Interview with Nicholas Epley
Just to kind of quickly introduce Dr. Epley, he is the John Templeton Keller professor of behavioral science, and Neblar faculty fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He's been in the Wall Street Journal, on CNN Wired, and NPR, and most exciting for you guys, is that he's also the author of Mind Wise- How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, which is a fantastic book that talks about all his awesome stuff. There are other places you know psychologists and sociologists used to talk about human capital in neighborhoods about the importance of building structures like playgrounds and things that would bring people together those are the other ways that you could do it is by taking that kind of macro level approach.
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Welcome, everyone. This is part of our fantastic series on the psychology of wellness. And I am excited today to be joined by one of my colleagues, a social psychologist, Nick Epley. We’re going to be talking today about, miswanting social connection. Just to kind of quickly introduce Dr. Epley, he is the John Templeton Keller professor of behavioral science, and Neblar faculty fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Nick has done super cool studies on social cognition, perspective taking, our intuitive human judgments, when those judgments go awry. And his work has been featured on way too many cool spots to tell you about. He’s been in the Wall Street Journal, on CNN Wired, and NPR, and most exciting for you guys, is that he’s also the author of Mind Wise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, which is a fantastic book that talks about all his awesome stuff. Nick, thank you for joining us today, here on our quest. So, what we really want to talk about today was your cool stuff on social perception. Throughout the course, we’ve been talking about all these cases where we miswant things, these cases where we, really, really have intuitions that we should seek out, stuff like getting a higher salary, or getting a good grades. And this doesn’t impact our happiness as much as we think. And then there are all these other spots where we are miswanting in the other direction, where there are these things that would actually make us happier, but that we don’t have intuitions to seek them out. And so, I wanted you to talk today about some of your work on social connection, one of these many domains where we’re kind of missing how good this stuff would be for us. So, just kind of maybe give me a quick definition of how you think about social connection, like, kind of what is it and why is it so important for our species.
Social connection can be almost anything, from making eye contact with another person, or smiling at another person to being in a long term romantic relationship with somebody. And it turns out that, social connection across this entire spectrum, tends to be pretty darn good for people. Or another way of saying that is the absence of social connection, social isolation, tends to be pretty awful for people. And in some ways, you kind of understand that. Like, everybody has heard I presume who’s in this class as understands that say solitary confinement in prison for instance, probably heard that that’s a pretty awful thing.
But what we find in our research is that, people sometimes seek isolation, and some seek solitude in places where doesn’t make them so happy. And they seem in lots of ways to underestimate the benefits that can actually come from connecting with others, including perhaps most important with random strangers.
And this is one of my favorite of your papers, because you’ve shown not just kind of big cases of social connection like in your life, but in these small daily interactions, just seeking out social connection matters. So, tell us about the intervention you did on trains. What did you have people do?
So, this started with really just an observation, which is one place that research often starts. So, I knew a lot of the psychological literature demonstrating how important social connection was for our happiness and well-being. These effects are just massive. And yet, every day when I came into the office, I saw people in very close proximity to other people, actively avoiding social connection. This seems like a paradox to me, I saw it on the train, every single morning when I rode into my office in Hyde Park from the South Side of Chicago, people would get on the train, line up along the outside window, every day it was exactly the same drill, would line up along the outside of the window, and as they were going down the tracks, and they were stopping, people would get on and line up next to them. And you’re sitting there cheek to jowl with with another human being perfectly, they live in the same neighborhood. And then they would ride for 45 minutes into Chicago, and treat each other like a lampshade, they would just ignore each other. And that was interesting to me as a psychologist. Because it could be one of two things. One possibility is that, people are being pretty reasonable here. There’s a lot of the data in psychology about the importance of social connection, looks at really our connections with close others, relational partners, good friends, family members, and it may be that those connections really matter a lot, but that these connections with strangers could be just unpleasant, or perhaps even negative. So, there could be that people were being reasonable. The other possibility could be, that people just misunderstand the importance of social connection for their own well-being, and so they’ve got this 45-minute period in their day which on surveys, most people say is one of the least pleasant parts of their day mainly when they’re commuting. And they could be thinking that connecting with this person would be unpleasant, and they might actually be wrong about that. So, how would we find that out, we do what we do, which is we run an experiment. And so, we did that, and one of the train lines runs south out of Chicago. On our first experiments, we recruited people for a commuter survey, and we randomly assigned them to one of three different conditions. So, if they were interested, they came up to us. We gave them an envelope, which included a five dollar Starbucks gift card, which turns out to be one of the most valuable. Most powerful thanks to give people for studies. People will do anything for a five-dollar Starbucks card. And inside that envelope, was a questionnaire. And we told them at the end of your ride, we want you to fill out that