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Episode 36

In our conversation with Nick Epley, we discover how little we know ourselves, how much less we know other people, and yet how incredibly good we think we are at both. We learn about the power of context in shaping our feelings, the importance of emotional reciprocity, the magic of gratitude, impact of moral conscience, and how all of these play a role in  “designing a good life.”

Nick Epley is a Professor of Behavior Science and Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He teaches an ethics and happiness course to MBA students called “Designing a Good Life” and he studies social cognition to understand why smart people so routinely misunderstand each other.

Okay, Nick, thank you so much for joining us on the show. We’re excited to have you.

Yeah. Happy to be here. Thanks for asking.

So to start out, would just love for you to tell our listeners a bit about you and how it is that you came to do the amazing work you do today in regards to, you know, from sociability to understanding ourselves versus others, as well as teaching a course on how to live a good life.

Yeah, so I’m a I’m a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. I’m really a psychologist, a psychological scientist. And what I study in my work is mind reading. I study how we make inferences about each other’s thoughts and beliefs and attitudes. And mostly I’m interested in how we screw that up from time to time and misunderstand each other in ways that create interpersonal frictions, social frictions, I started this work early in graduate school, I came to graduate school to get my PhD at Cornell University interested in, in why good people so often or at least at times can go off and do bad things. People don’t always seem to know themselves that well. And I did a lot of work in that in graduate school, finding that people, for instance, tend to underestimate the power of unethical risks in their own lives, that is underestimate the power of unethical temptations to drive their behavior. And so we tend to think we’ll behave more ethically, when we are in an ethical dilemma that we actually do. And that also got me interested in, in how well we understand each other turns out the human minds the most complicated thing we ever think about, we have some access to our own minds. That is we can recognize our own emotions. Our own internal experiences have a hard time explaining why we’re feeling or thinking what we’re feeling or thinking. But we have even less access to what’s going on in the mind of another person. We can hear from them directly, or we can observe their behavior and, and try to work backwards to infer what’s going on between their ears try to understand what’s going on in their minds. But that latter problem of understanding what’s going on in the minds of another person, just over the years has become clear to me is the central challenge of social life. It’s the most difficult judgment we make what’s going on the mind of another person. The mistakes we make are more common than we think they are. We’re not nearly as good at understanding other people as we think we are. And the mistakes are just rampant, affecting not just our own relationships with other people. But because relationships are so important for our happiness and health system. dramatically misunderstanding the minds of other people, makes people less happy and healthy than they could be more lonely and isolated than we ought to be in our daily lives. So that’s really become the focus of my research, trying to understand the magnitude of these misunderstandings about the minds of others, and tracking their consequences. And then when I teach to the MBAs, this work has made it clear to me that I think I have, I think we, as a field of behavioral science and psychology, have something really important to teach the Masters of the Universe who are going out there and running organizations and businesses big and small, for how to set up their organizations to help people be better and be happier and healthier lives within their organization. So

you can’t see how much I’m smiling but it’s just it’s so fascinating. It’s such an incredible field that kind of encapsulates so many more subfields and so I have a ton of questions but did want to just touch on one thing you you mentioned? Because I think it’s something that might be of interest to others. Is this good versus bad? Before we kind of dive into the the deeper research that you do, you mentioned this, you know, question of what makes good people do bad things. And so I’m a bit curious about kind of how we would even what the operating definitions are and what you ever managed to find with that initial question that took you down this road?

