So often, we think we know what other people are thinking. But researchers have found that our attempts at reading other people go wrong more often than we realize. This week, we talk with psychologist Tessa West about what we can all do to read people more accurately.
To learn more about how we understand others, listen to our Mind Reading 2.0 series on how we assess other people’s thoughts and how we underestimate how much other people like us.
Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, by Tessa West, 2022.
Status Acuity: The Ability to Accurately Perceive Status Hierarchies Reduces Status Conflict and Benefits Group Performance, by Siyu Yu, Gavin J. Kilduff, and Tessa West, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2022.
Perspective Mistaking: Accurately Understanding the Mind of Another Requires Getting Perspective, Not Taking Perspective, by Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel, and Nicholas Epley, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018.
Asked For vs. Unasked For Feedback: An Experimental Study, by Tessa V. West e. al., presented at the Performance Management Insight Lab, 2017.
Collective Intelligence and Group Performance, by Anita Williams Woolley, Ishani Aggarwal, and Thomas W. Malone, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2015.
Anxiety Perseverance in Intergroup Interaction: When Incidental Explanations Backfire, by Tessa V. West, Adam R. Pearson, and Chadly Stern, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014.
Brittle Smiles: Positive Biases Toward Stigmatized and Outgroup Targets, by Wendy Berry Mendes and Katrina Koslov, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2013.
Aversive Racism and Medical Interactions with Black Patients: A Field Study, by Louis A. Penner et al., Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the classic TV series Star Trek, Mr. Spock has a foolproof technique for accurately reading the thoughts and feelings of others: the Vulcan Mind-Meld.Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock:I am Spock, you are James Kirk. Our minds are moving closer, closer, closer, closer, James Kirk, closer.Shankar Vedantam:Here on planet Earth, we have no technology that gives us direct access to the minds of others, so we look for psychological clues. We watch people's facial expressions to see how much they like us. We read their body language to figure out when they are nervous. We listen to their intonations to pick up signals about their mood. How accurate are these clues? How good are we at detecting what's going on in the minds of others? In recent years, scientists have spent a lot of time answering these questions. They've discovered that many of the clues we use to read the minds of others are suspect. But they have identified one mind-reading technique that is surprisingly effective.The only problem: most of us don't use it. How to get inside someone else's head, this week on Hidden Brain.Navigating social life involves continually reading the minds of other people. What could be the meaning behind my colleague's behavior? What could my daughter be thinking and feeling? What is it my parents really want? Tessa West is a psychologist at New York University. She studies interpersonal accuracy: how well the attributions we make about others matches the reality of what is actually going on inside their minds. Tessa West, welcome to Hidden Brain.Tessa West:Thank you so much for having me.Shankar Vedantam:Tessa, during your undergraduate years, I understand you had a part-time job that turned out to be an excellent venue for reading other people's minds and intentions. What was this job?Tessa West:So the job I had was selling high-end men's shoes. It was commission based, so every pair of shoes I sold, I got about 8% back. And really my income was primarily determined by selling rich people very expensive shoes, and hoping I sold enough of those shoes to be able to make money for tuition.Shankar Vedantam:So I understand the sales team was often eager to find the customers who looked like they would be the most lucrative customers, given that your income depended partly on these commissions.Tessa West:Absolutely. The sales team developed all these clever strategies of figuring out who they could approach, who would buy the most expensive shoes, and who was also the least likely to have buyer's remorse and want to return those shoes later. So they would pay attention to things like what people were wearing, how comfortable they seemed in an expensive store, what their mannerisms were, even things like how much of in a hurry they came across. All these pieces of information were used to try to figure out who the optimal customer would be.Shankar Vedantam:When someone promising walked into the store, Tessa's colleagues on the sales team would race to snag the customer.Tessa West:We called them shoe sharks, and these are the people who would immediately make a beeline for the best customers. It was a very competitive, hierarchical world selling shoes, and I think you sort of had to learn how to spot that customer and grab them before anybody else could. Even saying hi and making eye contact kind of counted as, "This person's now my territory, they're my customer. You better not come close."Shankar Vedantam:So as you were finding your feet in sales, one time a customer came in wearing a three-piece suit with a poodle trailing behind him. I'm guessing this customer sounded promising.Tessa West:This customer was probably the most promising person I had encountered yet. He had a fancy pocket square and he showed up with this poodle that was so well-groomed. I could tell its haircut cost more than my haircut, and it was huge. I'm a college student, I have no money, he brings this giant poodle. At the time, the store had a policy that you could bring your little toy poodles, but not a giant poodle. So it took some real gumption to show up with a giant dog, and he kind of strolls in, all the bravado in the world and immediately picks out 20 of the most expensive pairs of shoes that he wants to try on. So I'm thinking to myself, "Yes, I'm going to sell all the shoes that I need for this entire week just with this one customer."Shankar Vedantam:What happened, Tessa?Tessa West:So basically what happened was he picks out his shoes. He immediately kind of embraces this high-status demeanor. This is super humiliating, but he actually asked me to get down on my knees and allow his dog to give me a kiss, which I did. Thinking to myself, "Money's money, I need it." And then he tried on all these expensive shoes and he had me use a shoehorn and put his foot in each shoe, even tie the laces for him. I mean, I was with him for several hours. At the end of the day, he bought nothing. So he was really just there as a power play to really show off how great he was, but he wasn't interested in purchasing anything.Shankar Vedantam:So I mean, obviously this guy sounds like a real jerk, but from your point of view was a learning experience in terms of how well you could pick up what was happening in someone else's mind.Tessa West:Yeah, I