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Illustration of the communication between two humans / two brains in form of telepathy, speech, conflict or understanding
Nope, we are not talking about telepathy. Sanja Karin Music/Shutterstock

The science of ‘mind-reading’: our new test reveals how well we understand others

Mind-reading sounds like science fiction. But the term, also referred to as “mentalising”, is a psychological concept used to describe the process of understanding what other people are thinking. We may not be aware of it, but we use mind-reading every day when we interact with each other. It helps us to understand another person’s viewpoint or know when someone is saying something that they do not mean, such as being sarcastic or lying.

Mind-reading is different from the psychological process of empathy. It involves understanding other people’s thoughts or knowledge (“Sarah knows where the biscuits are kept”), whereas empathy involves understanding other people’s emotions (“Sarah would feel sad if her biscuits were taken”). Traditionally, scientists have not properly distinguished mind-reading from empathy, so most psychological tests mix up the two concepts.

To improve the science of mind-reading, we have developed a questionnaire, published in Psychological Assessment, that carefully separates mind-reading from empathy.

Although the processes are related, it is important to differentiate them to understand how people operate in social situations. It is also important for understanding psychopathy, for example. Psychopaths are often good at mind-reading, but bad at empathy. This means they can manipulate others while remaining emotionally detached from their actions.

Differentiating between mind-reading and empathy also helps us to understand conditions like autism, which are linked to social differences. People with autism often have major difficulties with mind-reading and more minor difficulties in empathising with people. Having slightly lower empathy is not always a bad thing, potentially helping people to make more logical rather than emotional decisions. On the other hand, poor mind-reading is linked to problems such as difficulty making friends and mental health issues.

Surprisingly, nobody has attempted to create a questionnaire on mind-reading until now. Using data from over 4,000 people in the UK and US, including autistic and non-autistic people, we found that just four questions should be used to measure mind-reading. These include how easy or difficult you find it to see things from other people’s perspective. This may sound simplistic, but by developing such a short test we could collect data from very large samples. Want to know how good your mind-reading ability is? You can complete the test here.

We also used our data to perform advanced statistical analyses that have never been performed before on human mind-reading. Our results showed that the test was reliable and that males and females, as well as autistic and non-autistic people, interpreted the questions in the same way. This meant that it could be used to accurately compare these groups on their mind-reading skills.

Questionnaires can of course be inaccurate because participants sometimes answer questions in a way that make themselves look more desirable to other people. Fortunately, this is less of a concern with this questionnaire. In one of our studies, we discovered that scores on self-reported mind-reading were linked to performance on objective tests of mind-reading.

Women beat men

We found that women were better at mind-reading than men. Women’s scores were only slightly, but very consistently higher than men throughout the sample. The reason for sex differences in mind-reading are a matter of debate, however. Some argue they are mainly due to genetics or hormones, while others believe they are the result of environmental factors, such as our upbringing.

Image of a female investigation officer showing murder suspect victim photo.
Women are good at mind-reading. Motortion Films/Shutterstock

Our research also showed that people with autism reported substantially more mind-reading difficulties than people without autism. The average score of an autistic person would fall within the lowest 25% of non-autistic scores. This might not seem like a new finding, but it is one of the first studies in which autistic people were actually asked about their mind-reading experiences rather than being subjected to computerised experiments to infer their difficulties.

Of course, just because certain people find mind-reading difficult, this does not mean that they are not motivated to engage with others. Many people with autism, for example, work incredibly hard to “compensate” for their mind-reading difficulties, indicating that they have intact or even heightened social motivation.

Overall, the development of our short and carefully devised questionnaire will enable quicker and more accurate measurement of mind-reading by clinicians, researchers, businesses and even the general public. It will help to fully understand why humans differ in their mind-reading skills, for example due to genes or environmental factors, as it is suitable for use in large-scale studies involving genetic and brain-imaging data.

It will also be useful to understand and tailor support for people with clinical conditions, such as autism. And it may even be used to help select personnel for job roles requiring good understanding of people. There are many other uses and several lines of further research, particularly as the measure is freely available to download.

Longer term, research on mind-reading could help people to develop technology for non-human agents, such as “social robots”, to predict what we are thinking and assist us in our daily lives. Without more psychological research on how we understand each other as humans, it is unlikely that we will ever develop artificial intelligence that can understand itself or what we are thinking.

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