How to Figure Out People by Getting Inside Their Head

Figuring out people is the first step to having any sort of successful interaction or relation with them. You do this already in your mind, you create mental models of others and you think that you “know” them, when in reality the model you’ve created suffers from severe limitations.

The ability to understand what people think and feel is a learned skill and one that will take you far both in your career and in your friendships and relationships. In fact, this is the first level of how to get rapport with people.

Before we go too far, let’s discuss a few basic principles.

Basic Principles

  1. People are both complex and simple at the same time. Given certain circumstances and context, you act in very predictable ways (assuming that you aren’t trying to actively dissent or break the rules, which by the way has its own predictability)
  2. People interpret their world through their mental models, which are unique to them and thus different from yours. If you use your own models to try and understand people (aka. projection), it might work to some degree, but it will most likely be wrong. Everyone’s behavior makes perfect sense to them, so if you don’t understand someone, the problem isn’t them, it’s you.
  3. People’s behavior tends to homogenize to their context, their emotional state and their emotional motivations (such as needs, wants, desires, fears, frustrations). Regardless of how unique you think you are, your behavior is typically very predictable in a given context, or if you are in a certain emotional state.
  4. Watch out for the fundamental attribution error, which states that you tend to attribute behavior or thoughts to internal “‘traits” rather than external factors. For example when you notice that someone keeps eating candy despite wanting to lose weight, you will invariably think of the person as “weak-willed” when in reality, just the fact that candy is easily available contributes a huge effect to the behavior (see Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink).
  5. Always revise the models you build of people as new behaviors or stories are revealed that are inconsistent with the existing model. Either the inconsistent behavior is a special case, or it’s part of a larger pattern and can thus be generalized to fit the previous model.

This blog is primarily about how we tend to use mental models to understand the world and how that affects both our thinking and our behavior. When it comes to figuring out people, the same ideas apply. You create mental models of people in order to understand them, but more often than not, these are too complex to remember. We’ll talk about how to make this really easy a little bit later.

Before we cover the really cool stuff we have to cover some theory, concepts, which play a very fundamental role in understanding people and getting inside their head. If you get this, people will no longer seem a mystery to you.

Let’s start by introducing a system for generalized people reading. When you see a behavior you don’t understand or when you’re trying to get a read on someone, start out with very broad ideas and work yourself towards more narrow and more fine tuned ideas. Here’s the logical progression:

Context

Context comes first. As we talked about in principle 3, behavior tends to homogenize to context. Context can be anything, from something like “work” to something like “friendship” or “dating.” The reason behavior is homogeneous to context is because most contexts have pre-determined rules of what you should and shouldn’t do. Context can also determine lower level concepts such as emotional state and emotional motivations.

State

Next comes emotional state. Your intuitions about someone’s emotional state are generally correct and on point. You can easily tell when someone is happy, or upset, or stressed; being too quiet or is very excited, or disgusted. Emotional state drives behavior much more than what is commonly referred to as “personality” or “traits”

This is why someone who you might have pegged as quiet, has an outburst when they’re angry or excited. To you it might seem “out of character” when in reality it’s the emotions doing the driving. They might be quiet most of the time, but that doesn’t mean they will stay quiet under certain emotional states.

For example in the context of work, if the president of the company is fuming over the low sales numbers, will you try and talk to him or her about a raise at that exact moment? Probably not, in fact even children know better. They wait until their parents are relaxed before asking for anything.

Emotional Motivations

Emotional motivations are the next level down in specificity. They encompass things like emotional needs, wants, desires, fears, frustrations and are usually not visible on the surface.

For example in the context of work, what do you think the primary motivations of the VP of sales will be? “keep my job => increase sales” So if you’re the VP of technology and you’re talking to the VP of sales about the new website, will you tell them how the latest version of JQuery  makes animations on the site smoother or will you tell them how the speed of the new site will lead to easier and faster sales? What will get them more excited?

Emotional motivations have deeper nuances and are usually harder to grasp, but if you study them and understand them, you will be light-years ahead of everyone. You will understand and connect with people on a level that they’ve never experienced before. Most of our core motivators are actually hidden, sometimes even to us, which is why you can’t simply ask them directly. More on this on a future post.

How can you simplify the process of figuring out people even more?

To do this, I’ll introduce you to two very simple and easy to grasp (but powerful) concepts that relate to mental models and allow you to “package” behavior into a more easily remembered label.

Introduction to Archetypes and Doctrines

The idea of using archetypes and doctrines to understand people came to me while reading the book Tempo by Venkatesh Rao. He is the author of a blog called ribbonfarm.com which I find very inspirational because of its depth and nuance in the exploration of ideas. In relation to mental models, archetypes and doctrines are both more meta (i.e. higher logical level) concepts.

An archetype is a collection of behavioral patterns that fit into a very nice, easy to remember description or label. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung advanced the concept by creating his Jungian archetypes which were later used to create the MBTI profiling tool. Needless to say, you don’t have to do an MBTI profile of someone in order to understand them (but if you know it, it can help)

(Side note: I have a general distrust of profiling and personality measuring tools in telling you who you “really” are because they tend to be context specific and cannot possibly cover the nuanced depths of our characters)

In literature, archetypes are used to create rich, multifaceted characters. A few common literary archetypes are “the hero”, “the knight”, “the princess”, etc. Most characters you see in movies or novels today are based primarily in archetypes because you intuitively understand them and they provide a very solid foundation upon which to build interesting and colorful characters.

A doctrine is merely a codification of beliefs into a system. There are some negative associations of the word doctrine with religion, but in its purest sense, a doctrine is nothing more than a collection of mental models that fit into a system. Doctrines can help simplify a lot of decision making.

Archetypes and doctrines can also help you package all the above concepts we discussed (context, state, motives) into one easily understood label.

Archetypes in action

In order to understand archetypes, I will focus on a single context. I’m assuming you can easily expand this to all contexts.

Let’s take the world of business. There are several archetypes that play in here.

  • Archetype: The careerist
  • Doctrine: “It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters who you know”
  • Archetype: The hard-charging, Type-A manager
  • Doctrine: “By any means necessary”
  • Archetype: The stressed-out hard worker
  • Doctrine: “On time and on budget”
  • Archetype: The slacker
  • Doctrine: “Do the minimum necessary to not get fired”

There’s obviously more, but hopefully these illustrations will help you see the infinite possibilities that you can have in trying to understand people. Notice how each archetype and doctrine nicely packages and explains emotional states and emotional motivations. Notice also how predictable their behavior becomes given the context of business.