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‘It’s a useful reminder to be sceptical when it comes to our belief that we know what’s going on in other people’s heads’

Among philosophers, the “problem of other minds” refers to an old puzzle: how could you ever be sure – totally sure – that anyone else has a mind at all? How do I know you’re not all highly convincing robots, or hallucinations I’m experiencing? Taken to extremes, these stoner-ish thoughts lead to solipsism, which is the notion that everyone and everything, from the emperor of Japan to Jeremy Clarkson’s latest book, Is It Really Too Much To Ask?, is just a figment of one’s own imagination. This is so absurd that even philosophers mention it mainly for laughs. The theologian Alvin Plantinga claims once to have visited a university department where one elderly, frail professor was a solipsist. “We take very good care of him,” a younger academic told Plantinga, “because when he goes, we all go…”

In everyday life, the problem of other minds isn’t usually a problem: we assume everyone has one, and things mostly work out fine. Even so, it’s a useful reminder to be sceptical when it comes to our belief that we know what’s going on in other people’s heads. If we can’t be certain there’s a mind there at all, how much more dubious are the detailed assumptions we habitually make about what they’re thinking? The field of social psychology is a litany of the ways we get overconfident about our ability to read others’ minds, landing us in trouble. One example is the “spotlight effect”, which describes how we assume people are judging us far more than they really are. In a famous study, students were made to enter a room wearing an embarrassing T-shirt. They guessed that about half those present noticed it; the true figure was about a quarter. Everyone else was preoccupied with their own concerns.

In self-help culture, it’s commonly recommended that you should give up these mind-reading efforts altogether. Stop caring what others think! Ignore the critics and do your thing! But that’s easier said than done. And surely often undesirable: next time your spouse complains you don’t take his or her feelings into account, I don’t recommend chirping, “Haters gonna hate!”, then waltzing off. Yet there’s wisdom in the title of a cheesy book from the 1970s: What You Think Of Me Is None Of My Business. That needn’t mean sticking a middle finger up at others, just recognising the hugely limited influence we exert over their inner lives. Our reach over them exceeds our grasp, and that’s when frustrations arise.

The reach-versus-grasp issue trips us up in other ways, too – such as how we think we can, or ought to, control the future, a zone at least as unknowable and alien as others’ minds. In an important sense, the future is always utterly unreachable. “Life unfolds only in moments,” writes the blogger David Cain at And “if the scope of life never extends beyond one moment, that means you never have to deal with more than one moment. You can bring all your attention and resources to bear on making the smartest move right now; there needn’t be any other considerations. This means there are not a million things to do, or a million people to please.” The future is none of your business: what a relief. Unless you’re a solipsist, in which case everything’s your business – and please, please don’t stop imagining I exist.

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