science of us

To Get Better at Understanding Other People, Start With Yourself

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Most of us spend a lot of time trying to parse out what make us, well, us: We scour the internet for personality quizzes. We ruminate endlessly over the things we’ve said or done. We pick teams — introvert or extrovert? head or heart? — and then filter our decisions through the lens of whatever label we’ve chosen.

If you want to figure yourself out, in other words, there are plenty of strategies within easy reach. Other people, though — that can be a little more of a puzzle. (It’s not like you can get much insight from taking a personality quiz on someone else’s behalf.) But new research suggests that all that introspection you’ve been doing may be helpful here, too: In a study recently published in the journal Cognitive Enhancement, a team of psychologists found a close link between greater self-awareness and social intelligence.

“Expanding our knowledge about internal dynamics such as our thoughts, beliefs, or emotional patterns, allows for a better understanding of these processes in others,” claims lead author, Anne Böckler, a professor at Wurzburg University in Germany and research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. To get inside other people’s heads, then, it may be best to start with your own.

Over the course of three months, Böckler and her colleagues collected data from 161 people between the ages of 20 and 50 as they underwent a “contemplative training” designed to help them focus on their inner lives. Based on the Internal Family Systems model, a therapeutic approach that views the self as a composite of different sub-personalities, the training asked participants to reflect on how each of those components — sorted into categories like “happy parts,” “inner critics,” and “vulnerable parts” — affected their everyday experiences.

The participants who improved the most over the course of the training (measured by how many of these different inner personalities they could identify) were also the ones who showed the most growth in how easily they could infer another person’s mental state, a skill known as theory of mind. The link was especially strong when it came to identifying negative parts of themselves — possibly, Böckler explains, because “identifying and accepting negative mental or behavioral patterns in oneself is particularly challenging, requiring effort, cognitive flexibility, and emotional strength.”

This latest study adds to the growing body of research exploring the link between well-being and the ability to accept negativity. But it also take things a step further: “Developing this kind of perspective-taking is a crucial socio-cognitive skill that is required not only in our everyday social life,”  the study authors conclude, “but also when it comes to cross-cultural understanding.”

Böckler believes these results are especially poignant given our current state of affairs. “Many of the global challenges that we face today — taking in refugees, overcoming between-group conflicts, or leading more sustainable lives — require that we put ourselves in the shoes of others,” she says.

Similarly, another study published last month in the journal Self and Identity found that disagreements are most fruitful when each person tries to understand the other’s position, even during highly charged topics. “Self-understanding and appreciation of others go hand in hand,” says co-author Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Still, we tend to pursue inner contemplation as a goal in itself, while underestimating the ways it can also help us connect more closely to others. Self-awareness, the research shows, isn’t limited to just us — it ripples out into our relationships, too. Taking all those personality quizzes when you’re bored on your laptop may not be the most helpful in that regard (even if it is fun), but by striving to become more mindful of your own thoughts, you can begin to mold yourself into someone more empathetic, more insightful, and more tuned in to the world outside your head.

To Get Better at Understanding Others, Start With Yourself