Are some of us better than others at reading other people’s minds?
This is one of the questions that a University of Otago psychology student, Marea Colombo, is seeking to answer in her PhD thesis on what psychology researchers have dubbed “theory of mind”.
“When you run into someone on the street and you make assumptions about what they are thinking or feeling, you are using your theory of mind,” Colombo explains. “It allows us to predict, interpret and explain other people’s behaviour.
“We use quite a complicated bundle of things in this social mind-reading: the look in someone’s eyes, their body movements, the way they say things, and what we know – or think we know – about the other person.”
Colombo says that previous research on theory of mind has concentrated on young children, because it is more difficult to find differences in adults, but she is focusing on young adults, aged between 18 and 25, using fellow psychology students and Student Job Search recruits.
“I want to look at the conditions under which adults effectively use their theory of mind and part of this journey will be to develop a new theory of mind task that can measure adult differences in this ability.”
Colombo says that she finds her understanding of theory of mind especially useful as a member of an improvised comedy troupe, trying to work out what her fellow performers are going to say or do – or want her to say or do – next.