How to seem telepathic

by on January 20, 2016 at 1:17 am in Books, Data Source, Education, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

This is probably one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year.  It is from Maria Konnikova’s new book The Confidence Game:

In 2010, Nicholas Epley and Tal Eyal of Ben-Gurion University published the results of a series of experiments aimed at improving our person and mind perception skills.  The title of their paper: “How to Seem Telepathic.”  Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others.  When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail.  When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level.  For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues.  For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion.  For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist.  So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.

If, however, we can adjust our level of analysis, we suddenly appear much more intuitive and accurate.  In one study, people became more accurate at discerning how others see them when they thought their photograph was going to be evaluated a few months later, as opposed to the same day, while in another, the same accuracy shift happened if they thought a recording they’d made describing themselves would be heard a few months later [TC: recall Robin Hanson’s near vs. far mode].  Suddenly, they were using the same abstract lens that others are likely to use naturally…

Upon reading this passage I realized I have been thinking in these terms for years, without quite realizing it so explicitly.

One implication: if you feel bad one morning, don’t let it get you down and lower your confidence.  Other people probably won’t notice your problems.

Another implication: you’ll understand yourself better if, in a given moment, you can pretend to distance yourself from some of your immediate impressions of your day, and treat yourself like a piece of your writing which you set aside for a week so you could look at it fresh.

A third implication is this: you can read other people’s moods better by ignoring some of your overall impressions of them, and by focusing on what they might perceive to be small changes in their situation, appearance, or stress levels.

The original research is here, worth a read (pdf).  And here are various reviews of the Konnikova book.


1 Dan in philly January 20, 2016 at 1:58 am

It’s much easier to judge my own work if I put it aside for a few hours or a day and then review it. I find it almost impossible to review it as soon as it’s complete, I’m too caught up in the process of creating it to judge the results. I’ve never been able to master the trick of finding immediate abstraction.

2 Mark Thorson January 20, 2016 at 6:15 pm

As an editor, I can say pretty much every author should have somebody else proofread their writings. There are nearly always errors that you’re blind to.

3 Dan January 20, 2016 at 2:15 am

(Trope and Liberman’s construal level theory, popularized by Robin Hanson as “near vs. far mode”)

4 Millian January 20, 2016 at 4:48 am

I hear Robin Hanson also invented the concept of artificial intelligence, later popularised by Steven Spielberg.

5 Axa January 20, 2016 at 5:26 am

Please read the essay “the ecstasy of influence” by t bone Burnett.

6 kb January 20, 2016 at 8:59 am

Couldn’t find teoi by Burnett. Did find Jonathan Letham. T. Bone Burnett did master the trick of immediate abstraction though.

7 prior_test January 20, 2016 at 2:28 am

‘This is probably one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year.’

Nope – this web site is such a continuously flowing fountain that this is unlikely to be even the most useful thing to learn from here even today.

8 dan1111 January 20, 2016 at 3:13 am

You can’t help yourself but to disagree with Tyler, even when agreeing with him would have been so much more elegant a way to deliver your usual material in this case.

If Tyler posted “I am an idiot and a pawn of the Koch brothers” you would probably be explaining how he is wrong because he is ignorant of the situation in Germany.

9 The Engineer January 20, 2016 at 7:52 am

How many days has Hanson been sitting on this post so that he could properly judge it before posting?

10 Nathan W January 20, 2016 at 2:29 am

Learn everything you can about someone, especially lots of things that may seem trivial, and ideally at least one or two which might prove highly embarrassing (or criminal). Then build conditioned things like gestures, phrases or sounds to remind them of things you know about them (but they don’t know you already know), and then surprise them out loud with details that you should not really have known.

Then, tell them you’re a telepathic mind reader and that resistance is futile. It is time to spill all beans whatsoever (prod them with suspicions, or even try to convince them that they actually did some crazy things that never happened) and inform them that it is time to immediately convert to ideology X, or “they” will (threaten to do whatever they think is relevant for turning you into their personal zombie-bot).

But wait, I think the authors are talking about something completely different.

11 Nathan W January 20, 2016 at 2:30 am

Theory: We have brain waves but they impact nothing even 0.01 cm outside our little noggins, and definitely nothing so far as 2 or 20 feet away.

12 Rich Berger January 20, 2016 at 6:46 am

This doesn’t seem like telepathy; it seems like perceptiveness. If you turn down the inner babble and watch and listen, you learn a lot. This was Sherlock Holmes’ method. Also Yogi Berra – “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

13 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 9:38 am

The title is: “How to seem telepathic

14 Rich Berger January 20, 2016 at 9:52 am

The abstract title is “How to Seem Telepathic: Enabling Mind Reading by Matching Construal” Sounds like the real deal to me.

