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Can we read others’ minds? Rational beliefs, positive illusions and mental health

Vol V, No. 2, 2005 Comments (0)

Oana GAVIŢA
Oradea State University, Romania

Abstract
With the exception of pathological cases, all people seem to have at least a rudimentary mind reading capacity. The most important consequence is the capacity to predict the behavior of other individuals in various social settings. People are capable of meta-perception but studies show that self-report measures of mind reading skills are poor predictors of actual mind reading accuracy. The aim of this study was to establish people’s evaluation of their own mind reading abilities, which contribute significantly to their state of well-being. In other words, is it healthy to consider that we can read others’ thoughts, emotions, intentions, and can we anticipate and predict their behavior with great precision? We started from the assumption that these over evaluations belong to the field of positive illusions, along with unrealistically positive views of the self and unrealistic optimism. Thus, they give the one that beholds them the illusion of control, in situations characterized by reduced possibilities of control. Another direction of research question concerned the connection between mind reading beliefs and the level of irrational beliefs of the subjects, the implication of which in emotional distress is well-known. Our results showed that (1) men have the tendency of overestimating their abilities to mind read compared to women; (2) the evaluation of mind reading abilities as being high can function as positive illusions; (3) these beliefs are common among subjects with a high level of irrationality (4) positively biased opinions regarding our own abilities to read the others’ mind and predict their outcomes, contribute significantly to the prediction of mental health.

Key words: mind reading beliefs, irrational and rational beliefs, positive illusions, mental health,irrational beliefs, schemas, appraisal

Pages: 159-179

Introduction

People have beliefs, desires and intentions that lie below the surface behavior. One cannot directly see, taste, smell, or hear mental states, but understanding that other people have them is an essential part of our ordinary adult life (Meltzoff, 1999). The understanding of what other people think, want and feel is essential to interpersonal sensitivity and, by extension, to social life. The mind is the term most commonly used to describe the higher functions of the human brain, particularly those of which humans are subjectively conscious, such as personality, thought, reason, memory, intelligence and emotion. Mind reading-the ability to read others’ thoughts and feelings-is perhaps the sine qua non of successful human relationships, providing a bridge between the inner psychological experiences of one person and those of another (Levenson & Ruef, 1992; Smither, 1977; Thomas & Fletcher, 2003). We can refer to the cognitive abilities implied in mind reading calling them „theory of mind” (ToM). Mind reading or theory of mind are the names given to a well-studied human cognitive capacity: the ability to attribute mental states to conspecifics and to interpret actions, like explaining goal oriented behavior in terms of intentions and beliefs of the agent (Gallese, Garcia-Carpintero, & Recanati, 2003). Theory of mind, the ability to attribute independent mental states to self and others in order to explain and predict behavior, has been suggested to arise from a dedicated, domain-specific, and possibly modular cognitive mechanism (Cruz, 1998). This proposal gains particular support from studies of autism, a biologically based developmental disorder, which appears to be characterized by a selective impairment in the theory of mind (Gallager, Happe, Brunswick, Fletcher, Frith, & Frith, 2000).

The Theory of Mind

The term “theory of mind” arises from the assumption that for reading another’s mind, an individual has to possess a theory about the way other people’s minds function (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Evolutionary psychologists understand relatively little about the cognitive processes that people use to make inferences about the mental states of others (see Andrews, 2001; Baron-Cohen, 1995; Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Haselton & Buss, 2000). Of course, if mind reading is one of the most difficult cognitive tasks people have to face, then figuring out how they do the task is likely to be difficult as well. Theory of mind represents a social module which contains scenarios and attributional schemas, which apply to human behavior in general and are associated with the attribution of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, thoughts etc

When Premack and Woodruff (1978) introduced the concept of “theory of mind” (ToM), it referred to the attribution of mental states to both oneself and others. In the course of this debate two different concepts, based on developmental psychology and cognitive science have been proposed and are usually referred to as “simulation theory” and “theory theory” (Galese & Goldman, 1998; Vogeley, Bussfeld, Newen, Herrmann, Happe, Falkai, Maier, Shah, Fink, & Zilles, 2001). According to the “simulation theory” (ST), ToM is based on taking someone else’s perspective, and projecting one’s own attitudes on someone else (Harris, 1992). The simulation theory (ST) maintains that people’s mental states are represented by adopting their perspective, meaning, placing in correspondence their states with our own resonance states. Therefore, the capacity to develop our own self-perspective is reduced to a subcomponent of the more general capacity – ToM (Gordon & Cruz, 2004). By contrast, according to the “theory theory” (TT), ToM ability is based on a distinct body of theoretical knowledge acquired during the individual’s ontogenetic development (Gopnik & Wellman, 1992; Perner & Howes, 1992). The theory theory suggests that mental states are represented as postulates inferred on the base of a naive theory. Alternatively, the modular theory mind (ToMM) considers that the theory of mind exists as a distinctive cognitive ability, which is functionally dissociable from other cognitive functions. Thus, it is sustained that the theory of mind module is innate, forms a pre-established course of development and maturates relatively independent from other cognitive abilities (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Firth, 1995).

