“It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana” (Ep. 159)

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(Photo: PabloEvans)

(Photo: PabloEvans)

Our latest podcast is called “It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana.” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) In it, a psychology professor argues that the brain’s greatest attribute is knowing what other people are thinking. And that a Queen song, played backwards, can improve your mind-reading skills.

In the episode, Stephen Dubner talks to Nicholas Epley. Here’s how Epley introduces himself:

EPLEY:  I’m a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. I’m in the Booth School of Business, and I study mind-reading.

What’s a B-school professor doing studying mind-reading? Well, as he says:

EPLEY: If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively.

Epley has written a book on research in the field of mind-reading, including some of his own studies. It’s called Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. A few things you’ll learn in the episode that you never thought you wanted to know, but do:

Just another run-of-the-mill Freakonomics Radio episode, people. Enjoy.


Reading through the lesson dealing with the Barry Manilow t-shirt I was struck with an idea that seemed to be missing from the study: how does the perception of one's self as an introvert or extrovert affect their perception of the spotlight effect with regard to potentially embarassing situtuations versus potentially remarkable situations?
As a social introvert myself I am much more aware of potentially embarassing situations that I get myself into. In contrast, when I do something publicly that some might consider remarkable, I often rationalize a lack of acclamation with the assumption that I have only just now lived up to what is considered "standard" for everyone else, thus not worthy of acclamation.
I think a very interesting study could be made form any of several week long leadership training workshops comparing the predicted and actual perceptions of people who self-identify as introverts or extroverts.



Err... Do you suppose you could get someone to add line & paragraph breaks to that transcript?

I gave up trying to read it after the first page, but even that little puzzled me. Why would anyone consider the ability of married couples to predict each other's responses be considered mind reading? Seems more like learning from experience, as I can do a similar sort of 'mind reading' on inanimate objects - for example I have learned the response of my car to acceleration, curves, sudden braking, &c, and so drive better than in a strange car.


Was very keen to check out Mr. Epley's book until I heard the material included in this podcast. Not a bad job, getting paid to restate instincts obvious to most of us who have interacted with another human. On the other hand, it's always comforting to reaffirm that others of us, who lack the clue and capacity to apply common sense in social scenarios, are not so much deliberately insensitive as they are dependent on sneaking peeks at their dubious Notes On Why People Do Anything.


I would have enjoyed this podcast so much more if everyone hadn't been staring at me the whole time I listened to it.

The bit regarding expertise and how it impacts perception and awareness can be usefully applied to teaching situations. It is so difficult to show someone else how to do something when you have forgotten the many steps you learned, because they've become automatic for you. The teacher becomes frustrated at the "clueless" student, while the student is hopelessly overwhelmed because fundamental steps were skipped, or glossed over.

I'm going to use some of these concepts to improve our software training process.


Sort of unrelated, but it doesn't seem fair to compare humans and chimps in a social experiment designed by humans. I imagine I would not be so good at chimp socializing


Is it just me, or did Steve also seem unsatisfied with this Podcast? His general mannerisms and attitude even during the interview seemed to say: 'Yeah... and?..."

That is how I felt to. I listed to all 36-some-odd minutes of the podcast and afterwards thought, "Well, there was nothing new learned and the examples were terrible."

I think it the feeling was bet collected when Steve said: "can you read my mind now?" "Yes, that the interview is about to end." That's how I felt... Let this thing finish and move me onto another poscast.

That being said, love Freakonomics and can't wait for the next one.

Peter Howe

Yes I thought so to. However I thought Steve did not get the point of the exercise. And the author did not present it well enough for him to get it.

Since listening to this podcast I have found 3 significant teaching situations where this is relevant. The part that is not explicated much is that most teaching is not as easy as saying "Can you hear the words 'Its fun to smoke marijuana'". Usually the process of getting the equivalent clarity that comes from this exercise is not the metaphorical equivalent of simply telling someone something.



Shirley Levitt

I think what "mind-reading" all boils down to is knowing a person's beliefs.


