Nicholas Epley
Big Brains podcst

Why Talking to Strangers Will Make You Happier with Nicholas Epley (Ep. 33)

A UChicago behavioral psychologist explains why talking to strangers will make you happier than you think, but why it’s so difficult.


Nicholas Epley
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Most people say they’d want to read minds. But Prof. Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business says you already have that power: You just need to use it.

Epley’s research has focused on the ways our minds understand, or fail to understand each other. Now, he’s expanded that research to look into why talking to strangers may be the key to better well-being, even if it’s difficult.

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(Episode published October 7, 2019)



Paul Rand: Can you remember the last time you went out of your way to start a conversation with a stranger?

Tape: I cannot remember, maybe a couple month ago.

Tape: I don’t think anybody has anything to offer me.

Tape: It’s been awhile, I think it was on a train on my way to work.

Tape: I absolutely cannot

Paul Rand: Every day, in cities all over the world, we get on trains and buses, pass people on the street, all without saying a single word to each other. For so-called “social creatures” it’s a bit strange.

Nicholas Epley: People out in their daily lives aren't social enough for their own well-being. They don't engage in conversations with strangers, for instance, nearly as much as they ought to to maximize their own well-being.

Paul Rand: That’s Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago. He’s says there’s an almost cruel irony to the fact that many people experience intense loneliness, but they don’t reach out to make connections. So, we went out during the early morning commute on the trains of Chicago to ask people why they think that is.

Tape: They don’t wanna feel like they’re weird. They don’t want to be rejected. So, with a complete stranger, you have no idea if they are going to accept anything you say or your mannerisms or anything like that. They don’t want to be rejected.

Tape: I’m usually focused on what I need to do that day or reading a book or listening to a podcast.

Tape: I dunno. I certainly think that people are becoming more introverted and more absorbed in their mobile devices and so on then they used to be. I’d be happier if people were happier to talk.

Nicholas Epley: Turns out that people like talking to strangers quite a bit but because they think they're not going to enjoy it very well, they don't they don't do it very often. I would say my lab has been consumed over the last few years with this really reliable result that people underestimate how positive others will feel when you reach out to them in a pro social positive way. And we just find that effect relentlessly just relentlessly.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the stories behind the pivotal research and pioneering breakthroughs reshaping our world. On this episode Nicholas Epley and our mindful connections. I’m you’re host Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: If you could have any super power, what would it be? Flight, invisibility, teleportation perhaps? Most Americans agree that there’s one they want more than any other.

Nicholas Epley: So there was a survey that Marist conducted a handful of years ago. They've done this a couple of times now, asking Americans what superpower they would most want to have and the two that consistently come out on top are time travel and mind reading. 

Paul Rand: And Epley has some good news for those of you who want to be mind readers. As he writes in his book, in many ways, the power to read minds is already inside us, we just need to learn how to use it.

Nicholas Epley: Certainly compared to time travel. You can't travel through time in any way shape or form but you can read the minds of others, that is, you can with some reasonable non-zero degree of accuracy understand what's going on between the ears of another person. So in many ways it's a superpower you already have. Our capacity to think about the minds of others operates, I suggest in the book, a little like a sixth sense in that it often works quickly and easily. We don't have to deploy it. If you walk into the room, I spontaneously start thinking about well what does Paul want? I go home at night, I wonder how are the kids feeling about their day? These things just pop to mind a little like opening your eyes and you just see. So our brains are unique on this planet, as human beings, for their capacity to think about the minds of others. There aren't other species that think about other's intentions or motives or desires nearly to the same extent that human beings do. There's clearly a gap here between how human beings think compared to our nearest primate ancestors or chimpanzees. And that's really, I think, what makes us special on the planet is our social smarts but as good as we are

Paul Rand: And when you say social smarts, what do you mean by that? 

Nicholas Epley: Just our ability to

Paul Rand: Connect. 

Nicholas Epley: Yeah to accurately understand what's going on in the mind of another person. So, I can look at you and make an inference about your thoughts, or I can guess what your preferences are, or what your hobbies are based on how you're dressed. That's a judgment about your interests and your preferences. And we're amazingly good at doing this. Good in that we're often considerably better than chance at guessing what somebody else is thinking or believing or feeling. That's useful because it allows us to anticipate their actions before they behave. So if I know what you like to eat I can predict what you're going to eat for lunch and I can even go out and get you something that I think you would like and make you happier. But as good as we are, we're also not perfect, that is, we're considerably less accurate than perfect as well. Another person's mind is the most complicated thing we'll ever think about. We're better than chance but we're also considerably worse than perfect and we're also often considerably worse than we think we are.

Paul Rand: The experience of realizing just how hard it can be to understand the mind of another was driven home for Epley in an extremely personal way when he traveled to Ethiopia to adopt two of his children.

