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Episode 37

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 reciprocity, the magic of gratitude, 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.

Some of your other research goes into studying gratitude and the ways in which expressing gratitude can be beneficial not only for the person on the receiving end, but for the person on the giving end as well. 

For sure, yeah. And, again, this is one of these phenomena that people misunderstand just a little bit and I think misunderstand enough to keep us from expressing gratitude as often as we could for our own and for others well being. So I just I just running through a simple experiment. You can imagine doing this, in fact, all of your readers or listeners rather could go off and, and do this today, if they wanted to. Everybody can think about somebody in their life who has done something really meaningful, important for them, who they just haven’t, for whatever reason, taken the time to really express that gratitude to they just haven’t sat down and show And the other person or reveal to the other person how much they really matter to them. It’s not hard to do, you just haven’t done it. And we find that people haven’t done it, at least in part because they underestimate how positive the experience is going to be for a recipient. So you think, oh, they already know how grateful I am. So they won’t be very surprised by this. That’s an egocentric bias, you know, you’re grateful. They know, right? That they not going to know as well as you do. They tend to underestimate how positive the recipients going to feel when they sit down and write a gratitude letter to them. And they tend to overestimate how awkward the recipients going to feel, oh, it’s going to be weird to just write a letter to them out of the blue, say, and express gratitude them it’s not the right time, or the bigger thing that we find is people think, Oh, I’m not going to get the words quite right. I’m not quite sure what to say, or how to say it. And so what we have people do as well. We have folks write a gratitude letter to somebody, think of somebody who’s done something really meaningful for them. sit down to write a gratitude letter to that person, expressing your gratitude to them, we then have them send it to the person. And we then contact the person they sent the letter to, and ask the recipient to report how they actually felt when they receive the letter. And we asked the letter writers to predict how the recipients going to feel upon receiving the letter. And we find that people consistently underestimate how surprised the recipients going to be both to get the letter and about the content of the letter. they underestimate how positive the recipients going to feel, they already think the recipient is going to feel positive. So they’re not confused about that. But it turns out the recipients are like ecstatic about this. They are, they tend to max out our scales. When we give it to them, we get huge ceiling effects on these. And then they also tend to think it’s going to be a little weird. little awkward, they overestimate how awkward the recipients going to feel turns out, it’s not not that awkward, no matter the time or day or place to hear that somebody else really values you, that’s pretty dang awesome whenever you get it. And so recipients feel good, the letter writers feel great. If you want to do something today, that’s going to make you feel great. sit down and write a gratitude letter to somebody else. And yet, from my perspective, what’s interesting is that most people aren’t doing that, or they’re not doing it as often as they could. And they’re even not doing it as often as they themselves we find in surveys, say they should do it. So we think this misunderstanding about the positive impact you can have on somebody else, is at least one of the reasons why people don’t behave as socially as they could.

Which is kind of cool in the sense of the power to change that would lead to so many things but also sad that we don’t realize how impactful we are and you know how good we can make other people By doing something simple, and we yet again, assume they know how grateful we are or assume they know whatever, just as we assume we know what their thinking and their intentions are, were as we’re walking around in our goggles. But we actually, so with BBXX. And this started as a personal project a couple years ago when I unfortunately lost one of the most important people in my life and lost the opportunity to tell them, you know, anything, including how much I love them and how grateful I I was. And so I started writing a series of love letters to friends, family, anybody close to me. And it’s actually a project we’re kickstarting with BBXX as well. And so when I read about this research, I loved seeing that there was, you know, scientific evidence that shows how powerful these can be, and You know, I’d only heard from people who receive them or now that we’ve had more and more people writing them, how good they feel and how much they enjoy the process while they’re writing it.

