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I’d like you to meet Nicholas Epley.

Nicholas EPLEY: Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago.

That’s not as arcane as it sounds.

EPLEY: I’m in the Booth School of Business.

Now, one of the things we all love about academia is how incredibly down-to-earth it is, and how rooted it is in empiricism. So what, exactly, is Epley’s specialty?

EPLEY: I study mind-reading.

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

So why is a business-school professor studying mind-reading? As Nicholas Epley explains, it’s because being in business means constantly dealing with other people, and it’s really helpful to understand what you can know – and what you can’t know – about how other people think, whether they’re a rival, a partner, whatever. Epley has written a book called Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

EPLEY: OK, so I’m an experimental psychologist, and what that means is that we put people in experiments to watch how they behave under certain conditions. So what we do in our research is we put people in experiments that put their mind-reading capacities to the test. So for instance, we might bring in married couples and ask them to predict what their spouse’s attitudes are along a series of 20 different questions, say. We ask one person to predict how the other person will respond to these and then we look at how the other person actually responds and we compare the two. We look to see if they’re correlated with each other, and if so how much so. We also then randomly assign people to different conditions in our experiments. And so we can see how they operate under different kinds of circumstances. That allows us to make inferences about how people actually reason about the minds of others. What is it that allows us to make these sorts of inferences. What tools or heuristics or short cut rules do we use to understand what somebody else thinks, or believes, or feels, or wants. It allows us to understand where people might fall short, where we might make mistakes, and it also allows us to test hypotheses about how to make people do better.

DUBNER: So you argue in the book, and I’ll quote you to yourself, “Your brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better.” So when I read that I thought wow, that’s incredibly, gosh, everything: profound, inspiring, important, all that stuff. And then I thought, “Really? That’s our brain’s greatest skill is to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better?” What makes you say that?

EPLEY: Well if you look at what makes human beings unique from our closest primate relatives, for instance, we have big brains, we’re really smart, but where we’re really smart is in our social senses, in our social smarts. So there was an enormous experiment conducted a handful of years ago by some researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and what they did was they compared 105 human toddlers against 106 adult chimpanzees and their ability to solve certain kinds of problems. One group of these problems were physical kinds of problems. like your ability to use a tool, for instance, to achieve a goal, or your ability to track where a reward was placed under some cups. And our toddlers were doing just about as well as the chimpanzees. That is, they were neck and neck in reasoning about physical objects. But then there was another class of questions. These were questions that really required some mind-reading, required some social sense. So these were the social tests where, for instance, you had to trick the gaze of another person to know what they wanted, to know what their goal was, or your ability to understand someone else’s intention just by watching their behavior. And on these social tasks, on these social kinds of questions, our two-year-old toddlers were crushing the competition. Our kids were solving far more of these question correctly than our adult primate relatives were. And that’s, I think, just one piece of evidence that suggests that this is what our brains were really meant to do. We are one of the most social species on the planet. We live in some of the biggest social networks of any organism on the planet. And what separates us from others, what allows us cooperate, and to compete, and to build things collaboratively is our ability to connect with the minds of others, to know what their intentions are, what their motives are, to anticipate what they’re going to do next, to know who knows what, for instance. You didn’t call me out of the blue just to talk to somebody randomly for your show. You knew that I knew something that might be of interest.

DUBNER: Well we got the envelope of cash that you sent, so that’s the way it works, you know.

EPLEY: Spoken like an economist.

DUBNER: Tell us the story of the Barry Manilow t-shirt.

EPLEY: So this is one of the most liberating experiments in all of psychology, I believe. This was an experiment conducted by my dissertation adviser, Tom Gilovich at Cornell University, and two of his graduate students Victoria Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky. And what why did was they had people come to the laboratory, and if you were a participant, and just imagine you are the participant in this experiment. You arrive in a lab room down the hall a little bit, the experimenter greets you, says, “Thank you for coming, as part of this experiment we just need you to put on this t-shirt.” Now you’re a compliant subject and you don’t ask any questions, you just do what you’re told. And so you take this t-shirt and you put it on, and as you slipping it over your head and pulling it over your chest you see right there in front of you emblazoned right on your chest is a great big picture of Barry Manilow.