Yeah, so I actually don’t think it’s as hard to define, at least for the most part, what looks good and bad, or at least narrowly with specific behaviors, what’s good or bad, and most people don’t disagree actually on what looks good and bad. There’s an awful, awful lot of shared moral conscience. You see it around the world, that people recognize that treating other people poorly for your own gain is less good than treating other people as you would like to be treated yourselves, which is the the golden rule, of course, which turns out to be the moral foundation of pretty much all ethical systems around the world. So all ethics turn out to be social, or nearly all ethical principles turn out to be social principles, they deal with how we treat other people lying and cheating. And stealing is widely considered to be typically wrong. Because it harms another person lying to yourself cheating yourself in some way, stealing from yourself may sound stupid, but it doesn’t strike you as immoral or unethical. And so, really, one of the chief questions among psychologists who study ethics is really a social question, which is what leads people to treat other people relatively well as they would like to be treated themselves versus relatively poorly as they would prefer not to be treated. And there are lots of answers. Those questions one simple one is that we often behave towards others. Without our ethical principles top of mind. We just aren’t thinking about what’s right and wrong. We’re in the midst of doing it or the harm we might be inflicting on somebody else without thinking about it. So when people think about what’s right and wrong before behaving in some action, they often behave differently than if you don’t lead them to think about that. social norms, of course, also play a huge role in what people tend to do not so much in their moral judgment as much in their moral behavior. For everybody else around you is cheating, you might think it’s wrong, but that’s the way things are done or around here, or that’s the way the game is played. Or that’s just business, you’ll say. And so you can get good people doing knowingly bad things, because that’s what’s going on in the environment they’re in so that the key to changing behavior, I think are one of the keys to changing behavior is recognizing the power of the context you’re in to drive your thinking and your actions. So our MBA students are essentially social engineers in an organization, they design, the jobs and the environments that people live in work in. And you can design those environments in ways that keep ethics Top of Mind that incentivize ethical behavior that make it hard to be purely self interested without regard for others that reward ethical behavior, through recognition or just through simple acknowledgement that encourage policies and procedures that get other people behaving ethically, that is create organizations that become entire ethical systems. So that’s what I try to do the MBAs and the big focus there is really on what drives pro sociality, because that accounts for a lot, at least, of what we think of as ethical and unethical behavior.

Thank you. Research you also mentioned that people tend to not necessarily think they’re better than others and have more kind of positive emotional or ethical attributes but less evil, kind of ethical attributes, is that correct?

That’s right. So what we find is that people don’t necessarily think they’re holier than thou. That is they’re not likely more likely than others systematically at least to do good things. But rather, they’re less likely to do bad things. So people don’t necessarily think they’re more likely than others to donate to charity as much as they think they’re less likely than others to refuse to give to charity. When it’s a good thing to do. People don’t necessarily think they’re more likely to, you know, give up a seat, on a crowded bus to a press. That person, they’re not necessarily more likely to do that than others. But what they’re really not likely to do is to steal that seat from a pregnant woman on the bus. So, where the self other asymmetry is largest are when people are considering the likelihood that they’ll do bad things, cheat on your taxes, commit fraud at work, have an affair. Those sorts of things that most people recognize are unethical. People tend not to think they’ll do that as much as others. On the pro social side, the effects are a little, little smaller.

And I think that specifically in relationships could be at work or kind of strangers, but particularly in kind of new and unfamiliar territory of romantic relationships. how this could come into play where I think people find it difficult to give others the best. benefit of the doubt whether it’s justified or not, and believe they’re good intentions, there’s a large level of mistrust. And you guys also kind of study the relationship between intentions and behaviors. So I just be curious to have you speak a bit to that. 

Well, the reason why people tend not to think they’ll do bad things is because most of us don’t have unethical intentions. We have good intentions. And even people who are in the midst of doing bad things often are doing it with good intentions. They think they’re doing the right thing. They think by committing fraud, they are making money for their shareholders. They think by stealing from the company they’re just doing what they need to take care of their family. Some of that rationalization comes up before people engage in unethical actions. Some of it comes up after people engage in unethical actions, but it’s it’s pretty rare that people are doing bad things with no bad intent, because most people feel bad when they’re doing bad stuff. So either they avoid the bad stuff or when they’re doing bad things, they have convinced themselves, either before engaging in the action or afterwards, that it’s okay, so take it take salespeople at Wells Fargo, for instance, who were opening fraudulent accounts for their family members. All the reports we have from folks inside the organization, show that they’re typical human beings who felt really pretty bad. doing that. There was a lot of stress, a lot of sickness in that organization that people reported lots of calls to the mental health line within Wells Fargo. If you attract those calls to the mental health line, you probably would have caught that fraud long before the regulator’s actually did. People were feeling bad about it, but you can imagine if your job was on the line, and you had no choice, you’re living paycheck to paycheck. And your boss was encouraging you to open these two, you know You’re paid on on commission, you convince yourself that well, the accounts really aren’t hurting anybody. Everybody else is doing it. That’s what I got to do to survive. You do your best to make yourself okay with it in the moment. And I think what people then fail to realize is, is how weak our good intentions are, when we’re in strong social contacts, that can encourage us to do unethical things. And that’s why we tend to do bad things. But when we look at other people, we don’t know what their intentions are. And we tend to do what psychologists refer to as committing the correspondence bias. We tend to work backwards from a person’s behavior to their underlying intention. So if we see people doing something unethical, we infer they had unethical intent. And that’s not always the life is just more complicated than that.

