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20141214 Mindwise



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The main idea of this book is somewhat trivial: it is very important to understand other people in order to interact and cooperate with them. Author reviews wide body of research demonstrating how exactly it happens in real life not only with other people, but also internally: ability to understand individual’s own mind and what to do to expand self-knowledge. Another aspect reviewed is people interaction with ideas about others either in form of dehumanization of other or humanization of non-existing entities like spirits and such. The final conclusion is that in order to understand other people one has to listen to them and observe their behavior rather then try to pick up some mini signals.


PREFACE Your Real Sixth Sense

The real sixth sense is ability to understand others and us themselves. This sense is absolutely necessary for cooperation and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work and that’s what this book is about. It starts with description of experiment to demonstrate difference between humans and chimps. The comparison was between chimps and kids at earlier levels of development when both groups were equally successful in solving simple physical problems. Kids, however, were dramatically better in social tests in which success required ability to understand mind of other.


1 An Overconfident Sense

This chapter starts with an example of president Bush who misread mind of foreign leaders. After that it goes to analysis of humans ability to understand what other people think about them. The result was pretty good ability to understand what is overall impression one has on a group, but really poor ability to read mind of the specific individual. People also cannot predict what impressions would produce their photo on other people: whether they are considered attractive or not. Another research shows that ability to recognize lies is barely above random coin toss. Probably the most interesting finding is that people are not really good in reading their close friends and relatives: average accuracy of mind reading is 35% for close associates and 20% for strangers. Better results were demonstrated for married couple’s ability to evaluate levels of self-worth for the partner: 44%, but self-estimate of accuracy was 82% nearly double actual.

2 What You Can and Cannot Know About Your Own Mind

This starts with another interesting finding related to racism in USA in 1920s. When asked over the phone to accommodate Asian person 90% of clerks in hotels refused to do it. However when Asian individuals actually come in person the accommodation was refused only once out of 251 attempts. Similar experiment in our time demonstrated another version of the same result: vast majority of individuals predicted that they would be outraged by racist joke if told in their presence. In reality when it did happen overwhelming majority did nothing and expressed no discomfort. Author also recounts the famous Milgram research on obedience when people consistently cannot predict how far they would go in compliance with clearly cruel and inhumane orders. More benign form of this poor self-knowledge is our usual inability to correctly estimate how long it would take to accomplish a task. From here author provides key analogy for complex structure of our mind that contains huge amount of unconscious processing and much smaller amount of conscious: house where what we see is our conscious perception of house, but much bigger part of house: foundation, plumbing, wiring and such is invisible. The brain is constantly at work to generate finished product for consciousness from chaotic bits and pieces of information provided by senses. This subconscious process really drives our actions for which we come up with logical explanations afterword. One of manifestation of this is human ability filter out facts that are not consistent with their believes whether these are political, religious, or any other strongly help believes.


3 How We Dehumanize

As it could be expected, the chapter on dehumanizing starts with story of American Indians and then moves to civil rights protests with signs “I am a man”. Then it goes to statement that distance makes other people remote and insignificant preventing our ability to sense their minds. However two triggers: physical sense and cognitive inferences could prevent the dehumanizing. Author provides example of physical sense trigger overriding dehumanizing environment by referring to the fact that majority of US soldiers in WWII did not really fired their weapons. The cognitive inference trigger demonstrated by referring to different parts of brain being activated when person observes other person’s pain than when person is in pain. Characteristically neither of these parts of brain activated when one looks at dehumanized objects. Another finding is that there are different degrees of dehumanizing so it could be said that it applied to everybody with various intensity. Author provides example from business and military to demonstrate levels of misunderstanding of other people due to refusal to assign to them the types of motivation as one claims for self.

4 How We Anthropomorphize

This chapter describes and provides quite a few of interesting example of human ability to assign intention and planning similar to humans in situations where there are no agency, but rather random events. Human mind designed to make sense from events and situations. An interesting point is made about our relations with machines. As long as they function as expected we take them for granted and see no intentionality. However as soon as machine either car, or computer, or some other device fails we assign agency to this device and try negotiating with it however funny it looks from outside. It also relates to things like billiard balls and such that move along not easily predicted trajectories.


5 The Trouble of Getting Over Yourself

This chapter is about neck problem: inability of people to look at issue from point of view different than their own. Example provided of experiment screen shelves with boxes open or closed differently from one side to another so one person has different picture then another. When asked to provide instruction to move things in boxes people often make mistake of not taking into account that other person does not see what they see. The errors level for adult is about 25% and children all the way up to 50%. This also related to overestimate of one’s importance and attention received from other people. This also related to evaluation of commonality of knowledge one possesses. For example people normally assume in conversation that vocabulary is common for all participants, while it may not be a case.

6 The Uses and Abuses of Stereotypes

We live in the world of stereotypes, which nearly always are not completely correct, but “good enough” shortcuts for everyday activities. As example a research on attitude to inequality was provided. Republicans do prefer inequality over equal distribution, but only by 3.5% more, than democrats. Another experiment is with circles: decide whether single circle included in picture with multiple circles. People usually wrong, but they are wrong consistently. Overall conclusion is that use of stereotypes is complex process with multiple feedback loops when stereotyped people for example unconsciously adjust their behavior to stereotype. A very important point however is that people easily drop stereotypes when they are dealing with individuals like in “All politicians are crooks, but my congressman is a good guy”.

 7 How Actions Can Mislead

This chapter is about behavior that could be perceived completely differently than it is. Example provided of person with heart attack in crowded mall that was perceived as drunk. Contextual forces play a huge role in such situation. This is used to control people’s behavior as it discussed in book “Nudge”. Author discusses different problems such as environment, obesity, and school performance and how to create context in which people would do what he considers the right thing.


8 How, and How Not, to Be a Better Mind Reader

Author describes the typical approach to understanding other people as either picking up their involuntary body signals or attempt to put oneself into other person’s shoes. He claims that both approaches are not supported by scientific evidence. As evidence of ineffectiveness of picking up bodily micro movements he provides failure of airport screenings. As to effectiveness of point of view placement the main problem is that people usually do not understand other persons’ point of view, does not know facts or falsehoods this view is based on, and have little understanding of cultural environment in which other person developed his/her personality. The final inference is that the only way to understand other people is to ask them, listen to whatever they have to say on their own, and observe their actions in real life. The main problem however is the difficulty of creating such environment that people would not be afraid to express what they really think. Another problem is that people often do not really know themselves good enough.

 AFTERWORD Being Mindwise

The final note is on importance of understanding. It is discussed using Caribbean Crisis of 1962 when misunderstanding nearly led to nuclear war.


While I am quite familiar with many of experiments presented in this book, nevertheless it was an interesting point of view on human understanding of themselves and others and ability to communicate. I fully agree that the best way to understand people is to ask, listen, and observe action, only I would rely more on actions observation then on anything else because it is not unusual for people to misrepresent their situation and intentions. However I would take wider view on understanding people starting with the issue author does not include in this book: philosophical setup of individual under review. I do not think it is possible to understand anybody including oneself without looking first on background of the person, environment in which person grew up, and what is considered right and wrong in this environment. For example a person who grew up in environment where “You shell not kill” relate only to people of his tribe, while commandment in relation to people from other tribes is “You shell kill” should be perceived based on knowledge of this background rather than personal characteristics of this person if one want to select right behavior in any encounter with such individual.

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