15 dan1111 January 20, 2016 at 11:16 am

Given the context, surely “mind reading” is meant as the appearance of mind reading, not the actual thing.

16 Derek Lowe January 20, 2016 at 6:59 am

The “distancing yourself from your immediate impressions” advice sounds exactly like Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. He counsels always distinguishing actual events from the opinions and feelings that we have about them:

“If you set these thoughts against your impression, you will conquer it, and not be carried away by it. But first of all do not be hurried away by the suddenness of the shock, but say, ‘Wait for me a little, impression. Let me see what you are, and what is at stake: let me test you’.”

17 charlie January 20, 2016 at 8:48 am

Well that is all fine and good but ZAFGEN popped up this morning and I can’t concentrate!

18 V D January 20, 2016 at 11:26 am

Every now and then I will recommend to my (higher functioning) patients that they read selections from Epictetus.

19 rayward January 20, 2016 at 7:23 am

I once had a friend (well, more than a friend) who could sell sand in the desert. What she understood is that people like to focus on themselves. The benefit of that knowledge helps in social situations, but more so in business. Cowen says to “pretend to distance yourself” and to “treat yourself like a piece of your writing”. In my profession, law, it’s called detachment: to distance yourself from the case and treat it like a piece of your writing, in which you write the script. Cowen says that this knowledge is one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year, and it’s true. What a successful diplomat knows is that resolution of a problem doesn’t start with two sides at polar opposite positions and working toward the middle, but two sides working toward a common goal. I’ve benefited from that knowledge in my work, by making a personal connection with my adversary (it can be anything, from a hobby to a favorite vacation spot), using that connection to establishing a common goal, and then working together to achieve that goal. At one time the art of politics was viewed as working toward a common goal, but today successful politics can mean the opposite, framing an issue such that there can be no common goal and making compromise impossible. Ours is a narcissistic generation, in which too many focus only on themselves, in which cooperation and working toward a common goal is as likely as winning the powerball jackpot.

20 derek January 20, 2016 at 8:29 am

A successful politician gets in a position to set the common goal. The mythic times of political harmony describe a time when one way of thinking or set of assumptions was ascendant with no real opposition. The situation today is that there are opposing views, as there always have, and a bureaucracy, regulatory structure and an existing body of laws and application of laws that don’t allow people to go about their way without bumping into some law or other. It makes politics a zero sum game in many instances, and the results for any one group or person is either winning or losing. Hence the vigorous politics, the vigorous lobbying, etc.

What you successfully do in your practice is find, and probably with skill enforce the reality that to push an issue through the court system is to lose no matter who wins. A friend who was going through a divorce had a good lawyer; he showed him two files, one thin the other inches thick. He said you have the choice of what your file looks like. The lawyer said that the thick one was really good for him, but not good for you. And here is how to keep it thin. The only way for anyone to be happy with the outcome is if there is a thick file, and then I will be the happy one.

What Tyler is describing is being ego less. It works well in many situations, management, relationships, any situation where other people are involved.

21 rayward January 20, 2016 at 10:26 am

Of course, you are defining the common goal as the goal defined by only one party and zero sum as the outcome of a compromise in working toward a common goal defined by both parties. In today’s politics, there can be no common goal when the goal of one party, Mr. Obama, as defined by the other party, is to hurt America. The same phenomenon can be observed in foreign policy, in which one party defines failure as any compromise regardless of the outcome reached in the compromise and defines the only common goal as confrontation; in other words, by defining failure as success. Defining failure as success necessarily means that diplomacy is a zero sum game, with a loser and a winner. That’s not diplomacy, that’s war by another name.

22 rayward January 20, 2016 at 10:40 am

Here’s an excellent explanation of the point in the context of Iran. The author divides the two competing views between pragmatists versus hegemonists, diplomats versus militarists, and reformists and status quo-ists, with one side defining success only in terms of total capitulation.

23 dan1111 January 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

An interesting read, though I’m not totally convinced.

A lot of opponents of the Iran deal were opposed not to any compromise but this compromise. I did not hear the argument “we should never make any deal with Iran” featuring prominently in the debate. Rather it was “this specific deal won’t work” because of the lack of verification, etc. These are pragmatic arguments, but this side of the debate is characterised as opposing pragmatism.

24 dan1111 January 20, 2016 at 10:43 am

A more balanced way of putting this is simply that the parties disagree deeply about what is best for America, and therefore not much compromise is possible.