Yeah, I don’t doubt that for a second, because I’ve seen the data. So this is one where, you know, your, your own experience, of course, is very powerful. And you can see it the benefit that will benefit the perspective, the different perspective I have as a, as a psychological scientist, when I do these kinds of experiments is that I can see it happen. So consistently across so many people. So I’ve now done these experiments where I have people sit down and write a gratitude letter to a recipient and predict the recipients response and then measure the actual recipients response. I’ve done this with probably about six or 700 MBA students by this point. A few hundred other participants in our experiments who come from all sorts of different walks of life. I’ve done it with about 300 high school students at a military academy and in Indiana, I’ve I’ve done it with lots and lots of people so solidly over 1000 folks so far. And I just see these kinds of effects happening time and time, and time and time and time again. Of course not every time you sit down and write a gratitude letter to somebody isn’t going to be an amazing experience. But the experiences that people have are super powerful I have every year when I teach this to my MBA students and have them go through this experience. I’ll have students in class choke up about this. You don’t get too many folks in business school classes crying but it’s pretty routine experience for me with this one. I have them show me these amazing they I get these amazing emails from people, recipients of these, when I do this, one student was sort of, uh, you know, imagine your stereotypical frat bro kind of person, you know, sort of a tough, you know, not emotional kind of guy sitting up in the back row, he came up to me at a break. During this class session, he’d written to another frat, both bro friend of his type, and got a text message that said, you just show this to me. Hey, man, you can’t send me these kinds of letters at work. I can’t cry in the office. I had another student who showed me sent it to one of her family members said, I’m sorry, it took me so long to respond. I’ve been I’ve been crying tears of joy since you sent this to me. You know, not not every recipient responds that way. But of course, you don’t know that somebody could respond that way. If you don’t, don’t reach out to them. And I think one thing that one thing is That, that you mentioned in our conversation is sort of how, I don’t know sad or disappointing it is that we don’t. We don’t know these things from as a psychologist have a little different perspective on this, I guess, I understand why we don’t know these things. It’s because we don’t get feedback. We don’t do them. And hence, we don’t find out that our expectations are wrong. So if I don’t know how much my wife is going to love, me just telling her, how much I love her and how much she means to me and how, you know, how ruined my life would be if she wasn’t in it. If I don’t actually tell her those things and see how she responds, I can’t know how she’s going to respond. And so the the, we find in our own data, that we’re not always confused about how people will respond. People who reach out to others routinely and do this stuff more as a habit. They get this feedback, the same kind of feedback that we see in our experiment. They get that in their everyday lives as an intuitive psychologist, and so they become more calibrated. And I think as you go out and you practice this more often you make it a habit, which Aristotle would have noted then becomes part of your character. Once this becomes a more habitual thing that you do, just as a matter, of course, you learn the impact that you can have on other people and in turn, the positive impact that can have on you. The barrier is not reaching out or trying to engage with others in the first place, which means that you cannot possibly learn how that interaction would go if you never have it.

And I think it’s such an incredible concept. You mentioned kind of creating these habits that become our character, how incredible would it be to have kind of expressing gratitude bringing other people joy, growing through ourselves in our understanding and connecting more deeply with other people? Why would We now want to make that part of our character. And so I think that a lot of us perhaps also over predict the potential downside in terms of you know, okay if I write this letter and the person doesn’t love it, they don’t cry forever, you know, maybe they just say thank you something very simple. But is that really that bad of a downside? You know, that’s not even a negative experience and you will then still have because the benefits, you know, aren’t just for them people to express joy in writing these in giving them and so I think people are over predicting this invented potential downside and and can also kind of closer examine the benefits even just from their end in doing it. And I love the way that you know, you said on an emotional level, you’ve experienced this and you know, people have the testimonials and these stories while you have the science and evidence. And so BBXX, we try and kind of fill this niche that I often refer to as science meets storytelling, where being able to feel things is very important is very impactful and helps us create change. But being able to understand why and how that’s happening in having these numbers to prove that it’s happening for me, at least I need that. And that enables me to feel it so much more strongly. And so I think this is kind of the perfect example of science meets storytelling.

