Our ability to read each others’ minds is what makes us truly unique as a species. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains that it’s a sort of crossing of the Rubicon – something different and special. Mindreading goes on to detail how this seemingly magical capability is used in ways that we don’t even see and how different it truly is. All this centers around the idea of “theory of mind.” That is, our ability to predict what others are thinking and believing. Gary Klein argues in Sources of Power that we’re all prediction machines and the experts have better models of the way that things work. Inside Jokes argues that our prediction engines have built in error checking that leads to laughter.
With that as a background, it’s no wonder that most of us have the capacity to consider things from other people’s perspectives and consider how they might think about something. In addition to the innate abilities, we have frameworks, tools, and training that can help us to more accurately predict the way other people are thinking. Personality Types and Who Am I? both offer frameworks that we can use to evaluate people so we can better predict their responses. Many classes exist on developing empathy and compassion.
For most people, the process of predicting someone else’s behavior isn’t the problem. They may be accurate or largely inaccurate in their predictions, but they can make some prediction. In Superforecasting, Phil Tetlock encourages us to look at predictions from multiple perspectives. Most of us can do this by predicting which factors the other person may find most interesting or compelling. The problem isn’t simulating the other person’s responses and predicting them – but staying with it.
The problem is that simulating what someone else is thinking is cognitively taxing – and we don’t like that. Though our brains make up only 2-3% of our body mass, they consume something like 20-30% of our glucose. We’re constantly trying to be efficient with our precious resources, as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow. The result is our natural tendency to stop caring about how other people might respond and instead focus on the tactical objectives that we need to get accomplished.
We shift into a mode that is more efficient and less concerned with others. In Destructive Emotions, the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman ponder whether we’re fundamentally compassionate people who become selfish or fundamentally selfish people who become compassionate. The truth from neuroscience may be that we’re compassionate when we can afford the calories. The Blank Slate explains that familial altruism (sacrifice) comes from a genetic perspective, because our families (and tribes) share many of the same genes. So, even in cases where we might have to make significant or even the ultimate sacrifice, we can do so when we believe it’s in our genes’ best interest.
Fighting the Feeling
The research shows that simple things can make a big difference in our ability to be focused. The ONE Thing speaks about research done on comparing error rates when the subjects were given lemonade sweetened with sugar vs. artificial sweetener. Those in the artificial sweetener group made more mistakes and appeared more distractable. So the first way to keep ourselves in the shoes of the other people may be to make sure that our blood sugar doesn’t drop so that our brains start trying to conserve resources.
A more tangible and practical approach may be something as simple as a checklist or reminder system that asks the question about how people will react to the change, so we force our brains to reactivate the simulation for the other group even if it gets (temporarily) shut down.