In fact, impaired ToM has been described in a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders. The most extensive ToM studies have been carried out in the autistic disorders spectrum (e.g., Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Firth, 1995; Baron-Cohen 1997), in adult patients with frontal lobe damage, and in schizophrenia (overviews in Brune 2003; Brune, 2005; Corcoran 2000;). Only recently has ToM research been extended to patients with frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s dementia or other dementing disorders (e.g., Cuerva, Sabe, Kuzis, Tiberti, Dorrego, & Starkstein, 2001; Gregory, Lough, Stone, Erzinclioglu, Martin, Baron-Cohen, & Hodges, 2002; Snowden, Gibbons, Blackshaw, Doubleday, Thompson, Craufurd, Foster, Happé, & Neary, 2003; Starkstein & Garau 2003), antisocial personality disorder (Richell, Mitchell, Newman, Leonard, Baron-Cohen, & Blair, 2003), bipolar affective disorder (Kerr, Dunbar, & Bentall, 2003), and normal aging (Happé, Brownell, & Winner, 1998; Maylor, Moulson, Munces, & Taylor, 2002).

Therefore, we can say that mind reading is one of the most difficult cognitive tasks people have to face. When people fail to read others’ minds, they form incorrect impressions, take ineffective or inappropriate actions, and generally fail to coordinate their behavior with the attitudes and behavior of those around them. Because mental states are not directly observable, they can only be inferred from observable features of the actor (such as behavior) and the situational context that the actor is in. Social psychologists who study theory of mind processes under the rubric of attribution research, have shown that people often make a logical error of inference: “the fundamental attribution error” (FAE; Andrews, 2001), which represents the tendency of assuming that an actor’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.

Mind reading beliefs

People are not only aware of their psychological make-up but they are also capable of “meta-perception”, which can be defined as how they believe others view them. Studies have shown that people can indeed estimate the ways others judge/perceive them) (Kenny, 1994; Kenny & DePaulo, 1993; Malloy, Albright, Kenny, Agatstein, & Winquist, 1997). Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that people can also assess their own mind-reading abilities: how accurate they are, compared to other people, in judging traits, states, and intentions of others. Curiously, however, Ickes, Stinson, Bisonette, and Garcia (1990) found that people seem to lack meta-knowledge regarding their own mind reading or empathic accuracy; various self-report measures of empathic skills and empathic accuracy were poor predictors of actual accuracy of inferring other people’s thoughts and feelings. Even more so, most of these correlations between the self-reported ability and the actual mind reading performance were negative (Davis & Kraus, 1997; Ickes, 1993; Ickes et al., 1990). Thus, these data suggest that people seem to be unreliable judges of their own mind reading or empathic abilities. Although they differ significantly in their ability to accurately read the thoughts and feelings of others, they have little insight with regard to their own level of empathic skills (Ickes, 1993).

One obvious reason for this lack of meta-knowledge is that the generalizability of the mind reading accuracy judging tasks and of the judged targets is rather weak (Davis & Kraus, 1997; Kenny & Albright, 1987). This may, however, not be the whole story. Ickes (1993) listed several other possibilities, including a motivation not to be accurate in estimating one’s own mind reading ability in certain circumstances. But even then, incorrect assumptions may have important repercussions on people’s actions and performances. Bandura (1982) has repeatedly demonstrated that people’s beliefs in their own abilities and expertise in a variety of domains-sometimes adequate and sometimes wrong – are good predictors of many real-life outcomes.

