How well do you understand other people, really?

Originally posted on

A good friend of mine developed a reputation for laziness as he was growing up. He found it difficult to complete tasks and was incredibly disorganized. His school reports would consistently read “very smart, but needs to try harder.” It wasn’t until his early twenties that he was diagnosed with ADHD: what had always looked like “laziness” was in fact a medical disorder. 

As our understanding of ADHD has improved through advances in neuroscience, it’s become pretty clear that people with the disorder—my friend included—are not just “lazy.” Brain scans suggest that the brains of people with ADHD are underdeveloped in certain areas: specifically, the areas responsible for executive functions—things like planning, prioritizing, attention, and emotional control. For someone with ADHD, focusing on everyday tasks is simply much more difficult than it is for other people. Their external behavior may look like laziness, but internally they are often working incredibly hard.

How We Understand Other People

Other people are different. We all know that. Some people are more easily stressed or upset than others, and different people enjoy different kinds of music or activities. I’m well aware that there are things I enjoy—going running in the rain, for example—that not everyone would find fun.

But it’s hard to actually imagine that someone else’s internal life could be completely different from yours. Think of a time when a friend told you she was feeling sad, stressed, or unmotivated. If you felt you were able to understand what she was feeling, even a bit, it was likely by mapping it onto one of your own experiences somehow.

Now imagine your friend comes up to you and says, “Today I’m feeling so glubby.” “Er, what does glubby mean?” you ask her. “Oh, it’s a word I made up for the emotion I’m feeling right now,” she says. This isn’t helpful—you have no way to empathize with what she’s feeling, because you can’t map it onto anything similar you’ve ever felt, and you don’t have any knowledge that’s relevant to understanding her experience.

The Psychology Of Empathy

Why is it so hard to understand experiences we've never had? Research in the psychology and neuroscience of empathy suggests that we often understand others by "simulating": imaging how we would feel or what we would do in their situation. Our brains simulate easily and automatically, so we're generally not even aware we're doing it.

While simulation can be an incredibly useful way to empathize with people quickly, it has its disadvantages. We obviously can't simulate anything we've never ourselves experienced, so we often end up assuming other people are much more similar to us than they really are.

Are You That Different From Me?

There’s reason to believe that others may have more fundamentally different experiences from you than you might expect. To give a few examples:

1. Some people have very detailed mental imagery, whereas others are completely unable to form mental images. When you think about something, do you actually form a visual image of it in your mind? Detailed surveys conducted by Francis Galton in the late 1800s suggest that people differ greatly in this regard. What’s really interesting is that before this was discovered, there was a huge debate about whether “visual imagination” was just a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon—with both sides completely convinced they were right and unable to understand the other’s position.

2. Some people can be color-blind for years without knowing it. Without taking a test, you could be having a completely different experience of colors from most people without even realizing it.

3. It’s possible to not have a sense of smell and not realize that people who do have a sense of smell are experiencing something different from you. An example is really interestingly described on Quora: “All my behavior to that point indicated that I had smell. No one suspected I didn't. For years I simply hadn't known what it was that was supposed to be there. I just thought the way it was for me was how it was for everyone.”

4. While for many of us sexual desire is something we couldn’t imagine being without,surveys suggest that around 1 percent of people are asexual: that is, they feel no sexual attraction at all. 

The Problem With Thinking We Understand Other People

The fact that we can understand others by thinking about how we’d feel in their shoes is an incredibly useful skill most of the time, allowing us to empathize with a wide range of people.

A problem arises, though, when we think we understand other people—but don’t. This is what’s going on in the ADHD case—when someone with ADHD struggles to get things done, we assume they’re experiencing something similar to how we feel when we’re having an “off” day or feeling unmotivated. When their inability to do things seems to go beyond normal procrastination, the natural conclusion is “they’re just being lazy.” It’s difficult to even consider that getting things done might just be much, much harder for them than it is for you.

I think this can lead to a lack of tolerance and understanding for a lot of mental health issues. I’m lucky enough to have never been seriously depressed, and for a long time I thought depression was like the saddest I’ve ever been, but a few times worse, and longer-lasting. But then I read this great Hyperbole and a Half post, which describes how depression is less about sadness and more about not being able to feel anything. If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to suddenly find things that used to make you happy or excited do nothing for you, it’s very hard to imagine what this is like. Reading this helped me to understand that I didn’t really understand depression, which, ironically, helped me to understand it better.

It’s not just in cases of mental health issues that this problem arises, however; it also taints our everyday relationships and communications. Bob gets offended by something Anna says, which surprises Anna, since she can’t even imagine why what she said would be offensive. So Anna assumes Bob is being unreasonable, which she tells him, and they get into an argument. Or perhaps Bob and Anna have been dating for a while, and Anna feels that Bob isn’t telling her much about how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking. Anna thinks, “When I really like someone, I’m really open with them - so if Bob’s being reserved with me, he must not like me,” and so decides to call it off. But in reality, Bob just finds it harder to open up than Anna does. I think many everyday disagreements and arguments could be more easily resolved if people simply considered the possibility that the other person might be experiencing something completely different from them.

Improving How You Relate to Other People

Former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld distinguished between “known unknowns,” which are things we know we don’t know, and “unknown unknowns,” things we don’t know we don’t know, the latter being much more problematic and difficult to deal with.

When it comes to understanding other people, there are a lot of unknown unknowns—things we don’t know we don’t know—because it’s near impossible to imagine an experience you’ve never had. But we can turn these unknown unknowns into known unknowns by constantly reminding ourselves that other people may have experiences and motivations we can’t really understand.

So next time you find yourself judging someone else, making an assumption about how they’re feeling, or simply disagreeing with them on something, ask yourself: Could they be experiencing something totally different from me? Or even better, ask them.

© 2014 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Cafe