Yeah. For sure. I mean, people feel placebo effects too, right? So the way medicine advances is not not only by testing on people’s experiences and their reports and their beliefs about what’s working, but actually doing the experiments to find out what’s working because only knowing what the truth looks like as best we can manage to discover it. Only knowing the truth is what is what’s going to give you the most reliable sorts of effects and the highest probability of, you know of improving your happiness or well being.

Yeah, and I think that part about the placebo is so important, because there are so many things that lead to these emotional reactions, but, you know, become temporary solutions or create change on a temporary level versus based in evidence in science and actual change leads to long term influence. And so, taking this this chapter on gratitude, and having everybody listening, pause and write their gratitude letters or promise themselves or text somebody right now to tell them you’re doing it and to get them on board and to make it happen and send us your love letters. You teach a course and it is called designing a good life and I Imagine that certain smaller things as you know, expressing gratitude interacting with strangers, sociability, play a part in that, but I’d love you to kind of dive deeper into what that course entails and how we can all re examine and redesign our own good life.

Yeah, so. So this is a course for MBA students for that I teach at the University of Chicago and our business school. So it has certainly as an organizational or business sort of focus, but I think what people take from our behavioral science classes and surely from mine, in particular, is not just insights into how to, to live at work, but also how to live at home, how to deal with, with any kind of relationship that you’re having, how to manage things in their own private lives. The kinds of you know the brain that we take with us at work is no different from the one we live with at home. The kinds of relationships you Have in the office are not fundamentally different from the kinds of relationships you have with people outside of it. So there are parallels and things to learn. And no matter what you which aspect of this you’re focusing on, but the course is designed to help the students think about how to live a good life in a multifaceted sense of the term good is a vague concept. And I think people want to live good lives, not just in a simple sense, but in a complicated sense of that term. And in particular, they want to live a good life with three senses of the term. One they’d like to do well, they’d like to succeed in life. In business, that means making some money in your personal life. That means, you know, being respected and valued by other people. That also means the same thing in business too. We want to be respected, valued, in our work. Second way, which I presume people want to live a good life is that most people want to live their life in a way they can feel proud of that is they want to be ethical. You find interest in being ethical, even in young infants. Like pre linguistic infants a year old, 18 months old, show a sense of conscience, show a preference for interacting with other people who are good and fair, and are nice, that doesn’t go away as we get, we get older. And third, I presume people want to live a good life in terms of being happy. They want to feel good in their lives. And so the question is, how would you then structure an organization? That’s how I focus? That’s, that’s what we focus on a lot in class. How would you structure an organization? Or how would you structure your own life in such a way to increase the likelihood of hitting these three targets at the same time, the key insight, I think, is recognizing the power that we have to change not ourselves personally, but rather the context that we are in and that our employees are in, which can then have a direct impact on us recognizing the power of changing those contexts to increase the likelihood of achieving these outcomes. So we spend a lot of time talking about how you design organizations, how you design the situations, the policies, the procedures, the context, the entire system that an organization runs on to increase the likelihood that people will behave ethically, because ethical behavior turns out very clear in the data to be essential for running a sustainable organization, not necessarily for making profit right now, but unethical organizations do not succeed in the long run, ethics and sustainability are deeply aligned with each other in the long run. So how do we design organizations that help people be more ethical, and then the last part of the class is whether focus is on whether being ethical also leads to being happy that is whether treating other people well, that’s the essence of, of ethics also makes you feel good. And that’s where all of the work that we talked about just a moment ago about gratitude and giving compliments and having constructive confrontations, where that all comes in. It turns out that being good to other people that is being ethical, doesn’t just feel a little good. It tends to feel surprisingly good for people It tends to make other people feel surprisingly good that we underestimate the positive impact we can have on other people. And our hope is that by, you know, the the whole hope of our field, the field of behavioral science and psychology is that by refining people’s common sense just a little bit about how to interact with others, and to under help them understand themselves just a little bit better. You can help them structure their lives in ways that make it a little better than it would have been otherwise. That’s what we hope we’re doing as a field. That’s what I try to teach to my MBA students so that they could go out and create businesses, that they do good in ways that are sustainable in the long run and that make people feel good while they’re in the midst of running those organizations. That’s the long term goal of what we do.