Realo, Allik, Nolvak, Valk, Ruus, Schmidt, & Eilola, (2003) examined the structure and dimensionality of mind reading beliefs. They demonstrated that mind reading beliefs have a relatively simple structure, concentrating around only one generalized belief. The existence of this single generalized belief allowed them to develop a short indicator of the general mind reading belief. Another aspect of the study concerned the relationship between the general mind reading belief and actual mind reading tasks. More specifically, they examined the relationships between the general mind reading belief and (a) the recognition of facial and verbal emotional expressions and speech and (b) the recognition of the personality traits of a stranger. Thirdly, they examined the relations between mind reading beliefs and actual performance in the context of personality and intelligence. The results of this study showed that people’s beliefs about their mind reading abilities circle just around one dominant theme. If people believe that they are good judges of other people’s character then they also have a relatively high opinion of their abilities to read the thoughts, emotions and behavioral intentions of others. In other words, there appears to be a relatively generalized belief about one’s mind reading abilities; knowing someone’s mind reading efficacy beliefs in one domain is enough to predict beliefs in some other domain. Thus, people’s beliefs about their mind reading abilities appear to be uni-dimensional. What is surprising is the lack of a relationship between mind reading beliefs and the actual mind reading performance. Those who believed that they were good at putting themselves in another person’s shoes were in fact no better than average in recognizing emotional expressions or personality traits of a stranger. This result supports the main conclusion of previous studies that people are unreliable judges of their own empathic accuracy (Davis & Kraus, 1997; Ickes, 1993). Therefore, results show that beliefs about the mind reading ability are more often related to personality and unrelated to psychometrically measured intelligence. On the contrary, the actual mind reading performance is linked to mental abilities and less strongly and less systematically related to personality.

Using a video-review procedure, multiple perceivers carried out mind reading tasks of multiple targets at different levels of acquaintanceship (50 dating couples, friends of the dating partners, and strangers) and the relationship between judges and targets was systematically manipulated. The authors (Thomas & Fletcher, 2003) found that mind reading accuracy was (a) higher as a function of increased acquaintanceship, (b) relatively unaffected by target effects, (c) influenced by individual differences in perceivers’ ability, and (d) higher for female than male perceivers. In addition, superior mind reading accuracy (for dating couples and friends) was related to higher relationship satisfaction, closeness, and more prior disclosure about the problems discussed, but only under moderating conditions related to sex and relationship length. The authors concluded that the nature of the relationship between the perceiver and the target occupies a pivotal role in determining mind reading accuracy. Since the studies report that accuracy in mind reading is higher for females, one aim of this study is to investigate if mind reading beliefs are influenced by the gender of the subjects.

Mounting evidence suggests that people are often poor at estimating their own competence in domains ranging from logical reasoning to sense of humor (e.g., Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003). A good deal of research over the past few decades suggests that very often self-awareness is not only limited (e.g., Paulhus, Lysy, & Yik, 1998), but also distorted in the direction of flattering and enhancing oneself (e.g., Alicke, 1985; Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989; Taylor & Brown, 1988). While the positive and negative consequences of such distortions continue to be debated (e.g., Colvin & Block, 1994), there seems to be reasonable consensus that self-awareness is far from perfect in many, and perhaps most, domains. In recent years, work by Dunning, Kruger, and colleagues (see Dunning et al., 2003 for a review; Kruger & Dunning, 1999) has focused on the ability to gauge one’s relative task performance, an ability they term metacognition. They have argued that the incompetent suffer a ‘‘double curse”: those who perform poorly in a domain are not only unskilled, but also unaware of their lack of skill. Researches found that those who perform the worst in social judgment and mind reading tasks, radically overestimate their relative competence. Studies also found origins of these self-estimates in general narcissistic tendencies toward self-aggrandizement (Ames & Kammrath, 2001). Metacognition scholars have suggested several mechanisms at work. First, they argue that competence itself can be a prerequisite for judging one’s relative performance. By definition, then, those who are less competent in a domain also lack the ability to recognize what good performance would look like. Kruger and Dunning (1999) highlighted this effect by showing that among those least skilled in problem solving, perceptions of performance declined after subsequent training in the domain: as competence increased, these perceivers seemed to show a growing awareness of their limited skills.

Self-efficacy is conceptualized as our expectations that we can perform competently across a broad range of situations that are challenging and which require effort and perseverance (Bandura, 1986). In other words, self-efficacy expectancies are convictions concerning our ability to perform behaviors that will yield expected outcomes. By acting through four major processes – cognitive, motivational, affective and of selection – those convictions determine the way people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave. From the social cognitive perspective, it is mainly perceived inefficacy to cope with potentially aversive events that makes them fearsome. To the extent that people believe they can prevent, terminate or lessen the severity of aversive events, they have little reason to be perturbed by them. But if they believe they are unable to manage threats safely, they have much cause for apprehension.