DUBNER: Fantastic.

EPLEY: Yeah, you may be a fan.

DUBNER: I’m a “fanilow.”

EPLEY: You are.

DUBNER: Well kind of.

EPLEY: So maybe this would be pride inducing kind of moment…

DUBNER: So let me get…I just want to get it straight. Am I putting the shirt on, am I putting the Barry Manilow shirt on over what I’m wearing, or am I wearing like a regular shirt.

EPLEY: I believe you’re putting it on over what you’re wearing, because we tend not to have people get naked in our experiments, that’s a different kind of research.

DUBNER: The reason I’m asking is it’s even more irregular looking, because not only am I wearing a Barry Manilow shirt, I’m wearing a Barry Manilow shirt over my clothes.

EPLEY: Yeah, you don’t look good, that’s very clear. And it’s also a big shirt because it’s got to fit everybody. So you’re not looking good. So you’ve got this big picture of Barry Manilow on your chest.

DUBNER: I have to say you Barry Manilow, your anti-Manilow bias is really showing here.

EPLEY: I’m sorry.

DUBNER: I’m just saying.

EPLEY: So that could be right. I should tell you that these, the participants in this experiments were undergraduates for whom Barry Manilow was not a particularly pride inducing figure. That said, they also ran the experiment later using figures that people were, in fact, consistently happier to have on their chest like Martin Luther King, or Jerry Seinfeld, or Bob Marley. You get the same effects with them too.

DUBNER: Those are my choices, Manilow, Marley, King and Seinfeld?

EPLEY: In different experiments they use different things. Also some experiments use John Tesh and Vanilla Ice. So it’s not just a Barry Manilow phenomenon.


EPLEY: But you’ll get the idea. So they put on this t-shirt and they walk down the hallway. And you’re brought into a lab room. And there happen to be a few other people sitting around the room. These are other participants in the experiment, they’re already filling out their questionnaires, and the experimenter says, “You’ve arrived a little bit late, but it’s okay, just go ahead and get started here.” You then sit down and start filling out the questionnaire. After just a moment the experimenter turns back around and says, “You know what, I’m afraid you’ve started a little bit late, why don’t you just come on out of the room and we’ll get you started doing something else.” At that point the experiment is really over. What happens now is the experimenter asks you, “How many people in that room would be able to identify that it was Barry Manilow on your shirt?”

DUBNER: And when you say identify that it was him not meaning, like, you don’t mean how many people knew that that likeness was him, you’re talking about did they notice whether I was wearing a Barry Manilow shirt or not.

EPLEY: Yes, that’s right, did they notice that you were wearing a Barry Manilow shirt or not. And so you predicted how many in the room you thought would…

DUBNER: I would say, “Hey I’m wearing a Barry Manilow shirt,” 100 percent of the people are going to notice that I’m wearing a Barry Manilow shirt.

EPLEY: Right, so they did something like that. Whether you are proud of it or embarrassed of it, they tended to think that lots of people would notice. In fact, they thought about 50 percent of the people in the room would notice. Because you weren’t in there for a long time, you weren’t the center of attention, we could have made you the center of attention, but you weren’t. People were busy on other things. But still, pretty high. The important comparison is not that, it’s how many people in the room actually did notice that it was Barry Manilow on your shirt. And there it looked, as far as we could tell, nobody was able to tell that it was Barry Manilow on your shirt.

DUBNER: Do you mean to say that people aren’t paying attention to everything that I do?

EPLEY: It is possible, yes.

DUBNER: Wow. So what do you call this effect then?

EPLEY: So this is a consistent problem with egocentrism. So one thing that makes it hard to understand what others are thinking is that we tend to rely on our own mind perhaps a little bit too much when it’s not necessarily perfectly appropriate to do so. I may be a rational thing to do, but it still leads to inaccuracy. So in this situation here, you’re wearing this Barry Manilow shirt, and Stephen, you’re proud of this fact, you’re strutting your stuff walking into this room. And because you’re so aware of yourself it’s easy then to assume that others are more aware of you than they actually are. And that’s just one of the many examples of where egocentrism, our inherent focus on ourselves, you are always present when you are present, you’re always aware of yourself and your own thoughts and feeling when you’re out in the world, that can sometimes lead to errors. This is one case where it will lead you to think that you’re noticed more often than you actually are.

