Mind Reading 2.0: Why did you do that?

As we go through life, we’re constantly trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Psychologist Liane Young says this ability to assess other people’s thoughts ​is an extraordinary feat of cognition. But this mental superpower can sometimes lead us astray. This week, we kick off a new series exploring how we understand — or fail to understand — the minds of other people.

For more of our Mind Reading 2.0 series, listen to our episode about how we underestimate how much others really like us.

Additional Resources


When my wrongs are worse than yours: behavioral and neural asymmetries in first-person and third-person perspectives of accidents, by Joshua Hirschfeld-Kroen, Emily Wasserman, Stefano Anzellotti, Liane Young, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2021

Differential virtue discounting: Public generosity is seen as more selfish than public impartiality, by Gordon T. Kraft-Todd,  Max Kleiman-Weiner, Liane Young, Ethics and Psychology, 2020

Motive Attribution asymmetry for love vs. hate drives intractable conflict, by Adam Waytz, Liane Young, Jeremy Ginges,  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014

Belief, Desire, Action, and Other Stuff: Theory of Mind in Movies, by Daniel Levin, Alicia M. Hymel, Lewis Baker, in book Psychocinematics: Exploring cognition in movies, pp 244-266, Oxford University Press, 2013

When ignorance is no excuse: Different roles for intent across moral domains, by Liane Young, Robecca Saxe, Elsevior, 2011

Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments, by Liane Young, Joan A. Camprodon, Marc D. Hauser, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Rebecca Saxe, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010

The Psychology of Dilemmas and the Philosophy of Morality, by Fiery Cushman, Liane Young, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2009

The neural basis of the interaction between theory of mind and moral judgment, by Liane Young, Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser, and Rebecca Saxe, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007

Crime and Punishment: Distinguishing the roles of causal and intentional analyses in moral judgment, by Fiery Cushman, Cognition, 2007

Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, Ohio State University Press, 2006

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. All parents have moments when their kids test their patience. Liane Young is no exception.

Liane Young: I often yell at my kids for things that they did by accident, like spilling a smoothie, or leaving a cap off of a permanent marker, and making black, permanent stains all over the sofa.

Shankar Vedantam: When this happens, and the couch is covered in black splotches, or there's smoothie on the floor, the perpetrators inevitably offer this defense.

Child: It was an accident.

Child: It's not my fault.

Child: I didn't mean to do it.

Liane Young: I shouldn't say this, but I tell them, "It doesn't matter that you didn't mean to do it. What matters is that you won't do it again."

Shankar Vedantam: Liane's reaction, while understandable, is deeply ironic. She's a psychologist who studies how we read other people's intentions.

Liane Young: We need to think about other people's minds in order to figure out who our friends are, who to avoid, whom to punish, whether to punish. And, we need to read people's intentions in any ordinary interaction, like having a conversation, and figuring out what to say, and how to respond.

Shankar Vedantam: As we go through life, we are constantly making sense of people's actions by interpreting their intentions. Our ability to read what is happening in other people's minds is like an invisible compass guiding us through life. But sometimes, it leads us astray. We misread other people's intentions, especially when we are hurt, or angry. This week on Hidden Brain, how our powers of observation allow us to navigate our social worlds, until they don't. It's the start of a series we're calling Mind Reading 2.0. It explores a topic listeners have asked us about a lot: how to decode what's going on in other people's heads.

New Speaker: -music break-

Shankar Vedantam: We are constantly trying to read other people's minds. When we interact with friends, relatives, and coworkers, we ask ourselves, "What is going on in this other person's head? What does she want? What are his intentions?" Our ability to read other minds involves an extraordinary feat of cognition. Yet, it mostly unfolds in our heads, without us being aware of it. Minus this skill, the simplest of interactions would be mired in confusion, and misunderstanding. Liane Young is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Boston College. She has spent years studying this mental ability, and the profound effects it has on our lives. Liane Young, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Liane Young: Thanks so much. It's good to be here, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start with a very simple example that shows how important it is for us to read what's happening in the minds of other people. In the 1993 movie Mrs. Doubtfire, starring Robin Williams, the characters Daniel and Miranda have split up, and Daniel comes up with this unconventional way to win Miranda back. He returns to the house in disguise as Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly widow who seeks a role of nanny and housekeeper. Now, he quickly wins the trust of the family. Very soon, Miranda is asking Mrs. Doubtfire for life advice, including whether to go on a date with a man she's just met.