mean, I think I learned that sometimes the things we rely on, how fancy someone's clothes are, how confident they appear, aren't actually the best pieces of information to accurately read someone's intentions. Or maybe I was just trying to read the wrong intentions. What he wanted was lots of female attention. What he didn't want was expensive shoes. And so I really learned a lesson that day.Shankar Vedantam:Another time a customer comes in wearing sweaty, dirty clothes, he's covered in mud, I'm guessing that this is not a customer that the sales team fights over.Tessa West:This guy comes in, he's wearing sweats, he's got dirt all over him, and I walk up to this guy and he's in a hurry. He's very flustered and he says, "I need five pairs of your most comfortable shoes for my gardeners." So I pull up these shoes that are ugly but expensive and offer him these shoes. And he says, "Okay, just get them in three different sizes. I'm desperate right now. I live in Montecito..." Which is where Oprah lives. It's a very expensive part of Santa Barbara. "My gardeners have blisters and I had to actually mow my own lawn today. It's a horrific thing, I need you to fix my problem right away." And so immediately he buys thousands of dollars worth of shoes. And I learned another lesson. You cannot always rely on what people are wearing in judging their intentions. And there I was sort of lucky to be wrong, but that was also a very important learning experience for me.Shankar Vedantam:So you finish college, you get your PhD, and eventually, you go on the job market and at one point you're invited for an interview at New York University, NYU, and someone told you that if you wore glasses for the interview that they would take you more seriously. Why did you get this advice, Tessa?Tessa West:Yeah, that's right. So I think a lot of people assume that when you're a young woman... I was 25, 26 at the time, that you need to make yourself look smarter, more professional. And one piece of information people use to judge that is whether you're wearing glasses. So I took this advice. I actually normally wear contacts, but I went out, I bought some glasses that I couldn't actually afford. I took my contacts out, I wore the glasses on the interview hoping that that would work. I also wore some outfits that other people had told me would make me look less young, less girly, all these kinds of things to kind of counter stereotypes. And so I really went in and leaned into that advice because that was what one person's lay theory was of what actually works.Shankar Vedantam:So you get to this interview, your glasses are sliding down your nose as you talk. Walk me through how the interview played out.Tessa West:The interview was very tough. So I'm up there, I'm giving this presentation, I have a PowerPoint, I'm in my uncomfortable glasses and within a minute, someone raises their hand. They kind of question my whole program of work. And for the next hour and a half or so, just constantly those hands are popping up. "What did you mean by this? How did you manipulate this?" I really felt like people must hate me. This is very rough. I was not used to that. I didn't come from a place where people are aggressive. I came from a sort of nice culture where people ask questions at the end and they always led with, "This is wonderful research. How about this one additional thing?" And this was very different.Shankar Vedantam:I understand when you got back to your hotel that night, you saw that there was a seam in your pantsuit that had come undone.Tessa West:Yeah, just to add insult to injury. Oh, wow. Now I'm reliving this interview. My pants were completely ripped. So on top of wondering, "What did people think of my research?" You layer onto this, "Oh, my gosh. They were not only thinking of my research that they clearly hated, but they could probably also see way too much skin that I had no intention of showing." To this day, I actually won't watch the videotape of my interview because I'm horrified of what I will see when I walk away from the camera.Shankar Vedantam:Some days later, one of Tessa's mentors thought he picked up some intel from an NYU search committee member at a conference.Tessa West:So I run into my mentor after this conference and I walk into his office and his face is just long and sad and I said, "What happened?" He goes, "I don't think you're getting the NYU job." And my heart starts pounding. And I said, "What happened? Did they tell you I was bad? I knew it. I knew they thought I was bad." He said, "No. I saw one of the search committee members across the hall and he made eye contact with me and then he made a beeline for the bathroom. He didn't want to talk to me, therefore, you did not get this position. I'm really sorry to tell you."Shankar Vedantam:So he thought the search committee member was avoiding him because it was going to be an awkward conversation.Tessa West:Yep.Shankar Vedantam:Tessa resigned herself to the reality that she had lost out on the NYU job. She grieved what she thought was the end of her academic career. She started to think about going to cooking school. Then a couple of months later, she got a call from the head of the NYU search committee.Tessa West:And he says, "Congratulations, I'm here to offer you the position." And I was shocked. And I said, "Are you calling the right person?" And he's like, "Is this Tessa West?" I'm like, "Yeah, this is Tessa. Are you sure you mean to offer me the job?" And he's like, "Absolutely it's you." And then I said, "Yes, I'll take it." And he's like, "No, no, no, no, no. I'm going to pretend you didn't say that. You're going to have to negotiate to get a good offer, but congrats." So I screwed up everything, the whole process.Shankar Vedantam:Notice that at each step of the process, mind-reading mistakes led to faulty conclusions. Tessa assumed wearing glasses would make her look smart. Instead, she came across as uncomfortable. She figured the tough questioning was evidence of hostility. It wasn't. Her mentor misread a glance from someone at a conference who was headed for the bathroom. From this glance, he concluded NYU was going to reject Tessa. Wrong again. In fact, the one time Tessa had hard evidence about what the NYU committee really thought of her was when the head of the committee called to offer her the job. Her reaction? Disbelief. Errors in mind-reading produce some of their worst consequences in interpersonal relationships. Some time after she joined NYU, Tessa found herself talking to a colleague from her own school at a conference.Tessa West:So I go to this conference. It's in San Diego, California, which is beautiful. I'm kind of excited to enjoy the nice weather, but I'm also very nervous because I'm a new assistant professor. I feel like I'm a little bit in over my head. I came from a program that wasn't as prestigious as some of the other programs that people came from. And I go to this conference and I run into another assistant professor and we're chatting for a few minutes and then he looks at me and says, "I'm really sorry. I don't think I can talk to you anymore."And