I Bet You Think You’re an Amazing Mind Reader

MindreadingWhat superhuman skill do you wish you had?  Do you want to be able to fly?  Or perhaps become invisible whenever the need arises, just like Harry Potter?

Maybe you’d like to be able to travel backwards and forwards in time?  Or maybe you wish you could snap your fingers and teleport instantly to somewhere else?

Ask a bunch of Americans, particularly Generation X’ers, and the ability to read people’s minds comes out top of the list.  Add to that one of my most viewed posts is Don’t Assume You Know What I’m Thinking: Three Golden Rules that also focuses on mind reading.

We all think we’re great at it.  We believe we can second guess what others THINK, what they BELIEVE, what they FEEL and what they WANT, multiple times every single day.  Whether it’s our partner, our kids, our co-workers, our boss, the checkout assistant at the local store or whoever else we come across.

Here’s an example – I had someone coming over last week and in my email I stated that I’d be available until 11-15.  Now I thought I was being very clear.  And so did the person on the other end.  Except we were interpreting what I said in two entirely different ways.  I meant I was available until quarter past eleven.  She thought I was available between 11.00 and 15.00 – that dash i’d used between 11 and 15 threw her mind reading abilities out of the window.  But she was so confident she was right, she didn’t bother to double-check …

We think we’re great mind readers.  So surely spotting those big fat juicy lies people tell should be easy, even if we miss little nuances in an email like the example above.  Yet research shows we’re little better than chance at picking out those lies.

We are actually very adept at putting up a facade via our facial expressions, our body language, our tone of voice and the words that we use, to confuse the person we’re meant to be communicating with.  We’re highly skilled at using that facade to mislead the other persons attempts to read our minds and to tell when we’re telling the truth or lying.

Yeah, yeah I hear you say.  I can read my husbands mind or that of my close friends and family.  We’re in sync, we finish each others sentences and we understand each others thoughts without saying a word.  Yep, well that’s what you think …

Research shows that if a stranger tries to read your thoughts and feelings then they’ll be right about 20% of the time.  Now replace that stranger with a long-term partner or a close friend, then it does go up to around 35%.  But that means they’re still wrong 65% of the time!  Yet we THINK we’re right more than 80% of the time.

Another piece of research looked at our ability to distinguish sincere and sarcastic messages when communicated by email or phone.  By email the receiver predicted they’d be right almost 90% of the time, while the sender predicted closer to 80%.  In reality it was just over 50%!  By phone the predictions were almost the same, but the actual was just over 70%.

The problem.  The illusion that engulfs us all.  Is that gap between what we believe and reality.  We VASTLY overestimate the extent to which we can read other people’s minds and from that predict how they will see the world, what they think, what they feel and what they really want.

We PROJECT how we see the world and what we think on to other people.  We use STEREOTYPES to guess at how other people feel or what they want.  And we jump to conclusions about what someone must be thinking based on their ACTIONS.  Which lead us down the path to mind reading failure …


#1 STOP assuming you know what the other person is thinking …

Get over yourself.  Allow the thought to enter your mind that others see the world differently to you.

Keep in mind that you see, perceive and experience the world through your own lens, created by your own filters of your knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values and intentions.  Another person will have their own lens and their own perspective which will definitely be different to yours.

Be humble.  Remember that differences in what we focus our attention on and how we interpret information through our lens an filters will lead to our own bias.

“Knowing others minds requires asking … verifying … and listening, not just reading and guessing.”  Nicholas Epley

It doesn’t matter how well you think you know a person, you can never be sure that you know exactly what they’re thinking.  You may guess well and you may unconsciously pick up messages via their non-verbal communication (tone of voice, body language etc.), but you don’t “know”.

By assuming you do, you’re likely to cause crossed wires in your communication and to limit your possibilities.  It does no harm to ask – what are you thinking, what are you feeling, what do you want?  In fact what can you lose by not not asking?

#2 DON’T assume that other people know what you’re thinking …

Well if you assume that you don’t know what someone else is thinking, then how can you assume anyone else has psychic abilities to know what you’re thinking?  Do you even always know what you are thinking?

How often have you been disappointed, annoyed, frustrated or plain angry because someone else should have known what you were thinking, what you were feeling, or what you wanted?

So why assume other people can read your mind?


The secret to understanding people better doesn’t come from mind reading.  It doesn’t come from improving your ability to read body language or other non-verbal signals.  Nor does it come over-interpreting or reading between the lines of the words someone uses.  Ultimately understanding what someone thinks, what they feel, what they believe, and what they want, comes from putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly.

My source of inspiration:

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic and on the statistics I’ve quoted then read the excellent book that inspired this post – Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley.



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