Miranda: Mrs. Doubtfire. May I ask you a question?

Mrs. Doubtfire: Oh, certainly.

Miranda: How long after Mr. Doubtfire passed away-

Mrs. Doubtfire: Winston.

Miranda: Winston, did you feel any desire?

Mrs. Doubtfire: Never.

Miranda: Never.

Mrs. Doubtfire: Never again.

Miranda: Never again?

Mrs. Doubtfire: Once the father of your children is out of the picture, the only solution is total and lifelong celibacy.

Miranda: Celibacy?

Mrs. Doubtfire: Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: So, Liane, if we lack the capacity to read what was happening inside the minds of Daniel and Miranda, how would that change how we understood the scene?

Liane Young: Well, I think we wouldn't be able to appreciate the humor and the irony in that scene where Daniel is, essentially, he knows what is going on with his wife, and he is trying to get his wife to not date this other man. And, of course, we know that the wife doesn't know Daniel's true identity as Daniel. She thinks that he is this housekeeper, and we know that she doesn't know. And so, there's this very sort of layered understanding that we need to have, as the audience, to find the scene funny.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Liane Young: We can't find it funny without realizing that she doesn't know what he knows, and who he is.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. So, we're able to read, in some ways, that he has an agenda here, because he wants to keep his wife from dating other men. And, we also understand that she doesn't know what's going on. But what's interesting to me, Liane, is that we intuit all of this effortlessly. No one sits down as they're watching the movie and actually says to themselves, "All right, this is what's going through his head. This is what's going through her head." It's the fact we're able to take it in so effortlessly that allows us to understand the scene.

Liane Young: Yeah. So, we're able to... And, I remember watching this movie as a child who, of course, hadn't had the benefit of studying how theory of mind works in the brains of children and adults. And, I still found it very funny. I knew exactly what was happening, who was misunderstanding what, who knew what other people didn't know, and so on, in order to be able to enjoy this scene, and really, the entire movie.

Shankar Vedantam: So, you used the term just now, theory of mind. It's a term that you and other researchers have to describe our capacity to understand what is happening in the minds of other people. Can you explain what that term means to me?

Liane Young: Yes. So, I should say that many psychologists and neuroscientists use a number of different terms. Theory of mind is one of those terms, and that describes the theory that we all have, ordinary people have, about other people's minds. And what I mean by that is, how we understand that other people have thoughts, beliefs, desires, and intentions, mental states in general. Other terms that have been used for this general cognitive capacity include mental state reasoning, mentalizing, reasoning about intentions, and so on.

Shankar Vedantam: Again, the fact that we do it so effortlessly... You know, many of us don't even realize that we are doing it. Many of us don't realize if we are having a conversation, and we were not able to intuit what was happening in someone else's mind, it is really difficult to have a conversation.

Liane Young: Exactly. Even as you and I are having this conversation, Shankar, I'm trying to figure out what it is that you want to know, and how to explain the term theory of mind in a way that will be accessible, and so on. Sometimes we take different cues from people as we're having that conversation, whether they're nodding their heads, whether they're pausing, whether they look confused, and so on. And, so, we take in all of that information to figure out what people are thinking, and how they're responding to the information that we're giving them.

Shankar Vedantam: Nearly all the world's greatest stories, ask you to exercise theory of mind, to inhabit the minds of other people. Think of books, such as Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, TV shows such as Breaking Bad, or musicals like Hamilton.

Liane Young: I think it's really important that we're able to take the perspective of different characters when we're watching movies, watching TV shows, reading books. Often, as the reader, or as the viewer, we have a different, in some cases omniscient, perspective. We can see the scene unfolding in a way that characters within the scene cannot. And so, on one level, we understand what's going on in a way that characters within the story do not. We also are able to not just get into the minds of characters, but get into the hearts of characters, as well. So, we know how they're feeling, how they're reacting, and responding, in ways that maybe other characters in the story don't.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologists have found different ways to measure this ability and to test how it develops in small children. What do they find, Liane? Is this a skill we are born with at birth, or is it something that develops over time?

Liane Young: This is a little bit controversial in the field. But, I think what is generally recognized in the field is that, at least children's capacity for explicit theory of mind, being able to reason and verbalize answers to theory of mind tasks, that ability emerges between the ages of three and five years. Psychologists are able to administer batteries of theory of mind tasks to young children to figure out when exactly it is that individual children are able to think about other agents in the world as having minds that are maybe separate from the reality of a situation.