I'm thinking, "Okay, this is weird." And he says, "I think I need to spend time with people who I don't work with. I really need to expand my social network. So I'm going to walk away now and go talk to other people." And I remember thinking, "Is my breath gross? Am I not a big deal enough? Am I not high-status enough?" So my head is just kind of reeling with all these reasons why this person wouldn't want to talk to me anymore. And I felt a little bit heartbroken over that, that maybe I have done something horribly wrong to offend this person. All of these negative thoughts are going through my mind.Shankar Vedantam:It almost sounds like he was sort of looking down at you.Tessa West:Yeah, I definitely felt that. What I felt was he was a thirsty social climber. Someone who is just trying really hard to get ahead and didn't really care whether he's offending someone to get there and just assumed that this kind of strategy was acceptable, and part of me questioned whether I was the one that was making the mistake. Maybe this is actually what the people in the know do, is they tell others, "I can't talk to you. I have to go expand my social network." I just felt very lost for the cause there.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you later discovered that his reaction was mostly about his own anxieties. They had very little to do with his feelings or attitudes toward you. Is that right?Tessa West:Yeah. I think he felt that this is what he ought to do. It wasn't even what he wanted to necessarily do. He was actually engaged in the conversation, but he felt like all eyes were on him and other people were looking at him and thinking, "Why is he talking to his colleague? Why isn't he trying to socially connect?" And inferring all kinds of things about him. "Maybe he's antisocial or maybe he refuses to speak to anyone outside of NYU. He's a snob about that." So all of these things were going through his mind, which led him to engage in this behavior towards me that honestly had nothing to do with me.Shankar Vedantam:So many tensions and conflicts in human relationships stem from making inaccurate attributions about what is going on in other people's minds. Tessa West began to think, "Are there tricks to getting folks to be more accurate in reading other people's minds?" You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Tessa West studies interpersonal accuracy, how well we gauge other people's thoughts and feelings. We've seen how easy it is for us to misattribute thoughts and feelings to others. Quite regularly, of course, many of us find ourselves at the receiving end of these errors. Tessa, you've had some memorable experiences of people reading your mind wrong. One of them involved a student who had been working in your lab for three years. Can you tell me that story?Tessa West:Yeah, this story is actually pretty heartbreaking for me. So I've been working with a student for three years and she always seemed a little bit nervous around me. And one day, she comes to me and confesses, "For the past several years I was afraid to come talk to you because I thought you really hated me." I said, "What are you talking about? Why on earth would you think that?" And she said, "Well, a couple years ago, I saw you in the elevator and you gave me the stink eye. And from then on I just decided that you disliked me."Of course, I can't even remember this elevator moment. I happen to have one of those faces where if I'm not actively smiling, I just look kind of irritable and angry and annoyed all the time. I'm like, "Oh, she caught me in a neutral face. I know what happened." And who knows what I was thinking. I was probably just thinking to myself, "I really want coffee so bad right now. That's all I want," when she ran into me. But it really struck me that this student had a snap moment with me, a thin slice. We're talking 30 seconds max. She inferred a ton of information from the look on my face and it shaped her behavior towards me for several years.Shankar Vedantam:So this incident spurred you to begin researching interpersonal accuracy, investigating why we misattribute thoughts and feelings. And again, one of the most important things you found was, again, what you just identified here, our tendency to extrapolate from too little data to toolarge conclusions.Tessa West:Yeah, I think that's true. And I think it's also important that the student saw me in another context. She saw me in the classroom where I'm much more performative. I tend to be very jokey, fun, I try to engage the students as part of making a lecture come alive. And she contrasted that with seeing me kind of let down. It's kind of like walking off stage after giving a big talk or a big speech, running into the speaker in the bathroom, their mannerisms are going to be very different than when you watch them displaying very deliberative over-the-top, friendly behaviors. And I think what really struck her was the contrast between those two.And I don't think her experience is unique, I think a lot of us actually make inaccurate judg,ments of people because we're contrasting them in two very different settings. And I think we see this happen all the time when students run into their teachers outside of the classroom. I mean just the other day I was with my son and he ran into a camp counselor who was wearing headphones and the counselor just kind of kept walking, waved and said, "Hi," and kept walking. And he's like, "Mommy, why doesn't my counselor like me?" I'm like, "He's busy, honey. I know he's normally very friendly towards you when you're playing dodgeball, but this is a different context." So I think there is something to be said for learning that the context matters and reminding yourself of that.Shankar Vedantam:So another version of context is what we might call culture. And when I think about the interview that you had at NYU, part of what was happening during that interview, which came across as very aggressive to you, was really reflective of the internal culture at NYU. Can you talk about that idea, both of what was happening at NYU that prompted that kind of interview, as well as the larger point of the ways in which culture influences how we're reading other people's minds?Tessa West:So at NYU, what was interesting is that I actually took that behavior of aggression and I inferred it meant dislike. And in fact, the opposite is true at NYU. The more engaged people are, the more questions they ask, the more they push you, the smarter they think you are, the more interested they are. And so I actually was attending to the right information, but I was interpreting it in the opposite way. And had I had known that about the culture that lots of questions means great things, it means they think you're smart, they're interested in the work, I would've made a very different attribution for that behavior. And I think this actually can happen a lot. We walk into different cultures, we're aware that we have this cultural bias that maybe we're not totally exposed to what those behaviors mean. And we often make incorrect inferences when we form those impressions because