I love that line because it’s so simple but rings. It’s so true, but it’s something we don’t consider. And so in one of your articles, I believe it was an article on NPR, it talks about how truly complicated it is to try and understand not only ourselves but other people. And we just go around making these quick inferences based on small amount of information, or really no information, insight, just behavior. And kind of seeing it through the lens of either our previous experiences or just guesswork in a way. Yep. And so I’d love to hear how much you think that we’re even capable of really understanding ourselves versus actually you know, understanding the intentions or the kind of essence of another person and which one can be more damaging which one can have more consequences.

Boy yeah. So those are those are the sorts of philosophical questions that have that have given philosophers jobs for centuries, and at least behavioral scientists psychological scientists jobs for at least the last hundred years. So let me let me try to give a relatively straight forward answer to that. That big question. I think psychology, in broad terms has really clarified a few things. First, it’s become just transparently clear that most people in their daily lives live like psychologists, that is we spend a lot of our life thinking about others, trying to understand why they do what they do, and doing our best to, to figure that out through whatever means we have for figuring that out. through the lens of our daily experience, we’re all psychologists in our daily lives. intuitive psychologists, the problem with intuitive psychology is that daily life really sucks as a teacher, just, it just gives us bad data. It’s a bad experiment, we live our life once. We’re not randomly assigned to conditions. We don’t have great measurement of what’s going on and other people, we don’t always observe what they’re doing, we can’t always see we don’t have access to the causes driving their behavior. So so the data that the intuitive psychologist has to reason about the world is just, it’s just not very good. And it leads to systematic errors. That’s why Psychological Science exists as a field as, as psychologists, as scientists, we can run experiments that that help to identify which bits of our common sense about other people is actually good sense. And which bits of our sense about other people is just nonsense turns out to be wrong. And so that’s what we do. For a living Albert Einstein once said, that all of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. And that’s more true in psychology than in any other scientific discipline, I think because we all do a lot of everyday thinking about psychology. And the the part of everyday intuitive psychology that I’ve chosen to study are the kinds of inferences that we make about other people. I can’t tell you, whether we understand ourselves or others better, there are certain things we understand about ourselves better than others do. What we really understand well about ourselves, is what’s going on in our mind. So we’re pretty good reporters, of what’s going on between our ears. If I ask you, what are you feeling? If I want to know how happy you are? The best judges you on that? If I want to know what you are thinking, I need to put you in a context where I asked you what you’re thinking in a way that allows you to tell me what’s going on in your mind. conscious experience, what we’re not very good at is being good psycho analysts for ourselves. That is we’re not very good at explaining why we’re feeling as we’re feeling, or why we’re thinking, what we’re thinking. So we’re pretty good reporters, we’re just pretty bad analysts. And when it comes to judging other people, there are times when we can analyze other people’s behavior, why they’re doing what they’re doing a little better if we have, if we have access to, to lots of lots of observations of other people, but But in general, I would say we’re not, we’re certainly not any better at guessing what’s going on in between the years and over the person guessing another person’s emotion than we are judging ourselves. But our data suggests we can get a lot better if we’re just willing to ask other people what’s going on in their minds, and then listen to what they have to say. It turns out that’s not rocket science, but be becoming a better psychologist in our daily lives requires becoming a better Are journalists a better interrogator. Not a better investigator maybe as a way to think about it.

It is something that we should all be able to do. But if we don’t have the right tools or information or knowledge, you know, you need technique or you need a base or you need the the tool. I think it’s interesting, because a lot of times we talk about how Miss understanding is a huge problem in relationships. But it almost sounds like we’re not even properly trying to understand or able to. So it’s really just miss inferring we have don’t even have the tools to be able to make it to the step of misunderstanding.