What Epley’s describing is sometimes called the “spotlight effect.” That’s when you feel the spotlight is always shining on you, that for whatever reason people are paying attention to what you are doing. The spotlight effect – it was Tom Gilovich, by the way, Epley’s thesis advisor, who coined the phrase – the spotlight effect is the kind of thing that Epley says can really distort how we communicate with each other. So, coming up on Freakonomics Radio: Can a song by Queen help you get the spotlight off of yourself?

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

Nicholas Epley is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His new book is about mind-reading – but not the kind of mind-reading you get for twenty bucks from a psychic. The kind of mind-reading that academic researchers figure out by running lab experiments with the students who are willing to do them. Epley believes that his research can greatly improve human relations. How?

EPLEY: Let me tell you how to do it. So one of the things that’s surprisingly difficult in our everyday lives is predicting what other people think of us. So do you know in a group who likes you and who doesn’t? Do you know among your audience members who thinks you’re intelligent and now? Do I know in my class, for instance, which students really are liking my class in this quarter and which ones are not? Do I know how other people are evaluating me? We’re pretty confident in our ability to do this, but that confidence tends to far outstrip our accuracy. We’re not nearly as good as we think. And one of the problems is egocentrism. We’re experts about ourselves. We know a lot about ourselves, about our appearance, about our abilities. And that makes it hard to recognize how somebody else who doesn’t know as much about us will judge us. And as one example, let me play a song for you here in just a second, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to make you an expert in this. And you will see how becoming an expert, learning some additional information, knowing more about this particular clip, changes your perception of it in a way that makes it very hard for you now to understand how a novice, somebody who wasn’t an expert might evaluate this same stimulus.


EPLEY: Can you guys, can you guys cue that music up?

[CLIP: “Another One Bites the Dust”]

DUBNER: So you hate Barry Manilow, but Freddie Mercury is okay.

EPLEY: I love it for this example.

DUBNER: Okay. Alright.

EPLEY: So this is a song I’m sure every listener recognizes. This is the chorus from “Another One Bites the Dust” the Queen song. And what we’re going to do now is we’re going to take that very same clip for you and I’m going to play it backwards.

DUBNER: All right.

EPLEY: Okay, just play it backwards and just listen to it.

[CLIP: “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards]

DUBNER: That was crystal clear though, yeah.

EPLEY: Wasn’t it though? Did you hear anything in that?

DUBNER: I heard (makes garbled noises.) That’s all I heard.

EPLEY: Yeah, something like that. Well this is a clip that has been targeted as an example of backmasking. That is of musicians…

DUBNER: Paul is dead…

EPLEY: …yes exactly, of musicians who through some kind of magic either by intention or accidental, managed to take a phrase and encrypt it backwards into their song. Okay. So this is an example of one of these. And so now, so you were a novice when you just heard this, you didn’t hear anything in this clip. It sounded just like gibberish to you, I’m going to make you an expert on it now and see if it sounds different to you this time. So now what I want you to do is we’re going to play it again, and I want you to listen for the words, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.”


EPLEY: “It’s fun to smoke marijuana, it’s fun to smoke marijuana, waaaa, it’s fun to smoke marijuana.” OK?


EPLEY: Listen to it again, listen for the words, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.”

[CLIP: “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards]

DUBNER: Oh, there it is. Yeah.

EPLEY: It’s fun to smoke marijuana. There it is.

DUBNER: Incredible.

EPLEY: You can hardly…How can you have missed it the first time? Isn’t it amazing?

DUBNER: That’s remarkable. So okay, so I didn’t hear it before. I hear it now after you tell me. How is that, however, the spotlight effect or my egocentrism?

