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Invisibilia: We All Think We Know The People We Love. We're All Deluded

Mar 22, 2018
Originally published on March 22, 2018 11:33 am

Welcome to a new season of Invisibilia! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior. Episode 3 involves two brothers who are happy about the polite, helpful tenant who moves into their mother's house, until they start to suspect he has sinister motives. Here at Shots, we are exploring the main theme of the story — the things left unsaid, and the havoc they can cause on your personal relationships — with an essay by behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley.

The average human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons, each of which is attached to thousands of other neurons, meaning that another person's brain is likely to be the most complicated thing you will ever think about. And yet, despite this dizzying complexity, you and I routinely guess what's going on in the mind of other people almost as easily as we breathe.

It takes only a split second to form an impression about another person's intelligence or intentions, guess what our spouse or a homeless person is feeling, and predict what a political opponent is thinking. You can even leap quickly to conclusions about people in situations you've never experienced before, from what's going on in the mind of our president to the mind of a homeless person begging for food. Making judgments about another person's mind is easy. Making judgments accurately, however, is hard. In fact, our research indicates that it is surprisingly hard.

Consider, for instance, an experiment that Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel and I conducted that put people's beliefs about their mind reading abilities to the test. We recruited people who we thought would know something about each other, namely romantic couples. These couples had been together for an average of 10 years. Fifty-eight percent were married.

One person in each couple played the role of Responder, reading 20 statements and reporting how much he or she agreed with each one on a scale ranging from minus 3 (strongly disagree) to 3 (strongly agree). These statements included, "I would like to spend a year in London or Paris," "I would rather spend a quiet evening at home rather than go out to a party," and "Our family is too heavily in debt today."

The other member of each couple played the role of Predictor, guessing how his or her partner would respond to each statement, and also predicting how many of the statements he or she guessed correctly. Think of this as something like The Newlywed Game for science.

Our Predictors believed they guessed an average of 13 items out of 20 exactly correctly. In truth, the task was much harder than our predictors expected. They actually guessed only five, on average, correctly.

The problem with our inferences about others is not incompetence, but hubris. We tend to think we understand each other better than we actually do.

So what's a person trying to understand the most complicated thing on this planet to do? Dale Carnegie offered a suggestion in 1936: Principle 8. In what has become the Bible of social relations, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie describes his eighth principle as a method that will "work wonders" for you: "Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view." That is, do some perspective-taking.

Even if you never read Carnegie's book, his suggestion has a powerful ring of common sense to it. Indeed, the vast majority of people we surveyed predicted that actively adopting another person's perspective would help them understand another person better in a variety of ways, from understanding another person's reaction when looking at a picture to predicting movie preferences.

Our research, however, suggests that this bit of common sense is at least somewhat mistaken. When we tested the impact of perspective-taking on accuracy in a series of 25 experiments we recently published, we found no evidence that actively considering another person's perspective systematically increased accuracy.

If anything, perspective-taking tended to decrease accuracy, including in the romantic couples study I described earlier. This experiment included another condition in which one member of each couple was asked to put themselves in their partner's shoes before predicting their partner's responses. This perspective-taking actually decreased accuracy compared to the control group I already described, but it slightly increased the number of items these perspective-takers thought they had predicted correctly. Perspective-taking may work some wonders for your social life, but understanding another person better does not seem to be one of those wonders.

Instead, accurate insight reliably comes only when you actually gain knowledge about what it is like to be another person. We refer to this as perspective-getting, as opposed to perspective-taking. The easiest way to get another's perspective is by simply asking them to describe what's actually going on in their minds in a context where they can report it both honestly and accurately.

This solution may seem painfully obvious, but it is not so obvious to people who are in the midst of actually using it. The romantic couples study I've described included another condition in which predictors were given a chance to ask their partner to report their feelings about each of the statements before predicting how he or she would respond. This increased accuracy dramatically, even though those who asked did not have any more confidence in the accuracy of their judgments than those who guessed their partners' reactions. Even those who take the right approach to understanding the mind of another person — asking directly and listening carefully — seem unaware of how much they had learned.

True insight into the minds of others is not likely to come from honing your powers of intuition, but rather by learning to stop guessing about what's on the mind of another person and learning to listen instead.

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is the author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This week, the show Invisibilia is exploring how the words you don't say can shape a relationship. And, a warning, this story does have descriptions of violence that might not be suitable for all listeners. Here's NPR's Yowei Shaw.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: It was the kind of problem you see in a movie. Ching Chung Wang, who goes by CC, was visiting his mom when, out of the blue, the guy renting a room from CC's mom started boasting about how he was an assassin. This was in Taiwan in the 1970s, and the man told CC he'd worked for the government years earlier killing Communist agents on mainland China with a thin wire rope.

Did he actually show you how to do it?

CC: Somebody walking in front of you, you just go like this.

