Mind reading is not optional

Nov 20 JDN 2459904

I have great respect for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and it has done a lot of good for me. (It is also astonishingly cost-effective; its QALY per dollar rate compares favorably to almost any other First World treatment, and loses only to treating high-impact Third World diseases like malaria and schistomoniasis.)

But there are certain aspects of it that have always been frustrating to me. Standard CBT techniques often present as ‘cognitive distortions‘ what are in fact clearly necessary heuristics without which it would be impossible to function.

Perhaps the worst of these is so-called ‘mind reading‘. The very phrasing of it makes it sound ridiculous: Are you suggesting that you have some kind of extrasensory perception? Are you claiming to be a telepath?

But in fact ‘mind reading’ is simply the use of internal cognitive models to forecast the thoughts, behaviors, and expectations of other human beings. And without it, it would be completely impossible to function in human society.

For instance, I have had therapists tell me that it is ‘mind reading’ for me to anticipate that people will have tacit expectations for my behavior that they will judge me for failing to meet, and I should simply wait for people to express their expectations rather than assuming them. I admit, life would be much easier if I could do that. But I know for a fact that I can’t. Indeed, I used to do that, as a child, and it got me in trouble all the time. People were continually upset at me for not doing things they had expected me to do but never bothered to actually mention. They thought these expectations were “obvious”; they were not, at least not to me.

It was often little things, and in hindsight some of these things seem silly: I didn’t know what a ‘made bed’ was supposed to look like, so I put it in a state that was functional for me, but that was not considered ‘making the bed’. (I have since learned that my way was actually better: It’s good to let sheets air out before re-using them.) I was asked to ‘clear the sink’, so I moved the dishes out of the sink and left them on the counter, not realizing that the implicit command was for me to wash those dishes, dry them, and put them away. I was asked to ‘bring the dinner plates to the table’, so I did that, and left them in a stack there, not realizing that I should be setting them out in front of each person’s chair and also bringing flatware. Of course I know better now. But how was I supposed to know then? It seems like I was expected to, though.

Most people just really don’t seem to realize how many subtle, tacit expectations are baked into every single task. I think neurodivergence is quite relevant here; I have a mild autism spectrum disorder, and so I think rather differently than most people. If you are neurotypical, then you probably can forecast other people’s expectations fairly well automatically, and so they may seem obvious to you. In fact, they may seem so obvious that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Then when someone like me comes along and is consciously, actively trying to forecast other people’s expectations, and sometimes doing it poorly, you go and tell them to stop trying to forecast. But if they were to do that, they’d end up even worse off than they are. What you really need to be telling them is how to forecast better—but that would require insight into your own forecasting methods which you aren’t even consciously aware of.

Seriously, stop and think for a moment all of the things other people expect you to do every day that are rarely if ever explicitly stated. How you are supposed to dress, how you are supposed to speak, how close you are supposed to stand to other people, how long you are supposed to hold eye contact—all of these are standards you will be expected to meet, whether or not any of them have ever been explicitly explained to you. You may do this automatically; or you may learn to do it consciously after being criticized for failing to do it. But one way or another, you must forecast what other people will expect you to do.

To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me not to wear a Starfleet uniform to work. I am not aware of any part of the university dress code that explicitly forbids such attire. But I’m fairly sure it would not be a good idea. To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me not to burst out into song in the middle of a meeting. But I’m still pretty sure I shouldn’t do that. To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me what the ‘right of way’ rules are for walking down a crowded sidewalk, who should be expected to move out of the way of whom. But people still get mad if you mess up and bump into them.

Even when norms are stated explicitly, it is often as a kind of last resort, and the mere fact that you needed to have a norm stated is often taken as a mark against your character. I have been explicitly told in various contexts not to talk to myself or engage in stimming leg movements; but the way I was told has generally suggested that I would have been judged better if I hadn’t had to be told, if I had simply known the way that other people seem to know. (Or is it that they never felt any particular desire to stim?)

In fact, I think a major part of developing social skills and becoming more functional, to the point where a lot of people actually now seem a bit surprised to learn I have an autism spectrum disorder, has been improving my ability to forecast other people’s expectations for my behavior. There are dozens if not hundreds of norms that people expect you to follow at any given moment; most people seem to intuit them so easily that they don’t even realize they are there. But they are there all the same, and this is painfully evident to those of us who aren’t always able to immediately intuit them all.

Now, the fact remains that my current mental models are surely imperfect. I am often wrong about what other people expect of me. I’m even prepared to believe that some of my anxiety comes from believing that people have expectations more demanding than what they actually have. But I can’t simply abandon the idea of forecasting other people’s expectations. Don’t tell me to stop doing it; tell me how to do it better.

Moreover, there is a clear asymmetry here: If you think people want more from you than they actually do, you’ll be anxious, but people will like you and be impressed by you. If you think people want less from you than they actually do, people will be upset at you and look down on you. So, in the presence of uncertainty, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that the expectations are high. It would be best to get it right, of course; but when you aren’t sure you can get it right, you’re often better off erring on the side of caution—which is to say, the side of anxiety.

In short, mind reading isn’t optional. If you think it is, that’s only because you do it automatically.

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