You read countless news stories about human deeds, ranging from horrific—snipers, arsonists, suicide bombers—to heroic—rescues of all sorts, an airline pilot landing safely on a river. Quite often, you can’t help wondering: What were they thinking and feeling? You speculate. You’re an armchair psychologist. We all are, professional psychologists included.
What makes it possible
To use a technical term—unfamiliar but in the English lexicon for two centuries—you are mentalizing: interpreting behavior as based on mental states such as beliefs, motives and emotions. You could not make sense of news stories, novels, movies or daily observations of your fellow humans without mentalizing. Like using language, mentalizing is a natural human capacity that we all develop (barring autism, of course, which is distinguished by impaired mentalizing, an inability to relate based on an intuitive sense of others as persons with a mind). Empathy is a major part of mentalizing, but mentalizing includes understanding the workings of your own mind as well as others’ minds. Thus mentalizing includes empathy for yourself.
A mentalizing test
We are not born speaking, and we are not born mentalizing. Over the course of our lifetime, we use language more or less well, and we mentalize more or less well. One way developmental psychologists measure children’s mentalizing capacity is through the false-belief test. The child to be tested watches a scenario in which another child sees his mother put chocolate in a green cupboard, after which the child goes out to play. While the child is out, the mother uses the chocolate and puts it back into a blue cupboard. The child comes back from playing and looks for the chocolate. The test question: Will the child look in the green cupboard or the blue cupboard? A mentalizing child will answer “green,” realizing that the child in the scenario would act on the basis of a false belief. The non-mentalizing child will answer “blue,” not taking into account the observed child’s mental state but rather answering on the basis of what the tested child knows to be current reality.
The importance of attachment
Barring autism, children normally pass the false belief test around three to four years of age. Interestingly, children who are securely attached to their parents, as indicated by confidently reaching out to a parent for comfort when emotionally distressed, are likely to learn to mentalize earlier and more skillfully than those who are insecurely attached. Moreover, parents who are securely attached to their own parents are more likely to have children who are securely attached to them. What determines security of attachment, that is, confidence in the emotional availability of the caregiver? One important factor is mentalizing. Over the generations, mentalizing begets mentalizing. Parents who engage in mentalizing interactions with their children are fostering secure attachment. Such parents, for example, are attentive to their children’s emotional states and, when their children can use language, they help them understand what is on their mind by talking with them about their thoughts and feelings. The connection between such mentalizing is commonsensical: Why would a child turn to a parent for comfort if the child could not anticipate that the parent would mentalize? In short, as our colleague Peter Fonagy aptly puts it, securely attached children have the sense that their parents hold their mind in mind. Just as we learn language by engaging in linguistic interactions (which, by the way, require mentalizing), we learn mentalizing by engaging in mentalizing interactions.
As it is in childhood, it remains throughout life. Trusting, stable, secure attachment relationships are based on mentalizing. Indeed, all cooperative (and competitive) relationships are based on mentalizing. And, to mentalize in interactions with others, we must mentalize in relation to ourselves; you must know your own mind to make your mind known to others. How do we encourage others to mentalize? Mentalize. This is how securely attached parents encourage their children to mentalize. We advocate a curious, inquisitive, open-minded mentalizing stance. When feeling put out or let down, inquire: I’m wondering what you were thinking and feeling? When puzzled about your own behavior: What was I thinking and feeling?
Parenting, friendships, love relationships, and psychotherapy all rest on mentalizing. All of us do it, and all of us always could do it better.