Beliefs regarding self-efficacy influence the cognitive processes in various ways. Because most activities are initially organized mentally, people’s beliefs in their own abilities shape the types of anticipated scenarios that regard the expected results (Bandura, 1989). Also, the beliefs regarding self-efficacy play a key role in the self-regulation of motivation that is also determined by cognitive factors, as the individual forms his own beliefs regarding his own abilities. One’s beliefs in his/her coping abilities influence the extent of perceived stress and depression in difficult situations. The perceived self-efficacy regarding the controllability of the stressors plays an essential role in the determination of the physiological arousal that generates anxiety. Individuals who believe they can control the factors that lead to the apparition of perilous situations do not formulate maladaptive thinking patterns (Bandura, 1997). On the other hand, the ones that believe they do not have any control whatsoever over these factors, experience high levels of anxiety, focusing excessively on their coping deficiencies and in the same time endorsing a catastrophic interpretation of reality. Thus, their level of functioning will be low, as they avoid the situations they perceive as dangerous. There is amounting evidence in the literature supporting the influence of positively biased perception of self-efficacy on human performance and on the general state of well-being. As attaining an optimal performance means overcoming the obstacles, individuals must possess a high level of self-efficacy in order to persevere and maintain the necessary effort to reach their goals (Bandura, 1986). Individuals who have successes and an optimistic vision about their own abilities to influence the events that affect their lives are, as a consequence, sociable, non-anxious, non-depressive, reformable and innovative. These beliefs, if they are not excessively non-realistic, foster superior performances and general well-being.

Mind reading beliefs and irrational beliefs

People make numerous errors when trying to read the minds of others. As such, one of the hypotheses of this research claims that it is irrational to believe one has unlimited access to the mental states of the others and easily and precisely infer on this, based only on observable behaviors. Under this light, the beliefs regarding accurate mind reading could be related to the classic construct of irrational cognitions, whose involvement in generating emotional distress was empirically demonstrated (David, Szentagotai, Kallay, & Macavei, in press). This connection is made in order to measure the extent to which beliefs regarding mind reading are related to mental health compared to the construct of irrational cognitions that has serious implications in emotional distress. An irrational belief is logically incorrect, incongruent with the objective reality and it blocks the individual’s goals. In contrast, rational beliefs are based on empirical reality; they facilitate the attaining of the goals and they respect the principles of logic (DiGiuseppe, 1996).

High levels of irrational beliefs are associated with emotional and behavioral negative consequences, risk of pathology development and high emotional distress (David et al. 2003). Consequently, if individuals who assess themselves as having good mind reading performances can be conceptualized as “irrational”, then believing they have good mind reading performances could mean that these beliefs can be related to emotional distress. Thus, an objective that this research is identifying whether individuals who rate their mind reading performances as good also display a high level of irrational beliefs. Based on these interactions, we will follow the way in which the individual perceives himself/herself as a good observer of human nature and that he can identify what others feel, think or plan, correlates with mental health.

Mind reading beliefs and positive illusions

The social environment where the abilities theory of mind refers to evolved, may have influenced attribution processes in ways that could explain the errors. Errors could be caused by a psyche that is designed (1) to consider only those non-corresponding mental states (such as deception) that could have adaptive consequences to the mind reader; (2) to bias inferences in a way that reduces the costs of erroneous inferences; or (3) to bias inferences in a way that yields reputational benefits (Andrews, 2001). Considering the claim that people hold unrealistically positive views of themselves, this assertion is not based on evidence that people’s self-conceptions are more positive than negative (Colvin & Block, 1994), it is based largely (although not exclusively) on evidence that people consistently regard themselves more positively and less negatively than they regard others. Insofar, as it is logically impossible for most people to be better than others, we can label this tendency an illusion. Research shows that people typically distort such feedback in a self-serving manner. More subjective self-evaluations (e.g., how happy or well-adjusted one is) do not have these same objective standards of comparison. In such cases, an illusion is implied if the majority of people report that they are more (or less) likely than the majority of people to hold a particular belief. For example, if most people believe that they are happier, better adjusted, and more skilled on a variety of tasks than most other people, such perceptions provide evidence suggestive of an illusion (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Therefore, it is entirely fitting for people to believe they are better than others because people often (a) choose dimensions of comparison on which they are advantaged, (b) define attributes in idiosyncratic ways that emphasize their perceived strengths, or (c) select worse-off comparison groups that guarantee a favorable self-other comparison (Taylor & Brown, 1994; Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, & Gruenewald, 2000). Consequently, the overestimation of mind reading abilities could represent a positive illusion, since it implies a positive biased opinion regarding peoples’ own capacities.

It is widely believed that misjudgment produces dysfunction. Certainly, gross miscalculation can create problems. However, optimistic self-appraisals of capability that are not unduly disparate from what is possible can be advantageous, whereas veridical judgments can be self-limiting. When people err in their self-appraisals, they tend to overestimate their capabilities. This is a benefit rather than a cognitive failing to be eradicated. If self-efficacy beliefs always reflected only what people could routinely do, they would rarely fail, but they would not mount the extra effort needed to surpass their ordinary performances (Bandura, 1989).