we're anchored so much on our own culture, on our own experiences.Shankar Vedantam:You've also studied the phenomenon of something called egocentric bias. What is this, Tessa?Tessa West:Egocentric bias is probably one of the toughest things to get people to overcome when it comes to making accurate impressions. So this is the idea that what goes on in our own minds is the richest source of information that we have and we anchor what we think other people are thinking and feeling, experiencing, based on our own experiences.Shankar Vedantam:So in the case of the bad interaction you had with your work colleague at the psychology conference, you came into that interaction with so many anxieties. When NYU said they wanted to hire you, you questioned if they had called the right person, if they knew what they were doing. When you got to the conference, you felt like you didn't really belong in a crowd of senior scholars. So in some ways, it seems like you may have been projecting your own internal anxieties when you started reading the mind of your colleague.Tessa West:Absolutely. I was definitely projecting my own internal anxieties. And I think especially when the situation's a little bit unclear what the cause is, those ambiguous situations are perfect breeding grounds for egocentric bias. We're not quite sure why someone's doing what they're doing, so we're just going to assume it's because of all this stuff going on in our own heads. And I think the funny thing about that example is the person who engaged in those behaviors was also had an egocentric bias. He was doing these things because he thought everyone was staring at him and this is what he ought to do. And so the egocentric bias is actually going in both directions between the perceiver, me, and also the actor, the target, and that person.Shankar Vedantam:There's been interesting research that shows that we're more likely to deploy projection when we see the other person as being similar to us. But when we see people as different from us, we tend to fall back on a different mental error that produces its own form of misattribution. Can you talk about how stereotypes might be a form of misattribution?Tessa West:Stereotypes are one of the biggest sources of information we rely on when it comes to judging other people, especially if we don't know them personally. So this influences person perception and accuracy in particular because these expectations just serve as a lens through which we perceive and attend to all the information around us. If we expect it to happen, we're more likely to attend to information that's consistent with those expectations. We forget the stuff that's not consistent and we completely write it off, don't pay attention to it at all, or forget it completely.Shankar Vedantam:The problem is not limited to our errors in perception. We constantly give off inaccurate signals to other people, making it more likely they will read us wrong. In one study, Tessa found people went out of their way to communicate the opposite of what they were really thinking.Tessa West:We founded this study, so we brought people in, we had them do a negotiation task, there was a winner and a loser of the negotiation and we had them give feedback to each other on how they performed, what they could do better. And we manipulated whether that feedback was asked for or not. And what we found was when you're giving feedback to someone that they didn't ask for, people actually smiled more. They were friendlier in their delivery. And despite the fact that they were often talking to someone who just lost to them, the only thing they could come up with were great things that they did well in the negotiation. So even in context where constructive feedback makes the most sense, they're like, "It was wonderful when you did X, Y, Z." So they're intentionally giving information to the world that isn't reflecting what they're actually thinking. It's like this deception in an effort to create rapport, to build a relationship with someone.Shankar Vedantam:Tessa and other researchers have also found that power dynamics shape whether we accurately reveal what is happening inside our minds. Low-power people tend to mask what they are thinking and feeling. High-power people are more likely to broadcast their internal thoughts. Things get flipped when it comes to perception. People with less power are better at reading the mind states of the powerful. Children, for example, often have their parents' number.Tessa West:Absolutely. My son has figured out that if I'm typing on my phone is the best time to ask to purchase some Pokemon card on Amazon. And if I'm making dinner, it is a bad time because I hate making dinner and I'm in a bad mood. So yes, kids learn these things, kids in classrooms learn these things. I think people pick up on these cues when they're outcome-dependent upon others.Shankar Vedantam:Some of the examples we've discussed can sound humorous, but errors in mind-reading can have serious consequences. A Black patient who feels her doctor is being inattentive or hostile might be less likely to reveal a medical problem. A doctor who falls back on stereotypes can miss something important. Tessa has also found that mistakes in reading the minds of others leads to worse performance in teams.Tessa West:So there is something kind of unique and special about your ability to read how people are relating to one another on teams. And that ability is distinctly related to your ability in your own teams to perform well and also to not have status conflict, to not be jockeying for status with another person, to kind of know when it's time to step back and when it's time that you can actually take over a position of power. And we have found that this ability to read the room predicts how well you do on a creativity task. It also predicts what we call status conflict. So this is the idea that people were fighting the entire time.We couldn't figure out who should be in charge. No one really agreed at the end of the day who's in charge, what people's roles are. And I think what's interesting about this is status hierarchies often get a bad reputation, but figuring those out, conferring status really early on is actually critical for group success. The ability to read the room is directly related to the ability to just get that process over with, move on with things, and then work well together. And we also found that there's a bad apple effect. So if you put one person on a team who's really bad at this, they can completely disrupt the group process. They're interrupting the wrong people, they're taking over when someone important is saying something. And so even just one person who's bad at this kind of person perception skills can completely throw off and disrupt group processes.Shankar Vedantam:When we come back, the magic trick to discovering what is really going on in someone else's mind. