Study: Know thyself and you’ll know others better

4 min read

Using functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, researchers have found that the region of the brain associated with introspective thought “lights up” when people infer the thoughts of others like themselves. However, this is not the case when we’re considering people we think of as different politically, socially, or religiously.

Published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study was led by Adrianna Jenkins, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, with Jason Mitchell, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. Jenkins and Mitchell’s co-author was C. Neil Mcrae of the University of Aberdeen.

“Our research helps to explain how and when people draw on their own inner experiences to make inferences about the experiences of others,” says Jenkins. “The findings suggest that the part of the brain that is responsible for introspection also helps us to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling. But this primarily seems to be the case for people who we perceive to be similar to ourselves.”

Psychologists have not fully understood how it is that we make numerous, and often accurate, inferences about others’ thoughts and feelings. Some have guessed that we use aspects of our own experience to model the thoughts of others, while others posit that we acquire a knowledge base from observations and societal rules that guides our understanding of others’ mental states.

This study suggests that both processes may be used in different contexts. We may only use ourselves to understand others when we think our minds and experiences are sufficiently similar to those of the other person.

Previous research has shown that the region of the brain associated with introspection, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), is also associated with understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.

Jenkins and colleagues tested whether individuals are more likely to access this self-referential region of the brain when considering the thoughts of a similar person or someone who is different. They used fMRI scans to examine brain activity when individuals were asked about their thoughts or feelings about an everyday experience, and what they imagine that another person might think or feel about a similar experience.

The study involved 13 students, both graduate and undergraduate, who, at the end of the study, all identified themselves as politically liberal.

At the beginning of the study, the subjects were shown photographs of two unfamiliar individuals, and then given a brief descriptive paragraph about each. One was described as a student with liberal political and social attitudes who attends a college in the Northeast, and the other as a conservative, fundamentalist Christian at a Midwestern university.

The subjects were asked a series of questions about their own thoughts or feelings, and the thoughts or feelings of the liberal or conservative individual. The questions were about everyday experiences such as “How much do you enjoy doing crossword puzzles?” or “How likely is it that he would get frustrated while sitting in traffic?”

By examining the brain’s activity in the vMPFC, the researchers saw that when the subjects considered the possible responses of the “liberal,” they employed the part of their brain that is active when they think about their own reactions. By contrast, the researchers did not see activity in this region of the brain when the subjects were considering the thoughts and preferences of the “conservative” student.

According to Jenkins, it’s possible that we rely on our own perspective to assess the potential thoughts and feelings of people who we think are similar, while we may make inferences regarding the thoughts of dissimilar others based on a different process.

Further research will examine whether it is possible to manipulate this effect and utilize the more introspective thought process when assessing the feelings of dissimilar others.

A forthcoming study in Psychological Science, led by Daniel Ames with Jenkins, Mitchell, and Mahzarin Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe, considers whether or not the application of this self-referential thought process is immutable. In this study, the participants were asked to write a short essay from another person’s perspective. The results suggest that after an individual assumes another’s perspective (in this case by writing the essay), he or she is more likely to use the vMPFC region of the brain when later making inferences regarding that person’s thoughts or feelings.