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Ingenious: Nicholas Epley

Can we ever really know another person?

As a behavioral scientist, Nicholas Epley is a bold explorer. For years he has plumbed the murky river of misunderstanding that runs…By Kevin Berger

As a behavioral scientist, Nicholas Epley is a bold explorer. For years he has plumbed the murky river of misunderstanding that runs between people. “There’s more blackness in the mind of another person than we think there is,” Epley says. In his 2014 book Mindwise, Epley demonstrates why our window into others is limited. “You can’t overcome your own experiences, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, knowledge, and visual perspective to recognize that others may view the world differently,” Epley writes in a Mindwise chapter, featured in Nautilus.

I caught up with the outgoing Epley in his office at the University of Chicago, where he is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science. I was anxious to hear what his research can teach us about our obtuse ways. Epley mentions Lance Armstrong in Mindwise, which stirred me to ask about what the monumental cheater tells us about the depths of human deception. Epley’s research has given him the confidence to compose a recipe for seeing into other people more clearly. I was skeptical of his advice, wondering if people really can change. As we discussed some ugly current events, Epley expertly defended his view. “I think attitudes can change, yes I do,” he says. “I’m a social psychologist. I know the power of context to affect people’s behavior.”

Our interview plays at the top of the screen.

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Interview Transcript

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What’s the number one reason why we don’t understand one another?

Well probably first and foremost, egocentrism is probably the number one reason I would say. We assume that another person thinks as we do when in fact, they do not. So for instance, take the World Trade Tower attacks on September 11, 2001. If you’re an American, you look at that with a set of beliefs and values and attitudes that leads you to look at that situation and see it as something completely horrific, just completely horrific and terrifying—one of the worst acts of evil that you can imagine perpetrated on the planet. But if you are a supporter of that kind of terrorism, you look at that and you think of that activity as being glory to your God. And the fundamental gap there is that you can’t get rid of your own beliefs and attitudes and understanding of the world to truly understand what that very same event looks like through the eyes of another person. You just cannot get rid of that. There certainly is plenty of underlying neural biology that explains that gap. But I think that’s an intuitive gap as well. You just can’t get outside your own perspective fully.

Tell us about one of your most revealing experiments.

Here’s a very simple experiment that we did. We asked people to come into our laboratory and do something that was really something people do a lot. These were university undergraduates in one of these experiments and what we asked them to do was to sit in front of a picture of them that we had taken just moments before and asked them to predict how somebody of the opposite sex would rate them in terms of their attractiveness. That is, we asked them to guess whether other people would find them hot or not.

Now we spend lots of our lives trying to convey the right kind of impression to another person, trying to make sure we look appealing in the eyes of other people—college students in particular perhaps spend a lot of time doing this, so this is a judgment that we ought to be pretty good at! We should know whether somebody else is going to judge us to be attractive or not. What we did is we had them predict on a zero to 10 scale how members of the opposite sex would rate them in terms of their attractiveness from “zero” being “not at all hot” to “10” being “very hot”—actually it was “not at all attractive” to 10 being “very attractive”—and then we brought in two members of the opposite sex, had them look at this picture of you, and rate how attractive they found you to be. What we found over our experiments was that in that condition—that’s the control condition of our experiment—accuracy was not significantly better than chance. Those people had no clue about how attractive they were seen in the eyes of others. The mistakes that we make come from cases where I assume that my mind is a pretty good simulation of yours and it’s just not.

Are we clueless because we’re self-centered?

We are self-centered in a particular way and that’s the interesting thing here. We know a little bit about the gap between how you see yourself and how other people see you, which tells us how we might enable people to be more accurate here. So why is it in this case that people have a hard time judging how they’re going to be seen by other people?

