How to understand people better

I’ve been tak­ing notes on how I em­pathize, con­sid­er­ing I seem to be more suc­cess­ful at it than oth­ers. I broke down my thought-pat­terns, im­plied be­liefs, and tech­niques, hop­ing to un­veil the mechanism be­hind the magic. I shared my find­ings with a few friends and no­ticed some­thing in­ter­est­ing: They were be­com­ing no­tice­ably bet­ter em­pathiz­ers.
I re­al­ized the route to im­prov­ing one’s abil­ity to un­der­stand what peo­ple feel and think is not a for­eign one. Em­pa­thy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of prac­tice, any­one can make dras­tic im­prove­ments.
I want to im­part the more fruit­ful meth­ods/​mind-sets and ex­er­cises I’ve col­lected over time.
Work­ing defi­ni­tions:
Pro­jec­tion: The be­lief that oth­ers feel and think the same as you would un­der the same circumstances
Model: Belief or “map” that pre­dicts and ex­plains peo­ple’s behavior
Stop iden­ti­fy­ing as a non-empathizer
This is the first step to­wards em­pathiz­ing bet­ter—or de­vel­op­ing any skill for that mat­ter. Nega­tive self-fulfilling prophe­cies are very real and very avoid­able. Brains are plas­tic; there’s no rea­son to be­lieve an op­ti­mal path-to-im­prove­ment doesn’t ex­ist for you.
Not un­der­stand­ing peo­ple’s be­hav­ior is your con­fu­sion, not theirs
When we learn our house­mate spent 9 hours clean­ing the house, we should blame our flawed map for be­ing con­fused by his or her be­hav­ior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cock­roaches and found a few that morn­ing, maybe they’re pas­sive ag­gres­sively tel­ling you to clean more, or maybe they just pro­cras­ti­nate by clean­ing. Our model of the house­mate has yet to ac­count for these ten­den­cies.
Peo­ple tend to ex­plain such con­fus­ing be­hav­ior with stu­pidity, creep­iness, neu­ro­sis or any other traits we as­so­ci­ate with the men­tally ill. With Oc­cam’s Ra­zor in per­spec­tive, these care­less judgers are statis­ti­cally the men­tally ill ones. Their model be­ing flawed is much more prob­a­ble than their house­mate go­ing in­sane.
Similar to the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror, this type of mis­take is com­mit­ted more of­ten with peo­ple we dis­like. A good challenge is to try un­der­stand­ing con­fus­ing be­hav­ior from in­di­vi­d­u­als or sub-cul­tures you dis­like. You’ll find your­self dis­lik­ing them a bit less if you’re do­ing it right.
Another challenge is to try and find the ap­peal in pop­u­lar at­trac­tions/​en­ter­tain­ment you dis­like. For in­stance, if you dis­like mu­sic videos, try watch­ing a few un­til you get the “Aha” mo­ment. Yes, that’s what it should feel like when you get it right.
As you’re able to ex­plain more be­hav­iors, your model of peo­ple be­comes more ro­bust, mak­ing you an over­all bet­ter em­pathizer.
Pro­jec­tion works, but not for re­solv­ing confusion
Peo­ple’s in­tu­ition for how some­one’s feel­ing is nor­mally ac­cu­rate—with more am­bigu­ous cases—in­tu­ition needs con­scious sup­port. Un­for­tu­nately, most rely too heav­ily on the “put your­self in their shoes” mantra. You are not always like most peo­ple and can re­act very differ­ently in the same cir­cum­stances. There’s already an in­cli­na­tion to pro­ject and putting your­self in their shoes rarely over­turns ini­tial judg­ments. If you’re con­fused about some­one’s be­hav­ior, it most likely means pro­jec­tion hasn’t worked so far.
In­stead, build ac­cu­rate mod­els of peo­ple and figure out whether your model would’ve pre­dicted such be­hav­ior. If not, gather re­li­able ev­i­dence prov­ing what the per­son ac­tu­ally felt and tweak your model ac­cord­ingly. Hope­fully this is start­ing to sound a lot like the sci­en­tific method.