Yeah, I think that could be I don’t want to I don’t want to. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic here about this. It turns out that we are the most socially sophisticated species at least the most socially sophisticated primate, as far as we can tell, on the face of this earth. And we have a mind that is uniquely equipped for connecting with the minds of others. I think the right way to characterize our interpersonal understanding and misunderstanding is not that we are missing the tools we need, or that we are totally incapable of this. It’s it’s really that we’re just not as good as we think we are at understanding the mind of another person. And the mistakes that we make are not obvious to us. And so we make mistakes more often than we would guess it’s not I can’t give you for instance a very good percentage estimate like you know, what percentage of the time are we right at the psychologist have tried, but of course it like in like an IQ test that how smarter you Well, how well you do on a test. Depends on how easy the test is. It also depends on how others are doing this so you look good compared to others who are taking the same test the same Same thing is true. With our interpersonal understanding. I can give you really easy tasks. If you if you come in your office one day or you go home and your, your spouse is balled up in tears on the floor right in the corner of your kitchen, you know, your you know, your husband or wife’s had a bad day write that like, yeah, we’re brilliant at that. That’s an easy, that’s that’s preschool mind. Right? That’s super easy. But social life gives us really hard problems to where we’re not sure that if somebody is telling us the truth or not, we’re not sure if if we’re observing all the behavior that we can see somebody, we’re not sure if a person’s emotional state is caused by a momentary feature of their environment, or a more stable kind of depression that’s not like likely to lift anytime soon. So social life gives us really hard problems and there were just not quite as well. Good, not quite as good. Don’t do quite as well as we might might think. I think what’s interesting about our work is that we are able to To identify both the strategies that really allow us to understand what’s going on in the minds of other people, and also to see whether people themselves recognize the value of those strategies. And in our data, they often don’t recognize a good strategy for understanding the mind of another person, even their spouse when they’re in the midst of using it. And that’s interesting to me. Is the gap between our expectations or our beliefs about understanding and the reality.

Yeah, and so you mentioned the empathetic accuracy paradigm. And you talk about egocentric biases in your research, if you could just speak to kind of those and what they mean and how they play into this.

Yeah, so I’ll start with egocentrism. So, there are a number of different tools that we used to understand the mind of another person. One is of course, our own mind. If If I’m sitting in a room and it’s freezing cold, I feel freezing cold, then I’ll assume that everybody else feels cold to if I’m if I’m asked to judge how other people are feeling if I bite into this onion ice cream, and I think it’s disgusting. Well, I’ll tend to assume that others find it disgusting as well. So people tend to use their own experience as a guide to others experience and that that by and large can work great when we have a lot of shared experience as human beings if, if this ice cream tastes disgusting, to me, it’s pretty reasonable that it’s going to taste disgusting to to other people. Not perfect, but pretty darn good better than then than just guessing. The problem, of course, is that our own minds are not always a great guide to the mind of another person. And we don’t seem to recognize when it’s a good guide and when it’s not not a good guide. So a problem that most most of your listeners will recognize is that When you’re trying to teach somebody something, it can often be difficult to do because when you know how to do something, it’s difficult to recognize what it’s like to not know how to do this thing or to not know the answer to this thing. If I, if I tell you the answer to a riddle, and then tell you the riddle, the riddle seems easy to you. Because you know the answer. It’s very difficult when you know the answer to the riddle to appreciate how hard it would seem, if you didn’t know the answer to that. That’s a problem with egocentrism. And ego centrism is then a psychological mechanism that both enables some accuracy, but also creates systematic error, we tend to overestimate the degree to which others minds match our own. Another way we understand the mind of another person is we use their behavior as a guide, when we can see them do something, and we work backwards to their intention. I mentioned that already. That again, create some insights But also can create error because the causes of people’s behaviors are often very complicated while our inferences about them are overly simplistic, and we tend to infer then that people’s intentions match their actions when they don’t always, or don’t match their actions in a way that’s simpler or easy to understand. People sometimes do things on accident, not on purpose, and our brains aren’t very good at recognizing that. And all of that then contributes both to some, some accuracy, but also create some error and we can study that in experiments in a variety of different ways. One way is by using what what you mentioned, as the empathic accuracy procedure, which was actually developed by by Bill dicus, or at least popularized most by by Bill Lucas, who’s a psychologist at the University of Texas in El Paso and there’s just one way you can do this. It allows you to get a And overall percentage accuracy metric two, which is one of the reasons why psychologists like it. So what you do here is you have couples get together, and you have them go through a conversation. One person then goes back through the clip through the through the recording of that interaction. And the researcher pauses the video at specific points in time and ask the person to report how they were feeling at that time, or what they were thinking at that time.

