Q&A with Nicholas Epley Part 1: We Need to Talk

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

We possess a fundamental need to connect with one another, yet connecting with others in a meaningful way can be awkward, elusive, and challenging. The gulf between our need to connect with others and our failure to do so is made all the more apparent now that technology allows us to reach nearly anyone, anywhere at anytime, and still, we find it increasingly difficult to make and maintain meaningful social connections.

This dilemma was brought into sharp focus by the award winning film Her, in which the protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his most meaningful social connection with his phone’s operating system, rather than a living, breathing person. Though set in the future, Her makes a poignant observation about current society and the relationships we have with technology and each other.

With Her as a backdropwe sat down with Psychologist Nicholas Epley, of University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, to better understand how we succeed and fail to connect with others, and how technology impacts our ability to do so. Much of Epley’s research focuses on how we perceive and interact with one another, and in his new book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want (excerpt here), he writes about how our ability to infer what others are thinking is simultaneously one of our greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses.

In Part 1 of the interview we discuss Epley’s research on why humans, one of the planet’s most social species, often seem anything but social. He helps answer why we so rarely talk with one another on our morning commute, and shares his personal experience interacting with those around him. In Part 2, we explore his work on presence of mind–how we perceive and relate to the minds of other people and objects. We talk driverless cars, the importance of voice, loneliness, and ask if it’s possible to create an OS like Samantha with whom you could actually fall in love.

Part 1: We Need to Talk

Evan Nesterak: There’s a scene early in the film Her, where Theodore is commuting home by train. Everyone is absorbed in their phones, and there is little to no human interaction. Although the film is set in the future, it mirrors quite well what a lot of us experience on our own commutes. You recently looked into how and why people interact the way they do, on the trains, taxis, and busses in and around Chicago. What did you find?

Nicholas Epley: We did studies on trains and busses, and cabs around Chicago because we noticed an interesting phenomena. You have members of the planet’s most social species getting on the train each morning and instead of treating each other like fellow human beings they tended to treat each other like rocks. You’ll be sitting cheek to jowl with somebody, as you might on a plane, and very few people actually ever talk. In fact, on the train it’s almost never unless you know the person to begin with. The frequency of talking with a stranger is just shockingly low.

This puzzled us, and we’re interested in understanding why people might do this. There are two possibilities. One possibility is that talking with a stranger really does suck. It’s just not any fun, they’re not very interesting, and you’d actually feel better, well-being would be higher, if you sat there by yourself than if you talked. The other possibility is that people are just wrong about the consequences of social connection. That in fact, you’d be quite a bit happier if you engaged the person next to you in conversation than if you sit there in solitude, and people’s expectations are just misguided.

You have members of the planet’s most social species getting on the train each morning and instead of treating each other like fellow human beings they tended to treat each other like rocks.

So we ran some studies. The first ones we ran were on a train line coming into Chicago. [The] second set,  to see if we could replicate those original findings, were done on busses in downtown Chicago. We randomly assigned [people] on their train commute to either talk to the person sitting next to them, to sit in solitude with their own thoughts (enjoy their time alone), or to do whatever they normally do. We found that people who actually engaged a stranger in a conversation reported having the most positive experience, and those who sat in solitude with their own thoughts, like nearly everybody else does on the train, reported the least positive experience. We found the same thing on busses. It doesn’t seem that talking to strangers is unpleasant. In fact, it’s more pleasant that sitting there by yourself. So then the question is why do people do it? 

When we asked a separate group of participants, who were also traveling on the trains or the busses downtown, to predict how they would feel if they started a conversation with a person sitting next to them versus sat in solitude, they actually predicted exactly the opposite of what we found when we had people go out and do this. They predicted that they would have the best time, the most positive experience sitting there in solitude than talking with a stranger. They were behaving in ways that were in line with their expectations. Their expectations about the social interaction were just flat out wrong.

What seems to be going on is when you get onto a train and you look around nobody’s talking, you think about starting up a conversation with somebody else, well nobody looks very interested, because they’re all there sitting fiddling on their phone, doing whatever they’re doing, reading their newspaper or their book. Nobody looks interested, and of course you don’t either; you’re sitting there fiddling on your own phone or reading your own book. What we find is that people tend to report they feel more interested in talking to strangers on the train and in the busses than other people in the trains or busses are interested in talking to them.

So it’s not so much that people themselves aren’t social, it’s that they look at other people and think that person doesn’t want to talk to me. That’s a particularly interesting belief, because it’s a belief that serves as a barrier to finding out that you could be wrong. If you’re sitting next to me on a train and you don’t look like you’re interested in talking to me, I don’t talk. I never find out that I could be wrong. That in fact, if I started up a conversation you would be happy to talk to me. You might even find that more pleasant than doing whatever it is you would otherwise be doing.

This lead to an interesting prediction which was that the barrier, the reason why our expectations are miscalibrated on this, is not because we’re not social, but because we think others aren’t. This means that the barrier is one of failing to learn. I don’t start up these conversations and so I don’t learn that my expectations are wrong.

