A woman trying to read someone while talking to a man at a coffee shop.

How should you approach reading someone? What factors affect how you interpret someone’s behavior?

Reading others isn’t as easy as people think it is. That’s because people unintentionally hold biases about people, and don’t always know the context behind a situation.

Keep reading to learn how to read someone’s psychological cues.

How to Approach Reading People

Patrick King writes that people generally consider themselves good judges of character, but in reality, assessing another person is harder than it seems—people often misinterpret signs and then arrive at misguided conclusions about how another person feels or thinks. 

(Shortform note: One reason we can form misguided conclusions about other people is cognitive simplification. This concept, as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains that our brain uses mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to easily and quickly form opinions about others. This cognitive simplification often leads to errors in judgment about someone’s character and intentions because it relies on preconceived notions and stereotypes, rather than a deep, unbiased analysis of that individual.)

King advises that to avoid falling into this trap when learning how to read someone, with psychology tips and factors that might affect your interpretation of their behavior:

1. Behavioral status quo: To accurately read someone, you have to know how they normally behave and speak so you can pick up on anomalies or changes in their behavior. For instance, if your friend always has a lot of energy, you shouldn’t interpret this as excitement about something that just happened—that may simply be their baseline state of being. 

(Shortform note: Joe Navarro, former FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying, elaborates on this idea of behavioral baselines. He suggests paying attention to ‘pacifying behaviors’—physical responses that individuals exhibit when they’re under stress. According to Navarro, they differ from person to person, reinforcing King’s idea. If you don’t know someone’s pacifying behaviors (their baseline), you may wrongly interpret these as deceitful indicators, where they are merely stress responses. It emphasizes that accurate people-reading requires understanding of individuals’ unique, natural behaviors.)

2. Multiple data points: You can’t form a conclusion about someone based on a single data point—a single sentence or gesture, for example. You must pay attention to multiple data points to form an accurate conclusion about someone’s inner state. 

(Shortform note: Kahneman has a similar perspective: He warns against the “law of small numbers,” a common error we make when we hastily form conclusions based on limited information. Kahneman writes that you have to gather more information over a longer period to avoid this bias. This aligns with King’s advice to consider multiple data points to form a holistic understanding of others’ behaviors. It cements the importance of cautious, in-depth assessment when drawing conclusions about someone else’s internal state.)

3. Context: You have to consider the context in which a behavior is happening, or you’ll likely misinterpret that behavior. For instance, if you see someone moving around restlessly, you might read that behavior as nervousness, when in reality, it might simply be cold in the room and the person is trying to stay warm. 

Additionally, recognize that you yourself might affect the other person’s behavior. For example, if you’re in a position of power, the other person may change their body language in response, which might skew how they present themselves. 

(Shortform note: In his work The Psychology of Affiliation, Stanley Schachter argues that social context, such as that King refers to, significantly influences a person’s behavior. He demonstrated this with his ‘misery loves company’ experiment: People experiencing stress (like awaiting an intense electric shock) sought out the company of others experiencing the same stress over those who were calm. This suggests that understanding someone’s behavior requires more than knowing their ‘normal’—you also need to understand the context in which they’re operating. A friend may behave differently not because they feel different, but because the situation calls for a different response.)

4. Your own biases: Recognize that you may have prejudices and assumptions that lead you to interpret cues in a certain way. For example, if you tend to be suspicious of others, you may interpret someone’s actions as deceitful when they’re not. 

(Shortform note: Subconscious biases are the preexisting beliefs and attitudes that shape the perception of another’s behavior. As social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed in his theory of cognitive dissonance, people tend to interpret new evidence in ways that conform to their existing beliefs, which can lead to misinterpretation. Thus, even if you’re aware of situational context and power dynamics, your subconscious bias could influence your interpretations, leading to misunderstanding or miscommunications. To minimize this bias, it’s crucial to constantly gauge and question your own perspectives.)

How to Read Someone: Psychology, Signs, and Outside Factors

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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