, a social psychology work about the gap between perceived and intended meaning in social relationships, professor Nicholas Epley rejects the methods which mainstream social psychology recommends for interpreting social content, such as employing active empathy, gesture, and facial expression analysis. He argues that humans’ social content is usually too veiled to understand by performing analysis at the level of human expression. The book is notable in contemporary psychology for its highly researched, contrarian argument, and effect on the field of human semantic analysis with its intellectual exhortation to keep looking for new possible ways to make our social meaning legible.
Epley debunks the belief held by most people that they have a good grasp of how others perceive them. To prove that this belief is somewhat absurd, he demonstrates that certainty in the belief falls apart in experiments once individuals are asked to state exactly who in their social circles believes they are intelligent; generally, they fumble to create a list, and the list they come up with turns out to be inaccurate upon polling the individuals listed. He argues that an individual’s conception of how another individual views them evolves in complexity over time, but never closely matches the actual view of the other person. Even in relationships that might last a lifetime, such as a marriage, one’s degree of insight into another’s inner world remains illusory, regardless of whether one grows to “love” them. One’s degree of accurate insight might increase, but remains far outstripped by the pace of this illusory content production.
Epley asserts that most modern experiments that claim to prove that inner life is legible through our expressive faculties are flawed. He believes that even individuals who believe they have a stable, well-integrated social identity and a firm grasp of their own emotions and beliefs reveal a strong mismatch between how they believe they are perceived and how they are actually perceived. He traces this phenomenon through the level of behavior, arguing that most people do not even know what they are signaling during the vast majority of their social lives. He states that most of our social habits are performed by unconscious processes that are quite different than the conscious processes through which we take feedback from the social world. There is, thus, a biological, as well as social, impasse between reflexive individual perspective and social actuality.
Epley tries to reorder our way of thinking about the social messages we create and analyze. He believes that, rather than being expressions of an inner content, they are, rather, regulatory expressions that attempt to negotiate compliance of actions, beliefs, and attitudes that are in individuals’ self-interest. Most of the linguistic expressions that we issue in everyday life are highly formulaic to the point of being logically nonsensical, serving not to explicate deep meaning but to reduce social friction. Epley borrows from a phrase he has heard in office environments in which an individual requests access to a copy machine, appending the explanatory connective “because.” Since it is obvious what a copy machine is used for, the appended phrase is superfluous at the semantic level; yet, it produces a higher compliance rate than the simpler sentence.
Epley continues to debunk the myth that we understand others well, arguing that it is absurd to think so when we know so little about our own internal lives. He frames the idea of “self-insight” as fictional, arguing that we think and act according to so many interlocked unconscious processes that we never really achieve a privileged cognitive position.
Epley concludes by proposing how we might live knowing that our degree of insight into other people is limited. Rather than despair that the universe is unintelligible, he suggests we learn from studies that show what activities and processes might induce human flourishing and well-being. He points to a study showing that holding positive relationships with others, especially family and friends, is the single best predictor of happiness, seemingly extending lifespan significantly. He also laments the effect of shyness on creating lapses in social cohesion and interpersonal understanding. He calls shyness one of humanity’s “biggest curses,” for its suppression of the process of emotion exchange that brings people together. He condemns the tendency to misinterpret shyness as arrogance, which makes it even harder to be happy in the quick-paced modern world.Mindwise
does little to prescribe a formula or program for understanding people more deeply than one can with behavioral analysis; the futility of doing so is, indeed, central to its thesis. What Epley invites, instead, is a more open-minded and imaginative attitude to the possible systems of meaning that underlie human consciousness and behavior.