Seeing The Way Others See Things
How do we know what someone else is thinking?
A joke*: A man on one side of a river shouts to a man standing on the other side, “Hey, how do I get to the other side of the river?” The other man responds, “You are on the other side of the river.”
This is a joke because when talking to another person, you have to acknowledge their point of view; and we don’t usually do that. Understanding the way others see things is important and difficult. However, most people think it is easy and that they already know how to do it. “My way is the way,” is the typical way. But we are the ones usually biased when seeing the way others see things. When you think the way you see things is OK, why bother to investigate? Understanding the way others see things is called “theory of mind”.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.
Our human minds provide each of us with a unique vantage point on the world and on others. It also provides a perspective made up of beliefs and knowledge. The other side of the river joke illustrates our failure to recognize that what we are seeing or thinking about may be different from what others are perceiving from their vantage point. “I wonder what it is like seeing things from the other side of the river?” That might be a beginning of understanding theory of mind.
This blog is reminding us to realize we may not understand the way others see things. Why should we expect to always have knowledge of their unique vantage point? And of course, we also should realize that we don’t always understand how we are perceiving. We don’t always know or admit our own vantage point and we aren’t often aware of our perceptual biases, our systematic belief errors in perceiving. “I wonder what made her see things that way? I wonder what made me see things that way?” Maybe we should be saying, “I’m OK, you’re OK, and we are both biased.”
Our brain automatically assumes that our perceptions and beliefs reflect objective truths about ourselves and the world.
A perception bias is a psychological tendency to lose objectivity in perception of people and situations
* I borrowed this joke from Nicholas Epley in his 2014 book, Mindwise.