When a boyfriend or girlfriend says, “no, really, I’m fine,” how do you know that person is lying? When a boss goes silent after a big presentation, how do people know the boss isn’t happy? Psychologists call the ability to interpret people’s moods “empathetic accuracy.”
The problem with mind reading is that most people are terrible at it. Even among couples in long-term relationships, the human ability to interpret social cues and read minds is, according to social psychologist Nicholas Epley, “stunningly unimpressive.”
Strangers asked to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others were able to guess accurately about 20 percent of the time, Psychology Today reported in 2007. Married couples were able to get up to about 35 percent accuracy. And almost no one, psychologist William Ickes told Psychology Today, can interpret with better than 60 percent accuracy.
Even though people are better at roulette than they are at reading minds, there are ways to improve. Most people focus on the eyes as a way to judge feelings, according to the article in Psychology Today, and that can help. There are more than 3,000 different expressions that humans may use throughout the course of a day, and learning about those could be beneficial, too. And people who know their own moods are often better at reading the emotions of others.
A problem arises when people are robbed of the body language and social cues that appear only in face-to-face communication—for example, over email. Many of the tips Psychology Today provides for better mind reading involve being expressive and paying attention to “the upper part of the face.” While valuable in conversation, these options don’t work when writing emails or Instant Messaging. My advice: When feelings are at stake, turn off the computer.