Recently I came across a piece in “The New York Times” health and science section entitled “Can You Read People’s Emotions?” After a brief introduction, the reader was presented with a test claiming to measure your ability to assess people’s emotions by “reading” the expression of their eyes.
This immediately set off my BS detector to redlining. To me, the notion of a handy mindreading test in ten minutes or less smacked of pseudoscientific pop psychology, more appropriate to “Cosmopolitan” than “The Times,” but I was curious enough to explore a bit. First I took the test and scored well. Hey, it works!
Yay, me, and all that, but since the test reflects a number of subjects of great interest to me, including empathy, body language, mindreading and the like, I decided to investigate a little further. “The Times” piece mentioned that the test is “based on an assessment tool developed by University of Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen.”
I’ve come across Baron-Cohen’s work before. He’s a cognitive neuroscientist whose research interests and publications include the subjects of empathy and also autism, and he has written a number of books, including last year’s “Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.” It turns out that the mood recognition test is indeed a product of Baron-Cohen’s work, and its technical name is the RMET, an acronym for the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.
Baron-Cohen devised the test as part of his research into empathy and autism. In this talk, which very briefly summarizes the book, he mentions the test and its use in research associating testosterone levels in the womb with later empathy levels in children, a remarkable notion.
The test appears in several places online. “The Times” version is here.
This version provides instant feedback to every answer entered. However the quality of the graphics is less than good, the images are small. A better version can be found here, and you don’t get your test score until you complete all items.
Probably the best version is this, however, which appears to be part of ongoing research at Harvard. The graphics are nice and large, you will receive your results at the conclusion, and it responsibly adds an acknowledgement:
This is an implementation of the the [sic] [Note from JIS: Perception errors are cool!] "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test" originally developed by prof. Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. In building this test, we have extended the code written by the researchers at the Vision Lab at Harvard.
Along with this responsible cautionary note:
Note that your screen, ambient light, and other factors might have impacted your result. Also, because all the images used in this study were of Caucasians (i.e., white people), your exposure to Caucasian faces might also have affected your score.
Finally, Psychology Today blogger, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., an accomplished psychology researcher and author and a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discussed the test last year in her “Fulfillment at Any Age” blog.
She gives her piece this catchy title: “A How-To Guide for Boosting Your Mind-Reading Powers.” But in fact she then follows with a nice little overview that touches on predicting human behavior, empathy skills in everyday life, psychic cold readings and the Barnum effect, and the differences between a cognitive test like the RMET versus the illusion of mindreading portrayed by stage mentalists and psychics.
Prof. Whitbourne does make an error of sorts in her confusion over the differences between stage “psychics” versus mentalists. She writes, “Stage psychics don’t leave much to chance, and many unfortunately engage in a little behind-the-scenes snooping to improve their hit rates.” I prefer to take no offense at this error because I attribute her confusion to her unfamiliarity with a subject that is more complicated than is apparent to her at first blush.
It is true that stage mentalists do in fact try to increase their success rates in various secretive ways, because … that’s our job, and as long as we call ourselves professional deceivers (as many of us do), there’s nothing wrong with that (note her use of the word “unfortunately”).
various secretive ways, because … that’s our job, and as long as we call ourselves professional deceivers (as many of us do), there’s nothing wrong with that (note her use of the word “unfortunately”). On the other hand, professional psychics and talk-to-the-dead mediums are deceiving their audiences in a different way, making explicit psychic claims and offering potentially life-altering counsel and information.
Further, while those professional psychics often utilize cold reading and other such psychological techniques, they also use a lot of raw guessing, relying on people’s tendency to remember the hits and overlook the misses. Watch John Edwards or James Van Praagh and you will see demonstration after demonstration of pure guesswork, and mostly very lousy guesswork at that, with the believers in desperate search of a meaningful experience doing much of the work to make it seem like an eventual success. And in fact, while these psychic con artists will try to use advance and inside information whenever possible on television (and there is much evidence on video and online to establish this claim), counter to Prof. Whitbourne’s claim, they rarely use such “hot” information in their live performances. The fact is, they simply don’t need to expend the necessary effort, nor take the associated risk of getting caught. Again, the believers do most of the necessary work for them – along with routinely buying tickets for $100 and more to fill halls with thousands of seats. Hey, it’s a living.
These quibbling clarifications aside, Prof. Whitbourne’s piece is an interesting accompaniment to Prof. Baron-Cohen’s test, and now that I’ve filled you in on the background, you might find it fun and interesting to go take it yourself. According to “The New York Times” piece, “The average score for this test is in the range of 22 to 30 correct responses. If you scored above 30, you may be quite good at understanding someone’s mental state based on facial cues.” I got 33 correct. Good luck mindreading!
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.