Shankar Vedantam: Some of these tests create artificial situations where one character knows more than another. Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire understand the subterfuge he is perpetrating. Miranda does not. The tests evaluate whether children can keep track of all the different perspectives in the minds of different characters. That one person has a belief that's true, for example, and another has a belief that's false.

Liane Young: One example of a false belief task would be the Sally-Anne task, in which you have two puppets, Sally and Anne. Sally is playing with a ball, and then she takes the ball, and puts it away in a basket. She leaves the room, and another puppet comes in, and moves the ball to a different location. Then children are asked, when Sally comes back into the room, where does she think her ball is?

Researcher: Did Sally see Anne move the block?

Child: Uh-uh (negative), because she was outside-

Researcher: That's right.

Child: ... swinging

Researcher: That's right, she didn't see. So, when Sally comes back in, where will she think the block is?

Child: In there, but it's not. It's in there.

Liane Young: Three year old children will tend to say that she thinks the ball is where it really is, even though she's not supposed to know that Anne came in and moved her ball. Whereas older children, by the time children are five, they know that Sally has a false belief about where that ball is.

Shankar Vedantam: Right, so once Anne moves the ball, small children deduce, or believe, that Sally must somehow intuitively also know that the ball has been moved to the new location. Whereas older children realize, no, Sally, in fact, does not have the same mind as Anne, and what Anne knows is not what Sally knows. Sally knows only what she knows. And, as far as she knows, the ball is in the old location. So, when she returns to the room, she's going to guess that's where it still is.

Researcher: Why do you think she'll think that?

Child: The kids, she put it there?

Liane Young: Yes, that's exactly right. So, younger children, three year old children, don't have a concept that people could have beliefs in their heads that depart from the reality of the world, the facts of the situation.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We've looked at a couple of humorous examples of how theory of mind operates, but I want to stress again, this capacity we have to intuit what's happening in the minds of other people, this is a skill that we use all the time. Can you talk a moment, Liane, about what would happen if we lack the skill? Are there people, in fact, who do not have the skill, as they move through life?

Liane Young: Yeah. This isn't a uniform capacity that we see the same in all people, across all situations. It can be dependent on the individual. It can be dependent on the context, even in healthy, typical populations. We've also looked at specific patient populations, as well, including patients with specific brain damage. We've looked at prison inmates with a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy, and we've looked at high functioning adults with autism. And so, we've seen a range of behavioral patterns across different populations of people, in terms of how they use, and how they deploy, theory of mind capacities for moral judgments, in particular.

Shankar Vedantam: Liane and others have found that people who have a difficult time intuiting what is going on in the minds of other people find themselves hamstrung as they go through life. They can be awkward in interpersonal settings. They can fail to read the room in a meeting. They may even demonstrate reduced empathy for others, moving through the world without an understanding that other minds are different than your own. That they have different intentions, desires, and hopes. This is like playing music without a sense of rhythm. You find yourself constantly out of sync with your fellow musicians.

Liane Young: I mean, we've all been in a situation where a joke falls flat because the person who's telling the joke isn't able to appropriately assess the mood in this space, what other people know or don't know, and so on.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Liane Young: And so, certainly, there are many cases of that. And then, there are sort of the opposite cases, where we really admire individuals for having a keen sense of what other people are thinking and feeling, and able to shape a conversation or discussion in that way.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm reminded of the work of the psychologist, E. Tory Higgins, who's done some work looking at politicians who are very skilled at reading a room. He describes this phenomenon called audience tuning, where, in some ways, the politicians are changing what they say in order to be best received by the people in the room. They're, in some ways, manipulating the people in the room, but they're also being manipulated by the people in the room, so that what they say aligns with the audience in the room. It's interesting. So, theory of mind is not just, I suppose, on an interpersonal level, it can also happen at a group setting, where we intuit how a group of people is feeling, or feeling toward us.

Liane Young: Yeah, you're right. And so, it can be very complicated trying to figure out how theory of mind plays out in any given situation. You know, in my lab, when I'm particularly on Zoom, in the pandemic, it can be a lot harder to read the room, if you want to figure out, as a group, how people are doing, and how to shape that space.

