Mind

As we go through life, we frequently find ourselves trying to guess what’s going on in other people’s minds. Our society runs smoothly partly because of people’s ability to infer each other’s perspectives. And when it doesn’t run smoothly, people’s failure to understand each other is often a factor.

There are two main techniques people use to figure out how others are feeling. One is by interpreting other people’s facial expressions, body language and actions. The other is by putting themselves in other people’s shoes and simulating how they would feel in the same position.

Both techniques are helpful in different situations, but a new study published in Psychological Science suggests that people tend to overuse the first technique while underestimating the power of the second. In other words, people may overestimate their ability to “read” other people’s behavior and undervalue their ability to imagine what it would be like to be in other people’s shoes.

To test how people draw on these techniques to infer others’ perspectives, researchers asked participants to observe strangers looking through 50 pictures, then guess the strangers’ emotional reactions to the pictures. The participants could try to infer the strangers’ reactions either by interpreting the strangers’ facial expressions, or by looking through the same set of 50 pictures themselves.

It turned out the participants were better at guessing the strangers’ reactions when using the simulation technique – that is, when sitting down and looking through to pictures firsthand. Meanwhile, they were overconfident in their ability to guess based on the strangers’ facial expressions, overestimating their accuracy when they used this technique.

The researchers identified two reasons for these results. First, people tended to overestimate how much information they were getting from others’ facial expressions. And second, people tended to underestimate how similar their emotional reactions to the pictures would be to other people’s.

To put it another way, people may underestimate their ability to simulate others’ perspectives because they fail to acknowledge how similar they are to others.

Because the study only looked at how people inferred each other’s perspectives in one situation, it’s unclear how the effectiveness of these two techniques changes in different contexts or with people who aren’t total strangers. For now, though, it can’t hurt to remember that imagining yourself in someone else’s position can be a good way to understand what that person is experiencing – we aren’t always as different as we might think!

Image: Flickr/Jean-Rémy Duboc