Can Psychologists Read People’s Minds?

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Many people think that as a psychologist I have this incredible power — that I can easily read their minds; that I can open someone’s head and see what lies inside.

When I went to University and told people that I was studying Psychology, the most frequent comment was, “Oh my God, from now on we’ll have to mind what we say in your presence!” At the beginning I thought it was a joke — it wasn’t. Many people do think that as a psychologist I have this incredible power — that I can easily read their minds. I suppose it’s the same for any shrink; it’s believed (or, at least, strongly suspected) that we’re all able to open someone’s head and see what lies inside.

That was not the only false belief I heard about my work. There were a lot more. They were so fascinating to me that I started collecting them and gave them a name: psycho-hoaxes. These are funny, amusing, weird beliefs that could make me smile, but that might also sometimes become a problem — just think how a patient feels when he approaches therapy thinking that the therapist already knows each of his thoughts and he won’t need to spend much time in describing his feelings: “But that’s incredible — the psychologist goes on asking and asking! Why? Doesn’t he already know everything by simply looking at me? Perhaps he’s not so good; or maybe it’s this specific kind of therapy which is no good; or maybe it’s psychology itself! Yes, indeed, psychology must be a scam! Better to avoid it; it’s a waste of time and money!”

Seriously, I do think that having a realistic idea of what one can and can’t expect in a psychologist’s office is important, and can sometimes protect people from feeling deceived. So please let me say loud and clear (should someone find it obvious, then I apologize): if you think that a psychologist knows your every thought simply by watching you, well, you’re wrong.

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But how can psycho-hoaxes arise and grow so easily? They can’t spring up from nothing. I love trying to imagine where they come from. When it comes to the hoax of the ‘clairvoyant psychologist’, in my opinion a major role is played by the concept of the ‘unconscious’. Thanks to Freud’s research, most of us know what this word means. Despite some differences between psychoanalytic schools, we all generally agree that it is something in our minds of which we’re unaware.

Freud’s work was based on it. He thought that a patient could improve his psychological health by becoming aware of the unconscious roots of his feelings. So he set this as a goal of therapy and tried to help his patients see what lay under the surface of their conscious life. That’s what analysts still do today.

No wonder a non-psychologist finds a sort of magic in this. Being helped to see something that was already in one’s mind but wasn’t so clear sounds like a sort of divination. And one could easily think that those who can decode people’s feelings so well are like wizards. But the truth is much less mysterious. It’s simply a matter of skill.

All types of work need specific skills. A tailor is good at taking measurements, selecting fabric, cutting and sewing. He’ll probably take it for granted; it’s his job and he’ll tell you that sewing is not rocket science. To me though, a tailor is a superhero because the only thing I can do with a needle is to sew on a button. I haven’t the skill.

Psychologists need particular skills as well. Their job is to help, and in order to help they must be good at listening to and understanding people…better than a layman. So the truth is much less romantic: psychologists simply learn to pay attention to what they hear and see, and they know theories that can explain it all. Theories and experience help psychologists notice small details that most people don’t usually recognize or even find interesting, and they help them think about the hidden meanings.

But wait a minute: if we stop here, people are probably right in believing that a well-trained shrink can read their minds. One could say: “Well it’s only a matter of hard study isn’t it? So an inexperienced shrink can’t do much, but a very well-trained one can actually read any thought of mine, can’t he?”

He can’t. A core teaching in psychological training is that neither the most perfectly trained psychologist nor the best theory in the world are error-proof. This is what my teachers kept on telling us from the first day we entered university. (Some students may think they’re there to become the next Wonder Shrink, so the sooner they realize their limits the better.) The truth is, the best result a good psychologist can achieve is to collect a lot of clues, and find an explanation which provides some meaning for most of them. But there will always be something that doesn’t fit. People are complex — much more complex than theories — and you must always be ready to change your hypothesis. Let’s take it a step further: you can’t take any interpretation for granted, because not only are people complicated, they are also always evolving, changing and developing in new ways. I usually think of this as ‘not falling in love’ with any diagnosis — even the most suitable and fascinating ones. A good psychologist needs always to keep a free space in his mind, where he can give birth to new hypotheses.

There’s another reason why people have wrong beliefs about psychologists: the sources aren’t always trustworthy. Just think how psychologists are depicted in some films and TV series. Take for example the “Lie to Me” series. I do enjoy it, so I watch it whenever I can, but as a psychologist I know it’s a mix of fact and fiction. Even though it takes its inspiration from the real work of a real psychologist, much of it is still fiction — and I know the difference, while a layman may not. For example, there is the psychologist who, thanks to his research on body language, recognizes liars in a flash and helps the police solve dozens of enigmatic cases. This portrays what many non-psychologists believe. I think this is one of the reasons why the series is so successful, the other one being that it’s incredibly well done. If you don’t know what the real work of a real psychologist is like you’ll probably be thinking of all psychologists as a legion of Cal Lightmans (the hero of the series), all ready to unmask humanity’s most hidden feelings simply by looking at the angle of the eyebrows or the width of the nostrils. And you tend to forget that a film is a film, and a film can never describe reality as it actually is, otherwise it would be boring. (By the way, if you want to know the difference between fact and fiction in the series, the real Cal Lightman, whose name is Paul Ekman, opened a blog where he examines each episode, explaining when the plot is realistic and when it’s merely fanciful.)

I do hope that my words have convinced the skeptics, and that fewer and fewer people will feel naked in front of a psychologist. However, should someone ever find the ultimate way to read people’s minds I’d love to learn it. Apart from saving a lot of time and effort when I’m with my patients, it could be funny too. Just think how amusing it could be to guess all the answers on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire without the quiz master having to ask the questions.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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