I love hearing that because I hear so much of BBXX echoed in that final part that essentially in the way we word it is you know better understanding yourself so that you can connect more deeply with others. You know, be it in a business context or in a personal context, with that basis of, you know what it means to design and live a good life. Love to hear your opinion on how commitment shapes our feelings and experiences and kind of the life we lead versus fear.

Yeah, so let me start with the fear part. We find, for instance, that people underestimate how much they’re going to enjoy connecting with strangers, like on trains and buses and cabs. they underestimate how positive constructive confrontations are going to go. they underestimate how much they’re going to enjoy deepen meaningful, safe conversation where you essentially are making yourself vulnerable to another person. And all of those effects arise, at least in part because we underestimate how interested other people are engaging with us in deep and meaningful and constructive ways, which then leads people to fear being rejected by somebody else. So, on the trains, for instance, we found in Chicago, we had people, randomly assigned people to talk to a stranger on the train, whoever sat down next to them that morning, to keep to themselves or to do whatever they normally do. We also had them predict how they would feel in each of those conditions, people tended to predict that they would feel happier, enjoy their commute more have a more pleasant commute, if they kept to themselves in solitude, than if they sat and talked to a stranger. But in fact, when we actually had people do this, they, they were happiest in the connection condition when they talk to a stranger. Subsequent experiments conducted both here in Chicago as well as more recently in London, find that what people really misunderstand about these interactions is that they underestimate the likelihood that the other person wants to talk to them. A stranger wants to talk to them. So we found in our experiments that nearly everybody who tried to have a conversation with somebody else had one. That is we, we didn’t have anybody return a survey to us in the connection condition, who said they tried to talk to somebody else and the other person wouldn’t talk back to them. If you sit down and say hello to somebody asked them how their day is going, or, or, you know, are they going to have a good day or a bad day Do they think, of course people talk back to you, and that gets the ball rolling. But they estimated that only about 41 or 42%, depending on whether we are on trains or buses, somewhere in the low 40 percents on average, would be willing to talk to you. When in fact, the actual number is closer to 100%, as far as we can tell. So that belief that other people don’t want to engage with me. Other people don’t want to talk to me. Other people aren’t interested in having a deep and meaningful conversation. They don’t care what I have to say to them. That fear about being rejected by other people is What keeps people from reaching out in the first place? And that’s just miscalibrated. So I think fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of, of social awkwardness. And in particular misplaced fear is really at the root cause of a lot of these phenomena that we’re talking about.

You once mentioned in another one of your interviews, that fear leads to inaction, which leads to regret, which I thought was really profound in another simplistic yet profound way. And as I was listening to you speak just now, I couldn’t help but think that while so much of your research shows how much we overestimate how much we already know about other people, at the same time, we ironically underestimate how much people want to get to know us.

