A lot of leaders are coming here, to sit down and visit. I think it’s important for them to look me in the eye. Many of these leaders have the same kind of inherent ability that I’ve got, I think, and that is they can read people. We can read. I can read fear. I can read confidence. I can read resolve. And so can they—and they want to see it. —George W. Bush (quoted in Fineman & Brant, 2001, p. 27)
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . . Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. —Atticus Finch to his daughter, Scout, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960/1988, pp. 85–87)
Bush and Lee offer very different strategies for solving a frequent challenge in social life: accurately understanding the mind of another person. Bush suggested reading another person by watching body language, facial expressions, and other behavioral cues to infer that person’s feelings and mental states. Lee suggested being another person by actually putting oneself in that person’s situation and using one’s own experience to simulate his or her experience. These two strategies also broadly describe the two most intensely studied mechanisms for mental-state inference in the scientific literature, theorization (i.e., theory theory) and simulation (i.e., self-projection or surrogation).
In the experiments reported here, we asked some participants (experiencers) to watch 50 emotionally evocative pictures and to report how they felt about each one. Separate groups of participants (predictors) predicted the experiencers’ feelings. We assessed the presumed versus actual effectiveness of the theorization and simulation strategies by allowing some predictors to see experiencers’ facial expressions (theorization) and allowing other predictors to see the same pictures the experiencers saw (simulation). This paradigm provided a comprehensive test of our hypotheses by allowing us to measure confidence, accuracy, and preferences for the two strategies.Here is the abstract:
People use at least two strategies to solve the challenge of understanding another person’s mind: inferring that person’s perspective by reading his or her behavior (theorization) and getting that person’s perspective by experiencing his or her situation (simulation). The five experiments reported here demonstrate a strong tendency for people to underestimate the value of simulation. Predictors estimated a stranger’s emotional reactions toward 50 pictures. They could either infer the stranger’s perspective by reading his or her facial expressions or simulate the stranger’s perspective by watching the pictures he or she viewed. Predictors were substantially more accurate when they got perspective through simulation, but overestimated the accuracy they had achieved by inferring perspective. Predictors’ miscalibrated confidence stemmed from overestimating the information revealed through facial expressions and underestimating the similarity in people’s reactions to a given situation. People seem to underappreciate a useful strategy for understanding the minds of others, even after they gain firsthand experience with both strategies.