Psychology of Social Connection

The Good vs Bad of Mind Perception, Kara Xie and Orion Vigil

February 19th, 2022 · 15 Comments

Understanding someone else’s mind sounds extremely positive and is a great way to foster connections. However, what happens when understanding someone else’s mind leads to negative outcomes such as caring less about others? Here we delve into both sides of the coin for mind perception – the good and the bad. 

Components of mind perception that we will discuss below include mind detection, theory of mind, humanization, and dehumanization. Mind detection includes the identification of another entity with a mind, whereas theory of mind is the ability to infer the thoughts, feelings, desires of other people (Epley & Waytz, 2010). Humanization is attributing basic human qualities to others (Haslam, 2006) whereas dehumanization is the failure to attribute basic human qualities to others (Epley & Waytz, 2012) .

Kara: The Good

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

This is a line I repeat to my twin sister probably twice a day. Feeling so connected with someone else’s mind has never felt easier. Inferring thoughts and feelings of someone I grew up with, share the same DNA with, and understand so well is something I consider to be a great success of mind perception in my personal life. 

In the Wheatley reading and in class, we learned how easy it is to recognize a face. As humans, we overstate the importance of the face as a stimulus; they ultimately serve as facades of other’s minds (Wheatley et al., 2012). There was a huge jumble of objects in a collage on a big screen. When asked about the location of money, it took over two minutes. When asked about the location of a face, it was almost instantaneous. Now imagine if that face looks exactly like yours. Even more instantaneous. That is a metaphor for mind perception with an identical twin sister and one that I recognize everyday. 

Another perk of mind perception is the ease in facilitating social connection and interaction. My sister and I joke that we just constantly blabber to each other at lightning speed. There is zero response time; we just laugh and instantly continue the conversation, jumping from one conversation to the next. Researchers found that conversations with faster response times felt more connected, and a third party perceived the conversation as more enjoyable (Templeton et al., 2022). No wonder, I thought, when I first read the article and connected it to my sister. 

Furthermore, Wheatley and his team found that the brain has the same electro-cortical response for dolls and humans, but there is a significantly larger response to human faces (Wheatley et al, 2011). The increased firing for human faces compared to inanimate objects fosters a greater sense of sociality and interaction between human to human. Another topic close to mind perception is humanization. Studies found that humanizing others nourishes healthier relationships and creates more sustainable bonds in the long run (Castro & Zautra, 2016). Combining the firing of the brain’s cortical responses with the humanization creating long-term healthy bonds, it sets humans up for the perfect recipe of social connection and belonging. Being empathetic is a quality I really admire. I think we can all agree it is a great character trait to demonstrate. Failing to consider another person’s perspective or mind is dehumanizing that person. Being empathetic is essentially humanizing and taking the perspective of another person, and of course, super advantageous in making new friends and connections. Mind perception is a fundamental tool in understanding others and forming these close social connections that we crave as humans. 

Orion: The Bad

Social Connection Enables Dehumanization. This conclusion, outlined by Waytz and Epley in their 2012 paper of the same title, raises immediate concerns about the implications of meeting one’s own need for belongingness on others. As a self-identified relationship anarchist, or, a person who believes that love and connection are not a zero-sum game, the thought that “increasing social connection diminishes the motivation to connect with the minds of additional others and increases the social distance between the self and more distant others” directly questions my closely held beliefs about our ability to love (Waytz & Epley, 2012). My newfound sense of belonging with my roommates this year floated to the surface as I scanned the disturbing findings. Our friendship is built on a foundation of shared values and multiple overlapping identities, and they fill a need for belonging that I’m not sure was met even before the pandemic began. This is great, of course; my level of confidence, security, and general wellbeing has mostly skyrocketed since being part of this little friend group, where we work consistently to value, humanize, and understand each other. But I cannot help but wonder if our radical inclusivity when it comes to our unique insecurities, flaws, and struggles is not also inherently exclusionary. Have I, in cultivating such close bonds with them, begun seeing others less complexly?

This is not the first time I’ve felt such a compelling sense of belonging. In high school I was a proudly self-described theater kid, spending most of my hours backstage chatting, eating, and doing homework with other theater kids, even when not actively working on a production. I am sure that any team activity – sports, chess club, editorial teams – lends itself to the formation of this sort of shared identity. Working with other actors as part of a cast not only provides a teamwork-based foundation for closeness but actively encourages you to mentalize, mimic, and generally tune yourself to the thoughts and feelings of your castmates, because these are the things that contribute to great on-stage chemistry. Perspective-taking, or imagining oneself in the mental and emotional state of another, is literally baked into the craft. But there was something else. 

