November 2, 2012 6:35 pm

Do I know what you’re thinking?

Most of the time, we don’t know what we’re going to say or do until we do it

at a park©Laura Carlin
The Shrink

Imagine your partner jokingly asks you if you’ve ever considered having an open relationship. A similar situation prompted a wavering of self-esteem for one reader. Most of us would probably start wondering whether our spouse is getting bored, or has needs and desires of which we know nothing, and what that means for our relationship. On the other hand, the question could just be idle curiosity, perhaps sparked by something in the papers.

Figuring out what other people are thinking is fraught with hazards. A staple illustration of this in the cognitive behaviour therapy literature is that of not being greeted by someone you know in the street. If you jump to the conclusion that this is a snub, you will feel quite different from how you would if you thought they just didn’t see you.

We should avoid spending hours brooding on why we believe they are upset, how silly it was of us to do whatever it was that upset them or being indignant that they can behave like this after all we’ve done for them. The fact is, we just don’t know what they’re thinking and it’s a good idea to suspend judgment until we do.

It’s not that we should automatically dismiss such worries. If you have reason to believe someone might be upset with you, or that your partner is not happy in your relationship, it’s no good convincing yourself that all is well.

But if the issue is not important perhaps you can just let it go. You may find out in good time. If it does matter, you could give some thought to the evidence, making sure you give the other person the benefit of the doubt and endeavouring to put yourself in their shoes. Doing this might open up alternative explanations.

It may be best to try to express your concerns honestly. That simple step could dispel your worries and spare you a lot of misery. Or it might reveal that there are indeed problems, only now you can face the facts and do whatever you need to do to move forward.

The Sage

For philosophers, a more fundamental problem than knowing what others are thinking is knowing that they are thinking at all. We can’t peer into the heads of others. All we can observe are their words and deeds. But how can we be sure that these aren’t the behaviours of biological robots who have no inner life?

The quick and correct reply to this is that you can’t be sure of anything. It’s possible that you’re mad, hallucinating or trapped in a very long and bizarre dream, which sounds like a pretty accurate description of life anyway. But certainty is too strict a demand. If other people talk like you, react to pain like you and have central nervous systems like you, it’s enough that the most plausible inference is that they have thoughts and feelings like you too.

The more interesting question concerns the assumption on which the sceptical doubt is based: that thoughts, beliefs and feelings are private, hidden. Could this be false? Much, if not all, of what we think of as mental could be seen as no more than a disposition to talk and act. To say someone believes in God, for example, is to say something about how they choose to live, not merely that they silently say to themselves “I believe in God” on a regular basis. Actions aren’t manifestations of thoughts, they are thoughts in action.

If this sounds implausible, consider your own case. It is only on very particular occasions, such as when giving a speech, that we first formulate a clear intention internally and then speak it. Most of the time, we don’t know what we’re going to say or do until we do it. We do not go through life with a constantly self-aware inner controller calling the shots. We get to know our own beliefs, thoughts and desires in the same way that we do those of others: by noticing what our words and actions express. Some thoughts are indeed private, but the contents of our minds are not only to be found inside our skulls.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, please comment below or email shrinkandsage@ft.com.

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