Yep, yep, that’s absolutely right. We are As Aristotle said, We are by nature social animals. We’re the most serious social species on the planet. We deeply desire positive connections with other people. And I think what we underestimate is is others interest in that. And then we also underestimate our own power, the power that we have as agents to bring that interest for social connection out and others. Stranger sits down next to you on a train. It’s easy to say, Hi, my name is Nick. been living here for a while What do you up to today? Or, you know, what do you do for a living you excited about the day ahead. You know, reaching out to other people in positive way allows other people to reach back to you. And the way Russ reciprocity works is that nobody reaches back to you or people are less likely to reach back to you if you don’t reach out to them. First I I tell the story in my book, books called mind wise, I tell the story about my experience. It’s just super profound for me which got me really thinking about a lot of this work that we’re now doing. This experience we had when we were in, in rural Ethiopia adopting two of our children. We were in Ethiopia, adopting a son and a daughter. And we were going to see where they were born and to meet with some of their extended family members and so on. And we were driving in this four wheel drive truck, somebody else was driving out in the remotest part of ather, Africa that you can sort of think of, you know, imagine being out in the jungle, or on these dirt roads that are really better suited for donkeys then for cars, and we’re driving by all these homes. They’re these mud huts. They’re called two clues, these mud huts, there’s round things with the statue groups. We’re going down the road and I’ve never felt so sort of isolated in my whole life My wife and I are in the car with with one of our sons, our oldest son and that’s Back with her to now our adopted son and daughter in the backseat. And I felt as we’re driving by all these homes, just like an invader, these people, young kids, mothers fathers would be standing out in their yards or in these homes, looking out at us, just like we were like, We were dead people. Like just with these total blank expressions, I’ve never felt so disconnected from other people in my whole life. And it was totally uncomfortable. You know, international adoption just raises all of these challenging ethical situations and dilemmas that you have to reason through when you’re when you’re going through this. And, you know, I felt like, you know, they were looking at us thinking like we were coming in, you know, stealing their children essentially. And, but it occurred to me, which is, you know, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. But it occurred to me as I was driving down the road, and they were staring at me as If I was dead, I was doing the same thing to them that like if I had a mirror, that’s how I would have looked at them as well. And so I decided, while we were driving, just to see what would happen if I just changed the way I was acting towards them. So I started smiling and waving and shouting Hello out out the window as we were going by, or putting my hand out to give these kids high fives as we were, you know, sort of driving slowly by and it was like you had turned a light switch. As soon as you did this. All these faces that were staring at us. It was sort of these dead expressions, instantly started waving, shouting Hello back to us in whatever English they knew moms would be waving out the window. at us while they’re cooking in the houses. We would have kids running behind us waving in the behind the vehicle that we were in. It was just like you flip the switch and it was obvious to me that nobody waves to you but everybody waves back to you. And you don’t know that they’d wave back to you if you don’t wait to them first. And I think that phenomena is just that phenomena is just deeply true in social life. reciprocity is super powerful when you reach out to other people in positive ways. They don’t always reach back to you, and equally positive ways, but they tend to reach back to you more positively than if you don’t reach out to them at all. And you only learn that when you actually do that, when you reach out and say hello to somebody on the train. When you send that gratitude letter, when you give somebody that genuine compliment that came to your mind, and those are all things on you, you can be a more active agent in your life and make people friendlier than they would be otherwise if you only use the power that you have.

Thank you so much for that. That story. And I love that reciprocity is so powerful and but the power is within ourselves to give people the opportunity to reciprocate By kind of initiating by changing our own behavior and seeing how much we can impact and positively influence those around us, be it, you know, the strangers on the metro, or those closest to us, you know, friends, family or partners. And I tell people all the time, going back, it comes from that fear you talk about when people in dating culture or whatever, and they say, Oh, well, he or she never texted me. And it’s like, well, did you ever text them? No. Okay, well, until you start criticizing other people for the same behavior that you are exhibiting. I’m not sure how I can help you Besides, you know, again, it’s this overestimating the downside via you know, waving to two people on the street. You know, or or sending a text message just to check back in with somebody or follow up or even go as far to tell them you’d love to talk more or see them. You know, the downside is that we find out that we don’t need to put more time into that relationship. And we have more time for ourselves or to see connections with other people. The downside is a positive outcome. And so just yeah, reminding people of that.

Yeah, if you see it that way you have to think about also have to think about those downsides as being well, okay, I learned something valuable On we go.

Yeah. And so as you mentioned, fear leads to inaction, which leads to regret. And those things that we don’t do, are more often the things that we regret, and actually, our biggest regrets in life are those that can be traced back to a personal relationship, so the more closely tied, a regret was to a personal relationship. versus, you know, quitting our job or moving, the stronger and more powerful and longer lasting those regrets are felt. And that was kind of one of the things that came out of the the Harvard longitudinal study on human happiness. always interesting to, you know, force yourself to practice what you preach or in your case, you know, practice what you find, you know, practice what you discover, and hold yourself accountable to find the the science side of it first, and then, you know, deploy the storytelling side of things.