You then have the other person in the conversation go through and go through the recorded interaction, paused again at the same times, and you then predict what the other person was feeling or what the other person was thinking at those times. And then you just look to what extent they got those right at those different points in time. And accuracy rates here. 10 at least an objective level to be pretty low, but it’s It’s a hard problem. These are hard problems. So it’s not clear what the chance accuracy would would look like. What’s interesting, as you can see, though, how much better we get understanding friends or family members, say compared to total strangers in the midst of a conversation. And the interesting result, which we’ve also observed in our data, is that people do tend to get a little better understanding the minds of friends or family, but not as much as you might imagine. And certainly we find not nearly as much as people think they do. So in the empathic accuracy procedure bilikiss, for instance, in many experiments, he’s run reports that typically when you’re judging the mind of a stranger after these conversations about you know how your day went or reporting some experience, you tend to be about 20% accurate, overall get about 20% of these time points exactly right. When you’re dealing with a stranger when you’re dealing with a friend or somebody you know, well, accuracy rates go up, but not a lot, they go up to maybe around 30% or so in our data where you’re judging the attitude of a friend, or a family member, we find that your predictions are more correlated with the other person’s actual experience when you’re judging a friend or a spouse, then stranger, but the effects aren’t that big, and certainly not nearly as big as people expect they will be. So this is another way in which our common sense about each other is a little bit miscalibrated. As we have more experience with somebody, we tend to think we know them better and better and better and we do, but our confidence and how much we know outstrips our actual accuracy. So we tend to be the most overconfident, judging the minds of people who we know the best, which I think is really interesting.

Yeah, I’m imagining kind of those graphs where one line is escalating slowly and the other one is kind of getting steeper and steeper and its slope and so Actually, the difference between our perception and the actual understanding becomes greater. So it’s interesting to think about it from that way, because I imagine that most people, as you just described, would feel much more confident in guessing kind of the thoughts, behaviors, intentions of people they’re closer with. Whereas the reality is, we’re kind of even have more of a difference in our perception and the reality, then in other cases, and so going back to, we think we’re good because it’s easy, but it’s easy because we’re drawing off of our own thoughts and intentions and behaviors which we we know much better. And so trying to stop looking back into a mirror and instead like, look into a window out into the other person’s mind or more, I guess mouth by talking instead of in differing thoughts. And so I in some of the other experiments, I remember you guys mentioned that predictors believed they would get an average of 13 out of 20 items correctly. And in reality they guessed on average only five correctly.

Roughly that Yeah.

Which is wild, and the lying accuracy one where people guess if the person was lying or not was I know the one before previously mentioned was included, like with partners. The lying accuracy when I’m not sure was with people close to them or strange stranger still was only, you know, 54% it’s basically chains.

Yeah, but, but people think they’re getting about 75% of those, right? That’s the interesting gap. We can’t tell when we’re just guessing essentially, or barely better than guessing.

We’re like walking around the world with the reverse beer goggles where we think just imagine looking at Through this lens where we think, yeah, we know and understand so much. And so leaving this area and going into some of your other research about how this affects not only just the people we know closely in our relationships with ourselves in them, but kind of overall sociability and relationships on a close, but also broad and societal level. And I thought it was so interesting how you mentioned that nearly all ethics turn out to be social in, in the sense of it seems almost socially constructed. And so how much else?

Well, it’s it’s social in the sense of how we treat other people not socially constructed. It’s an ethics deal with how we how we treat each other. And these two lines of work on our sociality and our understanding of other minds are actually very tightly related. And the relation is that we tend to misunderstand And how this is at least one of one of our findings, we tend to misunderstand how positively other people respond to positive social engagement. And that misunderstanding that other people don’t, aren’t interested in talking to us, will feel weird if we give them a compliment, will feel good but not great if we express our gratitude will fly off the handle if we actually have a difficult confrontation or conversation with them. Those mistaken expectations where we underestimate how positively other people respond when we reach out to them, keeps people from reaching out keeps people from behaving as pro socially towards others as would be optimal for their own well being and in fact, I think in the long run for their own health. So So those two things are deeply, deeply connected misunderstanding creates social friction. And that creates needless conflict and disconnection from other people. So they’re they’re pretty tightly aligned, I think.

And I remember one of your interviews, you mentioned that when people are asked what super power they could have people want time traveling, mind reading. And so while we so desperately, I’m not sure I would want to be able to read people’s minds, we don’t actually use any of the tools to help ourselves do so. And so if you could speak a bit to kind of on a practical level, what kind of actionable advice you would give to people in order to avoid these errors and really just try on a practical level to better understand others?

Yeah, so the only way we know that systematically, you know, sort of a big hammer kind of way increases our ability to stand understand another person is just by asking them what’s on their mind. It’s not rocket science a person’s mind comes through their mouth. When you ask them the kinds of questions they can answer directly, when you put them in a position where they can respond honestly. And when you actually ask them directly the question that they would want to know, this is even true in cases where other people are likely to not be telling you the truth, the best way to know in experiments, the best way to know whether somebody is telling you the truth or not a stranger at least, is to ask them. Are you lying to me? Just ask them the direct question. Are you lying to me? And people will always say yes, I’m lying to you sometimes the will but people tend except for psychopaths. They have difficulty lying to other people’s face and so when you ask them, are you lying to me they stumble and fumble and sort of giveaway the giveaway the truth

And say why would you think that?