The reason is is that you look at yourself with just a different lens than other people do. You are, after all, an expert about yourself. You know more about yourself than anybody else in the world knows about you. What does expertise allow you to do? If you’re an expert physicist for instance, you can notice all kinds of small minute details that nobody else can notice. If you’re an expert mathematician, you can look at a formula and notice all of its intricacies in a way that a novice can’t. The same thing is true with yourself. You’re an expert about yourself—you saw yourself yesterday; you know what you look like when you go out to a party versus when you just get up in the morning out of bed; you know so much about yourself. You know that you’re not quite as fit as you’d hope to be but you’re sure better looking than most of your friends. You can judge yourself like an expert does. And so when you see a picture of yourself you look at all these low-level details right, your smile is just a little bit off, that curl in your hair isn’t quite right, your smile is just a little bit weird, your undershirt is showing just a little bit. You’re looking at yourself through a microscope.

Other people are novices about you. Novices don’t pay that much attention to detail. They’re not judging you based on how much better you look today than you did yesterday or this picture compared to another; they’re judging you compared to other people. How attractive is Kevin compared to other guys? How attractive is Nick compared to other professors? Whatever the comparison may be, [its’] a much higher level perspective. You’re looking at yourself with a microscope [and] they’re looking at you with their naked eyes; and if you’re looking at the same thing with different lenses, you’re going to have a hard time anticipating or knowing what another person thinks of you.

Are we not strangers to ourselves?

So the “strangers to ourselves concept” is one that you have to be a little bit careful about. There are certain things that we know about ourselves way better than anybody else would know about us. If I want to know how happy you are right now, there is no better judge than yourself. So there are certain things that we can know about our minds—mostly it’s mental products: moods, happiness, current attitudes—not always, but we often can know those better than others. What we can’t really know very well is how our brains produce all this stuff.

So I can ask you whether you’re happy or not right now and there really is no more accurate judge than you on this. Your report of happiness predicts lots and lots of things in your life and how you’re likely to behave, better than many other measures. But if I ask you why are you happy? Why are you feeling this way? Well all bets there seem to be off. We don’t seem to have access to that very well. You can get a good intuitive sense of this right away. If I ask you what are you seeing in front of you right now, you can give a report of what your eyes are seeing and what’s in your visual field right now. If I ask you how is your brain allowing you to see those images, well you’re just clueless. You have no idea how your brain is turning these waves of light into neural pulses that create the image that you’re seeing now.

So people can report on what their brain is thinking or feeling—these kind of mental outcomes—but if you ask people to psychoanalyze themselves, ask them why their brain is doing this; or you ask them to report on mental processes, why did you make this decision versus that one—psychologists find over and over again that basically what we’re doing in those situations is we’re telling stories. We’re making sense of ourselves without having actual access to how our brains are causing those decisions.

How does this perception gap affect society?

I think the biggest example, really the most powerful example of this over the last year is the furor that’s arisen about police violence. The view that a police officer has of an interaction or of an event is just radically different from the mindset that the public has of that very same event. A white person looking at an instance of potential racial bias has a very different view of that from a black person looking at that very same scene and it’s often very hard to know who’s right. Is the police officer correctly perceiving this as a situation where force should be used, where if you don’t use force you open yourself up to being victimized? Are they accurate or are they influenced by biases that they’re not so aware of, subtle racial biases or things like that that are affecting their behavior. On the other hand, observers who look at an instance of police brutality or police violence—are they failing to see the 100 other interactions they had on the street, which would make sense of why this police officer might be fearing for his or her life? Or are they perceiving correctly that this is unwarranted violence?

It’s hard to know what the truth is in a lot of these situations, but this is a situation where it’s clear that you’ve got two sets of people looking at the very same kind of evidence and seeing radically different things. I think the most interesting part of these seems to be people’s reluctance to recognize that their own perspective on this might be unique, that there’s not really necessarily reality out there, that two people working from different sets of beliefs and attitudes and experience can see this thing very, very differently.

Are you saying this subjectivity exonerates people’s actions?

