What's On Your Mind?

28 March 2024

We’re constantly sharing what’s on our minds; heck, I'm doing it right now, by writing this blog. What's fascinating, though, is that we also seem to do it without trying, or so much as noticing. Even when we aren't writing a blog, or holding a conversation, other people can pick up on our beliefs, desires, and intentions. We look at someone's gestures, movements, facial expressions—and just from that, from a twitch of an eyelid, we know exactly what they’re thinking. How do we do that?

You might say the answer is: we don't! We get it wrong about other people all the time. For instance, you might think that your friend is mad at you, but it turns out they’re actually just tired. There's even a study saying we all vastly overestimate how much other people are thinking about us. (Is that consoling or demoralizing? You decide.) And sometimes we can just be baffled: why do people go on reality TV shows like “Married At First Sight”? What are they thinking?

Even if we can spin out some hypotheses about their motives ("maybe it's money, maybe it's attention, maybe it's True Love"), the fact that we can't say which is the real one gives the game away. We have no idea what's going on in their heads.

Still, we tend to do better with people we know well. Even without them telling us why they did a particular thing, we can very often guess correctly. What we know about human nature helps us out here: for example, we know that whatever a person's main goal in life is, they’re going to spend a bunch of your time and energy pursuing it. So if you see a specific friend hustling for money every day, and that person goes on “Married at First Sight," you can be pretty sure it’s because they love the Benjamins.

Another thing that helps us out is knowing the individual personality of each of our friends. We've had time to get to know them, and to observe their behavior in all kinds of situations; by now, if they do something odd like going on a "reality" show, we're going to be reasonably good at guessing why.

And the last thing that helps us is mental simulation. Whenever our friend does something, we can imagine what it would feel like if we were doing it; that clues us in to what the friend must be thinking. 

Still... isn't that just imagining what it would be like for you? People are really different; why assume your friends would feel the same way that you do? Can we really know what others are thinking? Do we really share our intentions, deliberately and inadvertently? Luckily our guest, Julian Jara-Ettinger, is expert on social cognition and will surely have some answers for us.


Comments (5)

radu's picture


Saturday, March 30, 2024 -- 8:21 PM

I'm glad you brought up that

I'm glad you brought up that point, which takes me back to the saying "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are". It happens to me all the time, and I try to be more mindful of it. The other day, it happened to someone we were playing with. She's a very short person, and we were playing "Cards against humanity", which you may or may not be familiar with. Anyway, one of the answers that someone selected included the word "midget". The person who picked it didn't realize it would hurt that person's feelings. And none of the people who were playing even noticed anything special was going on. But after the game, she came to that person who had picked that answer and said she felt horrible, and thought everyone was staring at her. It really made me realize how much we focus on our insecurities and believe it's what everybody else does too. In small and big ways - just like in the example you mentioned about angry vs. tired - it sometimes has huge consequences, and in the end, it's all this for nothing. Nothing real at least. We just replay our insecurities over and over everywhere we go. We don't really live "real life". We ruin a lot of chances at happiness this way, by pushing people away for the wrong reasons.

Thanks for the prompt!

Regards from Canada

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Daniel's picture


Monday, April 8, 2024 -- 4:05 PM

What about letting people go

What about letting people go when you should pursue them? This is observed whenever someone broadcasts a claim but fails to give a reason for it, and upon demand that its grounds be supplied becomes indignant and instead proceeds to verbally insult the one asking. Take the failure to distinguish between an imperial state which expands beyond its recognized boundaries and a proximate territory which it occupies militarily. When the response to a request for a reason for it is constituted by a personal attack, saying for example that the territory is a haven for terrorists and if the questioner defends the rights of its inhabitants then the questioner must be a supporter of terrorism, then I think it's not false to say that the questioner at that point has acquired a duty to rephrase the question in a more pointed way and clarify its relevance. In short, if someone refuses to provide grounds for a public claim when demanded, one has a duty to pursue it until its grounds are discovered. Due to mannerist niceties this duty is often neglected, even if the claimant could be determined to possess no such grounds, and is repeating something which has been gotten from elsewhere, --hence the indignance at being asked for an explanation. Such a claimant believes already to be in agreement with everyone except for those who are extremists, radicals, or labelled in some other derisive way. They will point to articles, writings, various propaganda sources, believing that the statements of others are sufficient justification for their repeated assertions. Not to pursue these until an answer is obtained is therefore a failure to perform the moral duty of critical examination of public assertions.

The example issued by the radu-post above has to do with performance of a duty mistakenly thought to exist, but here I cite a common tendency to fail in performing a duty which does: verbal interrogation of authoritarian snobs. More consequential for happiness-preclusion than "pushing people away for the wrong reasons" is not holding on to those who run away from responsibility to provide their own. For great harm may result from opinions becoming dominant unaccompanied by their understood grounds.

Is this compatible with Professor Radu's analysis?

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fessyayi's picture


Wednesday, June 19, 2024 -- 12:04 AM

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stay's picture


Wednesday, June 19, 2024 -- 1:18 AM

The thinking of each of us

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alexseen's picture


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