EPLEY: Well it’s a problem with egocentrism because what we’ve done there is we’ve changed your own perspective on that song in a way that makes it hard for you to appreciate how somebody else who has a different perspective on it, as you do, will interpret that. So in my dissertation, for instance, when I was in graduate school some years ago, I played people those songs, those backmasked messages. One group was uninformed; they hadn’t been told what to listen for. The other group was told what to listen for, and they heard it just like you did the second time. So one group were novices the other group were experts. We had, we then had them predict what percentage of people who told nothing about the clip would be able to hear those words in that song. And what we found was that when you knew what to listen for, it jumped out at you, you were an expert on the song because I gave you additional information on it. You thought a much higher percentage of people would be able to hear that backmasked message in the song than when you knew nothing about, when you thought it was gibberish.

DUBNER: Alright, so I’m a little curious, I’m not sure how that illustrates egocentrism as much as, you know, it’s a simple case of, you know, cognitive priming, or…I mean, I get that it’s the prediction part that makes it spotlight-y, but still.

EPLEY: Yeah, well because I’ve changed your perspective on the song. So in one case you’re an expert on it, and in the other case you’re not, a novice on it. And the egocentrism part is that you assume that other people’s perspectives will match your own, right? You use your own as a guide. And this is a problem more generally out in the world of understanding how other people evaluate us. Because notice that you’re an expert on yourself. You know a lot about yourself that other people don’t. You know for instance that this podcast is going way better or way worse than most. You know, for instance, that you’re more attractive today than perhaps you were yesterday. Other people don’t know this about you. They don’t have all of this detailed information. When we put people in experiments, for instance, and we asked them, we take a picture of them, and we asked them to predict how attractive they will be rated by a member of the opposite sex on a scale from zero to 10, we find that there’s virtually no correlation between how people predict they’ll be rated on the basis of this picture and how they’re actually rated on the basis of this picture. And the reason is that you’re an expert about yourself. And so you, when you look at a picture of yourself, you look at every fine grain detail. You can notice that this curl is slightly out of place, and your smile is a bit weird there. And, “Are they really supposed to see my undershirt under the collar there? Is that right?” You notice all of these fine-grained details about yourself just as an expert would. An expert is able to dial in a microscope on the problem and notice all kinds of nuances and subtleties that others can’t. Observers, just the random person isn’t an expert on you, and that creates a gap that makes it hard to know what somebody else thinks of you.

OK, so according to Nicholas Epley, all this egocentrism can really muck up how we communicate with one another. So how can we improve? What was he learned from all his years of study — what are the tricks that would turn us all into great mind-readers, into great humans?

EPLEY: The data sadly doesn’t support any magic tricks. It just supports the hard, careful, relational work of getting perspective from somebody else. If you want to know what it’s like to be waterboarded you either need to try it yourself, as Christopher Hitchens famously did and wrote a Vanity Fair piece about it. Or you have to talk to somebody who’s actually been in that situation, ask them questions, and get their answer directly. A person’s mind comes through their mouth.

DUBNER: OK, so let me just see if you’ve maybe mastered this ability more than you think, that if, you know, there’s this kind of osmotic process of researching and writing this book that is really made you a truly superior mind reader. Nicholas, what do you think I’m thinking… Let’s just say for the record also that you’re in Chicago, I’m in New York, and there’s no Skype, there’s no video at all. We’re just talking over radio phone wires. What do you think I’m thinking right now?

EPLEY: I don’t have any idea.

DUBNER: Oh, come on! It’s one thing, 1:27 p.m.

EPLEY: I think you’re ready to be done with the interview.

DUBNER: There you go.

EPLEY: So that could be. You know, look, so one thing that you find out, or that I think happens to you when you study psychology, or you study the mistake that we make in judgment is that you become a little more humble about what you know and what you don’t. And I don’t know how humble I’ve actually gotten. I mean, my wife will tell you that I still make plenty of snap judgments and I make mistakes plenty often. But I do think that I’ve become more likely to ask questions of people. So for instance, when I’m trying to figure out what my wife wants for Christmas…

DUBNER: You ask her.

EPLEY: I don’t assume that I can guess. You have to ask. And that turns out, “Whoa magic!” Turns out to work pretty well.

DUBNER: That is worth the price of admission right there. That is very valuable.

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