Mind reading beliefs and mental health

The main purpose of this study is to determine the connection between people’s mind reading beliefs and their psychological well-being. On the one hand, we have an established view of mental health coming largely from the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology that stresses the importance of accurate perceptions of the self, one’s circumstances, and the future. On the other hand, we have a sharply different portrait from cognitive and social psychology of the normal individual as one who evidences substantial biases in these perceptions. Moreover, these biases fall in a predictable direction, namely, a positive one. Traditional conceptions of mental health assert that well-adjusted individuals possess relatively accurate perceptions of themselves, their capacity to control important events in their lives, and their future. In contrast to this portrayal, a great deal of research in social, personality, clinical and developmental psychology documents that normal individuals possess unrealistically positive views of themselves, an exaggerated belief in their ability to control their environment, and a view of the future that maintains that their future will be far better than the average person’s. Furthermore, individuals who are moderately depressed or low in self-esteem consistently display an absence of such enhancing illusions. Together, these findings appear inconsistent with the notion that accurate self-knowledge is the hallmark of mental health. Then the reconciliation of those points of view could be done taking into account the evidences from converging sources, which suggests that positive illusions about the self, one’s control, and the future may be especially apparent and adaptive under circumstances of adversity, that is, circumstances that might be expected to produce depression or lack of motivation (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Taylor & Brown, 1994). The key to an integration of the two views of mental health may, then, lie in understanding those circumstances under which positive illusions about the self and the world may be most obvious and useful.

Therefore, if mind reading beliefs can be considered positive illusions, then those beliefs could have positive consequences on mental health, by giving to the one that makes inferences about other’s mental states the illusion of control in situations in which the possibilities of control are reduced. A large literature on co-variation estimation indicates that people substantially overestimate their degree of control over heavily chance-determined events (see Crocker, 1982). When people expect to produce a certain outcome and the outcome then occurs, they often overestimate the degree to which they were instrumental in bringing it about (see Miller & Ross, 1975). The important issue is not whether people believe they can control things they cannot control (and the relation of those beliefs to adjustment), but rather whether people believe they can control things more than is actually the case (and how these beliefs relate to adjustment). Clearly, not all feelings of personal control would be expected to predict adjustment. The illusion of control often exists in normal samples and it is typically associated with good psychological adjustment (Taylor & Brown, 1994). The analysis in the matter of sense of personal control provides converging evidence for the potential functional value of self-enhancement, personal control, optimism, and their concomitants under conditions of threat.

Hypotheses and design

The following hypotheses were formulated: (1) mind reading beliefs are influenced by the gender of the subjects; (2) mind reading beliefs are positively related to irrational beliefs; (3) mind reading beliefs are positively related to positive illusions; (4) mind reading beliefs are predictors of mental health. The study has a quasi-experimental and correlational design.

Method

Participants

The sample consisted of 75 subjects, 55 women and 20 men. The mean age of the participants was 22 years, ranging from 19 to 52 years. The participants were students from the University of Oradea and were recruited on a voluntary basis.

Measures

The Mind-reading Belief Scale (MBS) was developed by Realo (2003) and it consists of 8 items. The scale measures people’s generalized beliefs about their ability to read others’ minds as well as to judge others’ characters, their emotional and other states of mind, and to anticipate their intentions and actions. More specifically, the item pool (first 63 items) was generated in order to cover four large thematic groups of mind-reading beliefs as proposed by Davis and Kraus (1997): an ability to read the others’ (1) personality traits, (2) mental states, (3) roles, identity, or status and to predict their (4) future behavior. Several criteria were used to select the items: the items should have high loadings on the first principal component, the scale should include an equal number of direct and reversed items, the items should cover different thematic groups and they should be different in their wording. The items were generated in Estonian, and then translated into English and into Romanian. The principal component analysis demonstrated the existence of only one factor, accounting for 33.5% of the total variance. Then, a series of analysis were conducted to verify that the selected 8 items were indeed good and undistorted representatives of the total item-pool. First, it was calculated the total scores of the eight items and the remaining 55 items and the correspondence between the factor structures of the 8 and of the remaining 55 items. It was concluded that the 8 items chosen for the MBS represented quite accurately the larger set of items from which they were selected. It was examined the long-term stability of the MBS and the participants were re-tested at a time interval of approximately 3 and a half years. The long-term stability coefficient of the MBS was .61 (p=.000). In addition, an experiment was conducted by Realo (2003) in which social desirability of the MBS items were measured. The mean social desirability of 8 MBS items was 1.83 (SD= .46). Compared with the estimated social desirability of personality traits, this was a rather intermediate value.

The internal consistency of the items is significant (Cronbach = .83) and the scale can be considered as having satisfactory psychometric properties.

