We Just Don't Understand People
Is there such a thing as mind reading?
Many of us have heard of – or met – people with an innate ability to read people's minds, or at least a remarkable talent for telling accurate things about people's dispositions. While there is a lot of speculation to explain the origin of these esoteric skills, I recently came across a claim that attributes them to intelligence. This view caught my attention because it presupposes that we can understand a person's mind. Arguably, people can be understood to some extent, but our perception of others is mostly an illusion because it's largely constructed by our intuition rather than rational thinking. What I mean by this is that we rarely think critically about someone's actions by considering multiple hypotheses and trying to solve them as a mathematical equation. In most situations, a convenient explanation of events will pop into our heads, and it's not very common for us to question its arbitrariness. This also raises the question of whether intuition can be considered intelligent thinking, which is a long debate. Some have claimed that since intuition does not involve reasoning, which is inherent in intelligence, it cannot be considered as such. Other thinkers have concluded otherwise, arguing that because both intuition and problem-solving require pattern recognition, they must somehow be related to intelligence. Ultimately, we might agree with the premise that intuition requires some level of intelligence, and suggest that accurately portraying someone requires more than just guessing, but rather a deeper level of understanding. This leads us to wonder if we're really capable of achieving this.
First, we should ask ourselves how we came to believe that we could understand the minds of others. One plausible explanation could stem from the fact that we can foresee human outcomes in many different ways. For example, we may have anticipated when our friends would get divorced or married, and we usually develop even more compelling explanations afterwards. Sometimes we can observe a random person on the street and make various assumptions. For example, the person's outfit can reveal a lot about their social status or affinity. But it can also be more nuanced: someone wearing tech clothes might be into outdoor activities, but if it's a Patagonia down vest, they might just work in finance; a wedding ring can suggest other assumptions about a person's entourage, and religious markers can be a good indicator of beliefs. All of this information helps us infer realistic assumptions about a person's background. We could go further and have a brief conversation with the person and draw additional conclusions. In fact, one of the consequences of humans being very good at predicting the behavior of others has enabled the construction of gigantic projects such as the Great Wall of China, which involved hundreds of thousands of people for over a thousand years.
However, our ability to predict social outcomes or human characteristics may be poorly related to our understanding of the minds of others. To illustrate my point, imagine you're observing a lone ant moving erratically on a random surface. It would be very unlikely that you could confidently predict the ant's trajectory. In a similar situation, you might observe the same ant as part of a colony of ants forming a long line from an ant hill to a bread crumb. You might reasonably assume that the ant will first reach the bread crumb, cut a piece of it, and return to the anthill. The reason you might be able to make this prediction is because you can project generalizations of ant behavior from past observations of how ants operate in colonies. The ant example is interesting for two reasons: ants, like humans, operate mostly within social structures, and they have approximately 300,000 times fewer neurons than humans. While it's not accurate to say that their neural structure is 300,000 times less complex than ours, it still doesn't translate into more accurate predictions. I could repeat the same experiment one step further with living organisms as tiny as bacteria and probably come to the same conclusion. Based on this observation, we could assume that our ability to predict behavior doesn't seem to correlate very well with the complexity of the brain and, conversely, would reinforce the hypothesis that we have little understanding of what goes on under the hood.
The ant observation applies to humans because we typically make inaccurate predictions in unfamiliar environments, and additionally, not knowing how to assess a situation can be a disturbing moment, as many of us would be petrified if randomly confronted with indigenous tribes in the middle of the Amazon. To be more specific, we're not predicting spontaneous decisions, but rather how people respond to incentives in a social context, and to the extent that social cues can be mapped to prior knowledge. In other words, as long as our actions are aligned with social structures, we can infer realistic assumptions within that frame. When the social context is removed, our predictive power crumbles in the face of individual decisions, as it becomes increasingly difficult to accurately guess people's preferences, personality traits, or thinking patterns. This opens up a later argument that since people in modern societies spend most of their time adapting to social norms, their minds would be molded by their environment. This assumption holds true insofar as stereotypes are reliable tools for understanding people. We might conclude that the consequences of living in hyper-gregarious environments expose certain facets of individuals, making us more predictable and facilitating mutual understanding. However, this view largely ignores the unconditioned part of the human mind that remains hidden from us.
The understanding of the human mind is mostly a myth, or at the very least a misleading statement. We can indeed anticipate many social interactions through empirical shortcuts, which is fundamentally different from emulation. Although some individuals – such as mediums – may possess innate talents and demonstrate impressive heuristics. The most plausible explanation is that they can guess much better than the average person, but there's little evidence that this would involve a deeper level of understanding. Some readers may find this conclusion obvious, and admittedly, I don't think many people would seriously consider the mind-reading hypothesis. However, I tend to believe that we do not act as if we were aware of this matter because it seems quite common for us to make confident judgments about people quite regularly, such as speaking on someone's behalf. Accordingly, I've recently changed my views on this matter and consider other people's minds to be black boxes. This doesn't discourage me from making observations or speculating, but I try to remind myself that my perception of others is relatively insignificant compared to what remains unknown. Although our perception of others is mainly grounded on a superficial level, in everyday situations we pretend otherwise. While this may make sense from an evolutionary point of view, it does not necessarily serve us in the most wise way.