One of the most pressing and mysterious questions for humans, the self-centered beings that we are, is what other people think about us.
We expend a huge amount of time and mental energy wondering if our date finds us attractive, or if our co-workers noticed that stupid thing we said in the meeting last week. We agonise over our public speaking skills, our waistlines and our hair.
If you're wondering how you're perceived by others, research provides some clues. In a study first published in 2010 and discussed in a new book, Nicholas Epley, a behavioural scientist at the University of Chicago, and Tal Eyal, a psychologist at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, reveal a fascinating technique to help get inside the minds of the people around you.
The crux of this technique is that people think about themselves in very different ways than they think about other people. They tend to scrutinise themselves at an incredibly close level of detail, much more closely than they examine the actions or appearance of others.
That's in part because you have a huge amount of information about yourself - far more information than you have about other people. You know what your hair looked like yesterday, a month ago, and four years ago. You know whether you've put on weight recently, or if you look tired today. Compare how you evaluate yourself to how you evaluate a stranger: You might make judgments about their overall level of attractiveness, their outfit, their mannerisms, but not much else.
"We're experts about ourselves, and others aren't. That makes it hard for us to understand what we look like in the eyes of others," Epley says.
Eply and Eyal argue that many of the mistakes we make in judging how people perceive us arise from this very mismatch - the gap between the fine level of detail in which people perceive themselves and the more abstract way in which they perceive others.
As a result, the key to figuring out what other people think about you is distancing yourself from all this extensive information that you have about yourself - in essence, seeing yourself through a stranger's eyes. That's a very hard thing for people to do, Epley says. But in the study, he and Eyal accomplish this by using a mental technique that has to do with time.
Past research has found that the passage of time helps people to view their own appearance or actions much more abstractly. If you see a photo or a video of yourself from yesterday, you might judge it harshly. But when you see a photo or video of yourself from months or years ago, you evaluate it with fresher eyes, more like a stranger would.
So Epley and Eyal carried out a series of experiments to test whether the passage of time could help people have a more accurate idea of what other people thought of them.
In one experiment, the researchers had University of Chicago students pose for a photograph, and then try to predict how another student would rate their attractiveness based on that photograph, on a scale of one to nine. Some of the students were told that their photograph would be rated later that day, while some were told that it would be rated several months later. The researchers then had other study participants rate the photographs, and compared the scores.
Epley and Eyal found that the students who were told that their photograph would be rated several months later were much more accurate at predicting how other people would rate their attractiveness. They also found that people used more specific details when predicting how their appearance would be evaluated in the near future - "looks tired" or "hair tied in a pony tail" - and more general details when predicting how their appearance would be evaluated in the distant future - "Asian" or "wears glasses".
The researchers performed a similar experiment with public speaking, in which they had students give a two-minute introduction of themselves. The students were told that someone would listen to the presentation and rate them either later that day or several months in the future, and they were asked to predict how they would be rated. Again, the students who were told their performance would be analysed in the distant future were more accurate at predicting how they would be evaluated by others.
The main lesson, says Epley, is that we shouldn't be so anxious about social circumstances. Other people don't judge us with anywhere near the same level of scrutiny with which we judge ourselves. "When thinking about what other people are thinking of you, don't sweat the small stuff, because other people aren't," he says.
The study also has useful implications if you're trying to figure out what another person is thinking about herself or himself. To do so, you need to zoom in on their life as closely as possible.
Epley and Eyal also tested this theory in their study. As in the previous experiment, they snapped photos of some students and had them rate how attractive they found themselves. But then they showed the photos to a different group of students, telling some of that group that the photo was taken earlier that day, and others that it was taken several months ago. These students then had to guess how attractive the first group of students found themselves to be.
The guesses of the students were much more accurate when they were told that the photos had been snapped earlier that day, rather than several months earlier. By using this mental trick, the second group of students altered their mind-set to be closer to that of the first group of students.
That might sound a little confusing, but the lesson is that if you're trying to predict what other people think about themselves, you need to zoom in on the details. If there are any small changes in their job, their life situation or their stress levels, that's probably what they're focused on, says Epley.
Notice that this technique is a little different from the traditional advice of "putting yourself in someone else's shoes." Epley and Eyal examine this idea in their study too; they asked students to evaluate photos of others by adopting "the other student's perspective as if you were this person, looking at your picture through his/her eyes." Unlike the other experiments, they didn't say anything to them about a time delay.
They found that this approach didn't work - at all. There was no significant correlation between the ratings that people gave themselves and the ratings that other people gave them.
Epley says the takeaway is that you can't imagine what other people are thinking just by trying to do so. "A rich person can't imagine what it's like to be poor just by trying. Someone from a stable democracy can't imagine what it's like to be living in an unstable one."
This is kind of worrying, because so much of our public policy is based on the idea that people can imagine what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. And that myth is so widespread that people are very confident about their ability to do so. "The problem we find over and over again in our data on these social cognition studies, the problem isn't incompetence, it's not that people are idiots, it's that they're overconfident. The problem is hubris," Epley says.
"It creates the assumption, the illusion that we understand each other much better than we do, and that's the big problem."
This article originally appeared in April.