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Tessa West is a psychologist at New York University. She studies the benefits of interpersonal accuracy, coming up with the right attributions for other people's behavior. Tessa and other researchers have tested a variety of techniques to induce people to become more accurate as they read other people's minds. Tessa figured that one reason people might be bad at reading other minds is because they're not motivated to do a good job. She thought, "Why don't we fix that?" She offered volunteers as much as $100 to accurately guess what their romantic partners were thinking. If motivation was the problem, cold, hard cash ought to correct the problem.Tessa West:We found that by and large, it doesn't really work. So this was our attempt at really testing this idea that inaccuracy is really about motivation and if you give people money, you can get them to be right. There's a little bit of evidence to support it, but nothing that I would be too confident in.Shankar Vedantam:The fact that monetary incentives fail to improve people's accuracy in reading the minds of their romantic partners told Tessa something important. A lack of motivation might not be the problem.Tessa West:So you can put people in experiments where they're not motivated to be accurate, they have no reason to care and you can give them money, and that basically just makes them pay more attention. But I think in the real world, in naturalistic interactions, we're all motivated to be accurate. We all actually care. There's often a lot on the line. And so offering that incentive just doesn't really get us there.Shankar Vedantam:So another intervention has involved asking volunteers to engage in perspective-taking to imagine putting themselves in other people's shoes as a way of getting a better understanding of what's happening in the minds of other people. How do these experiments turn out and what do they find, Tessa?Tessa West:The shorter answer is they don't work. What they do is they actually increase your confidence in your ability to read people and they can reduce that egocentric bias we talked about. They do not increase accuracy because they're not actually giving you any information that you can use to make judgments. And in some cases, they actually backfire. So if you're engaging in an interaction with someone from a different race, a different culture, and I tell you to perspective-take, what that can do is make you feel very anxious and uncomfortable. "Oh, are they going to think I'm prejudiced or racist or uncomfortable around them?" It actually leads you to be even more egocentric and in your head than if I hadn't given you that manipulation at all. So here we are again with another intuitively interesting potential manipulation that just simply doesn't work and often actually leads people to be less accurate.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, that's kind of astonishing, isn't it? That we still hear the admonishment to take other people's perspectives as the cure to misreading their minds. I mean, that advice, I think, is still pretty widespread.Tessa West:It's very widespread. You hear it from everything from romantic relationships to improving workplace relationships and intergroup contact, but it does nothing for accuracy.Shankar Vedantam:In a third approach to try and boost people's accuracy in terms of their attributions, you offered study subjects alternative explanations for the behavior of their conversation partners. So this is the idea that if you give people benign explanations for other people's behavior, that will allow people to settle into the interaction, make fewer mind-reading errors, generally get along better. Was your hope born out?Tessa West:It was not. This was one of the more frustrating academic experiences I had. I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought I had this brilliant idea, which was this: we know that anxiety can be very disruptive to interracial interactions. And one of the reasons why is when we're interacting with someone who comes across as anxious, we think it's because they don't like us because of our race. So therefore, the solution might be, well, let's just fix that part. Let's give them an attribution for anxiety that has nothing to do with race. So what we did was we brought people in and we told them that their partner was a little bit jittery because they had a couple cups of coffee too much that day, and that can actually lead them to appear anxious and uncomfortable. They then interacted with someone who was the same race or a different race than them.And we were convinced that this information and interracial interaction would lead people to be more engaged and more accurate in mind-reading and all of these things. And when I came to analyze the data, I got this huge effect. It was one of the biggest effects I've ever gotten -- in the opposite direction. So it actually made things much worse. The minute we told them anxiety was at play, that's all they could think about, and they actually ended up seeing anxiety in their partner that wasn't even there. So that attribution just heightened the attention to anxious-related cues. So imagine walking into a job interview and you say to the person, "I'm sorry, I'm a little bit fidgety right now, but I just had too much coffee this morning." You might think, "Okay, well, that's going to make them think I'm actually comfortable." All they're thinking now is, "Great. I'm interacting with a super anxious person," and they're only going to tend to your anxiety-related cues and to nothing else.Shankar Vedantam:In popular culture, people have long believed that there are ways to read other people's body language. Can you talk about this idea, the enduring popularity of reading people's body language to understand what's happening in their minds and what science has found about the accuracy of this technique?Tessa West:There's so much intuitive appeal to, if I could just learn the behaviors, the cues, I could figure out what's going on in people's minds. And I think, sure, there are some shared cues, if I'm smiling I'm probably happy. But by and large, I think people behave really idiosyncratically. What I look like as hungry, another person looks like as upset or angry, and really just trying to learn generalized cues to read people's behaviors never really works because it's a lot like lie detection. Individuals might have tells, but there's no such thing as a shared tell what everybody does when they're lying. And the same thing is true with human mind-reading and perception and behavior. There's just no shared set of behaviors everybody does when they're feeling angry or happy or irritated and so forth.Shankar Vedantam:So we're really looking at a litany of failures here, Tessa. You mentioned several different techniques to try and get people to be more accurate. Have you found anything that does help us accurately get inside the minds of other people?Tessa West:We have. So the good news is we're not all doomed. I think social science has really been in the business of understanding how can we change the way people are thinking to improve accuracy? It's really putting the burden on the perceiver to become more accurate. But what we actually know from social science is we need to stop trying to