Our ability to infer another person’s mental state is referred by psychologists as having a “theory of mind”. The survival mechanism of mind-reading helps you adapt to diverse people and is powerful if you know how to use it.
Researchers agree our theory of mind develops around two years of age. Toddlers can calculate people’s desires, intents, and thoughts. If a toddler sees a crying baby, she infers the distressed baby’s mental state. The toddler may tug her mother’s sleeve, pulling her to comfort the distressed baby. Up until then, you will not see empathetic children with mind-reading skills.
If you were like a baby absent of a theory of mind, you would continuously get in social and emotional trouble. A theory of mind helps you to do the closest thing to mind-reading as you dig into a person’s mind. You are able to see the intangible like: a young boy picked on at school feels hurt and alone; your partner comes home from work smiling, leading you to believe he or she had a good day at work; a depressed friend who recently broke up with her boyfriend leads you to think she needs space for recovery. Your inference into mental states helps adjust your behavior to better accommodate people.
What if, however, your friend who broke up with her boyfriend, wants to be comforted by you. Because you guessed she needed space, she would feel neglected, ignored, and more rejected. Inaccurate mind-reading causes relationship destruction.
Tell someone their destructive mental state or intent behind an action, such as, “You’re jealous because you think ”, and you will cause immediate trouble. This is what I refer to as “diagnosing” where we figure out people’s intents behind their actions, which gets us into arguments and detracts from our power with people.
Mind-reading also frustrates the beholder. We jeopardize our wellbeing from judgments because we have limited ability to infer someone’s mental state. A person laughing at a distance who makes eye contact with you may be giggling at a joke, not you. You think people judge you a useful process when used correctly but it too often sends you to mental imprisonment as you become anxious and constrain your real self from entering the conversation. Your theory of mind is too often an unreliable tool to calculate what people think.
You were given the ability to read someone’s mind so you could better adapt to the environment. Someone aggressively staring you down triggers thoughts of potential danger, allowing you to change to survive the threat. You can be over-reliant on this skill, however, by worrying about people’s thoughts when there is no concrete evidence (such as nonverbal communication) that signal you need to adjust your behavior. What is used to survive and better connect you with people, separates you. (You can improve this innate skill to become better with people by discovering several tricks of psychology to read people’s minds based on the roots of empathy.)