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Theory of mind: What chess and drug dealers can teach you about manipulation

Grandmasters and drug dealers have one thing in common: They are many steps ahead of their rivals.
theory of mind
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Key Takeaways
  • Theory of mind is the ability we all have to see things from another’s point of view. It’s essential in all our interactions.
  • A new study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine shows just how far we use this when persuading others.
  • Manipulating others uses a part of our brain used often in games like chess. Perhaps being better at the one makes you better at the other?

The greatest tacticians of the world are those who think ahead. Chess grandmasters, famous generals, great world leaders, and mafia dons all share one skill: They are all many more steps ahead than their rivals.

We each have the ability to think ahead. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a functioning human who didn’t think ahead at least some of the time. You’ve probably planned what to do tonight, and you likely know the route you’re going to take to get home. Thinking ahead is one hallmark of intelligence. Without it, we’re simply slaves to our instincts and reflexes — a bit like a plant or a baby.

What about the role of forward thinking when dealing with others? It’s something addressed in a recent study out of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. It shows just how far ahead we think when we interact with — and manipulate — other people.

A theory of mind

The problem with the world is that it’s full of other people. Unlike you (of course!), those people are often unpredictable, independent, and infuriatingly unreadable. There’s no way we can get inside their head to know what they are thinking or what they are going to do. But given that humans are a social species, it is no surprise that we have developed ways to calculate what other people might be thinking.

This is known as “theory of mind,” the ability most of us have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. (To varying degrees, people with autism may not have this ability.) Theory of mind is something that we learn as we grow up. Children will learn other people have their own mental lives — their own desires, emotions, and so on — around 15 months old, but they are still bad at compensating and adapting to that for a while. For instance, if a two-year-old sees another person in distress, they will seek to help them by giving them their toy or their favorite thing. They recognize someone has their own feelings but cannot step beyond that to think what the other person might want.

Most people have a hugely sophisticated theory of mind. Here’s an example: Let’s say you and I are talking about something, and you see me look up at the clock. What assumptions or thoughts now go through your head? Are you boring me? Do I need to be somewhere? Is there a spider on the clock? In fact, people who “overthink” things often get lost and trapped in this elaborate game of speculative theory of mind. As with most things, a useful brain habit becomes toxic when it’s taken too far.

Always two steps ahead

What the recent study from Na et al. adds to the discussion concerns just how much we employ this theory of mind when trying to persuade or manipulate others. The team from Mount Sinai had 48 participants sit in a brain scanner and play a kind of “ultimatum game.” Essentially, they were divided into teams and told to split $20 with one another. In one version of the game, there were no rules whatsoever. They could haggle, negotiate, manipulate, and bargain as much as they wanted.

The study revealed two things:

First, after a computational analysis of all the finished games, they discovered that the results were what would be expected from people who thought “two, three, or four steps ahead” of others. In other words, if people were only thinking one step ahead, or from reaction only, the results would have looked completely different.

Second, the brain scans revealed that the choices made during the negotiations were accompanied by activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is the same part of the brain used in most forward-thinking decisions. So, at least in neurophysiological terms, manipulating others is much the same as any other plotting.

Every interaction is a game of chess

There’s a memorable scene from The Wire, where D’Angelo uses the real world of drug dealing to explain the rules of chess. It works well, and now we might know why. What Na et al. show is that when we are trying to sway or manipulate others, our brain activates in much the same way as when we’re playing chess.

Every social interaction is a game of chess, trying to get inside someone’s head to navigate what they are thinking or what they will do. It’s the bane of relationships, and the source of much conflict. So, what if we can be better at it? We know that chess gives us a whole host of benefits, but perhaps we can add “makes you better at getting your own way” to the list? It’s time to dust off the chessboard, indeed.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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