No no, not that it exonerates it, by any means. There are standards that we expect people to live by and there is some truth of the matter here, but you find that truth by comparing one event across lots of cases. So if one particular officer for instance was involved in lots of disputes that other officers weren’t involved in, then that certainly suggests that this was not something that other police officers would have done. But I think the failure to recognize how perspectives can differ creates more vitriol and heated argument and conflict than is really necessary. So the violence that you see coming out of this I think comes from a failure to recognize that there are different perspectives on this very matter.

Have you studied lying?

We have, yes. So the interesting thing about lying is how easy it is to do. Or the other way to put it is the surprising thing about lie detection research is about how hard it is to accurately detect when somebody is telling the truth or not. So one meta-analysis of many different experiments found that on average, when chance is 50 percent—so you have people in experiments trying to guess whether somebody is telling the truth or lying—accuracy rates in these experiments on average are 54 percent.

Did Lance Armstrong believe his own lies?

Well no, I don’t think that’s true. I doubt that he had deluded himself into thinking that he was not doping. He knew that. Instead, what liars tend to do is they’ll rationalize their behavior. They’ll convince themselves that everybody else is doing it, it’s okay, all of the other racers are lying as well—and so that will diminish how bad they feel about it. But there’s no doubt what they’re doing. I mean Lance Armstrong’s not an idiot. He knows that he was getting a blood transfusion earlier that day or taking these kinds of drugs. I don’t think there was any doubt in his mind that he wasn’t telling the truth. Indeed, when he came out and explained what he did he talked about it in great detail. He knew exactly what he had done in terms of the facts. But in terms of the emotional reaction to those facts, that’s what people who engage in chronic lying lack. That is, they don’t feel bad about it. They’ve convinced themselves that it’s okay for any number of reasons. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to tell lies from truths. We imagine that somebody who’s telling a lie would show it. Cause it would leak out of them, they would look anxious or they would fidget. Sigmund Freud thought an anxious person reveals themselves through his hands—that is, through fidgety kinds of motions with your body. And there’s some truth to that, but when people are really engaging in a lie, they don’t feel so bad about it. And those emotions don’t leak out nearly as much as you think.

So I don’t think the fact that Lance Armstrong was able to tell convincing lies means he didn’t know what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. It was that he didn’t believe what he was doing at the time was really wrong. Everybody else was doing it.

Lance Armstrong seems to embody the depths of deception of which people are capable.

Yeah, certainly in that case it did. Although, you know it’s easy to look at cases like these and to see kind of, the depths at which you could deceive other people but it’s also the case—and this was one of the more interesting things that I think you discover when you look into the research and when you look at actual interpersonal behavior—if you just look at the frequency with which we tell lies compared to truths, we tell truths way more often than we lie. I mean lies are extremely rare. Most often when people lie, they shade the truth a little bit; they don’t say it quite like it really is. You know your spouse will ask you, “Was the dinner really good tonight, honey?” and you’ll say, “Oh yeah, it was really, it was good yeah, it was good,” and you know, you thought it was not so good. But you’re not telling a bald-faced lie. In fact those are actually very uncommon. Most of what we say to other people is true. Indeed, one of the best ways to tell whether somebody’s lying or not is to ask them, “Are you lying?” And the reason is, we have a hard time telling a bald-faced lie. It requires a lot of preparatory psychological work. And so I actually find the literature on lie detection, if anything, to be somewhat heartening. Most often, what people say is true to each other and that’s important to keep in mind. There are cases of extreme liars but what makes those interesting and what makes those front-page news is not their commonality, but rather their rarity.

How can we understand people better?

I think the first insight from all of this work is to recognize that the first thing you need to have to understand somebody else better is a little humility about yourself, a recognition that you might not understand where somebody else is coming from, what their point of view is, what their intention actually is. So once you have some awareness that you might not know, that you might be mistaken yourself, then you can think about what would you do to be better. Data suggests, I think pretty clearly, that body language doesn’t reveal nearly as much as we think it does. You can’t really read somebody nearly as well as you might imagine that you could. Our attempts to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to imagine if we were a rich person what it would be like to be poor—the data that we’ve collected on that suggests that perspective taking doesn’t actually increase accuracy all that much. The only thing that does is asking somebody a question directly. Another person’s mind comes through their mouth.