It is my experience that the shared “theater kid” identity that compels us to sequester ourselves backstage involves a feeling of unbelonging everywhere else. We are often, but not always, a queer, neurodiverse, or otherwise “different” bunch, which can make traditional high school hallways a less than comfortable environment. The fact that we humanize each other so intensely provides a much-needed home base and safety net for navigating school, and I think this is good and necessary. With time, though, I see how this also worked to reinforce my belief that I would not be accepted and isolate myself from others. Occasionally, I have, in years since graduating, met and connected with a classmate outside of theater who remembers me – remembers what classes I took and which performances I was in, what I was studying, and where I worked for my senior project – while I did not remember very much about them at all. This troubles me, especially because the reason I do not remember is almost always that I assumed they, as people outside my in-group, would not accept me. So I just didn’t pay very close attention.

While this is of course a bit of a sad realization, Waytz and Epley outline far more serious consequences to our failure to humanize than missed high-school connections. It is, according to them, the mechanism of satiated need for belonging leading to indifference, not necessarily hatred, that laid the groundwork for the most atrocious crimes human beings have committed against one another in history. What do we do with this information? Obviously, I do not think it wise to starve ourselves of such a basic need for belongingness and connection. I do think we have a calling we cannot ignore to build communities that are affirming, supportive, and uplifting – but do so without defining a rigid, inflexible “them” and “us.” There is hope for this: one study found that having a strong moral identity, or sense of identification with the moral values of one’s communities, makes people “more likely to extend moral concern” to those outside their in-group (Smith et al., 2014). Yet more research is needed in identifying the protective factors that can help us continue to humanize others while meeting our own need for connection. 

References 

Epley, N., & Waytz, A. (2010). Mind perception.

Wheatley, T., Kang, O., Parkinson, C., & Looser, C. E. (2012). From mind perception to mental connection: Synchrony as a mechanism for social understanding. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(8), 589-606. 

Wheatley, T., Weinberg, A., Looser, C., Moran, T., & Hajcak, G. (2011). Mind perception: Real but not artificial faces sustain neural activity beyond the N170/VPP. PloS one, 6(3), e17960.

Castro, S. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2016). Humanization of social relations: Nourishing health and resilience through greater humanity. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36(2), 64–80. 

Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70–76.

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3), 252-264.

Melophilius (2016). Good Days and Bad [gif]. Imgur. https://imgur.com/gallery/SV5hgpE/comment/673589168

Smith, I. H., Aquino, K., Koleva, S., & Graham, J. (2014). The moral ties that bind . . . Even to out-groups: The interactive effect of moral identity and the binding moral foundations. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1554–1562. 

Templeton, E. M., Chang, L. J., Reynolds, E. A., LeBeaumont, M. D. C., & Wheatley, T. (2022). Fast response times signal social connection in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(4).

 

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15 responses so far ↓

  • Kayla Edwards // Feb 19th 2022 at 3:43 pm

    I think what Orion and Do Yeon had to say about mind perception and minority groups was extremely eye-opening. If mind perception is inherently easier to do with those that are similar to us, then, naturally, we will have a lower tendency to do it with those who are different than us. Minority groups, by definition, are groups of people “whose practices, race, religion, ethnicity, or other characteristics are fewer in numbers than the main groups of those classifications” (Wikipedia). With this in mind, it seems to create a self-perpetuating cycle of feeling different from those groups, which leads us to be less inclined to attempt mind perception, which leaves us feeling more different from those groups, and so on and so on. While this is likely a component of intrinsic, human nature and not a conscious effort to marginalize minority groups, it is certainly a cycle that, once we are aware of it, can be fought against. While it may require more effort, endeavors to experience mind perception with (and, in turn, humanize) individuals who are extremely different than us (in any way!). Obviously, all racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. cannot be sovled by just ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’, it is deeply-rooted and there is no quick fix. But on an individual level, perspective-taking could be a good place to start.

  • Andrea Liu // Feb 20th 2022 at 1:13 pm

    Kara and Orion make great points about how mind perception can be used for both good and bad. The furthering of the “other” can be a look at how science can reveal dangerous parts of humanity. When we fail to make the cognitive effort to get to know another person, so long as they are not top-of-mind similar or connected to us, we are potentially creating a dangerous pattern of feeding into an artificial separation of “us” and “them”. Often times, our labels can be a sign of inclusivity and being “in” a group, but sadly on the flip side, it can mean being excluded from it too.