Shankar Vedantam: Liane and other researchers have tried to understand how the physical brain produces this superpower. Surprisingly, they found a specific region of the brain plays a crucial role. They've even found you can temporarily disrupt this brain region, and profoundly change the ways people think and act. That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: -music break-

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. To navigate our social worlds, we rely on something psychologists call theory of mind. It's our ability to guess the intentions, desires, and motivations of other people. When your coworker tells you she's thrilled it's Monday, you know that's sarcasm, because you unconsciously pick up the intention behind her words. But as amazing as our social antenna can be, they can also, sometimes, make mistakes. We can misread other people's intentions. Maybe your coworker really does like Mondays. Psychologist and neuroscientist, Liane Young, studies how our brains read intention, both the intentions of others, and of ourselves, especially when it comes to our moral judgements.

Shankar Vedantam: Liane, you run experiments where you test how volunteers react to a story about a woman who accidentally poisoned her friend. Can you tell me the setup of the experiment, and describe the scenario in more detail?

Liane Young: Yes, absolutely. We usually have our subjects read stories that we write about other people who are performing actions that have effects on other people in the scenario. So, in one story, we have a person named Grace who put some powder into a coworker's coffee. And, in one scenario, she thinks the powder is sugar, but the powder turns out to be poison, and she ends up poisoning her friend. So, that's a version of the scenario in which someone causes harm to someone else by accident, because of a false belief. In another version of the story, Grace puts powder into her coworker's coffee. She thinks the powder is poison, but it turns out to be sugar. So, that's a situation in which she has a harmful intention, but no harm is done. So, in these two cases, there is a conflict between the intention of the agent, and the outcome of the agent's action.

Liane Young: And so, we can ask our volunteer participants for their moral judgments of both the person, the agent performing the action, and also the action itself. Whether this action is morally permissible, or morally forbidden. Using these kinds of scenarios, and these kinds of moral judgment scales, we can get a sense for the extent to which different people rely on information about intentions to make their moral judgments. So, you and I, for instance, could have very different views about how bad it is to accidentally poison a coworker. And sort of, depending on the circumstances, there could be a situation in which there's just no way she could have known. Maybe somebody swapped the sugar and the poison, and she had the best of intentions.

Liane Young: And so, those are cases where there's a lot of flexibility for individual variation in moral judgements. We can apply that same reasoning to the case of a failed attempt to cause harm, too. Some people might focus more on the neutral outcome, the fact that nothing bad happened at all. Whereas, other folks might focus a lot more on the fact that this person just tried to poison their coworker, and that's very, very bad.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. As I was listening to those scenarios, I would've said that the person who didn't mean to harm her friend but accidentally caused harm is, in fact innocent. But, the person who didn't cause harm when she intended to cause harm was, in fact, culpable, that this was an active of attempted murder. You had the insight to study not just how people reach different conclusions, but how their brains were operating as they reached these different moral judgements. Can you tell me about those studies and what you found, Liane?

Liane Young: So, we run a number of studies, now, using brain imaging techniques to look at how people's brains are responding as they're making moral judgements of these kinds of cases. And so, what we found in one study was that a brain region called the right temporoparietal junction, which is right above and behind your right ear, processes information about people's intentions. What we found was that the more an individual's right temporoparietal junction responds as they are making these moral judgments, the more they are using information about innocent intentions to let the person who caused harm by accident off the hook. And so, we see this correlation between brain activity in this region that tracks intention information, and the moral judgments that people are making of accidental harms.

Shankar Vedantam: So, you could, of course, say that merely because a brain region appears active, you don't necessarily know that it's actually connected to the outcome and behavior that you're seeing. But, you've gone a step further to actually test whether this brain region is, in fact, implicated in understanding the intentions of others. Tell me how you've done this, Liane.

Liane Young: In addition to using brain imaging, which helps us to track what brains are doing as people are making moral judgements, we've also used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS for short, to temporarily disrupt activity in this particular brain region, the right temporoparietal junction, to see what effect that has on the moral judgements that people make.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm.

Liane Young: And so, when we temporarily disrupt activity in this brain region, we see that people's moral judgements rely less on information about intentions in these kinds of cases that we've been talking about. So, to give you an example, if you are reading a story about somebody who tries to poison their friend, but fails to do so because they mistook the substance for poison, but it was in fact sugar. If I am disrupting activity in your right temporoparietal junction, you'll be more likely to say that is more okay than if I didn't disrupt activity in your right temporoparietal junction.

Shankar Vedantam: That is actually somewhat disturbing, isn't it? The idea that you disrupt a small portion of my brain and something that I think of is core to myself, how I think of myself as being a moral person, can be altered by small changes in neurochemistry.