Now there’s nothing magical about this, there’s no magical psychic trick or some really surprising shocking thing to look at like, “turns out the data suggests it’s all in the eyebrows, you’ve got to look at the eyebrow, not the right eyebrow but the left eyebrow.” There’s nothing like that in the sciences that gives us some little sneaky trick like that. The solution to the other mind’s problem—to understanding somebody else—goes back a long, long way in the history of intellectual thought; and it goes back a long way in fact into our evolutionary history. It comes through a person’s mouth—the answer does. That’s why we have language in the first place, is to communicate what’s on our mind to somebody else. And so the people who understand each other the best are not the people who are the most perceptive necessarily, who watch body language the most closely; it’s the people who recognize their own limitations and then ask. You know more what it’s like to be poor if you ask a person who’s poor to describe what their day is like. You know what it’s like to be in a situation you’ve never been in before when somebody tells you about it. Now there are limits, of course, to language. You have to put people in a position where they’re able to tell you what they know honestly and you have to ask them questions that they can actually answer, right? What are you feeling right now? What was your day like yesterday? Don’t ask them to psychoanalyze themselves. But if you know the limits of language, then you can be much better understanding somebody else by becoming a good questioner.

But can people really change? Suppose someone just can’t understand a divisive political figure.

We ran an experiment where we had people listening to somebody on the other side explain why they believe what they believe about support for the war in Iraq for instance, about whether they’re pro-choice or pro-life and also about another very divisive issue—whether they prefer country or rap music. Turns out that’s also a very divisive issue! And we had three different conditions here. In one condition, you read what the other side had to say about their position, so it was just the text. In another condition, you were able to hear what the other person had to say: you heard their audio, you heard their voice, their literal voice. In the third condition, you watched what the person had to say. You watched them explain their position and you could hear them as well as see them.

What we found was that you tended to dehumanize the other person more when you just read what they had to say. That is, you strip out a person’s voice with all the paralinguistic cues that actually reflect what’s going on in your actual mind as you’re having certain thoughts or feelings—you strip all of that out; you create a more ambiguous medium of interaction and you tend to evaluate the other person in line with the views that you already have. You think they’re idiots. But as soon as you actually give them a voice—you can hear what they have to say—then we found that people didn’t dehumanize the other side at all. That is, they rated them as just as thoughtful, as intelligent, as a person on their own side who shared the same belief that they did. And we didn’t find any meaningful increase or difference in evaluations when we added the video. Most of the effect that we found, in this case, of humanizing somebody on the other side making you recognize that they have a mind that’s capable of thinking or feeling, came through their mouth, came through their voice, when you could hear what they had to say.

And so I do think that that our research can help you to understand what it’s like to be another person a little bit better; can help you to recognize what it’s like to be another person; can help to put you in situations that enable you to understand the mind of another person more accurately; and again, our research suggests that a lot of the gain here and accuracy and understanding comes through a person’s mouth when you actually hear what they have to say. I think attitudes can change, yes. I do. I’m a social psychologist! I know the power of context to affect people’s behavior. Yes, people can definitely change.

What inspired you to go into science?

So those are exactly the kinds of questions that we can’t answer about ourselves very well. You’re not supposed to ask me those questions, that kind of internal psychoanalysis, so I don’t really know. But I can tell you a story of what I think led me down this path.

There does feel like there’s some longstanding, maybe genetic determinism or social influence there. I should point out that my father was a Ph.D. in social psychology, which is ultimately what I got my Ph.D. in as well, although he was in market research and consulting. We never talked about work at home to speak of. And my grandfather on my mother’s side was a Ph.D. in philosophy and was an academic, was a philosophy professor. I had a joint degree when I was an undergraduate in psychology and philosophy. I was a double major.