Yeah, I have to say that in this case, employing the science is pretty easy, because you tend to feel pretty good about it.

It’s easier that way.

Yeah. It’s not like I’m telling you that exercise is good for you. And then you have to go and exercise more because exercise sucks. Right? It’s unpleasant, you get hurt. You get exhausted. Right? Right, like this stuff. Write a gratitude letter, give somebody a compliment. That feels pretty darn good. It doesn’t always it doesn’t always feel great, but on average it does. So this is not as as scientific medicine goes, this is not particularly hard medicine to take.

Yeah. And even trying it exactly. Because I think I was as a former D1 athlete, when you kind of build your own case, study into things and realize it will, especially after the fact through routine, how much it does create these benefits, then even when you don’t, you know, want to do something or if it isn’t most enjoyable. When you have that science backing to know it will be on the other side of things and you’ll feel better, you’ll have less anxiety, whether it’s exercising or having a difficult conversation. We can all kind of retrain the way the way we think about these things. And so I wanted to quickly mention when you were talking about the talking with strangers, because I think when people hear, oh, these benefits, you know, when people interacted with strangers, but you know, maybe they were extroverts, or maybe they’re people who would have done it otherwise, or people, I don’t know who even maybe were lacking connections, so they needed elsewhere. But your findings actually found that both introverts and extroverts reported feeling happier when they were instructed to act. As in the interactions, which I found particularly interesting.

Yeah. So it is easy to imagine that the benefits of social engagement are sort of narrow. That is they benefit some people more than others. And I don’t think the existing evidence really supports that. In our experiments, where we had people talk to strangers on the trains or buses or cabs. We did measure, we got a measure of people’s personality. You might imagine that extroverts benefited from connecting with others. And you’re more than introverts. But we actually didn’t find that people on average, regardless of their personality were happier when they connected with others. And that work is that finding is very consistent across the field that other researchers as well tend to find that people are happier regardless of their personality when they’re connecting with others than when they’re not even introverts do. What sometimes differentiates extroverts from introverts, though, are their expectations about how they’re going to feel. So, extroverts will sometimes predict that they will enjoy being extroverted more than introverts do. introverts will sometimes predict that they will enjoy keeping to themselves more than being extroverted. When you actually put those folks into situations where they connect with others, or not. Both groups tend to be feel better when they’re connecting with others that when they’re isolated, which means that it’s the introverts, that if anything are missing, Understanding how they’re going to feel when they connect with others. The right way to think about personality, I think, is as a combination of both sort of behavioral traits, but also as a person’s expectations. And those expectations could be wrong. So an introvert tends to choose introverted activities, while an extrovert tends to choose extroverted activities, because they think those are the activities that will make them happy, not necessarily because those are the ones that actually make them happy. Our expectations about ourselves can be wrong. And I think the data that I’ve seen so far suggests that extraversion might be a mistaken expectation, extraversion and introversion might just be a mistaken expectation about ourselves. Almost everybody seems to like connecting with others.

I love that. As we get ready to wrap up and as I attempt not to dive into million more topics. Going off of that part about fear. I’d love to just hear you speak a bit to commitment, and how actually commitment can shape our feelings and experiences in a very powerful way. And how we often underestimate the way we actually think or feel and the way we actually will in the situation and the power of context and role that can so often come from commitment to