The Attitude and Beliefs Scale (ABS II, Romanian version) (DiGiuseppe, Leaf, Exner, & Robin, 1988; Macavei, 2002) evaluates rational and irrational beliefs described in Albert Ellis’ theory. The measure has 72 items and three subscales: cognitive processes (i.e. DEM; AWF; FI and GE/ SD), the content of belief (i.e. approval, achievement and comfort) and rationality/ irrationality. Studies made on Romanian population indicate that the scale has very good psychometric properties (Macavei, 2002).

The Profile of Mood States-Short Version (POMS-SV) (Shacham, 1983) contains 47 items, which describe the feelings that people experience in different situations and moments. The scale is useful to measure the effects of experimental manipulation on normal people and other non-psychiatric populations, and consists of a list of adjectives, which describe the emotions people have. The items of the scale were grouped in two general categories: positive emotions and negative emotions, two scales being thus obtained. The total Mood Disturbance Score (TMD) is calculated by summing the items of the Negative Emotions Subscale, scored directly, and the items of the Positive Emotions Subscale, scored reversed. Total Mood Disturbance Score is used especially when a global and unique estimation of an emotional state is wanted.

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) (Rosenberg, 1965) is a 10-item measure and the answers are given in a Lickert form, where 1 means „total disagreement” and 4 „total agreement”. The scale has a good internal consistency, Cronbach’s alpha coefficient has a value of .89 and the test-retest reliability is between .85 and .88 (Rosenberg, 1965).

The Life Orientation Test (LOT) (Scheier & Carver, 1985). The scale is a 12-item measure, but only 8 items assess dispositional optimism. There are five answer options, from „completely agree” (1) to „completely disagree” (5). The total score is obtained by summing the numbers that indicate the answer in the case of four items positively worded (scored directly), with the other four which are negatively worded (scored reversed). Scores range between 8 and 40; a high value indicates the presence of optimism. The LOT has demonstrated both reliability and validity (Scheier & Carver, 1985).

Procedure

Scales were administered in group. The time necessary for completion of the questionnaires was between 35 and 45 minutes. The results were collected at the end of the examination period, without a time restriction being imposed.

Results

We started from the assumption that the individuals’ beliefs in their own ability to read the mind of other people is gender dependent.

Table 1. Mean and standard deviation for the male-female comparison regarding mind-reading

Variables

N

Mean

Standard deviation

Mind-reading Beliefs (MBS)

75

19.5

5.8

Gender Masculine

20

21.6

6.3

Feminine

55

18.7

5.9

beliefs.

Table2. t test on independent samples for the male-female comparison regarding mind-reading beliefs.

Variables

df

t

p

Mind-reading Beliefs-MBS

Gender (masculine- feminine)

73

1.882

.06

The results are not significant and there is only a tendency in the male subjects to over evaluate their abilities to mind-read, compared to the female subjects. This fact could be explained by the disproportion between the two samples (male N=20; female N = 55). Research conducted so far regarding the real accuracy of mind reading has proven that women accomplish these tasks with a higher accuracy than men (Thomas & Fletcher, 2003). Considering these results, we could conclude that although men accomplish the tasks of mind reading with a lower accuracy compared to women, they have a tendency to over-appreciate and, unlike women, be surer of their abilities to discover an impostor or to anticipate intentions or actions.

Although, there was a proposed model that suggested that one’s own beliefs about the ability to read the minds of others should be related to the set of irrational cognitions the subject has, the results show a correlation with both irrational and rational beliefs. These results show that both rationality and irrationality are related to people’s beliefs that they can read other peoples’ minds with a high level of accuracy, that they anticipate their behaviors. It seems that this belief can be common also in the case of individuals that formulate their goals in terms of preferences. It is probable that the results / consequences of holding such opinions on the ability to control the environment are different in the case of the individuals that endorse rational beliefs compared to individuals with a high level of irrationality.

Table 3. Correlational Coefficients Between Mind-reading Beliefs and Rational/ Irrational Beliefs.

Variables

Irrational Beliefs

ABS II

Mind Reading Beliefs (MBS)

r

.36

p

<.05

N

75

It was proposed that the beliefs regarding one’s own ability to accurately infer the mental states of others are a type of positive illusion.

Table 4. Correlations among measures of mind-reading beliefs, self-esteem and optimism.

Variables

Self-esteem (Rosenberg)

Optimism (LOT)

Mind-reading Beliefs (MBS)

r

.23

.24

p

<.05

<.05

N

75

75

The results confirm the proposed hypotheses and they show a significant correlation between these beliefs about oneself, and the specific constructs of positive illusions, optimism and high self-esteem. Individuals that believe they are good at knowing human nature have a good opinion about themselves and positive expectations about the future.

According to the assumption we began with, if people’s beliefs that they can easily know the minds of other people are positive illusions, they should be related to mental health.