Un­der­stand your­self better
As men­tioned above, pro­jec­tion nor­mally works well (which is prob­a­bly why hu­mans are so in­clined to do it). Pro­jec­tion, how­ever, isn’t use­ful if you can’t pre­dict your own re­ac­tions in an­other’s situ­a­tion.
Catch your­self next time you ex­pe­rience an emo­tional re­ac­tion and try figur­ing out what net­work of be­liefs caused it. As a per­sonal anec­dote, I tried to un­cover the be­liefs caus­ing me to pro­cras­ti­nate on my work. I nar­rowed down the por­tions of work I had an emo­tional re­ac­tion to and dis­cov­ered I be­lieved I ei­ther didn’t have the skill or knowl­edge to com­plete the task. Now, when I try to ex­plain other’s pro­cras­ti­na­tion, I ask what part of the work they are hav­ing willpower is­sues with and de­ter­mine their self-effi­cacy for those tasks. I was sur­prised to learn that oth­ers had the same be­liefs caus­ing their pro­cras­ti­na­tion. Un­der­stand­ing your­self well can lend more non-triv­ial com­pet­ing hy­pothe­ses.
Caveat: If you’re very differ­ent from most peo­ple, then un­der­stand­ing your­self bet­ter won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d sug­gest find­ing some­one more typ­i­cal to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can ex­plain/​pre­dict be­hav­iors in other typ­i­cal peo­ple.
Put oth­ers in YOUR shoes, that’s how they’re em­pathiz­ing with you
We of­ten find our em­pa­thy skills lack­ing when try­ing to ex­plain oth­ers’ re­ac­tions to our own be­hav­iors. We nor­mally con­sider how we’d per­ceive our own be­hav­iors com­ing from an­other per­son be­fore act­ing—mak­ing ques­tions like “Why did he think I didn’t want to see him last night?” or “Why was she so offended by my jokes?” hard to figure out off pro­jec­tion alone.
Use the fact that most peo­ple pro­ject to your ad­van­tage. If some­one’s try­ing to em­pathize with you, they’ll most likely pro­ject i.e. put them­selves in your shoes.
Imag­ine a man and woman on a date at a fancy restau­rant and just about finished eat­ing their meals. The waiter drops off the bill and the woman glances at the bill. She says en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, “Wow great food and for a great price too!” The man pays for the bill and mo­ments later his mood shifts, be­com­ing no­tice­ably sad­der and quieter. The woman knew he’s more pas­sive than her, but still con­fused by his be­hav­ior.
As it turns out, the man imag­ined him­self de­scribing food as hav­ing a “great price” and re­al­ized he’d say that about cheap food. The man brought her to the fancy restau­rant hop­ing to im­press her, but felt his at­tempt failed. The woman didn’t think the food was cheap, she thought it was rea­son­ably priced given how good it tasted and the restau­rant’s up­scale rep­u­ta­tion. If she thought the food was cheap, she’d ex­plic­itly say so. Since she knows he’s more pas­sive, she could’ve in­ferred the man be­lieves oth­ers are more or less as pas­sive as he is. Think­ing back to the in­ci­dent, she should’ve con­sid­ered how peo­ple would in­ter­pret her state­ment as if she had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing pas­sive.
One les­son I’ve learned from this tech­nique is that con­sid­er­ate peo­ple are more sen­si­tive to in­con­sid­er­ate be­hav­ior. Be­cause they closely mon­i­tor their own be­hav­iors, they tend to as­sume oth­ers are about as equally con­scien­tious. When they de­ter­mine some­one’s be­hav­ior to be in­con­sid­er­ate, they are more likely to in­ter­pret the be­hav­ior as a sign of dis­like or ap­a­thy rather than oblivi­ous­ness.