Yeah, right. And and in relationships, the best way to know what another person might want or what they might be. Thinking or how they might be feeling is just to ask them. And yet, that’s something we often don’t do either because one, we think we already know the answer to it. So I already know what my wife how my wife is thinking or feeling about our finances or about the quality of our marriage or whatever it may be. already know. So I don’t need to ask. Or there’s distressed in a relationship, and we don’t think the other person will tell us the truth if we asked them about something, right. And those two, those two things, then create barriers, one, I don’t need to because I already know that we’ve got good evidence for that. The other i think is obvious to anybody who’s ever been in a relationship, which is, they’re not going to tell me. So I’m not going to ask, but that’s that that proves to be the only way that we can really systematically increase accuracy is to be willing to ask them the questions we want to know the answer to and then stopping to listen to what they have to say. I’ve become very sensitive in the last Maybe four or five years to this phenomena of mansplaining. Which, you know, it hadn’t occurred to me until it was sort of brought to public consciousness and attention. And then I was like, Oh crap, I do that sometimes. I’m a professor, so I’m paid to profess. And so I really I work very hard now, in perfectly, but better, I work very hard to shut up and listen. ask the questions I want to know. And then just be quiet and let somebody else. So what they have to say,

Right and actually listen to what they’re saying rather than preparing your defenses or responses, rather, just actually taking the time to listen. And so I know for some people, even just listening, allowing yourself to be present and then taking a few minutes to not say anything, so that then you can actually play process your thoughts and responses, but without missing what the other person was saying. And so I wonder, absolutely. I wonder how different would our relationships be if we took the time to ask the right questions and to actually listen, and as a follow up, kind of how much do you think fear plays into into this kind of fault of ours or into the ways in which we interact? Be it with our, you know, partners, close relationships or strangers?

Yeah. So how much would better what our relationships be? I don’t know the answer to that. And I say that not because I can’t guess or imagine, just as anybody would as an intuitive psychologist, but I say we don’t know because I don’t have the data. Yeah. I don’t have the data on long term relationships. I’ve got little beat pieces of data. It’s like I’m trying to look at it. entire wall. And I’ve got a few pinpricks through that, through that, you know, a screen that’s in front of that wall. One of the pinpricks is that when we ask people to have difficult conversations, when we have asked people to have constructive confrontations, so think about a relationship you’re in or have been in, where, you know, some, just some issue comes up, that’s just troubling you that you just got to talk to the other person about. If you’re in a relationship for long enough and you take it seriously this is going to happen, whether it’s at work or in a friendship or in a romantic relationship, you’re going to have to have some hard conversations, they’re going to do stuff to piss you off. And you’re going to need to talk to them about this, ask them about this or things that concern you. We find that people tend to overestimate how harshly or how sorry, how how negatively. Those constructive confrontations are going to Go. Other people tend to be less defensive than you think when you ask them about something, at least in our experiments. And you tend to be happier after you have that conversation than you, then you were before when you’re carrying that burden. And when we ask people two weeks after having one of these constructive confrontations with someone they’re in a romantic relationship with, they virtually never regret having that conversation and report that their relationship got a little bit stronger after that. And I think the data on that are pretty clear in relationships that indirect confrontations or in indirect conversation tends not to work very well in relationships only. direct conversations tend to work very well in long term relationships. And so I think there’s a little bit of data that suggests if you knew that the other person wasn’t going to respond as negatively. If you reached out in a positive way to have this important conversation you’d have more often and I think your relationship would be a little bit better. I also think though, that you know, relationship satisfaction or the quality of a, an immediate relationship is not the right metric to use. To measure the quality of, of a relationship. That’s what psychologists tend to use, we tend to be hedonists at heart, if you feel good about something, we tend to, at least in our field, tend to call it good. And that’s not good. That’s not good. You probably know 20 people, it given the work that you do, who are in terrible relationships, who would be much better off if they were out of that relationship. And having open and direct conversations where we ask people, the hard questions we need to know doesn’t just make those relationships better. Sometimes it tells us this one’s not right for me. I can do better than this. Yeah. And then we get out of that and it sucks for a little while, but then we end up with In a better relationship, so I think openness, transparency, recognizing our own limitations of understanding over the long run would improve the quality of our relationships dramatically. I think we’d have more weak ties, we’d connect more with strangers, and acquaintances than we do now. I think we would sift through and get out of the crappy relationships we’re in and would strengthen the meaningful relationships that we want to be part of. I think we would strengthen those more. But I I only have little pieces of data at each of those levels to suggest that so I suggest that only tentatively,

