The Psychology of Misunderstanding

Misunderstanding someone, and being misunderstood in turn, is an indelible part of the human experience. So it is not surprising that there is a deep psychological basis for this inconvenient — and often times even dangerous — tendency to mutually misinterpret each other.

Business Insider and The Atlantic report on research that is getting to the bottom of why humans seem inherently unable to read one another’s feelings and intentions (or conversely, clearly convey their own). The reasons — and solutions — are pretty interesting:

First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion” — the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.

Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.

“Chances are,” Halvorson writes, “how you look when you are slightly frustrated isn’t all that different from how you look when you are a little concerned, confused, disappointed, or nervous.

Your ‘I’m kind of hurt by what you just said’ face probably looks an awful lot like your ‘I’m not at all hurt by what you just said’ face. And the majority of times that you’ve said to yourself, ‘I made my intentions clear,’ or ‘He knows what I meant,’ you didn’t and he doesn’t.”

In other words, we have a blindspot with respect to our own behavior and communication. We fail to recognize, let alone see, that we might be coming off a certain way to others than we mean to. This goes a long way to explain another common human failing: hypocrisy.

While many hypocritical acts are no doubt deliberate, a lot of times it is accidental — you genuinely do not notice you are acting contrary to your intention behaviors and values. The transparency illusion applies as much to ourselves as to our external communications with others. We think our principles and values are clear, and thus fail to be vigilant or aware of any instance in which we violate them. After all, it is neither instinctive nor feasible to be methodically analyzing each and every action or statement. Hence we tend to just assume we are consistent and principled as we think we are.

All this touches on the next conclusion of the study, which looks at our perceptions to one another (and towards ourselves):

The perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

he perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

According to the work of the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, there are two ways that the mind processes information, including information about others: through cognitive processes that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. These “systems,” which Kahneman describes in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” serve as metaphors for two different kinds of reasoning.

System 1 processes information quickly, intuitively, and automatically. System 1 is at work, as Halvorson notes in her book, when individuals engage in effortless thinking, like when they do simple math problems like 3 + 3 = 6, or when they drive on familiar roads as they talk to a friend in the car, or when they see someone smile and immediately know that that person is happy.

When it comes to social perception, System 1 uses shortcuts, or heuristics, to come to conclusions about another person. There are many shortcuts the mind relies on when it reads others facial expressions, body language, and intentions, and one of the most powerful ones is called the “primacy effect” and it explains why first impressions are so important.

According to the primacy effect, the information that one person learns about another in his early encounters with that person powerfully determines how he will see that person ever after.

For example, referring to research conducted about the primacy effect, Halvorson points out that children who perform better on the first half of a math test and worse on the second half might be judged to be smarter than those who perform less well on the first part of the test, but better on the second part.

In contrast to System 1 style of thinking, which is biased and hasty, System 2 processes information in a conscious, rational, and deliberative manner. Whereas System 1 thinking is automatic and effortless, System 2 thinking takes effort.

Thus, System 2 acts as a check on System 1. It helps evaluate and update first impressions, prejudices, and other brash thoughts. It is basically a backup for when your thoughts fail you.

But as I alluded to during my tangent about hypocrisy, this sort of deeper, conscious thinking takes time and mental energy. In fact, it is rarely ever engaged in without some sort of external trigger or reminders — such as someone pointing out that you misunderstood them or read a certain situation wrong (even then, egotism, face-saving, or just plain arrogance might leave you resistant to sincere self-analysis).

But as the article points out, humans are otherwise too inclined to be “cognitive misers” to go much further beyond System 1. Hence why misunderstandings and miscommunications alike are so common.

To make matters more complicated, there is more to interpersonal conflict than a shortcoming in our thought processes. A lot of other variables — albeit as just as psychologically inherent — are at play, too.

Perception is also clouded by the perceiver’s own experiences, emotions, and biases, which also contributes to misunderstandings between people. As Halvorson puts it, everyone has an agenda when they interact with another person. That agenda is usually trying to determine one of three pieces of information about the perceived: Is this person trustworthy? Is this person useful to me? And does this person threaten my self-esteem?

How a perceiver answers those questions will determine whether she judges the other person in a positive or negative way. Take self-esteem. Researchers have long found that individuals need to maintain a positive sense of themselves to function well.

When someone’s sense of herself is threatened, like when she interacts with someone who she thinks is better than her at a job they both share, she judges that person more harshly. One study found, for example, that attractive job applicants were judged as less qualified by members of the same sex than by members of the opposite sex. The raters who were members of the same sex, the researchers found, felt a threat to their self-esteem by the attractive job applicants while the members of the opposite sex felt no threat to their self-esteem.

In a sense, there is something reassuring about a lot of our misunderstandings being rooted in flaws that are mostly beyond our control. It is not that most people have bad intentions or are purposefully being obtuse, unclear, or inconsiderate — it is that our minds and cognitive capacity make us inherently prone to faulty thinking, nearly always without us realizing it.

Given all these obstacles to accurately perceiving someone (or conveying yourself to them), what do people have to do to come across they way they intend to?

“If you want to solve the problem of perception,” Halvorson says, “it’s much more practical for you to decide to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to go into phase two of perception. It’s not realistic to expect people to go to that effort.

Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to weigh every possible motivation of another person? Plus, you can’t control what’s going on inside of another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.”

People who are easy to judge — people who send clear signals to others, as Halvorson suggests people do—are, researchers have found, ultimately happier and more satisfied with their relationships, careers, and lives than those who are more difficult to read.

It’s easy to understand why: Feeling understood is a basic human need. When people satisfy that need, they feel more at peace with themselves and with the people around them, who see them closer to how they see themselves.

In a recent discussion about this article with some friends, it was brought up whether or not humans should somehow be altered, perhaps with cybernetic implants or something, so that they can think and communicate more clearly. Setting aside the precise means and mechanics of it, the hypothetical suggests that we if somehow eliminate our tendency to misunderstand and miscommunicate with each other, the world would be a better place overall.

Humans would be less prone to anxiety, less likely to fight with loved ones or make wrong assumptions about strangers, and refrain from the sort of violence that is often predicated by misunderstanding.

But this would raise questions about how fundamentally different human behavior and society as a whole would be without this barrier between us. Our individual and collective psychology is shaped by this constant and fundamentally human inability to communicate or understand clearly. As a species, we have developed all sorts of ideas, rituals, approaches, institutions, and even art forms to get around this problem, or to express ourselves in alternative ways. What would happen to all of that if we removed this inconvenient yet familiar issue?

It is a bit of a tangent, but it touches on the overall point expressed in this research and many more about how biological, psychological, and evolutionary limitations shape our existence and affect our conditions. What are your thoughts?


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