Feb 19 / Simcha

Why We Misunderstand (N. Epley)

Why is it so hard to understand our partners?  Why do they continue to astound us with their feelings, reactions and desires, even decades down the road?  Why is understanding so elusive?

In his 2014 book Mindwise, writer, scientist and (University of Chicago) behavioral psychologist Nicholas Epley explores the ways in which we routinely make inferences about what others think, believe, feel, or want, and in so doing, routinely misunderstand them.

Taking into consideration that social and emotional skills will vary from person to person, Epley demonstrates that in general, people are decent (at least “better than chance”) at reading one another (i.e., at ascertaining others’ opinions and preferences), but not as great as they think they are — even when it comes to spouses, friends and close family members.

Disappointingly for romantic partners, Epley’s research shows that the gap between what we think our partners is thinking and what he or she is actually thinking does NOT get smaller with the passage of shared time. He conducted a study in which couples, placed in different rooms, took the same set of questionnaires, with instructions to predict the way their significant other would likely answer. The longer the couples in his study had been together, the more they thought they knew about their partner, yet the “more time together did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.”

Humans, as social animals, have been making inaccurate judgments about others’ intentions since their evolutionary dawn. We don’t understand one another, writes Epley, because we are essentially egocentric. We assume that another person thinks as we do when in fact, they do not; we find it difficult to rid ourselves of own beliefs, attitudes and understanding of the world to truly understand what that same event might look like through the eyes of another.

Because we know our own minds so intimately, egocentricity rules. At worst, we stereotype (emphasizing differences over similarities), and even dehumanize, others. In more personal interactions, we assume that a person’s actions reflect thoughts which are projections of thoughts we might have in that situation, an assumption that is hardly dependable. 

An interesting tidbit: Epley recounts an experiment he did with his colleague Mary Steffel: The pair asked 500 people to imagine that they’d been given access to a “brainoscope,” a nifty little gadget that actually would allow them access to other minds. Curiously, the respondents showed little interest in spying on the thoughts of celebrities, politicians or intellectual giants. “Instead, the vast majority wanted to peer into the minds of those closest to them, particularly spouses and dating partners … Interestingly, they wanted to get a look at the minds of those they presumably knew the best.(An encouraging sign to me that at least we WANT to understand, even if we’re not so good at it….)

Underlying Epley’s research is the obvious:  Different people experience the world differently, each bringing his/her own experience, temperament, mindset.  Alongside his warning of over-confidence at reading what we think our partner wants or prefers, Epley offers this simple, valuable advice:

Even after years together, do not bother trying to understand your partner’s love language or guess what he/she is thinking. When you want to know, just ask. And when you want her/him to know what you’re thinking, tell her/him. That will ensure everyone is using, and understanding, the same language.

There you have it, folks.  Just ask.  Just tell.  

So simple.

Well, actually, maybe not. But it might help.