In 1921 Lev Kuleshov, an early Soviet film-maker, showed a short the film of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine’s expressionless face was alternated with shots of a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman reclining on a divan. The audience raved about Mosjoukine’s acting, and how he expressed his feelings of hunger, grief, and desire. In fact the film of Mosjoukine was exactly the same each time – it was the audience who imposed their idea of what Mosjoukine should have been feeling on their interpretation of the film.
Effectively we all do the same thing every day, believing that we can gauge not only friends and colleagues’ emotions from their expressions, but the thoughts that led to those emotions as well. So where does this belief come from?
From the moment we are born we start to develop our ability to read and respond to facial expressions. By the age of two months we can perceive and respond to our caregiver’s emotions, and by one year old are using our monitoring of adults’ expressions to guide our behaviour. At three years old we can label other people’s expressions as angry, sad, or happy, and by five we’ve developed a theory of mind, where we recognise that other people’s thoughts and feelings can differ from our own. So with a lifetime of practice how effective are we as mind-readers?
The short answer is not that effective at all. Experiments have shown repeatedly that when people meet strangers they are able to read each other with an average accuracy of only 20%, and that four out of five times they mistaken or just plain wrong. You’d expect it to be better between couples and close friends and it is – but it’s still only 35% accuracy. In fact no matter how gifted and intuitive you think you are the natural limit seems to be 60%.
The chances are as well that you do consider yourself to be much more able than you actually are at reading other people’s emotions. The illusion of insight, that Kuleshov’s montage relied on, means that we all tend to believe we have much more knowledge about people we’re involved with than we actually do.
Going back to the example of couples, and their ability to read each other, another experiment revealed the extent of our self-deception. Couples were asked to separately complete twenty questions about their beliefs and values, and then predict the answers that their partner would give. Just by chance alone they could have been expected to be right about two or three but the couples regularly managed to correctly predict five of their partner’s responses. That 25% level of accuracy they achieved should be compared though to the level that they predicted they would achieve, which was 55%.
The fact remains that we still have highly developed skills around empathy and communication. The problem comes when we have misplaced confidence in our ability, and read a situation wrongly, or misplaced confidence on other peoples’ ability, and believe that they will have a greater insight into ourselves than we have allowed them. Although life would be extremely challenging without our “mind-reading” skills by over-estimating them we can still make it much more difficult.
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