Reading People: How To Understand The Cognitive Processes Of Others

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It can be tempting to look at someone and make assumptions based on their appearance, way of talking, or clothing. However, these assumptions might be more complex than many initially think. Reading people can be difficult, and superhero powers like reading minds are impossible. For this reason, looking for body language, non-verbal cues, and hidden meanings in how someone talks to you may be helpful.

Can you pick up on someone’s mood just by looking at them?

What does it mean to "read" people?

To "read" people means to interpret or understand others based on non-verbal cues, behavior, and communication patterns, even without explicit verbal explanation. Psychologists call this skill theory of mind. A functioning theory of mind allows us to attribute mental states to others, including their beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge. This skill involves paying attention to their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subtle signals. 

This process can happen relatively quickly. Research has found that we form first impressions in as little as 100 milliseconds, and we can use information gleaned from even short interactions to develop a relatively nuanced understanding of a person’s character, intentions, and emotional state. This typically involves assessing their verbal patterns, body language, and how they respond to certain topics or questions. 

This natural ability evolved as a way to navigate social complexities, build cooperative relationships, and ensure survival within communities.

What are the potential benefits of reading someone? 

Although reading people and making assumptions can have adverse impacts, there may be a few benefits, too. 

You can determine the safety of approaching someone 

Reading people may let you know if it's safe to approach someone. You might be more willing to approach them with a smile and a friendly greeting if they look friendly. If they look unhappy, you might want to approach them cautiously, as they may need space. If a friend looks upset, you could ask them what's going on and offer your support. In addition, if you see someone acting violently or unkind to others, you might know it's safer to avoid them.

Understanding facial expressions, body language, and non-verbal cues may keep you safe and ensure you know how to approach someone in a way that feels comfortable to both of you. Once you approach someone, you might ask them questions to get a further read on their emotions and state of mind. Although non-verbal assumptions may be beneficial, direct communication may be the most effective way to get an honest view of what someone is thinking. 

You can get to know the person more profoundly

If you don't know how to read people, you might misinterpret their actions or facial expressions and assume traits that might not be accurate. For example, many people avoid eye contact due to mental health challenges or neurodivergence. Although some people in society value eye contact as a sign of active listening and participating in conversation, some people may struggle to gather their thoughts when making eye contact. One study found that autistic adults and children had a higher cognitive function and social ability when not making eye contact. By talking to someone directly and asking questions, you may be able to re-evaluate your initial assumptions about what makes someone "friendly" or "communicative," as each person is unique. 

When you read someone and follow up with communication, you can get a complete picture of who they are and what they enjoy. You can also ask them about their non-verbal signals to understand why they might act a certain way. For example, some people might look angry with a resting face but feel happy. You could ask them how they feel to understand whether their expression matches their emotions.

If you don't know how to read people at all, you could end up interpreting something that they do or an action or a facial expression incorrectly, and you may start to assume things about a person that aren’t accurate. Maybe you see their face and think that they are an angry person, when they're just upset about a situation. Maybe you think they look unfriendly, but they're just concentrating heavily on a task. By learning to read people better, you may be able to advance your life in many ways.

Reading people can help you know whom to approach with that great new idea (and when to approach) and whom you should steer clear of. It also lets you know how to introduce something to them, whether from a factual standpoint or a more fun and creative one. Before you know it, reading people can become second nature to you if you practice it often enough. And what's even better is that you've probably been doing it all your life and not even thinking about it. That's because it's something that even kids will try out from time to time without knowing how important it is.

Reading people in childhood

When you were a child, did you ever sit on a bench at the park or on your porch and watch people walk by? You probably did at some point, even if it was just for a few minutes. And then you look at the people and create stories. If they're walking a dog, maybe they're a dog walker on their way to the park. If they're carrying a briefcase and walking quickly, they're late to a big meeting (of course, that meeting might have been with aliens in your young mind, but you get the general idea). You've already interpreted what you see of someone to create a story about them.

How to read people you know 

Before reading strangers, learning to read people you already know and love might be helpful. Below are a few strategies to do so. 

Learn about body language

The study of body language can indicate a few ways people might act. Body language can include the following: 

  • Eye contact
  • Shoulder tension
  • How someone crosses their legs or positions them 
  • The direction someone leans when sitting 
  • Posture
  • Facial expressions
  • Eyebrow positioning
  • Forehead tension
  • How someone positions their arms and hands
  • What a person is looking at

Pay attention to all these areas. Then, consider what they might mean. Someone leaning forward and making eye contact with you during a date may be interested in getting to know you more. A friend raising their eyebrows at someone they just met might be surprised or uncertain about that person. Someone clenching their fists while talking might be angry or anxious about the conversation. 

Understand mental health and body language

Mental health and mental state can change someone's body language. For example, people living with a mental illness like depression might slouch or make slower movements. People with anxiety might fidget with their hands, clench their fists, or cross their arms over their bodies. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might look for an exit often, be hyper-vigilant of their surroundings, or defend their bodies by crossing their arms or staying in safe locations. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Neurodivergence can also factor into body language. As the study above showcases, autistic people may feel more comfortable not making eye contact. People with ADHD might also struggle to remain still, interrupt others, or fidget with items or their hands while speaking. These actions might be interpreted as "rude" by someone unfamiliar with them. However, it can be beneficial to have empathy and understand that some people might not have the same reactions to social situations as you. 

Get to know their patterns 

If you know someone well, you might get a feel for their body language patterns. For instance, perhaps a friend often chuckles or smiles when they feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, or maybe your dad furrows his brow when stressed. These signals can be noted to help you understand when a friend or family member could benefit from support or space. When you see a friend is uncomfortable, you might ask them if they want to take a walk or get some air outside. You could also check in by asking how they feel and if there's anything you can do to help. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Can you pick up on someone’s mood just by looking at them?

How to find professional support 

Some people struggle to read others or express their emotions through body language. However, this skill can often be built over time, and professional support might help you do so. Try not to quit or give up on the progress you make. In addition, ask your therapist for their professional opinion on what might work for you. 

For those who aren't sure where to start or how to work on reading people, it's possible to get professional help online. Online therapy might be more comfortable for those worried about public situations or face-to-face communication. Through platforms like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist specializing in your mental health condition or symptoms. You can set up your appointments through video, phone, or messaging software with an internet connection. You don't have to install programs and can log in for therapy anytime.  

Online therapy can be a valuable and practical resource for people who have historically had difficulty reading people, potentially due to social anxiety or challenges with empathy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that many online therapists use to treat participants. It is often the leading treatment for social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In one study, researchers found significant reductions in symptoms of social anxiety after treatment using internet-based CBT. Greater comfort in being around other people might help you read their moods, intentions, and motivations more proficiently.


Anyone may be able to learn to read others with time, practice, and professional support. Whether you're moving to a new country, changing jobs, or striving to make stronger connections with people you already know, therapy might help you meet those goals. Consider reaching out to a therapist for compassionate, expert guidance.
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