Nicholas Epley

The extended title of Mindwise is How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. That’s an ambitious claim for a new entry into an already-crowded field.

Dozens of books about how neuropsychology and neuroanatomy are giving us new insights into the human mind, especially the social mind, have been published recently. Some of them have been reviewed here.

Epley’s book is not the best of the bunch, but it does have several virtues worth noting.

Foremost is Epley’s welcome focus on the science that underlies his explanations. Unlike some other entries in the neuropsych self-help category, Mindwise sticks to claims supported by evidence, from psychological studies, fMRI scans, and other physical tests.

Second, Epley writes with straightforward and effective clarity. He never forgets that his audience is neither a captive group of corporate conferees nor a room full of experts. The book moves along briskly and reads easily, without much jargonizing and with no patronizing.

By focusing on a single, easily-perceived universal of human social behaviour — our willingness, our need, to interpret the interior of other people’s thinking from observations of their external behaviour, filtered through our flawed understanding of the workings of our own minds — Epley gives his book a steady centre. Everyone does what he says that social humans do, and everyone gets what he’s talking about when he describes the workings of our social radar, what he calls our “sixth sense.”

Epley’s final virtue is his restraint. He identifies the flaws in our sixth sense as a major contributor to our most intractable personal and interpersonal conflicts, but he doesn’t make the excessive claim that he has found the secret source of all of our problems. Nor does he claim to know how to wave a magic wand of self-awareness and cure us.
Epley’s core argument is that “our most common mistakes come from excessive egocentrism, overreliance on stereotypes, and an all-to-easy assumption that others’ minds match their actions.”

We are often correct in our assessments of the minds of others; otherwise, none of our social interactions would be possible. And we are by far the best of all the animals at making these assessments. But “the problem is that the confidence we have in this sense far outstrips our actual ability.” Epley explains:

You are consciously aware of your brain’s finished products—conscious attitudes, beliefs, intentions, and feelings—but are unaware of the processes your brain went through to construct those final products, and you are therefore unable to recognize its mistakes.

Even when we are attending to another real mind and not the fantasy mind of a god or other imaginary friend, we can’t be sure that the other mind is experiencing the world in the ways that we do.

You and another person may be paying attention to different things. You may look at, think about, or reflect upon different information than others do because you’re focusing on different aspects than they are.

And “the less we know about the mind of another, the more we use our own to fill in the blanks.”

One of the best sections of Mindwise examines the mistakes we can make when we consider other minds as groups, such as nationalities and political parties.

When groups are defined by their differences, borderline cases can be squished to fit the definitions, exaggerating differences between the groups when reality is unclear. …

Your stereotypes can get the direction of differences right but their magnitude wrong. …

When groups are defined by their differences, conflict is fought over the differences we imagine, suppose, or expect from others rather than over the genuine, multifaceted, and often more moderate differences that actually exist.

With insights like these, and with its easy readability, Mindwise is a useful addition to the popular neuropsychology bookshelf, especially for those readers for whom the subject is fairly new.


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