Liane Young: I think a lot of us share the intuition that is confirmed by recent empirical work in psychology, that how we think about moral situations, our moral beliefs, are really central to what we consider to be our identity. We take our moral identity as central to our self-concept. To think that interventions, scientific interventions, can alter our moral judgments, is in some ways upsetting. That said, as neuroscientists, we've assumed all along that our moral judgements have some place in the brain. And so, it stands to reason that when you disrupt activity in people's brains, that you will be disrupting the kinds of judgments that we'll be making, too, including moral judgments. And, there is so much work on the unconscious influences on behavior. And so, you know, social psychologists have shown that the smell of freshly baked cookies can alter charitable giving behavior. Whether someone is in a rush to get somewhere can change, or impact, the likelihood of their stopping to give money to a homeless person. And so, I think that there are environmental influences, there are cultural differences in the degree to which people rely on intention information. And so, in many ways, I'm not sure that I would be more upset by the fact that smelling fresh cookies is going to impact my behavior, or somebody applying a transcranial magnetic stimulation to my brain is going to impact my behavior or, or my decision making.

Shankar Vedantam: So much of our moral reasoning depends on our ability to consider the intentions of other people. When someone makes a mistake, but we see they didn't mean to do it, we usually are less harsh with them. This is why kids say, "It was an accident." But as Liane points out, a number of factors can change how and whether we are willing to consider the intentions of a wrongdoer. When someone steps on your toe in the hallway, you automatically assume they didn't mean to do it. Your mind gravitates to an innocent explanation, but other situations work the opposite way. They make it nearly impossible for us to think about the intentions behind an outcome. Consider this disturbing new story out of Chicago.

Reporter: Six o'clock. An off duty Chicago police officer now cited with hitting and killing a nine year old boy riding his bike in West Rogers Park. Hershel Weinberger died Wednesday night after a pickup truck hit him in the crosswalk at Sacramento and Chase, right by his house. The driver, who stayed at the scene, was that off-duty police officer. He's been cited with…..

Shankar Vedantam: Now, when I hear this, I find it really difficult to think about whether the police officer meant to do any harm. A nine year old child is dead. The intentions of the driver seem irrelevant. When I hear, as actually happened in this case, that the police officer was given a traffic citation, rather than a criminal charge, I feel outraged. But, here's the thing: if the cop had run a stop sign, and that was the end of it, do I think he should be criminally charged? That would be absurd. So, the same actions, with the same intentions, caused my mind to reach for very different conclusions.

Liane Young: There is this terrible tension between the fact that nobody meant any harm, nobody meant to kill anyone, and the fact that this nine year old boy died. And, to take it a step further, you could think of a case in which he hadn't run a stop sign. Maybe he was just driving, and the child came out of nowhere.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Liane Young: I think we would still have the intuition that, if you caused that event to happen, if you caused that bad outcome-

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Liane Young: ... Then, there is a way in which you are causely responsible for something very bad that you didn't know that you would be doing, and maybe could not have prevented. And so, it's really tricky to figure out how to handle that kind of case. As you point out, I think different people have different responses to what happened, what should be done, and how to prevent that from happening again.

Shankar Vedantam: There are other situations where our ability to think about intentions gets disabled. If we hear that someone has knowingly committed incest with a sibling, you might not stop to think about whether both siblings consented, or that no one else was affected. The violation of the taboo, the outcome, is all that matters.

Liane Young: Often, in these cases, we downplay intent information. It doesn't matter that you didn't know. The fact that you did it is bad enough. And so, that happens for, again, as I mentioned, violations related to food, and sex. Those are cases in which, once you are sort of defiled, there's very little that you can do to get clean again. And, you know, there's very little that you could say to sort of justify or mitigate the behavior, including that you didn't know, or that it wasn't done on purpose.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk a moment, Liane, about how our understanding of events changes as our understanding of the intentions behind those events changes. On September 11th, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower, no one knew what was happening. Many news reports, in fact, speculated it might have been some kind of accident. But when the second plane hit, it changed the way people understood what was happening. The second plane made it clear, the attacks were intentional. I want to play you a clip of a bystander talking to CBS News. At the point where this clip starts, only the first plane has hit the towers.

Bystander: We heard it, and because I was just standing there, pretty much looking out the window, I didn't see what caused it, or if there was an impact.