read people and actually get the world to tell you what it thinks and feels. Don't try to read the world. And so the manipulations that work are all about clarifying the information that other people are giving to you, seeking that information out. I think Nick Epley in his work talks about perspective-getting, explicitly asking people, "What are your thoughts and feelings? Tell me about your opinions." And this seems so sort of overly obvious and intuitive, but people just simply don't do it. Instead, they focus on what's going on in their own heads. But really, if you can get the world to tell you what it's thinking and feeling, that's your best bet at improving your interpersonal accuracy.Shankar Vedantam:So you're saying the best way of figuring out what's inside someone else's mind is to ask them?Tessa West:That's right. And it's hard. We have a lot of reasons why it's hard, but asking is really the only thing we found that truly works to improve interpersonal accuracy.Shankar Vedantam:So in some ways, that advice is sort of so comically obvious, but many of us don't realize it's the most effective way to understand what's happening inside other people's heads. And surely some of this is because we wildly overestimate our ability to read other people's minds. We don't believe that we actually need to ask them. We can just watch how they're crossing their arms or we can infer from how they look at us in an elevator, what's happening in their minds. Or we can deduce from how they behave in an interview, what they really think of us, and we are so confident about our mind-reading abilities that we don't do the most obvious thing.Tessa West:That's right. I think people tend to be very confident, but unfortunately, their confidence in their ability to mind-read is correlated almost zero with their actual ability to mind-read. And they're rarely actually getting the feedback that these two things are completely misaligned.Shankar Vedantam:Is it possible that our overconfidence in our abilities to read other people's minds is exaggerated when it comes to people who are close to us? In other words, if I know my partner, or my spouse, my parents, if I know these people very well, it almost seems as if, well, I should know what's happening inside their minds because I'm so familiar with them.Tessa West:One of the funnest findings I think in social science is how in marriages, we're actually the most accurate at the newlywed stage. And as your marriage progresses, by your later years, you tend to actually just completely base your judgments of that person on yourself because you are so confident and you stop paying attention. And then you end up in these conversations of, "I always thought you loved lobster," and your partner's like, "I haven't liked lobster in 30 years. You should know that." But this is common. We're overconfident and we can get a little bit lazy as relationships progress.Shankar Vedantam:If the advice to ask people what they are thinking instead of trying to guess what they are thinking sounds comically obvious, there are some specific techniques that Tessa and others have found that are less obvious. The first is, if you want to know why someone did something or said something, don't wait for a week or a month to ask them.Tessa West:Yeah, I think this is a common approach a lot of us use. And I think that the main issue here is that memories are fallible. We can barely even remember what we had for lunch yesterday, let alone what we were thinking about weeks in, sometimes months later, and so you're just not going to get accurate information when you're using fallible memories. Plus, people just filling in the gaps with current information that wasn't relevant to the event of the past.Shankar Vedantam:Can you also talk about the difference between asking global questions and specific questions? Because it turns out this is another error we make when we ask people what's going on inside their minds.Tessa West:Yeah, I think most of us have this intuition that if we ask someone something global, we're going to get more information from them. So for instance, I could ask you, "Do you trust me? Are you happy in this relationship?" Or, "Do you like it when we go to movies?" Or, "Do you like it when we order Thai food?" The latter two are very specific questions, the former are very global. It's very hard for us to get accurate answers about those things. We don't even know what the person who's answering that question is basing their answer on, for instance, because it's so global, it's so kind of nebulous and general. It's very tough for us to kind of learn how to read people when we're just asking these very kind of non-specific questions.Shankar Vedantam:So instead of asking a question like, "Do you love me?" Maybe it's more effective to say, "Tell me about the time we went on this date and what is it about this date that you actually enjoyed?"Tessa West:That's right. "What about this date did you enjoy?" Don't ask people whether you're good in bed, ask what about you in bed they like or dislike, and what about that you're cooking they like or dislike. Specifics are better. And I think if we go back to the previous finding that we tend to give people positive feedback when we're uncomfortable, the more global the feedback, the more sort of positive it's going to be. And that, by definition, is just going to be biased towards inaccurate feedback, especially when you want even critical information from someone.Shankar Vedantam:Can you talk about the idea that besides asking questions of other people to elicit what's happening inside their minds, we should go to some lengths to become clearer in what's going on inside our minds? So people are trying to read us, we're often giving muddled signals to other people. If we want better communication all the way around, it's not just that we should get better at reading other people's minds, we should make our signals clearer so that other people can read our minds better.Tessa West:That's right. We have a transparency bias. We assume that what's going on in our thoughts, what's going on in our emotions, our minds and so forth is just readily apparent to people. And it's not. And I've actually had to be extremely explicit in what I'm thinking and feeling. And I learned this in the classroom, in the pandemic, that if I don't tell people exactly what I'm thinking at that moment, they're not going to know. They don't have access to cues. It felt awkward at first, but I think telling people, "I'm sorry, I'm not frustrated with you. I'm frustrated with my computer." Or, "That sigh didn't mean I'm irritated with you. That sigh meant I'm a little bit tired," or whatever. I think those little kinds of pieces of information, people can pick up on and learn how to read you more accurately in the future. So those are really critical to express, not just to perceive in others.Shankar Vedantam:And I'm wondering, during the pandemic, when so many of us were wearing masks, whether it became even harder now to pick up on cues from other people and whether we needed to go to even greater lengths to actually clarify what was going on inside our heads.Tessa West:Absolutely. I think a lot of us lost those non-verbal behaviors that we're used to relying on. We couldn't tell if someone was smiling under there or frowning. And now that I've done this sort of explicit thing and I've taken the mask off, I'm still doing it and I've realized there's utility to it even when those cues are available. And after the elevator, I've learned that my face doesn't reflect what I'm thinking anyway. So I should always be super clear with people what I'm thinking and feeling.