    On the other hand, Kara’s story about her twin is an interesting example of how this can exist in real life too, in a positive way. My best friend at Harvard actually also shares the same birthday as me, as we found out in the first week of school. We also claim to have “twinstincts” even though we don’t share any DNA and have only known each other for a few years, it is crazy how at times, it really does seem like our minds are synced together. This is an example of how our minds are mirrored, and it has strengthened our friendship.

  • Lake De La Fuente // Feb 20th 2022 at 7:13 pm

    Kara and Orion, thank you for your insightful post.

    Mind perception, as you mentioned Kara, is such an incredible tool for social interaction and connection. Using what we did in class this week, watching the shapes video for most of us caused the assignment of emotions to the shapes. Thus, resulting in each of us narrating our own story of what the shapes were doing. I think this is a prime example of humanization on a raw level; we want to be social/interact and are empathic by nature. Therefore when it comes to human faces, it makes sense to see a significantly larger response as you stated. Personally, when I see my mom and dad is when I feel the ultimate sense of belonging.
    Transitioning to what Orion brings to action– dehumanization or “The Bad”. Failing to make connections from not actively attempting to get to know the individual but rather judging “them” as you brought to attention is in my opinion, very detrimental to society. If you’re not “us”, then you’re “them” – is extremely representative of exclusivity and inclusivity. Which is quite sad for the individual who is excluded, as they could feel a sense of not belonging. We have to as humans be more understanding of one another and I hope our generation can achieve this.

  • Summer Cai // Feb 21st 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Kara and Orion thanks for your insightful post!
    Orion, your post really spoked to surprise and concern when I first read Waytz and Epley’s conclusion. My first intuition, like yours, is that love is not a zero-sum game. As I learn to love more people, I also learn to love them better, to emphasize more, to care more, to communicate more, and to understand more. I would think that having deep social connections with a group would foster instead of take away from my ability to empathize with others. Yet, when I think back to my high school and even Harvard experience, it is surprisingly very like yours. As first years, I entered school wide-eyed and ready to talk to and connect with everyone I meet. I had many insightful, influential and very pleasant conversations with people outside of my normal “friend group”. Yet, as I spend more time at Harvard and as the pandemic hit, I feel less motivated to meet new people and to get to know the incoming first years and sophomores. Though I felt more comfortable at Harvard, I also felt more stuck in my defined social role. I would love an opportunity to get to know people outside my normal group and I wonder how Harvard can set up a platform that people actual feel is meaningful and would like to use?

  • Michael Pankowski // Feb 21st 2022 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks Kara and Orion for your blog post! I learned a lot.

    Kara,
    I thought this was a super interesting piece. As someone with a twin you have a unique view on mind perception, and it’s likely the closeness you feel with your twin, allowing you both to be so good at mind perception, is a closeness lots of people will never experience with another person. I wonder, after growing up with your twin and getting used to someone being able to understand you this well, was it frustrating when you met other kids at school who didn’t seem to “get” you? And did you feel uncomfortable having to try to understand people that you didn’t naturally understand as much as you understood your twin? I think these are intriguing things to consider and it’s amazing that we have someone with your perspective in this class that can answer these questions for us. Thanks for your piece!

    Orion,
    Thanks for your piece. It really made me think. I’d never previously thought of the negatives of mind perception before, as I’m sure like most people I just thought it was only good. But your piece made me reconsider. I wonder, when you say that you thought this person wouldn’t accept you and so you didn’t pay much attention to them, was this a conscious or unconscious decision? Did they say or do anything that made you think they wouldn’t accept you, or was it just something you assumed? I think the answer to this question helps contextualize the situation. I was encouraged by what Smith et al. (2014) found, and it shows how we can enjoy our connection to an in-group that we feel seen by and cared for by but at the same time this inclusion can make us want to help others who aren’t in our group. I hope this is true for most people as it’s a very pleasant finding to think we can have the comfort of being in an in-group and also empathy for those not in it. But I’m not sure for how many people that would be the case. Definitely interesting. Thanks for writing this!

  • Nia Fernandes // Feb 21st 2022 at 5:42 pm

    Thanks Kara and Orion! Great post!

    I find mind perception fascinating in the realm of social connection and belonging.

    Kara, in your post “The Good” and the readings from this week, mind perception reminded me of nurture versus nature. Kara, when you talked about the connection you have with your sister, it reminded me of the connection I have with my mom, specifically based on nurture despite sharing the same DNA. We say things at the same time and often refer to our relationship as telepathic. I wonder, however, to what extent intimate forms of mind connection, relate to how you are raised versus an innate connection for perception. Has anyone heard the quote “No one pushes your buttons like family does because they are the ones that installed them?” My mom and I say things at the same time most likely because we have so many shared experiences, similar to Kara and her twin.