Table 5. Correlations among measures of mind-reading beliefs and psychological distress.

Variables

TMD

POMS-SV

Negative Emotions

Positive Emotions

r

p

r

p

r

P

Mind-reading Beliefs Scale (MBS)

-.38

<.05

-.35

<.05

.23

<.05

Based on a the correlational analysis, we notice that there is an inverse relation between beliefs regarding the ability of the individual to accurately mind-read and the level of personal distress, and the experience of negative emotions. Individuals who self-describe themselves as good at knowing human nature, and think that they can anticipate the behavior of their peers show a low level of emotional distress and experience less negative emotions.

Discussions

Based upon the results, we can only say that there is a tendency of a difference between male and female subjects regarding the assessment of their own abilities of mind reading. Based upon the data in the literature (Realo et al., 2003), although their performance at reading emotions and personality traits is lower than that of female subjects, men have the tendency to overestimate their performances in this area. As the results also show correlations between these overestimations and positive illusions, it is possible that for men this is a domain that offers protection regarding mental health.

The results of this research also show that a high estimation of one’s abilities to read the mind of others is positively correlated with both irrational beliefs and the positive illusions people have.

In case of irrational beliefs, as predicted, mind reading beliefs were associated with a high level of irrational beliefs. This suggests that these two constructs can be related to human tendency to distort the reality, with impact of mental health.

In case of positive illusions, it seems that people who have a high self-esteem and optimism evaluate their abilities to read the intentions, thoughts and emotions of others better than the ones that have low self-esteem and low optimism. In this context, the beliefs about mind reading could represent a sort of social or even personal constructs that do not correspond to the reality they are supposed to describe; they are rather fictions or positive illusions. Although, according to some common sense and scientific beliefs, an accurate self-perception is essential to a good state of mental health, the results prove the opposite. From this perspective, “normal” people have a realistic comprehension of what they are, of their own abilities and of what will happen in the future. Yet, the results show that the healthiest people are those who have slightly positively biased illusions about their own positive features, their control over the events determined by chance and their personal future. The ones that are realistic have a tendency to suffer of certain degrees of depression. The theory of learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975) explains how the experience of stressful, uncontrollable events can lead to apathy and depression. The initial theory had to be modified in order to take into account the fact that some people become helpless in situations of uncontrollability, whereas others are refreshed by such events. The fact that some people are endowed with positive illusions that act as protective factors of the individual’s mental health when negative events occur could play an important role in explaining these results. Of course, the results cannot be interpreted in an absolutistic manner, as it is well known that illusions that do not have any connection with reality are specific to psychotic disorders. Patients with psychotic disorders can have delirious ideas according to which they are persecuted, can read the hidden agenda of others and have unlimited access to the thoughts of others. These exaggerations cannot be related to mental health. The illusion aspects we referred to mean slight biases / distortions, in a positive way, of one’s own abilities and only these are related with/to a good mental health.

People who describe themselves as good at knowing human nature, who believe they can anticipate the behavior of others show a low level of emotional distress and experience less negative emotions. Future studies should explore the following puzzling findings in this study: while irrational beliefs are typically inversely related to mental health, in this research mind reading beliefs correlate positively with both mental health and irrational beliefs. The results show that subjects with low distress scores have the tendency of overrating their own qualities. They think they are good at deciphering the others’ thoughts, emotions, wishes, intentions, that they can identify the distortion and that they have a brighter future than the others. Those who perceive themselves as competent in knowing the human nature and in anticipating the behavior of other people in social contexts also have a higher perception of personal control, of personal value and significance, and a low level of distress. It is not about naïve expectations regarding the control exercised in situations when it is non-existent, but rather about the perception of one’s own abilities and an active adjustment to the environment. The ability to predict a stressful event – even if the individual cannot control it – reduces the harshness of the stress itself. Experiments show that both animals and humans prefer unpleasant and predictable events rather than unpredictable ones. People’s belief that the behavior of the others is explainable and predictable, and that they have resources to cope with the challenge of interactions with the others can lead to an increased perception of control in situations when it is reduced. It is known that perceived efficacy in controlling threatening events plays an important role in determining the level of anxiety. Anxious people overrate the degree of the associated threat and underrate their own abilities of adjustment.

Recent studies show that theory of mind abilities can be selectively preserved and even increased in the normal adult/ aged population, compared to memory and other general cognitive abilities (Happe, Brownell, 1998). Beliefs referring to mind reading could be a domain of illusions of personal control that increases in time because, as they get more social experience, people are more able to identify emotions, attitudes, intentions and to anticipate the behaviors in the environment. Thus, this domain can become an important way of maintaining the level of general control by compensation of losing real control in other areas of activity. This direction has not yet been investigated, and further research is needed.