Reporter: So, you have no idea right now-

Bystander: Oh, there's another one, another plane just hit. Oh, my God, another plane has just hit another building. It flew right into the middle of it. Explosions. By God, it's right in the middle of the building.

Reporter: This one into the East Tower?

Bystander: Yes. That was, definitely looked like it was on purpose.

Reporter: You saw a plane?

Bystander: Yes, I just saw a plane go into the building.

Shankar Vedantam: So, as soon as the second plane hits, Liane, this bystander's understanding of the intentions behind the event changes, and that changes her understanding of the event itself.

Liane Young: Yeah, exactly. So, whether we interpret an event as just a natural disaster, a technical malfunction, or as a coordinated, planned attack, can really affect the way that we respond to those events. And so, when we hear about something like that, I think first we ask ourselves, or read the news to find out what happened. And then, we want to know why, and who, if relevant. And so, we ask those kinds of questions in that order. And, as you say, our answers to those questions really help shape our understanding of an event, as either misfortune, or we are trying to figure out who did it, why, and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: So, do you think this is why, in some ways, we have this capacity in our heads in the first place? I remember on 9/11, I was working in the newsroom of the Washington Post. Once we knew that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, and a third plane had hit the Pentagon, it was clear that we were under attack. At which point, it prompted us to say, "Okay, what should we do? Could we be under attack? Is there some danger that's facing us?" And, of course, if our reading of the events had been different, if we had said, "All right, this was an isolated accident. It was just a plane that basically lost control, and happened to fly into the World Trade Center building," our response to the incident would be entirely different. We would say, "Okay, we need to have better flight security measures, better pilot training." So, our responses to the events are very different as we read the intentions behind those events. I'm wondering, do you think this might be partly why our brains come with this capacity to read intentions? Because, as we read intentions, it tells us how to respond to the world.

Liane Young: Absolutely. I think our ability to read intentions tells us how to evaluate the events around us, how to understand them, how to predict what's going to happen in the future, and how to interact with people in the present. And so, all of that depends on our ability to figure out intentions, and distinguish intentional events from accidental events. This happens in a lot of news events that we read. When we read about a building collapsing, we think, "What happened, and how can we prevent that from happening in the future?" Again, our answers to those questions depend on whether that happened on purpose, whether someone caused it, or whether it was an earthquake, for instance. And so, I think your question about why it is that we have this capacity is a really important one. I think we don't have an answer to that question, yet, as psychologists, in part because there's so many reasons why that capacity for theory of mind could be important. We need to think about other people's minds in order to figure out whom to learn from, who's the right expert and a particular domain. We need to know about people's intentions to figure out who our friends are, who to avoid, whom to punish, whether to punish. And, we need to read people's intentions in any ordinary interaction, like having a conversation and figuring out what to say, and how to respond.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, the ability we have to read other people's minds can be a superpower, but this superpower can fail us, sometimes with terrible consequences. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: -music break-

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Our ability to read the minds of other people is something of a mental superpower. It allows us to effortlessly navigate a complex social world, and intuit what other people want, and how they feel. This superpower helps us understand when bad things happen by accident, when they happen by design, and it allows us to tell friend from foe. Of course, the fact that our minds read so much into the intentions of others also makes the superpower ripe for exploitation by con artists, marketing gurus, and politicians. At Boston college, neuroscientist Liane Young studies the psychology of theory of mind, our ability to think about the mental states of others, including their intentions. In her lab, she and her colleagues explore the role of intention when it comes to making moral judgements. Liane, I want to talk about some ways in which our ability to read other people's intentions can sometimes go wrong. I want to start, again, with television, and the arts. There's a very funny scene in the TV show, Seinfeld. The character George has just gone on a date with a new love interest. They drive back to her apartment. They're sitting in the car outside. It's midnight. The air is crackling with sexual tension, and here's what happens next.

Carol: So, thanks for dinner, it was great.

George: We should do this again.

Carol: Would you like to come upstairs for some coffee?

George: Oh, no, thanks. I can't drink coffee late at night, it keeps me up.

Carol: So, okay.

George: Okay.

Carol: Goodnight.

George: Yeah, take it easy.

Shankar Vedantam: Liane, I'm not sure if you're a fan of Seinfeld, but what makes a clip funny is that George is actually not picking up on her intentions.

Liane Young: I am a fan, and it's a very funny clip, because it captures this phenomenon that we study in psychology called indirect speech, which allows for a misinterpretation of intentions. Because she's inviting George up for "coffee," as opposed to asking him up more directly, it gives her plausible deniability. So, if he declines the invitation, she doesn't have to feel bad, offended, or lose her pride. But, on the other hand, it also leaves room for just misinterpretation and miscommunication, which is what happens a lot in real life.