    Orion, in your post “The Bad” and from the Smith et al. (2014) reading, I couldn’t help but wonder if we overestimate how intimate our connection is with an “ingroup”. This speaks to nature. While this group makes us feel seen and may inspire vulnerability on our part. We cannot forget how natural it is for us to pick out a face and its significance. For example, on the first day of class when Professor Perry had us look for the money, it was very difficult to do so without having a human face next to it. I found this really interesting because I don’t think this is something we are taught as “significant” but rather an innate skill we are born with. Mind perception and humanization is really interesting, and I learnt a lot from reading this blog post. Thanks for sharing, and please let me know your thoughts!

  • Maya Dubin // Feb 22nd 2022 at 2:04 pm

    I really liked the opening section of this blog post and how you clearly defined your terms, this made it much easier for the reader to understand the rest of the blog post.

    Kara – I loved your reflection on your experience with your identical twin and they opening quote! I was especially intrigued by this idea that humanizing others creates more sustainable bonds. This is something I strive to do as I always try and take the mindset of “if I were in their shoes what would I do?” I think humanization is vital and something that we often lack as a society. This proves that if we all tried to humanize more we may have healthier and happier relationships.

    Orion – I liked your reflection on the “bad” of mind perception. I thought the point about increasing social connection ends up increasing the social distance between the self to be extremely fascinating. Sometimes I find myself feeling this exact thing in my own life. When I spend too much time worrying about others or trying to increase social bonds I do not take into account my feelings and what I desire as a social being. I think there is a balance that needs to be met and we need to conceptualize both the good and the bad of mind perception and the desire to constantly find and strengthen social bonds.

    Thank you all for a great blog post – it was extremely interesting to hear about both the good and the bad of mind perception and your personal experiences with this concept.

  • Georgia Steigerwald // Feb 22nd 2022 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you both so much! This was a great post! Orion, I was really intrigued by the contrast you made between feeling almost hyper-humanization versus complete isolation. Zooming out to think about some of the large political conflicts/unrest we’ve been seeing over the past few years, we know dehumanization is a large aspect of the “us versus them” mentality. I wonder how your point about feeling very high synchrony in one group might close you off to exploring other relationships could apply. I could definitely see people with very strong affiliations feeling similarly–that they too feel only that group will fully accept them and others will not. What do you think?

  • Iris // Feb 22nd 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you both for this! I’m especially interested in Orion’s discussion of “the bad” of humanization, or lack thereof. Almost since we started this class, I’ve had the thought in the back of my head that, while connecting over similar actions or traits is cool and human, connection’s capacity to exclude is terrifying. I definitely remember being told to accept others growing up, not to be closest to those who were similar to me. This class has rammed into my intuitions about how we morally “should” behave (i.e. radically accepting, constantly interrogating prejudice) in uncomfortable ways. I’ve worked in homeless shelters and social work spaces for years now and have tried *really* hard to overcome some deep-rooted biases. I don’t know how to feel about the idea that exclusion is indelibly human. I don’t have any answers; just some discomfort. Thanks for bringing it up.

    (Also, just for the record Orion, I was not a theater kid in high school but always wanted them to like me. I thought they were fun and artsy. So, yeah, other people might have paid more attention to you than you noticed!)

  • Jonathan Yuan // Feb 24th 2022 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you both for this amazing post!

    Kara, I find your experiences with your twin sister to be incredibly insightful and really demonstrate many of the concepts we’ve discussed this week. I’m especially interested in learning more about how mind perception plays into greater understanding and humanization at these different levels. You and your twin sister clearly have a very close relationship, but I wonder how that level of mentalization differs from those of a parent-child, peers, or even strangers. Also, I’m curious about how quickly this level of familiarity can be cultivated, whether it’s something that takes years and years of constantly being together, or if effects can be seen even after a few hours!

    Orion, your insight is really fascinating. I constantly remember the group/clique-oriented nature of high school, and I think those preconceptions of others are really crucial to think about when discussing mind perception. Your thoughtful analysis has really encouraged me to take a step back and think about how I operate similarly in so many parts of my life, and how we can best combat those tendencies, especially at a young age when there are so many opportunities out there and so many different people to explore them with.

    Thank you both again!

  • Esther Xiang // Feb 25th 2022 at 5:55 pm

    This was such an insightful read! Thank you so much, Kara and Orion!

