Mind Reading Fuels Much of Our Online Conflict

My hair is a bird your argument is invalid nicolas cageI don't write nearly enough about reason or the many ways in which it can be derailed. I should probably try to do more of this because my experience suggests that reason is important to many atheists (even if we don't always do it as well as we would like to think). Most of us know that reason can be difficult at times. In part, this may be why so many religious people shy away from it. Reason takes effort, and the alternative is so much easier.

This post is not about people who think they have psychic abilities to actually read minds (i.e., telepathy). What I am referring to here as mind reading is one of the many cognitive distortions psychologists have identified as interfering with sound reasoning and increasing one's vulnerability to a variety of mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety). It also happens to be something that one encounters regularly online.

Here's one definition from Counseling and Wellness Services at Eastern Washington University:
Mind Reading: Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to divine how people are feeling toward you. Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do. Therefore, you don't watch or listen carefully enough to notice that they are actually different. Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.
Other definitions don't emphasize projection so much, but the basic idea is the same. Someone engaging in mind reading assumes they know what someone else is thinking/feeling and then acts on this assumption as if it was accurate.

Mind Reading in Our Daily Interactions

One common example of mind reading can be found among those we might describe as overly sensitive. They encounter an acquaintance who is having a bad day and frowning. They then interpret the frown personally as an indication that the acquaintance is unhappy with them. They may even react defensively, without stopping to consider that the other party is upset over something that has nothing to do with them.

Mind reading is a problem in most dysfunctional relationships, and therapists who provide couples therapy run into it quite a bit. One party is tired, and the other interprets this as disinterest, reacts with anger, and an argument ensues. As you can imagine, this sort of pattern can be quite disruptive on healthy relationships.

Mind Reading on the Internet

You've undoubtedly observed countless examples of mind reading on the Internet. It really thrives here, in part because we lack cues about someone's intent. Someone reads something you've written and reacts in an unexpectedly intense manner. You then learn that they are not even reacting to what you wrote but to how they interpreted the intention behind what you wrote. That's mind reading, and it often derails online communication.

Mind reading is certainly not the only reason that minor disagreements escalate into large conflicts, but it appears to be a frequent part of this sort of escalation. Suppose I write a piece in which I am posing questions in sort of a think-aloud manner. Someone comes along who decides that I must really disagree with them (I don't), and they blast me based on this misinterpretation. That's the first instance of mind reading. Now suppose I decide that this person came here to pick a fight (they didn't), and I blast them back. That's the second instance of mind reading. We're now in the middle of a conflict, largely based on shared mind reading.

I suspect that mind reading is a factor in many of the more heated disagreements we see on the Internet. We don't always remember to check the accuracy of our interpretations before we proceed, and this often leads to unnecessary conflict.