Have you ever tried to build IKEA furniture with your partner only for it to go horribly wrong? How about planning a wedding or other big party and realising you have wildly different visions of the event?
In my research, I investigate what it takes to successfully work together as a pair. And as reported in my new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition , deciphering what other people are thinking is crucial when it comes to communication and cooperation.
When people at a dinner party find out I’m a psychology researcher, it’s only a matter of time until someone asks if I can read their mind. They say this with a wink and a nudge – and they laugh it off. But humans do have “mind-reading” abilities. This ability to read other people’s mental states is known as “theory of mind”.
What this really involves is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – predicting their actions and reading their emotions. And my research shows that great collaboration requires both partners to be good at this.
In my study, I measured theory of mind (aka mind-reading abilities) using a well known assessment. Over 400 participants watched video clips and were asked questions about the mental states and emotions of the characters. The more questions participants got right on this test, the higher their theory of mind abilities.
I paired participants up and they joined a Zoom call (I conducted my research during the pandemic) with me, the experimenter. During the Zoom call, the two participants completed a communication game together. Each participant, or player, had a subset of visual clues – such as arrows, shapes or Greek letters – on their screen. But they couldn’t see the other player’s screen.
The players had to communicate about their different sets of clues, then combine them together to solve a puzzle task. This required one player to verbally describe a set of symbols to the other, who then had to find these symbols on their screen among many others and tell the initial player which order to click them. The roles of the players alternated throughout the experiment.
Participants were challenged by a whole series of these tasks. If they managed to complete the game within the time limit, they were successful. If they couldn’t solve it in time or made a mistake, they were unsuccessful. Their combined score across these tasks formed the measure of their cooperation ability.
I found that the mind-reading abilities of both players predicted how well they would cooperate with one another. Pairs in which both players had high theory of mind abilities cooperated better compared to pairs where both players have low theory of mind abilities.
So, when you are trying to cooperate with someone, pick your partner wisely. Even if you have excellent mind-reading abilities yourself, it will be advantageous for you to cooperate with someone who also scores highly.
Researchers have previously linked mind-reading abilities and intelligence (more precisely “fluid intelligence”, which is about problem solving and reasoning. So, isn’t it the case that cooperation levels simply depend on how intelligent you are?
I couldn’t leave this question unanswered, so I also tested scores for fluid intelligence. I found that fluid intelligence was not enough to explain the cooperation scores. Above and beyond fluid intelligence, it is the mind-reading abilities that drive cooperation skills.
Improving cooperation in everyday life
My study is a stepping stone for future research that focuses on improving cooperative behaviours in children and adults. Several previous studies have shown that mind-reading abilities can be improved through training programmes (often aimed at children as this is when theory of mind abilities develop) or older adults (as theory of mind abilities decline with ageing).
For example, a study found that one year of acting – compared with one year of other arts training – enhanced theory of mind abilities in children. Another such intervention study among older adults showed that training people to have conversations about mental states – as opposed to about physical states – improved theory of mind skills.
If better mind-reading leads to better cooperation, mind-reading training should be employed in work places and educational settings. While schools commonly involve group work, theory of mind training may further help improve academic and social outcomes for children by way of ultimately improving their cooperation skills.
And that should come in handy throughout life – whether you’re facing a challenging work task or just some weekend DIY with your partner.
Roksana Markiewicz has received funding from the Hilary Green studentship