questionnaire, put it in the mail and send it back to us. We then told them, on your commute today, we want you to do something. In one condition, we told them that what we want you to do, is to just keep yourselves, just enjoy your solitude on the train ride in. That was our solitude condition. Another condition was our control condition. We told them just to do whatever you normally do on the ride. And today which is normally keep to yourself and sit alone or sit by yourself at least. In the third condition we told them to do something, perhaps somewhat radical. That is when somebody came and sat next to them, we asked them to try to form a connection. Try to get to know something, about him or her. And then that’s all we told them. So, then, we had them fill out the survey. Survey included a bunch of items, the first four were the ones that we really cared about. We asked them, how sad are you today after your commute? How happy are you? How pleasant was your commute compared to normal? So, those are three questions. We also asked them how productive your commute was. We didn’t get any differences across conditions in productivity. So, I will mention that right now. We average these first three together, and we found something interesting. So, remember, one possibility could be that connecting with a stranger kind of stinks. It’s unpleasant. Actually, we find that to be wrong. What we found were that people in the connection condition were actually reporting the most positive experience, and people in the solitude condition were reporting the least positive experience. So, just like we see over and over again in experiments, connecting with another person was pleasant, it improved your well-being and improved your mood. So, the question is, why don’t people do it? Well to test that, to study that we have to run a second experiment, to test this other possibility, which is that people might just misunderstand the consequences of social engagement. So, to do that, we ran a second experiment. Where we told people about our experiment, and each of the conditions, and asked them to predict how they would feel if they were in each of these different conditions. This doesn’t measure actual experience of course, this measures people’s expectations, about how they would feel, and what did they expect. They expected that they would be the happiest in the solitude condition, that they would be the least happy in the connection condition. So, not only were their expectations miscalibrated, they were precisely backwards, to what we saw when we ran people through those actual conditions. We’ve replicated this in lots of other places, too, on cabs, leaving Midway Airport here in Chicago, and buses downtown, in a waiting room, that we created in downtown Chicago, connecting with strangers turns out to be surprisingly pleasant.
That’s great. And I love that you included the productivity condition. Because like, when I run the experiment in my head, and when I think about how I interact with people on a train or a plane, I’m thinking, oh I got to get this grant done and I gotta get this other stuff. But what we’re finding is that people don’t feel like they’re any less productive when they spend time talking to a person. They did predict that they would be less productive.
So, we did see differences in predictions on productivity. They thought they would be less productive in the connection condition than in the solid condition, but it turned out there was no difference. Now, to be fair, we don’t quite know how to interpret the results. So, one possibility could be that people don’t get anything done on the train. Anyway. Anyway, you’re right. So, we have all these plans to do all these things, it turns out you don’t really end up filling with your phone or really kind of wasting time. So, that’s one possiblity. The other possibility though is that people may just, reconstrue what it means to be productive. So, if you sit down next to me on the train, and I’ve got an important paper to write or something else to do, if we have a conversation that turns out to be really interesting, well, now that’s been productive on the train, right? So, we - we don’t know exactly what’s going on there, but we certainly didn’t get what people expected in terms of productivity either. And that gets to another thing that people are kind of mispredicting specifically, they’re mispredicting their own affect afterwards. But they also seem to be mispredicting the other person’s affect, right? Because that’s another reason I don’t talk to people sometimes, I think this person’s going to think I’m annoying, or this person will think I’m weird. Absolutely. In fact, and that’s the very mistake that we find leads people not to talk. So, what we did in some other experiments, we tried to understand why is it that people think this will be unpleasant. It turns out if you ask them to imagine having the conversation, actually getting it started and getting it going, they think it will be pretty positive, they don’t actually think it will be negative. But what they think is that other people don’t want to talk to them, right? So, you sit down next to somebody who whips out their tool of disengagements and is fiddling around on their phone, or on their iPad or whatever, and you look at them and you infer, well, I guess they don’t want to talk to me. Of course, you’re doing the same thing. And so, what we find is that people tend to systematically think that other people are less interested in talking to them than they are talking to other people. And if you don’t think another person would be interested then you think it would be unpleasant. As far as we can tell, people are just wrong about that. And so, I could see a couple reasons why we have this misprediction. One is that, we maybe more than ever have data that other people don’t want to talk to us, because other people are engaging on these devices, and doing this stuff. Another is just, we’re just off about how important social connection is broadly. Our minds just don’t pick up on it. Do you have a sense of what’s going on there? I think it’s probably the latter. So, I think it’s been true for a very long time, that people haven’t connected very openly with strangers. And if anything in modern life, we’re probably connecting more with strangers than ever before, at least along the arc of human history. So, Stanley Milgram of the obedience experiment fame, after he ran those experiments, got interested in some of these paradoxes of urban life. So, why is it for instance that people in large urban centers often report feeling more