So I started out going to college with an interest in being a biologist. I hated the biology classes; they were just dreadfully dull. It just was not my cup of tea. But I loved two sets of classes. One class that I loved was a philosophy class that I was taking. I just found philosophy to be totally interesting and engaging. You could think about really big questions that really kind of formed the bedrock of meaning and purpose in our lives. Questions like, why do good people do bad things, which really has kind of been an interest of mine throughout all of my research career. The other classes that I found to be totally fascinating were my psychology classes; my intro psychology class in particular just opened up a world and a way of thinking about people, not from an intuitive point of view, but from an empirical scientific point of view that I just found utterly fascinating.

And over the course of my undergraduate career as I was taking all of these classes, I was always interested in the big questions in philosophy but was ultimately frustrated by that as an intellectual endeavor because it allows you to ask really big questions and gets you thinking about really big questions but doesn’t give you a method for answering them. Psychology though, I fell in love with because it allowed me to ask the same kinds of big questions that I would think about in philosophy—why do good people do bad things? But it would give me a method for answering them. And once I started doing experiments in psychology that addressed those big questions I just found the answers to be totally fascinating. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Was there a seminal book in your life?

Unquestionably. It’s Thomas Gilovich’s book, How We Know What Isn’t So. It was published in 1992. My undergraduate advisor, Chuck Huff was his name—I went to Saint Olaf College—one day handed me that book and said “hey I think you would find this interesting.” I was thinking about Ph.D. programs. I was just utterly spellbound by this book.

Tom’s interest was in understanding the difference between perception and reality, usually at the level of the individual judgment. How we might make a decision that’s mistaken or misguided in some way; how we might have a belief about the way the world works and it’s just not quite right. I ended up getting interested in taking that research, which is really about making decision errors or mistakes or having mistaken beliefs about the world in general, and focusing on what I think is really one really important part of our world and that is our social interactions, our understanding about each other. There’s nothing that we spend more time thinking about in our daily lives than other people. Other people are the most complicated things we ever think about. As psychologists we spend all of our time trying to study human beings scientifically and that creates an interesting opportunity to look at the gaps between what we know about people for sure in daily life; what their thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes might actually be; and the mistakes we sometimes make in making inferences about them.

What did you learn about yourself while writing Mindwise?

Oh boy. There are lots of things that I’ve learned about myself. One, is that I’m too quick-tempered and too quick to judge. One of the things that psychologists will often say about their research is that at some point it’s me-search; that is we study our own failings and shortcomings and a lot of the things we end up doing research on come from areas in our own life where we notice we’d made a mistake. We felt under-appreciated when we had no right to feel under-appreciated. Well why did we feel that way? I gave a gift to my wife that I was sure she would like and she didn’t like it. Why did I make that mistake? I should have apologized for this mistake and I didn’t. Why didn’t I do that? I shouldn’t have gotten angry at my son or daughter for doing that and yet I did. I was quick to judge there. And so a lot of the mistakes that we find in our research that people make and that I describe in the book are things that we see in ourselves. So my hope is that over the course of this research I become more humble myself, I become more aware of the mistakes that I can make when thinking about other people, and I hope, at least at certain times, I become more patient and I’m more likely to ask people what’s on their mind rather than assuming that I really know.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

I grew up in rural Iowa. All of my extended family were farmers.

I grew up south of a little town called Shueyville, population was maybe 50 when I was living there, so I didn’t grow up in any town. The biggest town nearby was Cedar Rapids, Iowa and that’s where I went to school. We got bused in there every day.

And so I think if I wasn’t an academic, I would likely be a farmer. Now in my free time I spend lots of time outdoors, we have some property in Illinois that we manage in some forestry projects and we’re doing a prairie grass restoration project on what’s an old pasture there; I’m very connected to the natural world too so I didn’t totally lose that interest in biology. And I think if I wasn’t a psychologist, if I wasn’t in academia, I’d probably be a farmer.

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