Yeah, and I think that I love all the information in that insight. And it’s so true because we spend so much time dreading having these difficult conversations on a small or large scale but so often if we go at them correctly, and you know at the Gottman institute says kind of if you can That’s right, well, or, you know, if you have the right tools, the communication tools, and you’re going at it, you know, from this point of curiosity and wanting to find out what the other person is feeling, rather than, you know, drawing your own inferences and going into it with that, that as much as we dread going into them, as you mentioned, almost always coming out of it, it feels better, and it’s kind of this weight has been lifted. And if we can do it, well, these kind of confrontations lead to closer relationships and closer connection, because they’re what kind of the only way to force ourselves to really get to know the other person and us as a partnership, per se. And so, I just always love to encourage people that as bad as it feels going into it, it’s better on the other end.

Yeah, there’s a great Robert Frost poem that I’m sure all your readers know. That I think sums this up well, the poem is titled revelation. And the poem is that we make ourselves a place apart behind light words that tease and flout, but Oh, the agitated heart. Till someone really finds us out. The meaningful relationships are those when someone really finds us out, and really knows what we’re like warts and and you know, gold rings and all the good and the bad. And you only get that when you really have these kinds of deep and meaningful conversations with somebody else. We find that people underestimate how much they’re going to enjoy. Having deep conversation with somebody else. They overestimate how awkward it’s going to be. This is with both strangers and with close others. And when they’re having hard conversations, underestimate how positive those are going to turn out.


In this week’s episode we chat with Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavior Science, and Director of the Center for Decision Research, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Nick studies social cognition and focuses his research on understanding why people so routinely misunderstand each other. 

In our conversation, we talk about how little we know ourselves, how much less we know other people, the power of context in shaping our feelings and actions and the importance of creating space for reciprocity in our day-to-day lives. We also discuss how often we underestimate the power of gratitude and how all these themes play a role in “designing a good life.” 

A Shared Moral Conscience 

First off, Nick kicks off the conversation by delineating what constitutes good and bad behavior. For the most part, there’s a shared moral conscience that people recognize — treating people poorly for your own gain is universally seen as less good as treating other people as you’d like to be treated. He points out that The Golden Rule is the moral foundation of almost all ethical systems around the world, one that can be understood regardless of cultural, demographic, or socio-economic background. 

What Makes People Break the Golden Rule?

Nick emphasizes the power of context in shaping our moral behavior, despite our moral judgement. He gives the example of a classroom full of students cheating. While the classroom may be full of morally conscious students who recognize cheating as wrong behavior, the context and environment overpowers their moral judgement and encourages students to cheat (hence the ubiquitous response “everyone is doing it” as justification for bad behavior). 

The key to changing behavior is recognizing the power of the context you’re in that drives your thinking and your actions. 

Intention vs. Behavior 

So often there’s an external disconnect between people’s intentions and their behavior. But Nick points out that even when people are engaging in unethical behavior, many times they believe — or they rationalize — that they have good intentions. “They think by stealing from their company, they’re doing what they need to take care of their family.” Most people feel bad doing bad things, he points out, so either people avoid unethical behavior or they convince themselves that the bad behavior is driven by good intent. 

Our Tendency to Commit Correspondence Bias

Correspondence bias is “the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur.” In other words, we tend to inappropriately connect a person’s actions to their personality. The waiter who rudely responded to you is labeled as a rude person, while failing to consider the series of events that led that waiter to feel disgruntled in that moment, and thus, act rudely. On the other hand, we tend to be much more forgiving to ourselves, attributing our own actions to our situations. So, when we see someone engaging in unethical behavior, we assume that person had unethical intentions. But as Nick says, “Life is just more complicated than that.” 

We’re Good Reporters, Poor Psychoanalysts

Nick mentions the fact that while we tend to be good reporters about our own feelings and thoughts, we’re generally poor psychoanalysts for ourselves. So, we can easily pinpoint that we feel sad, while being unable to lucidly explain why we feel sad. 