lonely than people in rural environments. And he reported exactly the same norms on the trains in New York City, as we find in the trains here in Chicago today. So, I don’t really think that there’s something new about modern technology that’s creating this disconnect, I think people really dramatically underestimate how important connection is, or perhaps underestimate how painful isolation can sometimes be. So consider another study by Danny Kahneman and Angus Deaton, a psychologist or sociologist at Princeton. They did an analysis of about half a million people surveyed by Gallup which looks at the effects of a bunch of different variables factors on happiness and well being. One is money for instance. So, what they did was they calculated in their data set, what’s the effect of a fourfold increase in wealth, in income rather not wealth but income, on your happiness just going from the bottom quartile at the top quartile in their income measure, and they compare that against a bunch of other different variables that could also be correlated with happiness. One of them was, did you report feeling alone yesterday? The effect of that alone question, effect of feeling alone on happiness was seven times bigger than a fourfold increase in income. It’s crushing. I mean it’s a huge effect and I think people just dramatically underestimate that and so they miss like simple opportunities to feel happier. So, consider another experiment we just ran. Super simple study that we ran in a lab we have here in the Museum of Science and Industry which is just over there from my office here at Chicago. We had people walk around a big waiting room. There’s a huge lobby in the MSI here at Chicago, We had them assess how friendly people were at the museum today. We randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. In one condition, we asked them to assess how friendly people were by walking around and when people are about ten feet away make eye contact with them and when they’re five feet away smile at them. We ask them to walk around and be kind of friendly, then ask them to talk, just minimal social connections, be nice to other people.
Did they want to do that? Were they kind of weirded out in the same way that when you asked people to talk on the train they’re kind of like I don’t know?
I suspect they were a little bit. We didn’t measure it, so I can’t say qualitatively I suspect they were because people don’t naturally do that.
Well, you’ll hear the results in a minute and then you can ask yourself why don’t people do this. The other condition, we ask them to go around and assess how friendly people were. But just by watching, so you just watch other people. So in one condition, we’ve got people making eye contact and smiling, being friendly. The other condition, we just got people watching, just observing. When they come back to us, we ask them, how friendly were people at the museum today? And what do you think people said? Well, in the condition where they were smiling and making eye contact they said people at the museum were friendlier than people in the other condition. Now, it’s obvious why, right? They are being friendly because you were friendly.
Right? Other people will smile back at you even if they’re not smiling at you to begin with. The more interesting thing was we asked people what their mood was from positive to negative. And we found that people who were making eye contact and smiling in that condition were dramatically in a better mood than people in the control condition. So, I mean this is a trivial thing but it turns out being social, being nice, even at just a very minimal level makes you feel happier. So, it’s not even once people are on the train, just on my walk to the train for instance. I can take those few minutes and make myself feel better just by being nicer to other people.
And so, have you done that? This is a topic that comes up in the course is that we talk about these intentional actions that people can take to put this research into practice. Are you doing that?
Well, let me tell you a few things that I’ve done. So one thing I’ve done is I’ve gotten rid of my smartphone. So I just carry a [inaudible].
My students when they hear this will say, what’s going on? Let’s see, I’m not even sure I have it today. I usually don’t carry it but. No I don’t have it. I have a stupid phone. It just makes calls.
Wow. It’s amazing you can even buy one of those nowadays but yeah.
Go to Target. There it is. It’s off in the corner. My kids are horribly embarrassed by this. So I do have an iPad. So, if I really want to do something I can but it’s not right there in front of me. I can be more attentive to people who are around. Second thing, I do is I do, I have become more social I would say in lots of ways, I’m much more willing to just talk to people. Everybody’s got an interesting story to tell. Everybody has something interesting in their life. You just need to ask them what it is. The other thing that I’ve done is I know for instance we also had a bunch of studies on the surprising benefits of expressing gratitude. It turns out, we underestimate the importance of gratitude on other people. So when I write you a gratitude letter, you’re happier than I expect. And so, just right behind me, I have a bunch of letters just laying around so that it’s easy for me to write these. And so, yeah. I’ve done a bunch of these things and they do make a difference and I think it’s important though to realize what kind of difference they make. They make a difference in the moment. The important thing I think to understand about happiness and what you get from social connection. People often think about happiness like height, like it’s a permanent thing that, you know, once if I do X, Y, Z then I’ll be happier and I’ll always stay that way. Little like if I do something to get taller I’ll always be taller. That’s not what happiness is. Happiness is a moods thing. Tells you you’re kind of doing the right thing at this moment. Being connected to others in a positive way throughout human history has been a good thing for us, it makes sense we get that positive signal. But it’s a mood and moods don’t last. If you watch a good movie you’re not happy for the of your life you’re happy for a little while, right? That’s why I think, the way to think about these things and about happiness more generally it’s like a leaky tire. You just kind of got to keep pumping air into it to keep it inflated. So, I try to stay in these little moments to do that. So, yeah. This line of work without question is something that’s led me to live my life differently.
