What question do psychologists get asked the most? ‘What do you do?’ – ‘I’m a psychologist.’ – ‘Oh wow! So can you read my mind?’ Every. Single. Time. (Okay, fine, not every time, but more often than not). It saddens me to have to admit that I cannot read your mind. If there was a way of tapping in and out of people’s heads to hear what they are truly thinking, I would definitely sign up for that app.
So where does this question come from?
Psychology is the study of human behaviour and, among other things, psychologists explore patterns in thoughts, emotions and actions. Studying these patterns enables us to make predictions about how someone may respond to things that are happening in their environment. For example, individuals who are known to be socially timid are likely to withdraw when dealing with a large group of unfamiliar people. This is not rocket science – anyone who has ever spent time observing people will pick up on such connections. As social creatures, our brains are wired to look for cause-and-effect in social interactions, and we use these to make decisions on how to behave.
As psychologists, we spend most of our day listening to our client’s experiences and asking them questions. Consequently, we receive a significant amount of input that allows us to continuously update our predictions about behavioural patterns. We get lots of practice and become more accurate in our estimates on how people will on average respond to various events depending on their personality and other characteristics. Thus, to some people, the insights we share may sounds like we are reading their mind.
Accurate predictions and a clear understanding of patterns guide us in our therapy. They are particularly crucial in addressing dysfunctional thoughts, emotions and behaviours that are contributing to the challenges our clients may be coming to therapy for. It makes us good at what we do. Of course, the flipside of being experienced psychologists is that we may become so accustomed to seeing certain patterns repeat that we may be faster to make assumptions. Luckily, our training reminds us to remain aware of any biases we may form and keep a fresh stance of observation.
So can I read your mind? Sadly, no. But I can use the information I have gathered from you and from the patterns of other clients over the years to make a guesstimate on how you will respond when your husband puts another one of those empty milk cartons back into the fridge. (To be honest, you probably can too).