Yet, studies show that slightly positive-biased illusions do not just cause a state of well-being, but also improve performance (Thompson, Sobolew-Shubin, Galbraith, Schwankovsky, & Cruzen, 1993). Possessing a positive self-image and an exaggerated sense of control over the events can seem quite egocentric. The memory is built in an egocentric manner: the information that is more important or more relevant is easily remembered. Thus, positive illusions can benefit the memory as well. More important, positive illusions are expressed in performance as well. People with exaggerated self-perceptions, beliefs in personal control and optimistic views about their future are often more motivated and more perseverant and can have, as a consequence, higher performances. Thus, the results support the theory of positive influence of positively biased perceptions of self-efficacy over the general state of well-being. Thus, people with an optimistic vision of their own abilities to influence the events in their lives are non-anxious and non-depressive. These beliefs, if they are not exaggerated (nonrealistic), foster high performances and the state of well-being.

Practical implications

Cognitive therapies focus on identifying and correcting negative thinking patterns that come from self-destructive behaviors and emotions. The goal of cognitive therapy is that of assisting the patient in constructing some skills of problem identifying, perspective assessment regarding a certain problem and the offering of a more balanced perspective that would lead to more productive behaviors. Cognitive therapy is usually centered on improving the coping abilities of patients. Emotion-oriented strategies used in cognitive therapy are focused on altering the manner in which the patient sees the stressful event, thus a change in the perceived level of stress. By redefining the problem, the patient can transform the crisis into an opportunity or into a challenge. This reframing of the event can be accompanied by minimization, distance, selective attention and the search of the positive aspects of the situation. The final result is the fact that the patient will have an increased sense of control over the situation, thus reducing the level of distress.

Beliefs regarding self-efficacy influence cognitive processes in various ways. Because most of the activities are initially mentally organized, people’s beliefs in their own abilities shape the type of anticipating scenarios that will be elaborated regarding the expected results. This is why it is important to identify the aspects of the patients’ beliefs about their own abilities and future that are negatively biased and replace them with positive life scenarios. So, besides the identification of the irrational cognitions and replacing them with adaptive ones, cognitive therapy could focus on introducing in the intervention packages various techniques that aim to stimulate the positive illusions of the patients, meaning the increase of self-esteem, optimism and beliefs regarding one’s own abilities in various circumstances, with the effect of an increased event-control ability and a decreased state of uncertainty. During the implementation of the techniques used in cognitive therapy, the individual can begin with the understanding of the way these perceptions were accumulated and then their validity can be assessed, thus mobilizing the patient in choosing the valid concepts with viable options of behavior over the invalid ones. The individual’s ability to cope with the negative events he/ she is confronted with can be greatly affected by the manner he/ she assesses these stressful situations but also by their own coping abilities.

Irrational beliefs often include absolutistic demands, which emphasize perfection. They are difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Life events do not represent problems unless we assess them as problems. So, if these assessments are realistic the patient will be able to react appropriately to the daily events. These assessments are the product of our cognitive system. If we have nonrealistic, inflexible, negatively-biased beliefs, then the assessments we make can be inappropriate or inadequate to the situation we are confronted with. increase of the self-esteem, optimism and personal efficiency levels during Psychotherapy sessions can focus on engaging the patient in formulating several positive statements about his/ her own qualities, personality traits, future possibilities, establishing some realistic goals to accomplish where he/ she can be successful, a positive self presentation, increase of enthusiasm and interest towards various activities.

Limitations of the current study

We need to mention several limitations of the current study. First, for the Mind-reading Beliefs Scale, we obtained a satisfactory internal consistency of the items but the test – retest fidelity was not checked. A second limit is the fact that this is a correlational study and these kinds of non-experimental studies cannot establish a cause-effect relationship. So, the causal direction of the identified relations among the variables involved cannot be established.

The homogeneity of the research sample could be another limit of the study. The sample consisted of students, and stratification based on age, education, etc., could not be considered. Future studies should involve samples with a higher diversity and heterogeneity to assure the generalization of the results. An additional limitation is that the male sample is smaller than the female sample.

It is known that the association between irrational beliefs and distress is more obvious when subjects are confronted with negative life events. The study did not involve the manipulation of an activating event to trace the association of the variables involved under these circumstances. Also, besides self-esteem and optimism other personality traits like hardiness, self-efficacy, locus of control could have been assessed, that could be related to the beliefs about one’s own ability to read the mind of other people.

Finally, while mind reading abilities seem to refer to “inferences” (cold cognition), irrational beliefs, as measured here refer to “evaluations” (hot cognition); therefore, a measure of irrational beliefs focused on distorted inferences might be a better way to investigate the relation between mind reading abilities and irrationality.

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