Shankar Vedantam: Such miscommunications can be trivial, but they can also sometimes have life and death consequences. A police officer might have to make a split second decision about whether a suspect is reaching into a pocket to grab a cell phone, or to grab a gun. The officer has to read the other person's intentions in order to decide how to respond, and how he reads those intentions could be shaped by all manner of factors, including bias.

Liane Young: Again, there is this question of what cues we are using to read people's intentions from their actions. What is really tricky about this problem is that we can't see into people's heads. We can't observe their thoughts, or their feelings. We can only observe what people do. And, in this case, people's body movements. Reaching into a pocket, reaching into a glove compartment. And so, that leaves room for misinterpretation, and really awful consequences.

Shankar Vedantam: The fact that our ability to read intentions happens unconsciously, that most of us are not even aware that we are doing it, I'm wondering how much of a role that plays in our misreading of other people's intentions? Because, presumably, that also is happening unconsciously.

Liane Young: Absolutely. There are many cases in which we don't realize that we are misreading people's intentions. In the Seinfeld clip, George realized shortly after the fact that he missed the boat on that opportunity, because he didn't catch what the woman was doing. But, there are many cases in which we don't catch our mistakes, and we're not able to fix them after the fact.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, in your own life, Liane, have you noticed this happening, of people failing to pick up on things, reading each other wrong? You've, I think, described, during the pandemic, wearing a mask as you go into some stores, or other social settings, and wondering what people must think of you, and what your intentions are.

Liane Young: The pandemic is a really interesting case of intention reading and misunderstanding. So, there have definitely been instances in which I've gone into a public indoor space wearing a mask. I wonder what people think about what I'm doing. Do people think that I'm unvaccinated because I'm wearing a mask? Then I have to sort of stop and think about, well, what do I think when I see somebody wearing a mask indoors? Do I think that they're unvaccinated, or do I think that they're being extra careful? Do I think that they're immunocompromised, or if they have young children who are unvaccinated, and so on. And so, it becomes a really interesting exercise to think about how people are reading my intentions, and then, how to read other people's intentions, and sort of backtrack from that exercise, to the other.

Shankar Vedantam: When we see someone wearing a mask, or not wearing a mask during the COVID pandemic, many of us assume we can read the minds of the people making those choices. We feel we can even read their character, tell if they are good people, or bad people. It turns out, we do this a lot in politics. We regularly misread the intentions behind the choices of our political opponents. We see them as malevolent. Here's a political attack ad from the presidential race in 1988.

Attack ad: As Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers, he vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape, and many are still at large. Now, Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts. America can't afford that risk.

Shankar Vedantam: What I hear in the ad, Liane, is that Michael Dukakis was intentionally allowing criminals to go scottfree, and commit more crimes. The ad doesn't explicitly say that, but I think it leads me to that conclusion.

Liane Young: That's right. There are many cases where, because intentions are not black and white, because we can't see them. There's no clear evidence for intentions. This is a case where politicians are able to frame or reframe their opponents' intentions however they see fit, to be able to shape other people's thoughts and feelings about others. There's this sort of ambiguity in this space. Politicians have the opportunity to be able to create different narratives, particularly about people's intentions.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering how much of the daily partisan rancor that we hear, not just in the United States, but in other countries, is shaped by misreading the intentions of our opponents. That we're not just taking what they say and do at face value, but we are reading into it what we assume to be their intentions.

Liane Young: A lot of times, people do engage in this willful misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, of the minds of people on the other side. But then, in a lot of cases, I think this happens sort of automatically, and unconsciously. We give people that we know and like the benefit of the doubt, and often, those are the folks who are on our team, or in our party, and we can interpret or understand those events very, very differently. So, if you imagine that somebody in your party is being accused of some transgression, you might start to seek alternative explanations for why they did what they were accused of doing. Whereas, if you heard the same story of somebody committing a crime on the other side, then you might automatically take that story description at face value, that they're guilty.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You've conducted studies involving Democrats and Republicans, or Israelis and Palestinians. And, obviously, each of those groups is prone to misreading the intentions of their opponents. What kind of a study was this, and what did you find, Liane?

