Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mindreading is a stage in child development

What is the essence of humanity? What makes us unique among animals? Some have argued that it is natural language, like English. Spoken, heard, written, etc. I might agree with that. Others argue, bizarrely, that it is mindreading.

Mindreading is the communication by means other than natural language. It typically means deducing someone's intentions or feelings from facial expression, tone of voice, posture, and other clues, and not from the information content of the actual words.

NewScientist reports:
You had me at "Hello"! It turns out our opening words speak volumes – people take less than a second to form an impression of someone's personality based on their voice alone.

We know that our voices can transmit subtle signals about our gender, age, even body strength and certain personality traits, but Phil McAleer at the University of Glasgow and his colleagues wondered whether we make an instant impression. To find out, they recorded 64 people as they read a passage. They then extracted the word "hello" and asked 320 people to rate the voices on a scale of 1 to 9 for one of 10 perceived personality traits – including trustworthiness, dominance and attractiveness.

Although it's not clear how accurate such snap judgements are, what is apparent is that we all make them, and very quickly. "We were surprised by just how similar people's ratings were," says McAleer. Using a scale in which 0 represents no agreement on a perceived trait and 1 reflects complete agreement, all 10 traits scored on average 0.92 – meaning most people agreed very closely to what extent each voice represented each trait.

It makes sense that decisions about personality should happen really fast, says McAleer. "There's this evolutionary 'approach/avoidance' idea – you want to quickly know if you can trust a person so you can approach them or run away and that would be redundant if it took too long to figure it out."
You might regard this as a nasty and annoying prejudice, These perceptions are notoriously unreliable. People think, for example, that they that tell whether someone is telling the truth by looking into his eyes, but experiments show that they cannot.

A Freakonomics broadcast:
A psychology professor argues that the brain's greatest attribute is knowing what other people are thinking. And that a Queen song, played backwards, can improve your mind-reading skills.
Nicholas Epley elaborates:
DUBNER: So you argue in the book, and I’ll quote you to yourself, “Your brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better.” ... What makes you say that?

EPLEY: Well if you look at what makes human beings unique from our closest primate relatives, for instance, we have big brains, we’re really smart, but where we’re really smart is in our social senses, in our social smarts. So there was an enormous experiment conducted a handful of years ago by some researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and what they did was they compared 105 human toddlers against 106 adult chimpanzees and their ability to solve certain kinds of problems. One group of these problems were physical kinds of problems like your ability to use a tool for instance to achieve a goal, or your ability to track where a reward was placed under some cups. And our toddlers were doing just about as well as the chimpanzees. That is they were neck and neck in reasoning about physical objects. But then there was another class of questions. These were questions that really required some mind-reading, required some social sense. So these were the social tests where for instance you had to trick the gaze of another person to know what they wanted, to know what their goal was, or your ability to understand someone else’s intention just by watching their behavior. And on these social tasks, on these social kinds of questions, our two-year-old toddlers were crushing the competition. Our kids were solving far more of these question correctly than our adult primate relatives were. And that’s, I think, just one piece of evidence that suggests that this is what our brains were really meant to do. We are one of the most social species on the planet. We live in some of the biggest social networks of any organism on the planet. And what separates us from others, what allows us cooperate, and to compete, and to build things collaboratively is our ability to connect with the minds of others, to know what their intentions are, what their motives are, to anticipate what they’re going to do next, to know who knows what, for instance.
It is true that humans are much more social and cooperative than apes, but maybe this mind-reading is just a stage in child development. It is certainly useful for a toddler who has not learned to talk yet.

But once a child learns to verbal intentions, and to understand the verbally expressed intentions of others, what is the value in the mind-reading guesswork? The kid can learn to say he wants food if he wants food.

It is commonly argued that mindreading is essential for adults also. Wikipedia says "nonverbal communication represents two-thirds of all communication." But this is just a silly myth, as this article explains:
93% of communication is non-verbal. Everyone knows that, don' they?

I've lost track of the number of times I've heard this in sales training sessions or read it in books, articles and blogs. Sometimes the stats are qualified further, for example:

"One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication".

Sounds impressive.

The trouble is - it's not true.

Let's think about it for a minute - how can you possibly get 93% of the communication without the words? If you watch a foreign-language film, and watch the body language and listen to the vocal tones - can you really understand 93% of it? I certainly can't.
This blog post is 100% verbal communication. I am not trying to convey any hidden messages that require reading in between the lines. Those who apply mindreading are likely to misunderstand me.

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