Everybody hates me: The problem with 'mind reading' and negativity bias

Psychotherapist Mike Dow explains why we are constantly mind reading, and getting it wrong.

Psychotherapist Mike Dow explains why we are constantly mind reading, and getting it wrong

(Credit: Getty Images)

Human beings are a hyper-social species. We're hard-wired to attend to social cues, and care a lot what other people think of us. After all, a whole lot depends on other people's opinions: whether they'll give us a job promotion, date us, harm us, help us, among other things. It's not surprising, then, that we tend to make guesses about what others think about us.

What is surprising is how consistently our guesses are wrong. Psychological research shows that human beings make two big mistakes when guessing what others think of us. One: we think we know more than we actually do, because we make guesses based on really scant evidence. Two: we think things are worse than is justified by the evidence. We have a "negativity bias". Psychologists call this common cognitive distortion "mind-reading" or "psychic thinking".

Therapist and bestselling author Mike Dow explained to us why we do it, and what we can do to fix it.

Stop guessing: You're wrong about what people think about you

When a co-worker is brusque with us or when a crush doesn't answer our text messages promptly, we jump to conclusions. We worry that we've done something to upset them or that they've never liked us at all. This is not because we are despicable people or because others are cruel and judgemental. It's because, says Dow, our brain is built that way.

Our tendency to guess that people are mad at us is part of a general negativity bias built into the human brain. Berkeley psychologist Rick Hanson writes, "the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones." Painful experiences, physical or emotional, teach us the quickest and most lasting lessons. We remember touching hot stoves, not cold ones. 

This is because humanity's evolutionary history favoured the worriers. Those who were most sensitive to potential threats were least likely to become tiger-snacks. Only the scared survive.

Psychic thinking is just one manifestation of this general tendency to overestimate threats. A whole lot depends on what other people think of us, so we are hyper-sensitive to the possibility that they think badly of us or might hurt us.

Psychic thinking is a cognitive distortion, but the problem isn't only that we guess wrong. Our guesses have practical and emotional consequences. Assuming that other people think badly of us is unpleasant and stressful, and can put a real strain on our relationships. We can become defensive or harbour grudges. Unspoken resentments roil, suspicions flourish. Fear of what other people think can cause us to withdraw or avoid contact with others. What should we do about it?

'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't after you'

Should we just try to forget what other people think and be true to ourselves? Sages ancient and modern have suggested as much.

Dow disagrees: "Every personality trait has a flip side of the coin," and anxiety can be useful. For example, people who test high in neuroticism also tend to be very healthy. Just as our ancestors' anxiety kept them from the jaws of predators, our anxiety gets us to the gym, orders our salads, and asks for extra tests at the hospital. Similarly, psychic thinking can make us sensitive to others' feelings and help us to avoid alienating them. People aren't always very explicit about what they think, especially if it's negative. Therefore, it's often necessary to piece together this important information from a few non-explicit clues. "Psychic thinking" can help us do so. Our anxiety provides important information and motivation that keeps us safe and keeps our friends. 

What's more, being utterly unworried about the opinions of others would bring a whole new set of problems. While most of his patients seek help in reducing their anxiety, Dow says some patients need help turning up their neuroticism levels. "Some people who score low in conscientiousness, who are not neurotic, are the people who eat McDonald's at every meal. They aren't healthy, their friends are mad at them, and they really don't care. So in many ways having a certain degree  of neuroticism is a very healthy thing."

Moderation is the message

So how neurotic is too neurotic? When it comes to psychic thinking, Dow recommends setting up some behavioural experiments. Think of ten times you thought people were mad at you or disliked you. Wherever your relationship allows frank conversation, ask them what was really going on. A lot of the time, Dow says, you'll find that the reason that your co-worker "snubbed" you was simply that they hadn't slept much or were preoccupied with something else or were just not wearing their glasses. Other times, you'll find out that people really were angry, and this is also valuable information. If you can't think of any times anyone has been mad at you, there's a good chance you're missing something. He calls this kind of thing "reality testing", and the point of it is to understand how accurate or inaccurate your psychic reads usually are, and to adjust accordingly.

There are no easy answers to how much we should worry about other people's opinions. Instead, we have to ask ourselves how our well our psychological habits are serving us. Dow told me: "It's about moderation and knowing yourself well enough to be able to test and sort of bob and weave and dance… and be flexible enough to create those experiences, test out that psychic thinking, to really figure out 'Am I too sensitive? Is there something I can learn here? And how can I grow as a human being?' " Psychological research tells us that humans in general have these qualities, and that they can sometimes go wrong. But it's up to us to figure out, through self-awareness, communication, and experimentation, how they work in our own lives.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.