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering, Tessa, that when I think about people who are on the autism spectrum, for example, these are people who sometimes have trouble reading the minds of others and have to learn with care and deliberation how to understand others' intentions, how to communicate their own. But as this conversation's unfolded, I've really come to think that maybe all of us might benefit in some ways from some of the skills training that people who are on the autism spectrum receive.Tessa West:I absolutely think that's true. I think kind of what's fascinating about people who are diagnosed on the spectrum is the minute they receive that diagnosis, they're sort of told that they're not good at giving off signals. They're not good at reading signals. And so they have to be very deliberative in expressing what they're thinking and feeling and also asking information from people. And I think because they're getting that skills training, really out of a fear that they're going to get these social interactions wrong, they get much better at this and they're much more rehearsed with it than people who aren't diagnosed, who are neurotypical. Even though I'm with you a 100%, I think we could actually all benefit from some of this training.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering if there are limits to this advice of trying to be explicit and trying to ask people explicitly about what's happening inside their minds. Are there situations in relationships, for example, as people are getting to know one another or in work situations where in some ways it might be inappropriate or problematic to make things too explicit?Tessa West:Yes. As you join a new workplace, for instance, there are norms about things you can and can't ask about. And I think there's certainly social situations where you're just simply not allowed, because it's not normative, to ask someone what their behavior means. I often think about this in the doctor-patient interaction context where if a patient was to ask a physician, "Do you just not trust me?" Something like that, they would get a very strange response back. So I do think there's a little bit of a learning curve for figuring out how and when to ask these kinds of questions. And I think the advice I give people is be very careful about things like over-disclosure or asking about people's personal lives in contexts where they're not appropriate. Specific feedback tends to be context specific. It tends to not be inappropriate. So the more that you can kind of tailor the question to the moment, the less likely you are to kind of step into uncomfortable grounds.Shankar Vedantam:Are there situations where you think leaping to conclusions about people could actually be good for us? I mean there's some research that suggests that when people have overly optimistic or positive views of their romantic partners, for example, they might end up in happier relationships than people who have more realistic perspectives of their partners. Are misattributions always a problem?Tessa West:The question isn't, is accuracy good or bad? It's what type of accuracy is good and bad, and when? And I think what we actually know there is that you want to have these global positive judgments of your partner. You think your partner's really attractive, and fun, and interesting. We call this the rose-colored glasses effect. But you want specific accuracy. So you want to be able to tell, for instance, that your partner's annoyed with you for not emptying the dishwasher or that they're too tired to go to the movie tonight. You can read those cues. So the specific things you want to be accurate about, but at a global level, you actually want to be overly biased in a positive way. You want to see them more positively than others see that person.Shankar Vedantam:I want to return to that interaction we spoke about earlier, the one where your NYU colleague was abruptly dismissive of you, and this was behavior that you initially attributed to his feeling superior to you. You were unexpectedly thrown together when you were asked to co-teach a professional development course. How did you get along given your rocky start, Tessa?Tessa West:So Jay Van Bavel, who the story is about, he and I taught a professional development course after several years of not really interacting with each other, we both had to kind of step in last minute and find a course to teach. And I was like, "This is going to be awful. This guy, he's such a social climber." And I immediately realized that I was wrong. My perceptions of him, my reading of him was wrong. He was actually super friendly and super engaging and happy to engage with me with this course. And we immediately became very close friends. But I had hung on to those wrong perceptions for many years before that moment.Shankar Vedantam:So you teach this course together and you get along famously and after some time, you realize that you actually like each other quite a bit and you might feel that even something might be brewing between the two of you, but you're colleagues in the same department, so this is a high-risk proposition. I understand that the two of you sat down and had a heart-to-heart. Can you tell me about that conversation, how it went, what he said, and what you said in response?Tessa West:One thing I really learn in this experience is when you decide to date a colleague whose office is two doors down from yours and you both have tenure at the same institution and you're likely to stay there forever, it behooves you to learn how to read each other accurately. And I obviously didn't have a great history with him and when it came to person perception. So we sat down together and he said, "Is it just me or is there something going on between us? Is there feelings between us?"And I can remember seeing his hands shake. He was kind of ringing his palms from the sweat and he was so uncomfortable, but it was really critical for him to get this right and to not assume that his colleague had feelings for him that I didn't have. And so we had a very blatant conversation about explicit feelings for each other. And I think that's a funny thing to do with someone that you're working with and you're not dating, to just have this very explicit, "Let me tell you exactly what I'm thinking and feeling conversation," over lunch and just hoping it doesn't completely blow up. And it went well, but it was anxiety-provoking.