Stop Trying to Read my Mind

I’ve been in the field of psychology for nearly three decades but still cannot get a fully accurate reading of a person’s mind. Folks sometimes say to me on discovering that I’m a psychologist “I need to be careful around you because you will know what going on inside my head!”

Not so.

There are all sorts of amateur psychologists that mistakenly believe that they can understand our motives and actions using everything from some psychological theory to their intuition, .

However, they all fall into the trap of observer bias.

In fact, every time we tell a story it changes in big and small ways as it passes through our own inner lens. That happens with everything from auto-biographies to eye witness accounts in court. The line between “fact” and opinion becomes very blurred.

What really bugs me is when people and institutions claim to know what is best for me. They then often follow this “knowing” by trying to tell me what to do.

The other day I parked my car in the shade of a tree next to a trash bin at the back of a supermarket. I chose that spot because it was a very hot day and I had two dogs in the car that really needed the shade. Next thing a total stranger was honking her car horn at me,  wagging her finger, and yelling that I should not deposit my trash in a private bin. This self-appointed trash cop made an assumption about my behavior and was dead wrong.

Consider the following scenarios where the wrong assumption could be made about the person’s behavior.

The boss sees you writing a personal email during work hours and assumes that you are neglecting a major deadline.

You see your child hanging out with a heavily tattooed friend and you assume that she is up to some mischief.

A women is friendly to a male colleague and he interprets that as sexual interest.

A psychologist I knew would offer interpretations of perceived inner states to relative strangers. (Incidentally this was highly offensive and unethical)

Journalists commenting on the life of a criminal come up with all sorts of motives for the crime without really knowing the perpetrator. (Who cares what neighbors thought about the person?)

Here are some facts about mind reading.It is really very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off without an extensive knowledge of the person/situation.

It is a “hit or miss” behavior on our part and at most we can come up with a hypothesis that is barely a plausible explanation.

More often than not it leads us far astray from the essence of the person we are observing.

We really need to allow the other person to teach us, to the best of his/her ability, what is going on in their inner world.

 Your Response

 How has it been for you when others have tried to read your mind?


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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