big deal of, grossly misunderstanding the legal issues involved, I began to wonder if the book was nothing but socialist propaganda.
On page 65, he asks, “How was it possible for California residents to vote, in the very same election, to treat gay people less humanely by denying them the right to marry but to treat animals more like people by requiring farmers to house their pigs in more humane conditions?” The ignorance of why people oppose gay marriage was overwhelming to me. He has obviously not followed his own advice to ask conservatives what they think, but has tried to figure it out from afar. On second thought, it isn’t possible to be that dense. It is only the most intellectually dishonest hard-core leftists that even frame the issue this way, making me wonder if it was time to throw the book in the trash.
On page 165, he suggests that belief in microexpressions – brief flashes of our true emotional state before our conscious control takes over – is an egocentric illusion. Why egocentric? I only believed in microexpressions because I had been told from what I thought were reliable sources that they existed, in spite of my ego hoping that I had more body-control and body-awareness than that. I’m confused.
On page 168, he suggests that BP CEO Tony Hayward would never have made the comments he did if he had considered the perspective of all those affected by the oil spill. He is called “World’s Dumbest” and accused of making a “let-them-eat-cake” apology. Why? Is there more to his words not mentioned in the book? I can’t for the life of me see a thing wrong with them. What am I missing? Does the author just hate the rich?
It is little things like these that yank me right out of reading and get me wondering about the biases of the author.
The Good Parts:
After I finished throwing my tantrum, I remembered that the book was not only for me, but for the multitude of people out there who cut off ties with those they disagree with and aren’t interested in the slightest in having their sacred beliefs challenged. Those are the people that need to read it. It has some good parts.
The book suggests making your positions clear even when it might hurt you. For example, admitting a mistake could be used against you in court, but not admitting one could be worse. A quote from page 183 explains:
“In fact, this program actually reduced overall liability costs by roughly 60 percent. The bigger problem had been requiring patients to imagine what their doctors were thinking, or having to sue to find out, rather than just allowing doctors to explain how a mistake happened.”
There is also much in the book relevant to misunderstandings between ethnicities and political parties, as these quotes from page 132 and 133 show:
“The sad fact is that real partisanship increases partly because of imagined partisanship on the other side.”
“When groups are defined by their differences, people think they have less in common with people of other races or faiths or genders than they actually do and, as a result, avoid even talking with them. When groups are defined by their differences, the minds we imagine in others may be more extreme than the minds that actually encounter.”
Overall, the book has an important message worth reading for somebody.
Humans Are Stupid:
I also learned of many, new, interesting reasons to believe humans are stupid. If the studies are right, people are a jumble of preposterous contradictions. If the studies are wrong, it makes me wonder why scientists (all people) so easily jump to conclusions. Either way, people are idiots. Maybe we are better off not understanding them.
Allegedly, people are good at knowing how the average person thinks of them, but very bad at knowing how individual people think of them. This cannot be! The general reputation is simply the average of all the individual reputations. One cannot know the former without first knowing the latter.
Allegedly, even flattery known to be insincere works a little bit. Is there no backlash effect?
Allegedly, those tapping out a tune actually expect others to recognize it, even though they should know that timing alone without pitch, volume, and other differences should never be enough to identify it.
Allegedly, people consistently rate others as having both less emotion and less self-control than they do. Aren’t those attributes usually thought of as opposed?
Allegedly, when asked to choose which of two faces is more attractive, and the asked why they chose the face that they didn’t, only 27% of people catch the switch!
All these studies and more are used as evidence that we don’t know ourselves (or others) very well at all, which begs the question: Why bother asking people what they think and feel then? This undermines the main message of the book.
Most alarmingly of all, doctors used to believe that infants could not feel pain – even doing surgery without anesthesia and arguing with a straight face that crying was just a reflex. This is the most inexplicable and disturbing by far. Since I know that I feel pain, and that other adults appear to react the way I do and are designed the way I am, the default is to assume all adults feel pain. The burden of proof is on those claiming otherwise. Taking the argument one step further, it is highly probable that children and animals also feel pain, but not sponges, trees, stones, and robots. While it is possible for any of these assumptions to be wrong, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I can’t believe for one moment that there was ever a time in the history of any country that any serious professional ever actually believed babies to be pain-free. Even after looking it up and confirming it, I still can’t believe it.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.