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you had both been married previously and you decided that you were going to have a very candid conversation about what it meant to get into a relationship. What kinds of things did you discuss, Tessa?Tessa West:We gave each other a list of a hundred questions. And we, being scientists, had this kind of null hypothesis testing approach where we assumed we were not compatible and we had to prove ourselves otherwise. But we asked each other everything. Nothing was off the table. "What are your 401(k) plans? Where do you like to go on vacation?" We both had small children. "What are your parenting strategies? How do you handle the following potential conflicts? What is your relationship like with your ex? How are we going to communicate this to colleagues?" All the tough stuff. There was no stone left unturned, where we wanted to prove to ourselves that we were indeed compatible before we even started dating because the stakes were so high.Shankar Vedantam:So you had this very detailed... I don't know if the right word is conversation or interrogation, but you had this very detailed interaction before really you became romantically entangled?Tessa West:Before we even held hands, before even testing the chemistry part out, honestly. The accuracy incentive was so high and we both were just very honest and didn't lie and didn't say the thing we thought the other person wanted to hear because if the relationship blew up, it would've been very bad for a lot of reasons. We would've been miserable at work for 30 years.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, in some ways, it's a testament to what you've been describing in terms of the arc of your research career, which is the value of actually being really explicit and really specific and putting your cards on the table. So what was the upshot of this very deliberate effort to have this conversation upfront? How did things go?Tessa West:We had the conversation and now we're married. So the upshot, I think for us, aside from it being a success and our families really merging well and us being very much in love, was that it set the stage for everything else in the relationship. So people often don't want to be good targets. They don't want to be honest because they're afraid of what it's going to do the relationship, they want to have positive perceptions of their partners so they don't ask negative things. But we got all of that off the table from the get-go, and we're extremely honest with each other. And full disclosure, I talked to Jay at length about this before I discussed it with you just to make sure he was comfortable. So we're always just keeping each other in the loop. And the other thing I know is I'm not a great person perceiver and neither is he, but I know how to be a good target and I know how to elicit that information from other people. And I think that really has an upside in relationships.Shankar Vedantam:Tessa West is a psychologist at NYU. She's also the author of the book, Jerks at Work, Toxic Coworkers and What to Do about Them. Tessa, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Tessa West:Thank you so much.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.For today's Unsung Hero, we turn the mic over to you, our listeners. It's a story from our show, My Unsung Hero. Today's My Unsung Hero is brought to you by OnStar. OnStar Advisors are now with you everywhere, on the app, in your car, and at home. OnStar, be safe out there.Our story comes from Joe Arrigoni. Joe and Joani have been married for more than 30 years. Three of their four kids are out of the house, and they had always imagined spending this phase of life working and planning for retirement. But all that changed at the end of 2018 when Joani was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at just 51. Her condition has been devastating, and for Joe, it has tested the limits of his compassion and understanding. He remembers one morning that was especially frustrating. It was in March of 2022. Joani was insisting that she needed new shoes even though she did not need them. So after he got tired of arguing about it with her, he agreed to take her to the shoe store.Joe Arrigoni:And I'm like, "Okay, here, here's all the shoes here. There's aisles and aisles of shoes, which ones do you like? Is there a particular color or a particular brand?" And I don't think she really understood. And she goes, "I want to talk to an associate." And so I'm like, "All right, fine. You just go find an associate and I'm just going to sit down over here because this whole need that you have for shoes, I just need a break from it." So she starts wandering off and going around the store. I don't see her then for a while. And I finally hear her voice and she's talking to the salesperson that she found. And I peek around the corner and I see them engage in this conversation. And the saleswoman, Michelle, is trying to figure out what size of shoe Joani needs.She's gently helping to get the shoe off her foot and then asks her to place her foot in the little metal slide that they use to get the width and the size. And because my wife has a hard time following directions because of her illness, she puts her hand down on the measuring tool for feet. And Michelle says, "That's okay, don't worry. Why don't you just stand up and I'll put the tool underneath and we'll measure your foot that way?" And Michelle asks her, "Do you have some anxiety?" She says, "Because I have some anxiety and I also have autism." And when I heard that, it just broke my heart because here I couldn't generate the patience and the compassion.And here this was the salesperson who my expectation was that they're not going to be able to understand Joani, they're not going to be able to engage with Joani, and I'm going to have to step in and do everything anyway. And they had just created this beautiful moment and it still chokes me up a little bit. When you're a full-time caregiver, 24/7, sometimes it can take a toll on you and your level of compassion or hope can get depleted. And so you can be just desperate for some type of relief from that responsibility. And when someone who themselves already has a difficulty navigating our world is caring for your loved one with more patience and compassion than you can master at that moment, it's doubly impactful. It's beyond words and it's a beautiful thing.Shankar Vedantam:Joe Arrigoni of Orland Hills, Illinois. By the way, they did find Joani a pair of shoes and Joe was able to go back into the store and tell Michelle, "Thank you." This segment was brought to you by OnStar. OnStar believes everyone has the right to feel safe everywhere, and that's why their emergency advisors are now available to help not only in the car, but wherever you are, on your phone, in your car, and at home. OnStar, be safe out there.If you liked this episode and would like us to produce more shows like this, please consider supporting our work. Go to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again. If you would like to help support the show you love, go to support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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