It is not as if the overheated rhetoric is coming only from one side. Obama, for example, has called Republicans un-American and has accused them of intentionally harming the country for political gain mutiple times.

25 JWatts January 20, 2016 at 11:00 am

Partisans always feel as if the other side bears the overwhelming majority of the blame.

26 derek January 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm

I think you are minimizing the real differences that end up being zero sum games. Either you have a coal industry or you have carbon emission reductions. Either you have effective policing or race sensitive policing. Etc.

In Canada the elections were about one side wanting to shut down the Alberta oil patch, the other to support it. There isn’t a middle ground to negotiate, it is zero sum, one loses one wins.

Not everything is like this, but there is enough. Even the gay marriage debate became zero sum, either for letting people marry or not, and enforcing a compliance. Ugly stuff. In many cases it doesn’t have to be that way, but it is a characteristic of power to impose it upon others no matter where you come from.

27 Nathan W January 20, 2016 at 12:32 pm

The Canadian election was not about the oil patch. It was about getting rid of Harper and finding a more positive person to lead the country.

28 The Engineer January 20, 2016 at 10:37 am

I don’t disagree, but what common goals are there in politics? Being a conservative, I’d love to roll back some laws and regulations (we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won), but I’m not really looking to use new laws to change society. Liberals are. So where is the common ground? What can we agree on to achieve together?

And if all I can do is resist change driven by liberals, what is the best way to do that? Seek and destroy, scorched earth, baby.

29 Claude Emer January 20, 2016 at 9:05 am

Read You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney and learn all the other ways you delude yourself.

This is probably one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year.

30 Bruce Cleaver January 20, 2016 at 1:25 pm

I do own this book, and have required my teenage son & daughter to read it. It is quite useful.

31 Cambias January 20, 2016 at 10:02 am

In my experience, this is what separates professional writers from amateurs. If you critically tear apart something an amateur has written, they throw it away. A pro can take the criticism and apply it to improve the work (sometimes not in the way the critic suggested). It’s a hard thing to learn, but it’s essential.

32 jc January 20, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Gonna quote you to a young doc student today. 🙂

It’s common knowledge, but sometimes harder to apply than it should be. Pithy reminders are welcome (and helpful to indoctrinate, and inoculate a bit, before they actually experience the pain of Reviewer #2).

33 Virginia Postrel January 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm

“A pro can take the criticism and apply it to improve the work (sometimes not in the way the critic suggested).” The parenthetical is important. Often the exact criticism or revision suggestion is misplaced but provides a valuable clue to an underlying problem.

34 Jack January 20, 2016 at 10:54 am

Alcoholics Anonymous says don’t judge your inside against other people’s outsides.

I think this says pretty much the same thing, but better.

35 JK January 20, 2016 at 11:37 am

As an empirical economist, I’ve often thought about it this way:
For ourselves, we focus on the within-person differences.
For others, we focus on the between-person differences.

36 Ramon Cota Meza January 20, 2016 at 11:52 am

In the end, an accuratest judgement of ourselves and the others seems to be a matter of imagination…

37 charlies January 20, 2016 at 11:56 am

This is a good clue as to why women regard “you look tired” as one of the ultimate insults to their attractiveness.

38 Jeffrey Deutsch January 23, 2016 at 1:48 pm

Can you be so kind as to elaborate a bit on that? Thank you!

39 Poincare January 20, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Doesn’t anyone realize what nonsense this kind of stuff is? Even if you could keep all the millions of little quirks and factoids about the inefficient ways people think and behave in mind in your day to day life, trying to apply them at every turn would just be replacing one kind of inefficiency for another. You’re not going to get anything done in your day going around trying out “one hundred and one brain hacks for a healthier happier you”. This is just drivel to fill the pages of newspapers, forgotten about the next day, and the researchers who investigate this kind of stuff are just making work for themselves.

40 The Original D January 20, 2016 at 2:07 pm

One implication: if you feel bad one morning, don’t let it get you down and lower your confidence. Other people probably won’t notice your problems.

I read it as the opposite. If people’s impression of you is based on a fuzzy “overall gist,” people probably won’t notice your problems anyway, at least those who already know you.

41 The Original D January 20, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Also re: this;

You can pretend to distance yourself from some of your immediate impressions of your day

If some interaction with someone is bothering you, one trick is to replay the scene in your mind as a madcap comedy with a laugh track.

42 Rich W January 21, 2016 at 6:00 pm

This seems to have parallels with the Spotlight Effect – think Barry Manilow t-shirts or bad hair days. On which more here:

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