    Orion—I agree sometimes, social connection can enable dehumanization. I’ve been thinking more about how we find our people on campus and how a kind of siloing occurs through the housing process. Soon after the first semester of our first year, we are able to form a group of up to 8 friends to block with. Many enter the Houses in their sophomore year with an already established set of friends. Entering a new year with more difficult courses, an unfamiliar environment, as well as new responsibilities, sophomores lean on their large blocking groups as their community and comfort zone. Since established networks offer a comfortable alternative to interacting with dissimilar students, I think that more incentives are needed to initiate engagement across diversity so that we can all have the opportunity to realize the potential of opportunities that are an essential part of a Harvard education. What can we do to foster more new meaningful relationships during our time on campus?

  • Spencer Carter // Mar 3rd 2022 at 11:25 am

    Kara,

    I really enjoyed your piece! It was fascinating to hear about your relationship with your twin and learn that much of the research we’ve read in class totally matched your experience. I’m curious, how much do you think that the social bond you have with your twin sister is determined by your shared genes? I would imagine that genes definitely played some role in fostering the ease with which you and your twin perceive each other’s minds, but there’s probably also something to be said for the fact that the two of you were socialized in largely the same environment and have spent tons of time together. It may be difficult to separate the impact of genes vs. environment in this situation, but I wonder if you have an opinion on this based on your lived experience.

    Orion,

    I thought your piece was fantastic. The connection you drew between the primary finding of the Waytz & Epley study and your own experience was really compelling and made me think about how I’ve behaved differently at times when I’ve felt a lot of social connection vs. at times when I haven’t. I really appreciated the way you acknowledged the nuance of the “value” offered by social connection. I find it easy to fall into the rut of thinking that social connection is an entirely good thing, but of course, life is more complex than that and too much of anything can probably lead to problems. I’m not sure what you would recommend as the best path forward, but it seems like theater kids and roommates should continue to stick together, as long as they maintain openness and empathy toward the people outside their social bubbles.

  • Anthony Nelson // Mar 8th 2022 at 6:52 pm

    Kara and Orion you both did a great job on this blog post. Also thank you for sharing your personal experiences with us. Kara, I found it very interesting that you and your sister feel as if you have a heightened sense of compatibility with your sister, but at the same time not completely surprised. I could only assume how much time the two of you have spent together actually conversing, which leads me to easily believe that you two are the closest to perfecting mind reading. I also found it interesting that faster reply rates in a conversation are measured as a better conversation. Orion, I also find it very interesting the idea that you may be over connecting, which would like mentioned lead to almost shutting others off. It goes to show the power of in and out-groups that are formed through recreational activities such as theater, choir or sports.

  • Helena Jiang // Mar 13th 2022 at 11:04 pm

    Thank you so much Kara and Orion for this insightful blog post! Kara, as someone with a sibling, and also having friends who I can certainly relate that experience to, it is really interesting to connect that experience to what we discussed in class! It’s also so important to connect it to how this relates to our relationships with others, and how empathy strengthens this. Orion, thank you for sharing your story with your identity in high school as a “theater kid”, and what about this humanizes one another and connects you all. It’s so important to talk about this other side that you mention, and also crucial that you bring up we need more research in this area.

  • Patrick S // Apr 16th 2022 at 11:54 pm

    Thank you both so much for your post!

    I loved the introduction to your blog post – it was a great way of tying together both of your perspectives and formalizing the definitions of humanization and dehumanization.

    Kara, I loved how you shared your personal experiences with your twin sister. Being friends with two pairs of twins, I am always interested and fascinated by the interactions that twins have with one another. At one end, it seems amazing to have the deep level of understanding that can only come through years of shared experience. On the other end, I wonder if there is a point where we can humanize someone too much, where we feel that we are prioritizing other people’s emotions over our own

    Orion, I loved reading about your analysis on group behavior, especially in the high-school setting. I think now, we can look critically)back on how we characterized certain groups of people as debate, quiz bowl, theater kids, etc., in high school. While it may have seemed convenient to attach these labels back then, reading your blog post made me rethink how these labels can be limiting, and at times, detrimental to fostering humanizing behavior.

    . I constantly remember the group/clique-oriented nature of high school, and I think those preconceptions of others are really crucial to think about when discussing mind perception. Your thoughtful analysis has really encouraged me to take a step back and think about how I operate similarly in so many parts of my life, and how we can best combat those tendencies, especially at a young age when there are so many opportunities out there and so many different people to explore them with.

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