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
- Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want — Book by Nicholas Epley
- How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life — Book by Tom Gilovich
- Stumbling on Happiness — Book by Dan Gilbert
- The Happiness Lab — Podcast by Laurie Santos