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  • Writer's pictureechtherapy

The Traitors, and the mind-reading trap

With its high-octane challenges (sheep-identification and bell-ringing, anyone?), stunning Scottish setting and cut-throat gameplay, The Traitors had us gripped to our screens this winter, forever changing our relationship to hooded bathrobes and suspicious fringes. It was an extraordinary series, with surprising levels of intimacy arising from the pronounced vulnerability felt by the contestants. Over the course of 12 episodes, they were put through the emotional ringer, trying to identify who among them were the Traitors and the Faithful – or, in trying to maintain a poker face while delightedly stabbing everyone else in the back, if you were team Traitor.

At the start of the series, the contestants were fresh-faced and confident that their task would be an easy one. This was because they, like many of us, were labouring under the belief that it’s easy to tell what someone else is thinking and feeling, just by watching and interacting with them. The Faithful were convinced that the Traitors would not be able to hide their emotions, so immediately looked accusingly at the members of the group who seemed to be having the ‘wrong’ reaction to the circumstances. What quickly became evident was that, as we learned in GCSE English, ‘there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’ (that’s King Duncan, in Macbeth – a thrillingly appropriate reference for a show set in a Scottish castle, very pleased with that!). Unfortunately, the Faithful were resoundingly incorrect in their belief that mind-reading was possible.

This question of mind-reading is one that often comes into the therapy room, when we talk about communication in our relationships. Communication is a skill in two parts: the speaking part, and the hearing part. Both are things to practice and develop, as neither are necessarily easy. Assuming that ‘mind-reading’ is possible is an error we can fall into on both sides of the communication bridge: we might not fully say what we mean, assuming that someone will just ‘get’ what we’re inferring, or we may find ourselves imagining that even though someone has said one thing, they actually mean something else. Sometimes, we can totally miss the opportunity to communicate because we assume we’ve understood a situation, without stopping to sense-check our assumption with the other party.

However, as someone whose job puts me in the privileged position of talking to people about their emotions every day, I can say with certainty that we can never guess what someone is feeling with 100% accuracy – perhaps, not even anywhere close to that percentage, in fact. That is partly because there’s no ‘one way’ any given emotion presents (e.g. crying can indicate someone is sad, but also that they’re scared, furious, joyful, or even hungry, depending on the context), and partly because our feelings are never ‘just one’ thing – we’re usually able to name a few different feelings we’re experiencing in any given moment, because there’s a lot of nuance to our emotional world. Although it may feel counter-intuitive, our perception of what’s going on for others – especially people we haven’t spent much time with, as for the contestants on The Traitors - based on the interpretation of body language alone, does not give us as full a story as we imagine.

So, The Traitors demonstrated both our persistence of the belief in the possibility of mind-reading, and how far we are from that in reality. It also showed that the contestants were desperate to find a sense of safety and certainty by forming allegiances with each other, and that they would stick to these with fierce loyalty, despite a lack of evidence of trustworthiness. The need to believe the people they trusted became more important than what would have helped them in the game – continuing to question others, and remaining open to doubt.

While life in The Traitors bears little semblance to our own (although I would be delighted to integrate their breakfast spreads IRL), it is useful to remember that we are as hopeless as the Faithful when it comes to trying to guess what’s going on for others, even though we may feel equally tempted to try to. Fortunately, ‘mind-reading’ is neither useful, necessary, nor desirable – we can always ask instead of assuming, and be open to exploring someone else’s perspective with them. Having those conversations is in fact what brings us closer to people, and what forms trusting, healthy relationships. So, while mind-reading is not a super-power we can access, good communication is – and that’s something to which we can commit, as 100% faithful.


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