Culture of Greedy Mind Readers

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 25:  ChloE Grace Moretz attends the runway at the Sportmax Autumn/Winter 2012/2013 fashion show as pa
MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 25: ChloE Grace Moretz attends the runway at the Sportmax Autumn/Winter 2012/2013 fashion show as part of Milan Womenswear Fashion Week on February 25, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)

We communicate by misreading each other's minds. When the situation is a social slam dunk ("she switched on her left signal, so she wants to turn left at the next intersection"), we get by well enough. But make it a bit more complicated ("did she glance at me in that meeting because she remembered what I had told her about him?"), and we are in trouble. We have no choice but to act upon our half-baked intuitions about other people's thoughts, and the stellar results are here for all to see.

What makes our daily social floundering more ironic are the special terms that we now have to describe it: "theory of mind" aka "mind-reading." This is what cognitive scientists call our evolved cognitive adaptation for understanding observable behavior as caused by underlying mental states (i.e., thoughts, feelings, intentions). So when I notice that your left turn light is blinking I use my "theory of mind" and interpret the situation as caused by your mental states: either you intend to turn left, or you forgot to turn off the light. And when you glance at me in that staff meeting, my theory of mind gets all fired up, and I start thinking about what you must be thinking about what I might be thinking.

Except that these terms are misleading. First, we don't have a "theory" in our heads: most of the time we are not even aware that we are attributing thoughts and feelings to people. Second, our mind-reading is not linear or expressed in words, or whatever else we associate with "reading." Sure, when I tell you about it afterwards -- if I have had a chance to ponder it -- I construct elaborate clauses about what I thought about what you thought about what I thought. But when it's actually happening, it's fast, messy, and mostly nonverbal.

They really should have called this cognitive adaptation "hazy but obsessive intuition of mind" instead of "theory of mind." Or "unselfconscious mind-groping." Or just "mind-misreading."

But perhaps I'm too hasty. We do spend several hours every day immersed in social environments in which we read minds fluently. We do it when we watch movies or read novels. On some level our theory of mind doesn't care if it's attributing mental states to real people or to fictional characters. It applies itself with a healthy appetite to both.

However badly named, theory of mind does explain something important about our culture. Think about this. On the one hand, we have this greedy adaptation. It simply can't get enough of what it evolved to process over hundreds of thousands of years: people's thoughts, feelings, and intentions. On the other hand, poor theory of mind has to settle for being mostly wrong about those mental states. This means that social misses, big and small, are the norm rather than the exception in our daily life. But then we also have a consumer society designed to satisfy every identifiable appetite. Our cultural representations cater to our theory of mind, offering it delicious selections of complex yet nicely readable mental states.

Not consciously cater, of course. Quentin Tarantino doesn't sit in the director's chair asking himself, "what tasty morsels can I offer to my viewers' theory of mind this time, so that they can feel great about themselves as social players as they watch my movie?" And we don't say to ourselves as we click on Netflix: "I want to see people embroiled in complex social situations, in which they lie to others and to themselves, while I know what they are all thinking, or will know by the end of the movie."

Once you start thinking about movies and novels as both satisfying and further whetting our appetite for mind-reading, nothing is the same. Recurrent narrative patterns, popular themes, and generic conventions appear in a new light as you ask what they do to our theory of mind, how they play with it, exploit it, give it what it craves, and make it crave for more.

Take, for instance, our belief that involuntary body language can betray someone's innermost feelings. In real life, people's involuntary body language gives us direct access to their mental states only when the context is socially very simple. I jerk my hand away from the hot stove, and you can be sure that what goes through my mind in that split second is some version of "Ouch!" But if the situation involves several people interacting with each other, and you observe what seems to be a tell-tale blush, a furtive glance, or a startled turn, you'd be naïve to think that you know what the observed person is thinking, no matter how well you know her.

In novels and movies, it's the opposite. Writers and film directors construct extremely complex social contexts and then make their characters look up, half-turn, blink, or gasp -- and we know exactly what they feel just then (or will know by the end of the story). Often we are the only appreciative witnesses of such involuntary displays of emotions (other characters around them are as clueless as we are, in real life).

Reality television producers routinely put people in situations in which they are embarrassed yet want to conceal their embarrassment, and we know that they are trying to conceal their embarrassment. We thus have direct access to their feelings in a complex social context -- a treat for greedy mind-readers who have to contend with daily misinterpretation of mental states and resulting social failures.

Different genres and media -- musicals, operas, paintings, documentaries, and photographs -- have different strategies for making us feel that we have just glimpsed a person's "true" emotions. Old, obvious strategies become subject to subversion and parody, and new ones emerge. (Cinéma vérité spawned mockumentaries: we went from Gimme Shelter to This Is Spinal Tap.) What remains unchanged is a culture on the lookout for ways to deliver greedy mind-readers an illusion of perfect access to complex mental states.