Similarly, while we’re good at pinpointing somebody else’s mood, we’re not so good at analyzing the reasonbehind their mood or behavior. In order to prevent both minor and major misunderstandings, Nick suggests we simply ask other people what’s going on in their minds and truly take the time to listen. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a conscious effort. 

How We Fail at Mind Reading

First off, we tend to use our personal experience as a guide to understanding other people’s experiences, a result of egocentrism. And while we have a lot of shared experiences as humans, this can often lead to blind spots and misunderstandings. As previously stated, we also tend to incorrectly infer that a person’s behavior matches their intentions, failing to realize the countless other data points that led to that specific behavior. 

Empathic Accuracy Procedure

As we have more experiences with somebody, we tend to believe we know them better and better — and we do — but not to the extent that we believe. We tend to be the most overconfident judging the minds of people we know. This phenomenon was shown by the empathic accuracy procedure, an experiment where two people are recorded having a conversation and afterwards go through and explain their inferences about the other person’s thoughts and feelings throughout the conversation. When the experiment is done with strangers, accuracy rate tends to be 20% overall, while accuracy rates go up only to about 30% when the experiment is conducted between friends or family members (much lower than participants predicted). Our confidence in what we know about friends and family outstrips our actual accuracy. 

Underestimating the Positive Effects of Socializing

Nick’s research has shown how we vastly underestimate the positive impact of connecting with strangers in our day-to-day lives. Nick and his team assigned bus and train commuters in Chicago to either socialize or not socialize on their commute. Before the experiment, the participants predicted how they would feel about talking to strangers on their commute versus sitting in solitude. The majority of participants said they would prefer a solitary commute, while in the end those who were assigned to socialize reported higher levels of satisfaction than those assigned to not socialize. 

Those mistaken expectations — where we underestimate how positively other people respond when we reach out to them — keeps people from reaching out, keeps people from behaving as pro-socially towards others as would be optimal for their own well-being. 

The Upside of Difficult Conversations 

Data also shows how we tend to underestimate the value of having difficult conversations or constructive confrontations, while we overestimate how awkward or tense these experiences are going to be. But these conversations generally lead to two positive outcomes: they form stronger, deeper connections between individuals, or they illuminate the need to end unfulfilling or toxic relationships. As we know, the best relationships are those that honor the full humanity of each individual — both the best and the worst sides of each partner. 

Revelation by Robert Frost

We make ourselves a place apart

     Behind light words that tease and flout,

But oh, the agitated heart

     Till someone find us really out.

The Power of Gratitude

Nick’s own research has found that humans routinely underestimate how positive a person is going to feel after receiving a letter of gratitude. What’s more, people underestimate how positively they themselves will feel writing and sending a letter of gratitude. As if you needed the hard-backed data: sit down and express your gratitude! 

Create Space for Reciprocity

It’s seemingly obvious, but in order for reciprocity to exist, we need to create the space for it to exist. Be the first one to reach out. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Say hello to your neighbors. Smile (if it’s genuine) to people you walk by.  You’ll never know how someone will respond if you don’t give them the opportunity.

Nobody waves to you, but everybody waves back to you. But you won’t know that they’ll wave back to you if you don’t wave to them first.

Commitment Begets Commitment

So often we find ourselves unable to make a decision out of fear that it won’t be the “right decision.” Turns out, committing ourselves to something creates feelings that are positively aligned with that commitment. So, once you finally commit to what pizza topping you want, you’ll probably report feelings of satisfaction surrounding your decision (and if not, you’ll probably rationalize). While this doesn’t mean you have to stick it through everything you commit to (especially if it’s in the context of a toxic relationship), don’t let indecision paralyze you from committing to something. 

Nick’s Recommended Resources

About the Expert

Nicholas Epley

Nicholas Epley

Why do smart people so routinely misunderstand each other?

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavior Science and Faculty Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He studies social cognition—how thinking people think about other thinking people—to understand why smart people so routinely misunderstand each other. He teaches an ethics and happiness course to MBA students called Designing a Good Life. His research has appeared in more than two dozen empirical journals, been featured by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Wired, and National Public Radio, among many others, and has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation.

Episode Discussion

Home Forums Episodes 36 & 37: "Same Page, Different Book" with Nick Epley

  • Episodes 36 & 37: "Same Page, Different Book" with Nick Epley

  • BBXX 

    November 6, 2020 at 1:32 am
    • What did you learn about yourself?
    • What did you learn about culture?What was your favorite quote?
    • What surprised you most?
    • What is one way you can enact what you learned in your own life?
    • How can we each help shift the culture and the conversation surrounding this topic?

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