Projection = incorrect theory of mind predictions

I’ve written this down in a few different places, but it deserves a post because it’s an important idea.

Projection is the same mechanism as theory of mind (sometimes called “empathy” or emotional intelligence), except when it happens to be incorrect it’s called projection. You see a lot of both with white matter-dominant, verbal IQ-reliant folks.

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Deficits occur in people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,[2] as well as neurotoxicity due to alcohol abuse.[3]

Most communication between neurotypical folks is generally acknowledged to be nonverbal. This only works because a neurotypical person can look at another NT’s body language and ask himself “what would I be thinking and feeling if I were displaying similar body language, verbal tics, etc?” It does not work when an autistic person interacts with NTs:

Once I was surprised that I was having a normal conversation with the guys in marketing, in the hall at work and I thought “wow, this isn’t so hard!” But later the secretary told me “Faith, they’re not laughing WITH you, they’re laughing AT you. And she seemed sad about it.” So I shut up again.

Faye Kane

She misinterprets “laughing” as mirth and camaraderie, because she doesn’t have an emotional instinct for “sadism” (her descriptions of it are overly intellectualized and abstract). She even misinterprets “pity” for “sad” because to her, the basic social power dynamics behind contempt and pity are category errors. Aren’t we all humans? Well, yes and no, see it gets kinda weird…

The same is true when an NT tries to read into the emotional state of an autistic person. “Gosh, she doesn’t go to any parties, she must be too shy. How horrible and lonely this must make her feel. I should invite her!” This intention is actually quite nice and altruistic on the part of the NT, but most HFAs would rather be tortured with power tools than be at a rave. Torture at least makes sense, if you think about it, and it tends to be less uncomfortably overstimulating than a rave. (This paragraph is only slightly hyperbolic.)

Furthermore, we musn’t discount the ubiquity of deception in NT social behaviors, particularly of the plausibly deniable variety:

P.P.P.P.S. Why are the Neanderthals so much more expressive in their way? They come from tribes of around 12-80 people. There was no need to be guarded, passive-aggressive or conceal one’s feelings and motivations. In a tribe like that of Cro-Magnons that can run into the thousands, one has to have a mask, not a face. In the modern era, one of the ways that Neanderthals try desperately to fit in is that from a young age they try to turn their face into an emotionless, blank slate. This only makes them more disturbing. Cro-Magnons can still see the open quality of their personalities compared to their own guarded and ambiguous faces and the Neanderthal only gets himself more contempt by trying to make his face look like theirs. When two Neanderthals passed each other for a million years, why would they need anything more in their faces than a reassuring, genuinely friendly and benevolent look? It would be critical to their survival. One sees this in primate compounds amongst bonobos, where one chimp looks around and is met by a sea of smiles and kind loving glances. They grow up in these environments where faces are used to convey love, support and security. Imagine taking one of these genetically superior organisms and throwing them into a society of millions of chattering, facile, ingenuous and insincere apes who never mean what they say and often display faces that represent the opposite of what they are feeling. A horrible situation for the Neanderthals. No wonder they have such a high suicide rate, is it so difficult to see why?


Note that neanderthal socializing follows the K-selected social model of total honesty and openness because “one for all, all for one”.


Cro magnon, on the other hand, is a highly social creature. They have instinctive categorical datatypes for Us, Them, and Reality, whereas thals only have datatypes for Us and Reality. A thal cannot distinguish between “humans but not my tribe” and “animals”, whereas a cro begins learning to play social signalling games in the cradle, indicating a genetic memory/affinity for basic politics. It is basically poker, except instead of “hand” strength we are dealing with real strength, estimations of strength through nonverbal cues, alliances, and so forth. Cros love stuff like Game of Thrones and Law and Order, whereas thals consider these boring (because they have no datatypes for all the important sensory input).

Because adult cro magnons are highly adept at reading social cues (from instinct and practice), they are often able to tell genuine confidence from bluffs. This is why watching high-level poker players is so boring. At that level, they know that any tell is a bad tell, so their faces are completely blank. They’re just playing a probability game, as if they were playing over the internet without any body language input.

Why Confidence Works

Note also that high-level poker players and neanderthals in low-trust societies use the same survival strategy: poker face. This indicates, in both cases, the recognition of asymmetric information flow.

About Aeoli Pera

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8 Responses to Projection = incorrect theory of mind predictions

  1. Pingback: Psychopathy is hardcoded solipsism (and a social force multiplier!) | Aeoli Pera

  2. slenkar says:

    I lost all that innocence that Faye had after a month in high school.
    I find innocence incredibly endearing though

  3. slenkar says:

    “She misinterprets “laughing” as mirth and camaraderie, because she doesn’t have an emotional instinct for “sadism””
    Good observation

  4. Pingback: Why systemizers aren’t “people” people | Aeoli Pera

  5. Pingback: Emotional empathy = cognitive empathy * anxiety | Aeoli Pera

  6. Edenist whackjob says:

    “Why are the Neanderthals so much more expressive in their way? They come from tribes of around 12-80 people.”

    I wonder if Thals have a high need for significance? (Because in a small tribe everyone can be significant in their own way). Modern society feels like ant heap == teh horror. Which might lead to solipsism as defense mechanism? Just a speculation.

    Maybe thal significance is a happy medium between narcissism/solipsism and ant-realism (everything is utterly meaningless because there are so many of us, so all goals basically boil down to lower stages on Maslow’s pyramid, things that don’t require a significance context).

    Thal with high need for significance:

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