Nicholas Epley: I have studied social cognition or the kinds of inferences we make about other people's minds for a long time, but this one experience that I opened the book with was the one that just is the strongest sort of manifestation that I've ever experienced of the difficulty that we can have understanding the mind of another person. When we adopted our children, I actually met their father, their biological father in Ethiopia. And when we met them it was at the orphanage. He needed to go to the capital city to acknowledge that he wasn't able to care for the children anymore after they'd lost their mother. And we walked into the small cramped room and he was sitting there with a friend of his and he was dressed in a suit but, you know, it was clear the suit had seen some tough days. He'd walked and taken a bus for about three quarters of a day to get to the capital city. And when I saw him, we instantly sort of recognized and knew who each other were and he stood up. He was a smaller man, much smaller I am, and he just threw his arms around me and gave me this big hug. And he was right there in my chest, I mean his head was right there in my neck, and we were both in tears at that point, and he was so close and yet there was so much that was obvious to me I would never really understand about the experience he had gone through. I have two biological kids. I knew what it was like to raise them, to love them, to watch their first home runs at Little League baseball games. I knew what it was like to stay up with him through the night when they were sick. I knew all of that. And I couldn't imagine what it was like to need to give your your children up in that way. And international adoption, well adoption of any kind, just brings with it hosts of emotions and perspective taking difficulties and challenges. But we were both there sobbing tears and it was clear that I had the mind of this man that I so desperately wanted to understand who was so close who I was never really gonna be able to understand. 

Paul Rand: That moment pushed Epley down a path to researching why our minds sometimes fail or are unable to connect. If we’re some of the most advanced social animals on earth, why exactly do we misunderstand what others are thinking and feeling so often?

Nicholas Epley: Some problems in everyday life are super easy. Like if you show up at work and your colleague is laying on the floor balled up in tears you know that guy's having a bad day.

Paul Rand: I didn't know you saw me this morning. 

Nicholas Epley: Yeah, right, but other problems are much harder. Like, what is Trump thinking? Or what is Putin thinking? Right? Everyday life gives us lots of harder problems where it's much more difficult to know what's going on in the mind of another person. But I can give you a couple of benchmarks. So let's take something like lie detection. So you're telling a truth, or a lie, and I can watch you do this and I'm just predicting whether you're telling the truth or lying, these are strangers say. Chance accuracy is 50 percent if you're telling the truth or lies. If I'm just guessing, I will get this right 50 percent of the time. Meta analysis of lie detection in procedures like this peg accuracy levels at about 54 percent. All right? So a little bit better than chance but not a lot. 

Nicholas Epley: But if you ask people how confident they are, that is how many they think they got right, they often think it's much higher.

Paul Rand: Sure. 

Nicholas Epley: More like 70 or 80 percent. Right. So if I'm trying to guess how happy or sad you are, or if I'm trying to judge how much you might like one thing or another, I'm likely just to be overconfident. I'm trying to understand what your attitudes or perspective are, if you're on the other side of the political aisle from me, for instance. I think if we approached other people with that recognition about overconfidence, if I approached you with a greater sense of humility, or recognition that I don't understand you as well as I think, I think you would naturally do lots of the things that actually increase accuracy quite naturally on your own. 

Paul Rand: And what would those things be? 

Nicholas Epley: So there are a number of things that we can assess experimentally to see if they actually increase your understanding of another person. One is trying to read their body language, right? So if I pay more attention to your behavior and your facial expressions, if I learn how to read what it means to have your left hand on the table like you do just now and the pen in front of your chest and leaning forward a little bit versus leaning back, if I can read those body signals better, if I pay more attention to them, I'll become more accurate. Turns out there's not a lot of evidence for this. We've also studied perspective taking, right. So we all have a capacity to do some mental gymnastics to try to see things from another person's point of view, to try to put yourself in another person's shoes. If you're rich you can think about what it's like to be poor, if you're hot you can think about what it's like to be cold, if you're full you can think about what it's like to be hungry, if you're not tired you can think about what it's like to be exhausted, if you are liberal you can think about what it's like to be conservative, right. You can do that mental gymnastics all inside your own head. Many people have suggested that this is a key tool for understanding the mind of another, to try to see things from his or her point of view. Put yourself in his or her perspective. But, when we look at actual research, when we run experiments encouraging people to take other's perspectives, and then we look at how accurately they can actually guess another person's attitudes or beliefs, we do this with strangers, we do this with married couples for instance, we find time and time and time and time and time again that it doesn't systematically increase accuracy. Sometimes it increases confidence, not reliably. Sometimes we see that it doesn’t in some experiments. But we just never see it systematically increasing accuracy. It's sort of like moving the deck chairs around in your brain. You can move them in different positions, but you're not acquiring new information and so are not then really increasing your accuracy. But there is a third thing that you can do which we refer to as perspective getting, just to make a distinction from with perspective taking, it turns out the best way to understand what's on the mind of another person is to ask them. 