Know­ing oth­ers are pro­ject­ing can help you learn more about your­self too. For in­stance, if you’re con­fused as to why your friends always ask “Is ev­ery­thing’s ok?” when you feel fine, con­sider that your friends may be ob­serv­ing cer­tain be­hav­iors they them­selves would ex­hibit when un­com­fortable. And maybe you are, in fact, un­com­fortable, but aren’t con­sciously aware of it.
The sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion is usu­ally correct
As you de­velop your men­tal model of peo­ple, you’ll no­tice mod­els share a lot in com­mon. For in­stance, prim­i­tive mo­tives like at­trac­tion, at­ten­tion and sta­tus can ex­plain the same be­hav­iors ex­hibited in many peo­ple. Th­ese “uni­ver­sal” com­po­nents to your mod­els of­ten yield more likely hy­pothe­ses. Peo­ple are ob­vi­ously more typ­i­cal than they are not.
Try to pick out which be­hav­iors are con­sis­tently ex­plained by the same mechanism in your mod­els. For in­stance, it’s helpful to know that most sub­mis­sive/​dom­i­nant be­hav­ior is done out of sta­tus dis­par­i­ties, not some idiosyn­cratic per­son­al­ity trait. Your knowl­edge of how peo­ple in­ter­act with sta­tus dis­par­i­ties will offer a pow­er­ful start­ing hy­poth­e­sis.
As you con­tinue to merge your mod­els to­gether, you’ll be that much closer to a unify­ing the­ory of peo­ple!
Build mod­els of peo­ple, like a scientist
Start de­vel­op­ing mod­els of in­di­vi­d­u­als and groups, which pre­dict their be­hav­iors un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances. Like a sci­en­tist, when the model proves to have low pre­dic­tive value, tweak them un­til they do. Com­bin­ing your mod­els is a good ap­proach.
Say you’re hav­ing trou­ble un­der­stand­ing why your brother does ev­ery­thing his new “friend” tells him to do. He’s never acted like that to­wards any­one be­fore; your model of your brother is miss­ing some­thing. For­tu­nately, you’ve seen such be­hav­ior be­fore, ex­plained by a differ­ent model, the one of your co-worker. That model made you re­al­ize that, like your co-worker, your brother finds his new friend much higher sta­tus and feels lucky re­ceiv­ing his at­ten­tion. Not only did you strengthen your brother model, you’ve also col­lected more ev­i­dence that such be­hav­ior is more likely sta­tus-re­lated and less likely per­son-spe­cific, mak­ing all your mod­els more ro­bust.
Ex­pe­rience more
If I tried imag­in­ing what a pro­fes­sional soc­cer player feels like scor­ing a win­ning goal, I’d use my mem­ory of the time I scored the win­ning goal at a pick-up soc­cer game and mul­ti­ply my eu­pho­ria by some fac­tor. Imag­in­ing what emo­tions some­one would feel un­der cir­cum­stances you’ve never ex­pe­rienced isn’t easy. Your best ap­prox­i­ma­tion may de­pend on a similar cir­cum­stance you have ex­pe­rienced. There­fore, ex­pe­rienc­ing more means be­ing a bet­ter em­pathizer.
Em­pa­thy checklist
Here’s a short check­list of the differ­ent tech­niques to use when­ever you’re con­fronted with con­fus­ing be­hav­ior. Run through the list un­til you feel con­fi­dent about your con­clu­sion.
  • Put your­self in their shoes

  • Think of times you’ve been in a similar situ­a­tion and ex­plain your reaction

  • Can the be­hav­ior be ex­plained by a more “uni­ver­sal” model than a per­son-spe­cific one?

  • How are they em­pathiz­ing with you, given they are pro­ject­ing?

  • How are they em­pathiz­ing with you, given what you know about how they per­ceive oth­ers?

  • What suc­cess­ful model have you used to ex­plain similar be­hav­ior for similar peo­ple?

  • Is your con­clu­sion af­fected by your at­ti­tude to­wards the sub­ject?