Book Review: Mind-wise by Nicholas Epley

January 7, 2017

Mind-wise by Nicholas Epley

20’Mind-wise: How we understand what others Think, Believe, Feel and Want’by Nicholas Epleytells us why we fail to understand ourselves and the people around us

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of eternal youth, would be to not visit the strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another-Marcel Proust (1922)

The book begins with the aforementioned quote. Its author, Nicholas Epley, is the John T. Keller professor of Behavioural Science at the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. His goal, he says, is to bring what he thinks is one’s brain’s greatest ability out of shadows and into the light of scientific inspections.

One of our mind’s most vital functions is its capability to comprehend the thoughts of others – our sixth sense. Epley shows that this crucial ability of deducing what others are thinking and feeling is, however refined, still vulnerable to serious errors.

But, one is bound to think, especially in India – ‘I’m confident, I understand my brain well; and I don’t need to read this book’. This confidence, which is actually overconfidence or illusion – is the exactly the point that Mindwise attacks. It shows as evidence the result of experiments, studies, and surveys wherever needed.

Provided in the book is an experiment, in which people participated with their ‘significant others’. The subjects of the experiment sit in separate rooms and are told that their beloveds will never see any of their answers; they are then given a long list of questions about themselves. In the other room, the ‘significant other’ is predicting how the person will answer all these items and reporting his or her confidence that these predictions will be correct -from 0 per cent likely to 100 per cent likely. The result illustrated that the partners were nowhere near as accurate, as they thought they would be.

This overconfidence increased in proportion to how long the two people had been together. The longer they had been together, the more they thought they knew about each other. In fact, the length of a couple’s relationship was not correlated with accuracy at all in this study. More time did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.

How we understand what others ‘think, believe, feel and want’ is different from what we think it is. That we cannot read anyone’s mind perfectly does not mean we are never accurate, of course, but our mistakes are especially interesting, because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding, says the author.

Mindwise, helped by Epley’s research and that of many other scientists all through the world, tells us why we fail to understand ourselves and the people around us and how we can improve at that.


A sixth sense that assumes that a person’s mind corresponds directly to his or her actions misses the importance of context in shaping behaviour, misunderstands the causes of behaviour, and is unable to change anyone’s behaviour for the better, including one’s own.

In religion, science fiction, and psychic nonsense, those who read minds do so with extrasensory powers.

While writing this book I’ve had the same conversation over and over again. After I mention that I’m working on a book about mind reading, my conversational partner assumes I’m writing about either body language (learning to read facial cues or physical gestures) or perspective taking (learning to imagine you in another person’s situation).Both approaches have intuitive appeal.

Bodies and faces can reveal thoughts and emotions, but the amount they communicate seems surprisingly limited, and the gain from learning to read others better seems minimal, at best. Learning to read other’s actions better does not seem to be a promising approach for understanding others

better. Recognising the limits of your sixth sense suggests a different approach to understanding the minds of others: trying harder to get another person’s perspective instead of trying to take it.

Only by recognising the limits of our brain’s greatest sense will we have the humility to understand others as they actually are instead of as we imagine them to be.