SHAW: CC holds up his fists, raises them over an invisible head.

CC: Pull it back, and then turn it around then you just carry him all the way, doesn't matter how much the guy was struggling. I start to worry he was in the secret police.

SHAW: But how do you tell your mom you think she's got a murderer living under her roof? Maybe you don't.


SHAW: To explain, let's go back to the beginning. For as long as he could remember, CC had been trying to please his mom, Frances Tsao. She was the kind of mom who played hard to get. Take the time CC was in junior high and came home to find his mom kneeling. She told him, I'm praying to confess my sins for not raising good sons.

CC: I was devastated for days. You know, I couldn't recover from this shock.

SHAW: But CC went on to check all the boxes he thought his mom wanted him to check. He moved to the U.S., became a prestigious scientist and every month sent money home.

CC: What a good son I should be, from her point of view.

SHAW: After CC's dad died in 1975, his mom, Frances, put an ad in the paper looking for someone to rent the extra room in the apartment. And she settled on a tall, middle-aged bachelor. His name was Mr. Zhu. He was polite, helped CC's mom with cooking and cleaning.

CC: It was very nice that they get along very well.

SHAW: But gradually CC started to notice...

CC: He seemed to be very acquainted with all my mother's friends and their relatives.

SHAW: And Mr. Zhu knew all sorts of things that CC had told his mom in letters and phone calls.

CC: I have a distinctive feeling that he was looking into my mother's communications.

SHAW: And as the years passed, a strange thought began to crawl into CC's mind that this innocuous, middle-aged busybody might actually be a spy.

CC: Yes. Yes.

SHAW: Taiwan in the 1970s was crawling with spies and government informants. To make matters worse, CC's younger brother had gotten in trouble with the government a few years earlier. So CC worried the government might have a reason to send a spy to watch the family. If that was true, CC couldn't exactly report Mr. Zhu to the government. So he decided to keep a close eye on Mr. Zhu. But on his next trip to Taiwan, the scene was less scary spy movie and more odd-couple rom com.

How much more time was he spending with your mom, and what would they do together?

CC: Hours.

SHAW: In the morning, Frances would read the paper, practiced calligraphy at the table, while Mr. Zhu was in the kitchen cooking her special breakfast.

CC: Something very spicy, very salty and not very fatty.

SHAW: Then in the afternoon, Mr. Zhu would head out with Frances to her mahjong game and insist she put on a coat. Mr. Zhu even took care of Frances when she eventually got cancer.

Was it a relief because, look, it's like, you're far away and, like, great that there can be someone to be that person for your mom, or...

CC: It was part relief, part jealous, partly guilty.

SHAW: I called Taiwan's intelligence agencies, submitted records requests, even talked to Mr. Zhu's relatives. I could only find one record from the Military Intelligence Bureau that lists his name as part of a special group of patriots who fled China in the '50s after years of battling the Communists there. But CC's still convinced them Mr. Zhu was a spy, which makes it all the more painful for him that an outsider with dubious intentions became a surrogate son, won the intimacy with his mom that CC never got.

CC: He said, your mom told me that the happiest 10 years she ever had in her life was with me.

SHAW: What did you say?

CC: Nothing. I felt really bad. I felt really, really, really bad.

SHAW: How would you do it differently if you wanted to, like, get closer to her?

CC: I don't know how to do it differently. I really don't.


SHAW: On one level, it's simple. Zhu was there for his mom all those years CC was in the U.S., and of course he's grateful. But CC spent his whole life following the rules his mom laid out for him, including moving to the U.S. and making a life there. She never told him to move back, never told him what she needed, and it never occurred to him to check in.

NICK EPLEY: We make inferences about other's thoughts and their beliefs.

SHAW: That's Nick Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago who's done a series of studies on our ability to discern the intentions and emotions of the people around us. In one study, Epley took married couples and asked them to make guesses about their partner's responses to different questions. He found that even though our ability to guess these responses is only slightly better than chance, we have huge confidence in our ability to guess right, especially with the people we're closest to.

EPLEY: I think the barrier to deeper understanding in a lot of our relationships is that we sort of believe that we understand this person already, and so we don't ask the things that sometimes we even ask of strangers.


SHAW: I talked to CC last summer right before he had surgery, and there ended up being complications and he died a few weeks later. I think he died feeling like he'd failed with his mom. But there's one thing CC left unsaid that to me doesn't feel like a missed opportunity. It feels like a loving sacrifice of a son. Amazingly, CC never told his mom he thought Mr. Zhu was a spy.

CC: I didn't want to tell her because I didn't want her feeling a little bit strange about her relationship with Mr. Zhu.

SHAW: You protected their relationship.

CC: Yes. Yes, I did.

SHAW: Yowei Shaw, NPR News.


MARTIN: Invisibilia's fourth season is out now on many NPR member stations and wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.