We find in the cabs leaving Midway Airport that about 50% of our cab riders report routinely talking to the driver. So we’ve got about 50% who we classify as talkers. We’ve got about 50% of people in those cabs who we classify as loners; they report not normally talking to the driver. Our talkers in the cabs predict that they’d have a more pleasant experience if they talk to the driver than if they don’t. Our loners though predict exactly the opposite. When we actually run people through this experiment in the cabs, we find that everybody has a better time talking to the driver than sitting there in solitude, whether they’re cab talkers or loners. That’s an example of how your misunderstanding at how interested other people are at talking serves as a barrier that keeps you from learning that you could be wrong. If you’re a loner, if you don’t normally talk to people like this, you never learn that it could be a pleasant experience. On trains where virtually nobody ever talks to a random stranger in any serious way, nobody learns that they’d be better doing something else.

EN: You’re on the road right now. Did you strike up any conversations on the plane or on the train? What did you find out from your conversations?

NE: I sure did. I had a conversation on the plane. My son can attest to this. He was joking with me this morning at breakfast, “You talked with that guy for almost the entire trip.” The guy I was sitting next to was from Columbus, Ohio. He was an executive in an oil and gas company, that he owned, which is not generally a group of people that I think particularly well of. I am concerned about climate change for instance, and they tend not to be. Indeed he wasn’t. But we had a lot of fascinating connections that I never would have guessed. And you don’t guess about these things until you actually talk to somebody and you find out these connections.

For instance, he was a professional football player. He played quarterback and was a punter and a kicker for Ohio State. I played college football as well, although on a much smaller scale. So we had a lot to talk about there. He’s got a son in Seattle who was part of the Big 12 diving championships this weekend, so he was coming in to watch his son do that. Then we got into a really engaging conversation about climate change. I think we were both able to see different perspective on that issue than we might have before. It was a good conversation. I had to get work done too, so I would go back and forth between doing the work I needed to do for the talk, but also in times where it was a bit slow talking to him too and talking to my son as well.

On trains where virtually nobody ever talks to a random stranger in any serious way, nobody learns that they’d be better doing something else.

Two weeks ago when I was in Austin for the SPSP conference, my cab drivers, both to the hotel and going back to the airport, were from Ethiopia. We adopted two children from Ethiopia and one of [the taxi drivers] was born and raised in the region where our children came from. It’s not a very big region, but it’s a tribal region where there are 40 different languages spoken. I’ve been desperate to find somebody who could speak the dialect that [my children] could speak, because the kids, when we brought them home, sung a song repeatedly over and over again. I learned it by heart, but I don’t know what it means. So I was in the cab singing this song to him on the way to the hotel.

EN: What’s the best way to start a conversation?

NE: It’s tiny things. On plane you can often ask somebody “Do you live in Chicago or Seattle?” And that’s it. That’s all you need. It’s like a little spark that lights a fire. The day before I came here to Seattle, I struck up a conversation with a women sitting next to me on the train. She had this really big wool hat on that looked totally cool. I just said “Man, I love that hat. That’s perfect for weather like today.” Right away that started a conversation.

The other thing you can do in cabs. Cab drivers are just fascinating people. They come from all over the world. Often if you get into a cab, [the driver] won’t be native English speaker, so I’ll often say “Your accent sounds like you didn’t grow up here in Chicago.” And they’ll say “Oh yeah, no I didn’t. I grew up here.” And you learn about a place you never knew about before. It doesn’t take much. It’s not bad to be acknowledged. Just to be acknowledged as a person. When you do that, it’s not hard to get a conversation going.

You mentioned in the commuting scene. He’s riding on this train, everybody’s disengaged and looking at their phones. I found myself doing that too. I would be checking on my email as if it were somehow urgent that between 7:30 and 8:15 I get all of my email read at that time. I found that I wasn’t present in the environment I was in and so I got rid of it. I now have a stupid phone. I have a phone that’s just used for calling people. If somebody has to get a hold of me, great, otherwise I don’t have the distraction from people who are around me.

EN: A lot of parents see the phone as a way to check up on their kids and stay in contact with them. As a parent, was that a concern when you decided to give up your smart phone?

NE: Our kids haven’t gotten to that stage. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t great things to use the technology for. It’s like any kind of technology–you want to use it for what it’s great for and not for things that it’s not great for. Texting is not a great way to connect with people. Using your voice is.

Same thing is true of email for instance. Email is great for sending lots and lots of information, it’s terrible for communicating beliefs or attitudes or emotions, but we use [it for] that all the time. We’ll type out these emails that go back and forth with 30 iterations of yes and no and other trivial kinds of things when in fact a 5 minute phone call would take care of that very quickly.

Phones are great. These things can be great. I can see benefits to catching up with your kids on them, but you’ve got to manage it like you would any kind of technology to keep it from becoming an addiction of having unintended consequences.

Part 2: Ourselves & Our Technology