Liane Young: We ran a series of studies in which we tested American Democrats and Republicans, and also Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, and we gave them examples of acts of aggression, in both of those cases, and asked our participants to attribute motives. What we found, which is maybe not so surprising, but was very consistent across those different groups of people, was that people were more likely to attribute acts of aggression performed by their own group to in-group love. People are just trying to defend their own values and their own people, whereas people would attribute those same acts of aggression performed by an out group to out group hatred. They're doing this to retaliate, they're doing this to attack us. And, so, it's very interesting that we see this asymmetry in how people are attributing motives underlying the very same actions, depending on whether those acts are being performed by people on our side, or people on the other side.

Shankar Vedantam: This tendency to be selective in how we read intentions extends well beyond the realm of politics. Liane says we often interpret intentions in a way that confirms the stories we wish to tell about ourselves and others.

Liane Young: I think we do that all the time. We do that in the ways that we interpret the intentions and actions of our friends, as opposed to people we don't know, or people that we know, but don't like. We give our friends the benefit of the doubt, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We don't see ourselves as bad people. We don't want to see our friends as bad people. And, so, again, if you encounter a friend doing something morally ambiguous, you might make up an excuse for why they did that, in order to read their behaviors as fitting with your narrative of being friends. And, so, it's very interesting that we see this asymmetry in how people are attributing motives underlying the very same actions in very different ways, depending on whether those acts are being presented as performed by people on our side, or people on the other side.

Shankar Vedantam: You know, I'm reminded of a conversation that's coming up in a few weeks. It's part of our Mind Reading series. This is where the linguist Deborah Tannen. She says it can be hard to recognize someone's intentions even when you're having a conversation with them, but it's worth assuming their intentions are good, because that makes for a smoother conversation. I'm wondering how you've taken the research that you've done, Liane, and apply these insights in your own life?

Liane Young: I think it's really useful, for both relationships, and also for ourselves, to give others around us the benefit of the doubt. I think it makes for smoother social interactions, and also for happier selves. What I've told my students is that, if you have a bad interaction with someone, chances are, they're not trying to offend you, or insult you. Maybe they're having a bad day. Maybe they didn't get enough sleep. And, I tell them to sort of think about our one-on-one interactions in the same context. That if we have a bad conversation, it's probably because I am feeling bad that I yelled at a kid that morning, and has nothing to do with their paper, or their project. And so, again, we come back to this idea of giving people the benefit of the doubt, and taking intentions into consideration.

Liane Young: I also think about times when I'm on the road and I get upset when other drivers cut me off. And there's really nothing that I can do about it aside from give them the benefit of the doubt, because I know that when I'm the one who's speeding or cutting other people off, usually it's because, you know, my three year old in the back seat says she needs to go to the potty or because we're rushing to an event and we're late. And so to be able to extend that to other people, both strangers and the people that we interact with on a regular basis, I think just makes for happier interactions all around.

Shankar Vedantam: Isn't it really hard to do though, Liane? I feel like, even as I seek compassion and empathy from other people, it's hard for me to give them the compassion and empathy that they seek. So, there's a real paradox here.

Liane Young: It's really hard. It's really hard to take that step back and think about what are the situational stresses and influences that could be leading to other people's actions. Whereas it's sometimes easier to see those external pressures on our own selves and lives and interactions. And so if we're able to pause in the midst of a tricky interaction and think about what that other person is trying to do or not trying to do again, that will lead to much smoother, much more positive interactions and ultimately relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: Liane Young is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Boston College. Liane, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Liane Young: Thank you so much, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our 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. We heard voice acting today from Clara and Rose DuBois, and Scarlet McNally.

Mom: Say, "It was an accident."

Child: It wasn't an accident.

Mom: It was an accident.

Child: It wasn't accident.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung heroes this week are Isaac Handley Minor, and James Duncan. Isaac and James are, respectively, current and former graduate students of Liane's. They helped her to brainstorm some of the examples she shared with us in today's episode. Thank you so much, Isaac and James, for your help in bringing to life the ideas that we share today. Next week on the show, we continue our Mind Reading 2.0 series, where they look at how we often draw the wrong conclusions from our social interactions, leaving us lonelier than we need to be.

Erica Boothby: There's just so many mistakes that we fall into. These sort of social traps that lead us to be a lot more pessimistic about our social lives than reality warrants.

Shankar Vedantam: If you enjoy big ideas, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. You'll find research insights on human behavior, along with brain teasers, and a moment of joy. You can [email protected] That's N-E-W-S.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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