Paul Rand: If you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking to yourself, so the answer to understanding people better is just to ask them what they’re thinking?

Nicholas Epley:  It's not rocket science. Our job as psychologists is not to provide amazing magical tricks out in the world. Turns out the best way to understand what's on the mind of another person is to become a good interrogator. It is to ask people questions about their perspective, about their beliefs, about their attitudes, and then to be quiet and listen to what they have to say. 

Paul Rand: This simple solution is actually quite complex to implement. How often do you feel comfortable enough to ask people directing what they think of you, if they’re lying, or what their thoughts on a work project are. Also, most of the time, we’re so overconfident in assuming what others are thinking that we often forget to ask them for a direct answer. Think about all the misunderstandings you’ve gotten into with your friends, family or spouse because you were so sure that you knew what they were thinking and feeling, and it turned out that you were just wrong.

Nicholas Epley: The really interesting thing for me in this research is not what actually makes people better or worse, in some ways that's obvious. What's interesting is that the people themselves who are using these strategies in our experiments don't seem to recognize that it's better. So we bring married couples into the lab. They predict how their spouse is going to answer a series of questions, and we have them just guess what's on the other person's mind, we have them predict, we have them engage in perspective taking before predicting. So the first condition is our control condition, second one is a perspective taking condition, the third condition is our perspective getting condition. We actually have couples sit down and go through and ask the other person all of the questions that they later are going to predict. My spouse wouldn't give me an actual numeric response to those questions, we were just talking verbally, but then I go out later and I predict how you're going to respond to these questions on a numeric scale. When we ask people to do this and then ask them, "how many out of these 20 questions that you just predicted did you get correct on average?" We find that those who actually talk to their spouse, who engage in prospective getting, are dramatically more accurate than the other two conditions, but they're not dramatically more confident. In fact, they're not more confident at all. Those three conditions think they got the same number out of these 20 right. So the people who are actually using this most successful strategy for understanding the mind of another person don't seem to understand how much they've just learned.

Paul Rand: Epley’s most resent research is aimed directly at figuring out the decline of interpersonal relationships in our society. As the so-called loneliness epidemic has swept across much of the western world. Epley thinks his new research may lead to some explanations for why it’s happening and how we could turn things around. That’s after the break.

Paul Rand: We had Raghu on recently, on the podcast, and of course, the thrust of of his new research in his book is really about the dissolution of communities and the negative impact that's having on society. 

Nicholas Epley: Yeah 

Paul Rand: Relate that, because I think if we're not connecting as communities we're certainly not connecting as people. Is that a concern of yours as well? 

Nicholas Epley: I would say my lab has been consumed over the last few years with this really reliable result that people underestimate how positive others will feel when you reach out to them in a pro-social positive way. And we just find that effect relentlessly. If you look out in the world, you see lots of opportunities where people could be connecting with others, engaging with the mind of another, and they're not. Every day on the trains people come into Chicago, or you know all over the world, and people sit cheek to jowl and they don't talk to each other. Riding buses downtown, walking along city sidewalks, the cities are crammed with people desperately it seems often trying to ignore each other. And, for a psychologist, that seemed to me like a paradox. Why is it that highly social agents, who have brains uniquely equipped to connect with the minds of others, seem so often to find reason not to use it?

Paul Rand: To find some answers, Epley ran a series of experiments during the daily commute in Chicago. Some people were instructed to engage with others on their commute, while others were asked to just keep to themselves or follow their normal routine.

Nicholas Epley: And so we ran these experiments on trains and buses and cabs where we found that people were indeed happier, they enjoyed their trip more when they actually engaged in conversation with the person sitting next to them then when they kept to themselves or did whatever they normally do.

Paul Rand: But the fascinating part was that people who engaged with strangers had predicted that they would feel the exact opposite outcome of their interaction. They expected that it wouldn’t make for a more positive experience. It wasn’t that they didn’t think they might enjoy connecting with someone, they just thought other strangers wouldn’t want to be bothered.

