How Your Mirror Lies to You (Hint: It’s Not the Mirror’s Fault)

The Washington Post attracted my attention recently with this headline: “How to tell if other people think you’re hot, according to science“. (I don’t know if my sweet spot was “you’re hot” or “according to science” but the Post’s Wonkblog frequently arouses my interest.) The article discussed the findings from a new book by behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley and psychologist Tal Eyal. The article and the work of Epley and Eyal, according to the article, “reveal a fascinating technique to help get inside the minds of the people around you.”

Coincidentally, that’s a magic skill often connected to great poker players. For me, the most interesting thing about the Post article (and about “getting inside other people’s minds”) is that the mystery is ultimately not about how others think. Our happiness (in poker, business, relationships, and everything else) improves more when we understand how we think.

We scrutinize ourselves in much more detail than we scrutinize others. This makes sense because we have so much more information about ourselves. Say you are trying to make a good impression at work during a presentation to a client or customer. In our own heads, we’re thinking about things like, “What’s my hair look like today? Do I seem tired? Is my skin about to break out? Did I get to exercise this morning?”

Those things are all contextual. The person on the other side of the table certainly isn’t comparing our hairstyle to how it looked a few hours ago, or our cardio-fitness compared with last month. When we judge ourselves, we are judging at this moment. How things are goingrecently is incredibly important in this self-evaluation. Our personal qualities remain pretty steady, or at least evolve gently over time. But when we are under our personal magnifying glass, it doesn’t feel that way.

To understand this better, imagine you are on the side of the road with a flat tire in the rain and no jack. Most people under those conditions would be saying something like, “This is the worst thing ever. I am so unlucky. Why do these bad things always happen to me?” But if you asked those same people in a year if that flat tire had affected their overall happiness over the course of that year, they would say it doesn’t. Not one bit, in fact. That’s because our happiness when we look over the course of our lives generally stays pretty steady. But when we put a magnifying glass on any given moment small fluctuations feel very significant, just as they do with whether we are having a good hair day or a bad one.

To show how you can use this knowledge to help get a more rational perspective, Epley and Eyal did this great experiment where they took pictures of students and asked them, “How will other students rate your attractiveness based on this picture?” One group was told the other students would rate the pictures later that day. A second group was told the students would rate the pictures in several months. Subjects were more accurate rating their own attractiveness when they thought others wouldn’t see the pictures for several months.

Of course, to a viewer of the picture it wouldn’t matter when the picture was taken. And unless the person in the picture is holding up a newspaper or it’s a daguerreotype, the viewer wouldn’t even think about when it was taken. It turns out, however, that it makes a big difference to the person in the picture. When our attention is diverted from the usual microscopic view of ourselves to a longer-term view, we are more accurate at understanding how we are perceived.

I think of this as a practical form of time-travel, and it applies throughout our lives. If we can get ourselves out of the moment, we can see things more clearly. If, when we have that flat tire, we can stop and ask ourselves, “How much do I think this will affect my happiness in three months?” we are likely to be less upset at the turn of events. We need to get ourselves to travel out of the moment to get a more accurate perspective.

We all know the aphorisms like “Take 10 deep breaths” or “Sleep on it”. Those are all things that are trying to get you to calm down and get some space between yourself and the emotions attached to momentary ups or downs. The more you can do that, the more you can pull yourself back from the tiny (likely ultimately meaningless) fluctuations that come from the microscopic view we keep of ourselves. This research really supports that idea.

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education