Yeah, so one of the main messages from social psychology in particular, which is a subfield of, of psychology, is that the context that people are in has a bigger effect on on people’s behavior than folks often expect, then people often expect it well. And one of the one of the situational effects or contextual effects That really has a powerful influence on people’s thoughts and beliefs and attitudes is commitment. When you are committed to something. Your attitudes tend to fall in line with that commitment sometimes for better or for worse. So when people behave unethically, for instance, they’re, they’ve done something bad, they’ve committed fraud, say, they tend to rationalize that fraud so that they feel better with that fraud than they would have otherwise. That’s a way in which comm commitment we might think of as not such a great thing. But those sorts of psychological processes also follow commitment that we would think would be better. So after you’ve chosen to go on a date with somebody, you tend to report liking that person more. When you have chosen to marry somebody, you tend to report feeling more in love with that person. When you have committed to being a parent for someone, as we have done multiple times over when we’ve adopted children. You fall in love after the commitment often, not just beforehand and I think people People really misunderstand that my colleague, former colleague at Harvard, Dan Gilbert, has identified this well, that people underestimate how much their attitudes are going to change after they commit to something. And so jumping in with both feet for something raises the, you know, possibility being hurt, and so on. But I think people also underestimate how much they’re going to change their attitudes and emotions to be in line with the things they commit to. I often tell my graduate students, they come into my office and early, early years of PhD, trying to figure out what they’re interested in what they really want to do research on, thinking that in order to become really committed to something, I have to be really interested in it first. And I tell him, that Yeah, there’s some some truth to that you want to be doing things that you’re interested in, but don’t forget that you will also come to be really interested in something once you’re really committed to it. And so I encourage them to get started on research early and then become interested in it. And I think the truth for for them in their, in their research pursuits is this true for us in relationships to you commit to something that’s what tends to lead to liking and you tend to commit, you know, become more committed after you’ve committed yourself to it in the first place.

Right. So I think as we wrap up, I love that to end on, how can we all lean away from fear and towards commitment and allow that positive potential to influence our thoughts and experiences more and to connect deeper with other people as a result of that kind of different state of mind, an openness to rather than coming from the place of assumptions or inferences, more of curiosity and positive potential and reminding ourselves that the downside is so often so much lower than before. And even in the specific case of breakups, there are studies that show people’s experiences coming out of it actually proves to be extremely positive and has the potential to lead to better self understanding and growth and learning in a way that the overall experience of the breakup ends up being positive rather than negative. 

So I think our research suggests that you can you can think about, you know, our, our desire or inclination to connect with others sort of like a dial, you know, that maybe runs from from zero to 10. Our data don’t suggest that you should turn up your sociality to 11. Right and and have a conversation with everybody you possibly could send gratitude letters to everyone all the time. Try to form a relationship with everybody that you meet, to be totally open to everybody you come in contact with. I mean that that’s not at all what our data suggests. Our data suggests that we underestimate how positively others respond when you reach out to them. And that misunderstanding can keep people being overly lonely in their lives that is a little more lonely and disconnected and isolated than they could be. And so I think the implication for folks in their daily lives is, wherever you are on that dial, you might be really nervous about connecting with others down to zero or one or troubled in a relationship. Or you might already connect a lot with folks, you’re up at seven or eight on this year at a 10 scale. Our data suggests sort of across the board that it’s easy to underestimate how positively others respond. And so what would happen if you just lived for a while with your dial turned up a clicker too. You can try it. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can try it and get the data yourself as long as you have repeated interactions repeated efforts to reach out to other people and just take it a little step at a time. Just like you would with exercise or any other kind of behavioral change, turn up the dial a little bit. If you were a little bit more social, I think you’d be a little bit happier. And you’d have a little bit stronger relationships than you do now. And I think that would doesn’t require a radical change in your life. But I think it requires an understanding that that reaching out to others is likely to be more positive than you expect.

And with that, all, I’ll end on one of the findings that you all mentioned in your research when I was preparing for this, and that is that it’s not as much the intensity of positive experience, as you mentioned, just now, you know, you don’t have to dial it up all the way. Because it’s not the intensity of positive experience that predicts happiness in life. It’s the frequency. And so those small efforts and that consistency, and creating those opportunities for reciprocity that really helps us to lead a happier and good life as you teach. 


Well, thank you so much for joining us today. And I look forward to continuing this conversation.

Yes. Thank you so much. This is really fun.

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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