Nicholas Epley: And so people are behaving rationally in the sense that they're behaving around strangers or others in ways that fit their expectations about how they think they're going to feel if they engage in the conversation, but those expectations are just wrong. We got lots of comments from people who say that it was really hard to get somebody to talk to them because everybody has their earbuds in now. Everybody's looking at their phones now. One person wrote "nobody looks out the window or talks to people on the train anymore, what a shame." And I do think that technology can can bring us together in some ways, right? Social media can connect people through the technology, in some ways, but also disconnects you from the people sitting around you nearby that could be meaningful sources of connection. The fact that we increasingly interact with other people through our fingers over text and email, typing to each other, rather than what we're doing right now talking to each other concerns me. It turns out a person's mind really comes through their mouth, both in terms of conveying accurate information, but also just conveying the presence of an actual human-like mind. I can't see you thinking, I often can't see you feeling and I can't see your attitude, but I can hear it. That is, your voice contains lots of cues to the presence of a mind that I don't get when we're interacting over text, which is increasingly common in the modern world. The voice contains all kinds of para-linguistic cues, intonation your voice goes up and down. It varies in its pace, right, I speed up and I slow down when I'm speaking. It varies in its inflection. And all of those give us cues that you are a sentient, thoughtful being who's connecting with me. We find that people think others are more mindful, more thoughtful, more intelligent, more rational, when you hear what they have to say than when you read exactly the same content. Or even when you read what somebody else has written to convey the same kinds of ideas. So a lot of the technological tools that make interpersonal connection easy and efficient also cut out some of the most essential ingredients for actual interpersonal understanding and connection and that concerns me.

Paul Rand: Why are we constantly underestimating the positive social effects of reaching out and connecting with other people? Why do we assume that others won’t want to connect with us or that it won’t make us happier? That’s coming up after the break.

Paul Rand: Tell me how this shapes your day to day life. 

Nicholas Epley: Yeah so I behave differently than I used to for sure. 

Paul Rand: How So?

Nicholas Epley: Not only do we find that people aren't social enough in connecting with strangers, we find that people aren't social enough in lots of ways for their own well-being. We find people underestimate how positive people will feel when they express gratitude to them, or say thanks. 

Paul Rand: What do you mean?

Nicholas Epley: So we have people write gratitude letters to somebody who's done something really meaningful for them. So think about somebody in your life who’s done something really meaningful for you but who you haven't really fully expressed your appreciation to. I'm sure Paul you can think of somebody like that. We ask you to sit down and write that person a letter. We then ask you to predict how that person will feel when they get that letter. And we find people systematically underestimate how positive the recipients are gonna feel. Now, of course, if I think you're not going to feel so great when I express gratitude to you, I'm less likely to do it than I would have been otherwise. Same way on the trains, we think other people aren't interested in talking to us and that’s the barrier that keeps you from engaging in conversation, we find people underestimate how positive others will feel when you compliment them, when you ask them for help on something, when you reach out and express support to somebody. You can think of somebody in your life right now who's going through a difficult time, who you probably haven't reached out to and said. "Hey I'm just I'm thinking about you I'm here for you if you need something keeping you in my thoughts right now." You could do that and you haven't done that today. And we find that one of the barriers is just underestimating how positive others are going to feel, and I really have taken a lot of that work to heart. So I talk to folks a lot more than I used to. I write thank you cards to people. I write gratitude letters to folks. When I'm thinking about somebody, I'll send them a note. I'll check in on people more often when I have a crack in my day to find out how things are going much more than I used to before. 

Paul Rand: And you're benefiting them but you're also benefiting yourself. 

Nicholas Epley: Yeah. You feel more connected. Now, it's important to recognize that these little moments of social engagement don't turn your life into endless bliss of course. That's not the way this works, but each of these interactions is a little positive—feels a little good. Not always of course, but on average they do. And I think the data on happiness and well-being make it pretty clear that that's sort of the secret to a happy life. It's not pursuing those big Mt. Everest type moments. It's not the intensity of positive experiences that really predicts happiness in life. It's the frequency of them. A lot of little positive moments sprinkled throughout the day at times it would otherwise not be so good. You’re commuting, you're just walking down the sidewalk, wherever you see a moment where you can reach out to somebody, say hello, give somebody a smile, help somebody with something, reach out to a friend. Those make those moments where you're sort of ebbing a little bit, that's not the best moment, makes those a little better. And I think that like exercise makes. 

Paul Rand: So this idea of developing the sixth sense which is kind of where we started, it is a it is a skill you can develop you can learn, you and improve upon.

Nicholas Epley: Absolutely. It's a habit. 

Paul Rand: Personal life or professional life.

Nicholas Epley: It can become a habit that you use more effectively, more regularly, once you know what some of these gaps are. This misunderstanding is. You can become I think better at understanding others, do things in your own life that help you interact with others more effectively, and because interacting with others well makes us happy. If people walk away from our research recognizing better how to connect with another person, recognizing their shortcomings a little better approaching others with a bigger sense of humility so they can understand another person better, the benefit of that would be to have stronger interpersonal relationships and the strength of those relationships are going to manifest directly in your experience of happiness and well-being.

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