The Keys to Avoid “Failing at Other Minds”

 

 

 

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Source: Cerina Gillilan, used with permission

Imagine you’re really excited about a new idea for a collaborative project. You send an e-mail about it to a friend who you just know is going to be as excited as you. You’re waiting on pins and needles for a response, checking your inbox every hour. A couple of hours pass, then a couple more. You’re getting stressed and anxious, waiting on the edge of your seat for a reply. The next day goes by, and another day. You’re very confused about why you haven’t received a response. Why isn’t your friend writing you back? Doesn’t she like you? Is she upset with you? What’s wrong?

 

Has this ever happened to you? It’s happened to me many times. My Autopilot System goes into overdrive, imagining various negative scenarios and sending out stress-inducing hormones. Such catastrophizing is a common type of thinking error, one that research shows undermines mental and physical wellbeing.

 

Another thinking error in this scenario is that one’s friend will share the same opinion that you do about your new idea. Studies on a cognitive bias called the “false consensus effect” indicate that our Autopilot System significantly overestimates the extent to which others agree with our opinions. This is especially true for those close to us, such as our friends and family. As a result, we make mistakes when we use our intuitions to predict the behavior of others around us, including our immediate social circle.

 

However, the false consensus effect applies more broadly as well. Our gut reactions tend to perceive “the public” as a whole as sharing our perspective. This problem is especially problematic when it causes us to overrate substantially the extent to which others will agree with our political opinions. Such overestimation undermines our ability to engage in healthy political discussions and contributes to political polarization. No wonder we don’t do well as intuitive psychologists!

 

So how can we work against the false consensus effect? First, remember a previously-discussed strategy, namely that our mental maps never match the territory of reality. And our mental maps certainly do not match the mental maps of others!

 

To keep the latter fact in mind, here is a very useful mental habit to adopt: avoiding “failing at other minds.” What does that mean in practice? Essentially, when trying to imagine how other people think about the world, take a moment to stop and remember that their perspective is inherently different from your own. This is a specific case of a broader de-biasing strategy of imagining the opposite, in this case taking the perspective of the other person. And why is this helpful? Well, our intuitive theory of mind, the way we understand the minds of others, tends to model others as ourselves. Our Autopilot System perceives others as understanding the world and having the same idea of what is true as we do. Internalizing the mental habit of avoiding failing at other minds helps remind us of this problematic tendency, and work against it. Through developing this mental habit, we can be elephant whisperers and retrain our Autopilot System to have a more intentional approach to predicting the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. Thus, we can evaluate reality more clearly and gain greater agency by making more effective decisions that help us reach our goals. We can succeed at other minds!

 

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Follow Dr. Gleb Tsipursky:

Disaster Avoidance Expert, Author, and Social Entrepreneur

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders and organizations avoid disaster through science-based strategies for effective decision-making and emotional and social intelligence. He is a well-known scholar, entrepreneur, author, speaker, consultant, coach, and activist in these areas – for more information, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com. He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals with the aim of building an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the Decision Sciences Collaborative and the History Department researching decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism. He regularly publishes pieces on these topics in prominent venues such as Time, Salon, Psychology Today, The Conversation, The Huffington Post, Lifehack, Elite Daily, Lead Change Group, The Plain Dealer, Alternet, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as ABC 6 and Fox 28, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, and online-only media such as podcasts and videocasts. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science and other books, as well as over 25 peer-reviewed articles in academic venues. He does speaking, training, coaching, and consulting for current and future leaders in mid-size and large corporations and nonprofits. Generous support from his patrons on Patreon enables him to focus on public outreach that addresses the fundamental problems and dangerous risks facing our society instead of teaching classess to support himself, and every dollar makes a difference in freeing more of his time for this activism: consider supporting his work! Connect with him via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and email him to discuss any aspects of the content he creates, to arrange a media interview, or hire him as a speaker, trainer, consultant, or coach: gleb (at) intentionalinsights (dot) org.

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