In Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, leading social psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make
Our sixth sense about the minds of others suggests that there are no accidents
Walter Vance was a wonderful person who had a heart attack at the worst time possible–in the aisle of a crowded Target store on the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. Amid the throngs of deal-crazed shoppers, Vance’s fatal struggle was almost completely ignored. Witnesses later reported seeing nearby shoppers going about their normal business as Vance lay collapsed in an aisle; one person after another passed without stopping to help.
The explanation was obvious to one of Vance’s friends. ‘Where is the Good Samaritan side of people?’ she asked. ‘I just don’t understand if people didn’t help what their reason was, other than greed because of a sale.’
This explanation is obvious because it reflects a common sense that a person’s mind corresponds directly to that person’s actions, a systematic sense that psychologists refer to as the correspondence bias.
This common sense is good sense as long as expressions are honest, choices are deliberate, motives are simple, and everyone is indeed free to do whatever they desire without being influenced by the context around them. In fact, believing that shoppers deliberately failed to help Walter Vance simply because of their callous greed is one of those mistakes.
Out of sight, out of mind
In ancient human history, most people believed that the world was flat because that’s exactly how it looked. No person ever said it looked curvy if you stand right here, or exactly like a ball if you were way up there. Our distant ancestors therefore tended to believe their eyes. The world is flat.
Judging a mind based only on a person’s behavior can resemble flat-earth thinking because understanding the mind of any person requires a broader perspective than our experience routinely provides. It requires considering not only what a person does in plain sight but also the less obvious context within which that behavior occurs.
The problem is that life is viewed routinely through the zoom lens, narrowly focused on persons rather than on the broader contexts that influence a person’s actions.
The offspring of error
Failing to calibrate our sixth sense to recognize the power of the broader context can create considerable misunderstanding, from assuming that accidents were intentional to crediting people for successes beyond their control.
More important, misunderstanding the power of context can lead us to design ineffective solutions to important problems. If our intuitions tell us that people do what they want, then one path to changing their behavior is obvious: you need to make people want the right things.
Unhelpfully good samaritans
Every bit of our common sense tells us that some people are helpful and others are not. If you’re suffering in an emergency, it therefore makes sense that the more people around you, the more likely you are to find one of these Good Samaritans who will help you. But research confirms over and over that as the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood that any of them will help you actually decreases. If you find yourself in an emergency situation in public, you want only a few people around instead of a huge crowd. The ideal number might be two: one to help you and the other to call an ambulance.
Understanding why more bystanders actually reduces helping requires a broad lens rather than a zoom lens. If someone has a heart attack in a store as you’re going about your holiday shopping, two things have to happen before you can intervene.
First, you need to notice that some event has occured. This seems easy in hindsight, but it is surprisingly difficult in real sight because attention is limited.
Second, to intervene you have to recognize the situation as an emergency. Failing to recognize an emergency makes someone human, not necessarily a callous jerk.
Calibrating common sense to recognize this broader context helps explain not only why people may fail to help in an emergency but also why many bystanders do intervene.
According to Vance’s wife, six women eventually came to his aid, all nurses. Notice that unlike most other shoppers that nigth, nurses know exactly what an emergency looks like and what to do when they see one. They are also likely to be more attentive to such emergencies because they spend their work lives attending to them.
Does this make these six women heroes?
Of course it does, because they acted to save a dying man’s life.
[bluebox] The truth of the human condition is that the capacity to be a Good Samaritan can reside in all of us, if we’re put in the right circumstances at the right time. That does not in any way diminish the acts of those who intervene to save lives in need, often at tremendous risk. Instead, it should lead to a recognition that under the right circumstances, you could do it, too.[/bluebox]
Complement Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want with You have an obstacle and no one is coming to save you. Ryan Holiday tells that with a simple change of attitude, what seem like insurmountable obstacles become once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.