The Problem with Mind Reading

In his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discusses our mind-reading skill and the voice we have in our head.

To predict what might come next is human nature. Human beings have evolved to be mind-readers. Sometimes the skill can be helpful, and other times it gets in the way of the culture we seek to build.

For most people, it is important to recognize that we have this voice in our heads. This voice is a narrative we tell ourselves. This voice is something we come up after we have chosen or decided to do something.

When we say we can read other people’s minds, we imagine that we are them. For example, if I, as a hard-working individual, wanted to get X, I would do Y and Z. Since this person is not doing Y and Z, they must not be working hard. We have invented this entire narrative about the voice in other people’s heads that may or may not be there.

If we seek to market to people and to make a change happen, we must begin with practical empathy. Practical empathy means “I don’t know what you know. I don’t believe what you believe. I don’t want what you want, and that’s okay.” Without practicing such empathy, we will have no chance of finding common ground of earning attention and respect for being able to interact with other people.

Also, we should realize that people come with their own agenda and baggage such that that voice in their head may very well be saying something completely unrelated to us and to what we are about. By recognizing this, we can spend a lot less time on getting hung up on imaginary mind reading that is not particularly accurate.

As the world we live gets ever more complex, our ability to predict what others might do becomes even weaker. Everyone’s mind-reading skills are weak. We may be reasonably good with a certain group of people with whom we have close interactions. Beyond that, we are often wrong. Nevertheless, we often think of our narrative as a good indication of causation.

There is an important distinction to be made about a marketing strategy. Smart marketing strategy often used sentences like “People who believe X are more likely to engage with the idea that makes them feel Y.” That may be a form of mind-reading; however, it is based on the action that we expect the person to take, not the narrative that they have in their head.

The distinction is very important because it is more about a strong correlation rather than very weak causation. The narrative in our head is irrational, repetitive, not very precise. And yet, once we have listened to it enough times, we assume that everyone’s narrative is organized, thoughtful, rational, and strategic. That is just not true.

We need to practice our mind-reading if it is working for us to be able to make assertions about how people who have acted in a certain way in the past are likely to be motivated by a certain action, story, or situation. If that particular mind-reading tactic is not working, do not blame the person and realize that what we have failed to understand with empathy.

We can succeed if we can bring the right story to the right person in the right way to help them get to where they’re going. We need to look at what people do instead of simply imagining that there is some intent behind it. We do not need to spend a lot of time on making accurate predictions unless it is helpful.

The minute the prediction stops being helpful to everyone involved, we need to put it aside and instead do the work we are simply proud of without the narrative.