That’s awesome. And as you think about kind of structures that we can put in place in institutions and in our daily lives and in academics, are there ways that we can enhance social connection throughout these structures? In a class, I talk about this essay from a former Yale student who passed away. She has this essay on the opposite of loneliness and she says that one of the things that’s amazing about college is that she experiences this concept that she has which is the opposite of loneliness. She said we don’t have a word for it but it’s just kind of like feeling like people are around and you can talk to them in the dining halls and these kinds of things. And she talks about kind of promoting whatever we’re going to call that word in society and any ideas from your search about how to do that better? Which we have like forced chat, not quiet cars but like the opposite of cars on trains like the talking cars and thing.
You know the funny thing was when I was doing this work I relayed our experiments to the folks who work on the trains here in Chicago. This is the Metro in Chicago. The woman I was talking with was just a delightful person. She was fantastic. When I told her about the results of our experiment she said, “Oh, Nick. I totally believe this, totally understand this, totally consistent with my experience. But you’re not going to believe what we’re going to do”. What are you going to do. Well she said, “We’re about to roll out a policy”. I said, “Okay, what’s the policy?” She said, “We’re going to start putting quiet cars on all of our train lines”. I said “well why are you doing that?” And she said, “Well, because we asked people what they wanted and this is what they said they wanted”. I said, “Really?”. That’s what our people said to but it turns out they were wrong. I asked her, “Have you ever tried the opposite? Have you ever had like a chatty car where people get together and just you know talk with each other and just kind of unwind at the end of the day or something?” She said, “No, we’ve never had anything like that but we did have something that was sort of similar with the bar cars that go out, way out to the Northwest Suburbs in Chicago. I said, well do you have those anymore. She said, “No”. Why don’t you have them I asked and she said, “Well, they were becoming something of a safety issue”. I said, “Really?” She said, “Yes, they were too crowded” So look, I think there are lots of different kinds of interventions like this that you can do. Some are small scale things. I really do think in this case, that knowledge has power to it. That seeing these data, I think as soon as you think about it a little more carefully you recognize the importance of this. So, I think there are certainly knowledge is power in this case but I also do think that there are other interventions that you can do. So, one of the things for instance that we find is really important for a sense of social connection with another person is voice. So lots and I don’t think that these devices are necessarily awful but it’s not a technology that’s necessarily tailored to creating a sense of social connection with others, adding voice I think would be helpful. There are other places you know psychologists and sociologists used to talk about human capital in neighborhoods about the importance of building structures like playgrounds and things that would bring people together those are the other ways that you could do it is by taking that kind of macro level approach. But I don’t have as yet a magical way to make people feel more connected to each other.
But it’s nice to know that when you think about doing it in your own life, you can just do it like you can just talk to people and so you don’t need like huge structures to do that which is kind of cool.
So, I mean we also have adopted a few children. So, we’ve adopted two children from Ethiopia and we’re in the process of adopting another from China right now. And you know part of the reason for that, that made me feel more willing to do this was just knowing about how powerful these connections are, I don’t [inaudible]. So, it didn’t feel ever like we were sacrificing in any way here. These kids have enriched our lives so powerfully and so so meaningfully. And once you understand the importance of social connection for happiness and well-being I think there are lots of ways in which you can think about ways in your own life that you can connect with people more effectively and in deeper ways. Doesn’t necessarily mean you have to increase the size of your family but maybe it would.
Or give up your smartphone although maybe for our students it would be.
Or give up your smartphone - nothing as extreme as that
Well this is fantastic. Thank you so much Dr. Epley. And again, for folks who are taking the course. Do check out Nick’s book, Mind Wise How We Understand What Others Think Would Believe and Feel and Want. Thanks, Nick so much.
Yeah, happy to.
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