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Friday
Jun032016

Individual differences shape empathetic drive

Dr. Spock had an exceptional, in fact other-worldly ability to read the thoughts of people he encountered.

A new report in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggests this may not be just for Vulcans.

Mind-Reading Motivation (MRM) is a new construct detailed by lead author Jordan Carpenter (University of Pennsylvania) and corresponding author Dr. Melanie Green (Associate Professor, University of Buffalo).

MRM involves using cues from other people’s behavior – facial expressions, hand movements, body posture and ‘language’ and hundreds of other non-verbal cues to try to figure out what they are thinking.  People high in MRM have a tendency to speculate on others’ thoughts and enjoy doing so whereas people low in MRM dislike or have no interest in doing so.

Two features of MRM stood out to me: One, that the motivation to understand the thoughts of others was not related to direct benefit. Although the outcome of striving for mental synergy can definitely lead to improved teamwork and greater social harmony, these outcomes, at best, would be delayed;  Two, that MRM seems to go beyond coarse perception and develops what Dr. Green described as “…richer psychological portraits of those around them. It’s the difference between saying ‘this person strives for success, but is afraid of achieving it’ as opposed to ‘this person is a great cook’.”

Dr. Green’s work in the Department of Communication and her co-author colleagues at the Hass School of Business at UC Berkeley interpret their findings of individuals who have high or low MRM with respect to they types of information and social cues that could influence MRM groups differently.  This has significant implications for relationships as well as in generic vs. targeted advertising.

Beyond improving ads for a commercial product, it is fascinating to me to consider how MRM could be described in the context of prodromal psychiatric disease. Is the motivation to understand the thoughts of others an early signal of later more extreme changes in social engagement or withdrawal?

From a neuroimaging perspective, which areas of the brain are engaged when interpreting the thoughts of others? What does MRM as a mental practice derive in neurotransmitter release in the short and long term? Do high MRM individuals necessarily change their behavior based on their interpretations?

Integrating static and social information quickly (possibly in part by MRM) may be a hallmark of success – where one example in science might be successful grant writing.  Besides technical precision in a proposal, successful applications seem to contain a fickle element that makes them inherently attractive – a mixture of confidence and mutual understanding with the reviewer, despite the single-blinded mechanism (at least via NIH). Perhaps a subconstruct could be described as Remote Mind-Reading Motivation, RMRM, or even POMRM to at least tap into the mind of your grants Program Officer.

-FAS

Article: Jordan M. Carpenter, Melanie C. Green, Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk. Beyond perspective-taking: Mind-reading motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 2016; 40 (3): 358 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-016-9544-z

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