And as for humans being particularly good at this sort of 'mind reading' (which is really just learning to interpret subtle environmental cues), my dogs & horses are far better than the average human. The dogs, for instance, have somehow figured out how to tell when I'm shutting down the computer to (usually) go for a walk, and can go from snoozing peacefully in corners of my home office to dancing in excited anticipation in the time it takes me do give the shutdown command.


Anyone, please let me know if research like this has been used to help with anorexia, depression from low self-esteem, or any other diagnosis stemming from self-perception.


Liz Sanchez

I enjoyed listening to this piece via podcast. However, I was slightly distracted by the similarity of your guest's voice to that of adorable movie star Paul Rudd. I am curious about what Nicholas Epley looks like but I think I'll just imagine Paul Rudd. Thanks for another great podcast!


This is the second episode in a row with really bad social science/psychology research. In the Learning a Foreign Language episode, even Stephen pointed out that the two experiments the researcher mentioned (re: using a non-native language makes you more conservative) completely contradicted each other.

In this one, the conclusions are either obvious or the experiments are ludicrously open to interpretation.

Take the example of the Queen song played backwards. Stephen says, after learning what he is supposed to have heard, that he thinks other people would also hear it. Yet I argue this completely contradicts what the researcher is claiming. If Stephen is applying his own perspective to everyone else, he should claim that no one would hear it _at first_ ... just like he didn't.

In fact, it's entirely rational and non-solipsistic to say that other people would hear that specific phrase in the song, because in Stephen's experience, the only other human he has ever talked to about this (the researcher) DID know about the hidden phrase in the song.

I'm reminded of Steven's comment on another podcast, that psychologists can get people to do anything they want them to in an experiment. Research like this is a complete scam.



One of the best podcasts so far.


What I got from this is that people don't think about me as much as I think they do. This was mildly entertaining but I'm not sure it was overly useful.


Was this not just one big contradiction? Maybe I got confused or the details weren’t explained very well. In the beginning Epely states that the human brains greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better responses. He then goes on to point out the German study where human children well exceed that ability over chimpanzees to validate that point. However, In the end he muddles it all by stating that we actually suck at it because of egocentrism. So in the end we are better than chimpanzees at doing this, but not as good individually as we think we are. This was a very long about way to state that your ego can get in your way of your perspective, nothing to do however with mindreading.Was this not


but being aware that your ego can get in the way, you can come to a better conclusion of what the other persons judgment is.


I was really interested in what professor Epley had to stay, however Dubner didn't seem interested.
He mocks Epley, ordering him to read his mind after Epley just explained what kind of "mind-reading " he was studying.
He has a few other sarcastic comments.
As he agreed he was anticipating the end of the interview.
As an interviewer your job is to be interested.


Whoa! I just listened to this podcast today and sort of proved the theory about pre-conceptions while listening!

I have this vague memory from childhood and going to a relatives freaky evangelical church. And I remember them playing "Another One Bites the Dust" backwards. I remember recognizing the original song and loving it and then people freaking out and preaching about it after it was played backwards. I couldn't remember WHAT it said, so I always assumed it was something like "dsflsfjsoif SATAN oasidfjsdof"

I was alone in an empty building for work while listening to this podcast and stopped in my tracks when I heard that you were about to play that album backwards! I don't believe in Satan or any of that, but I had this reaction that was stuck in there from my childhood. Plus...you know...no one wants to hear creepy Satanic stuff while working alone in an empty building on a stormy day.

So you played it...and I didn't hear anything, just gobbledy-gook. Then the scientist made the suggestion, replayed it, and I heard his suggestion.

That's when I realized "OH! That's what the grown-ups were so upset about at church." I thought it was interesting that I had a visceral reaction based on what I assumed what I was going to hear based on piecing together an old memory and trying to make some sense of it.

At least the one time I had to go to a crazy church I got to hear not only Queen, but got to hear the gospel of "Smoking weed is fun....YEAH!"