Theory of Mind: How To Understand Others’ Behavior

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that others have beliefs, thoughts, perspectives, and desires that are different than our own.

It’s our ability to take the perspective of another person. This theory of mind develops in stages over the course of our childhood. (And continues to fine tune throughout most of our lives.)

    • First we develop the ability to identify different desires in others. We can begin to acknowledge that people act differently to obtain these desires.
    • Then, we develop the ability to recognize that others hold different beliefs than us. We begin to identify that their behaviors will match these beliefs.
    • Next, we go on to identify differences in knowledge access–seeing is knowing. We begin to understand that if someone hasn’t seen something firsthand, they will need extra information to understand.
    • After understanding knowledge access we develop an understanding of the concept of false beliefs. This is the idea that someone might believe something that is wrong because they don’t have all the information, and act according to these false beliefs.
    • Lastly, we develop a concept of “hidden emotions,” that people can feel one emotion but express a different emotion.
Understanding Others

Why is theory of mind so important for understanding others?

If we evaluate the behavior of others based on our own beliefs and desires, we will be quick to draw the conclusion that nobody else makes sense; their actions will confuse us.

For example, identifying and choosing healthier options at restaurants isn’t very challenging for me, anymore. However, this is a task that is often very challenging for many of my clients. If I’m not able to recognize that our understanding of nutrition is different and that I have access to more information than them, then I won’t be able to effectively advise them toward a good solution to their problems.

This is an example of the “curse of knowledge,” a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual fails to recognize that others don’t have the same level of background information needed to understand more complex topics on a given subject.

Being able to effectively identify and acknowledge these different perspectives (and levels of information) in others is paramount for understanding why they behave in the ways that they do.

All behavior makes sense when you understand the person’s reason for doing it.

Here’s another example. I was talking with a colleague recently who asked for my advice about one of his clients. Here’s what he shared:

“So, I need your input. My client Gerry [name changed for privacy], who just started nutrition with me a few weeks back, has been ghosting me. Didn’t show up for our appointment Tuesday, didn’t respond to the text I sent him asking if I had missed a text or reschedule, and didn’t respond to the email I sent him Wednesday morning giving him some focus areas for his nutrition habits. What the hell do I do..?

…He paid for 3 months of nutrition so it’s not the money I’m worried about, if anything I’d rather give it back than charge him for it. I Just feel weird trying to contact him too much, but know that I have to do something…

…Oh and he filled out his online check-in that I send the day prior to our meeting. So I’m just not sure what the hell is going on…”

After reading this message I asked him if this client has been responsive at all since signing up for his program. His response follows:

“Yeah, the first two weeks were great. Did his check-ins prior, showed up for his appointment–no issues. That was last Tuesday before the holiday, and then this week no response at all besides filling out the online check-in.”

This colleague of mine was making a common error; he was evaluating his client’s actions based on his own beliefs. There are numerous reasons why his client may not have been responsive to him, and admittedly one of those reasons could have been that they weren’t satisfied with his coaching.

As an aside, this self-questioning plagues individuals who work in the service industry. It’s not inherently a bad habit, and is actually part of what makes this coach so great. This self-doubt about whether he is doing a good enough job pushes him to consistently provide a stellar experience to his clients.

However, there are also plenty of reasons why this client wasn’t responding that have nothing to do with the quality of his coaching. My advice was for this coach to try and identify some good explanations as to why his client might not be responding, from the client’s perspective:

Potential Reason #1: Buyer’s Remorse/Unsatisfactory Coaching  Experience

Given that he had been responsive in the past likely means it wasn’t a case of buyer’s remorse. If they were unsure if they were ready for this program they probably wouldn’t have put two weeks of solid effort into the program already. Jumping to the conclusion of a refund is the coach’s own belief of self-doubt.

Potential Reason #2: Too Busy

A major holiday occurred during this time, so it’s entirely feasible that he was simply too busy with family and other holiday activities to keep up with the tasks he was given. This is an example of understanding diverging priorities. As a fitness professional, making good food choices might be a priority, but it may not be high on the list yet for his client. So an event like Thanksgiving could easily lead to good food choices taking a dive on his to-do list.

Potential Reason #3: Client Shame or Embarrassment

Another explanation, also related to the holiday, is that perhaps this client didn’t follow his plan and made lots of poor choices. Since their coaching relationship is still relatively new and unfamiliar, maybe this client feels guilty or afraid to share his failures with his coach. Maybe he fears being judged or punished, and in this case it’s often easier not to respond at all.

This particular coach happens to be very non-judgmental, but the thought that someone else might not understand that (if they haven’t had a ton of interaction with him) didn’t even cross his mind.

Being able to stop and look at a situation from someone else’s perspective is an extremely important skill when interacting with others. This is a skill that takes practice, much like any other skill. However, it can reap huge rewards. Can you think of some examples of situations where you might be able to improve your ability to see things from another person’s perspective?

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