There is shortage of online content on success and relationships. Very little of it has an basis in research. Eric Barker specializes in translating academic research into actionable advice. Barker’s first book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, was a huge bestseller.
His new book Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong is now out and continues this thread. This is not Eric’s first stop on his book tour. You can hear Eric on podcasts including: The Art of Manliness, Metaphysical Milkshake, Smart People, SuperPsyched and in print at The Next Big Idea, CNBC, Crime Reads and with David Epstein.
You can follow Eric on Twitter (@bakadesuyo), on his blog, and through his wildly popularly newsletter. I had to the pleasure to ask Eric some questions about the book. Below you can find my questions in bold. Eric’s (unedited) answers follow. Enjoy!
AR: If we can barely make sense of our own thoughts and emotions, why do we think we can ‘read’ someone else’s emotions?
EB: Because being able to read others is a vital skill. Research shows even a slight edge here is quite powerful. “Accurate person perception” has a conga line of personal and interpersonal benefits. Studies show that those who possess it are happier, less shy, better with people, have closer relationships, get bigger raises, and receive better performance reviews. When we look more specifically at those who are better interpreters of body language and nonverbal communication, we see similar positive effects.
The problem is, on average, the vast majority of us are absolutely horrible at these skills. I mean, comically bad. University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley found that when you’re dealing with strangers, you correctly detect their thoughts and feelings only 20 percent of the time. (Random chance accuracy is 5 percent.) Now, of course, you’re better when dealing with people you know… but not by much. With close friends you hit 30 percent, and married couples peak at 35 percent. In school that’s an F. Actually, it’s probably closer to a G. Whatever you think is going on in your spouse’s head, two-thirds of the time, you’re wrong.
We’re biased toward thinking we can read others pretty well because it’s so important. But the truth is, we do better when we ask people what’s on their mind.
AR: Contrary to the hype, we humans are really bad at detecting lies. How do ‘unexpected questions’ help suss out dishonesty?
EB: Most of the lie detection techniques we’ve heard about or seen on TV don’t actually work. Most of them, like the polygraph, rely on looking for signs of stress to identify deception. But this isn’t supported by the research.
What does effectively indicate lies is what is called “cognitive load.” Basically, lying takes more brainpower than we assume. And if we increase the amount of thinking someone needs to do, their deception can be a lot easier to notice.
A good way to accomplish this is by asking unexpected questions. You want to focus on questions that would be easy for a truthteller to answer but that a liar might not be prepared for. Say you’re a bartender and someone comes in who is clearly underage. Ask them how old they are and they’re just going to say “21.” But what if you asked them the year they were born? This is exceedingly easy for someone telling the truth to answer but a liar is likely going to have to pause to do some math. That gap is a big giveaway.
Airport screeners usually catch less than 5 percent of lying passengers. When they used unexpected questions, that number shot up to 66 percent.
AR: Dale Carnegie was right about a lot of things. What one thing was he wrong about?
EB: We have to give Carnegie some credit. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was written long before the advent of most psychology research, yet the bulk of his techniques have been validated by science. That said, he did get one thing wrong.
Carnegie’s eighth principle said we should try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Sounds great but we’re terrible at this. Nicholas Epley says attempting to take someone else’s perspective has never been shown to be effective. In fact, studies report it actually makes us worse at relating to them. We usually make inaccurate assumptions about what the other person is thinking.
AR: Loneliness is a huge societal issue today, but it really didn’t exist before 1800. How is that possible?
EB: This was some of the research that really surprised me. Turns out we get loneliness all wrong. It’s not really about being proximate to others; it’s about a feeling of connection. At some level we know this — we’ve all felt lonely in a crowd. The leading researcher on loneliness, John Cacioppo, said that loneliness isn’t just about being physically close to others; loneliness is how you feel about your relationships. When we feel emotionally close to others but they’re not nearby, that’s fine. We call that solitude and it’s a positive. But if we feel emotionally disconnected from others, we can be surrounded by people and still feel terrible.
Before the 20th century, we were all a part of groups. We were embedded in religions, tribes, and families. There was really no other way to survive. You never questioned whether you were a part of something bigger. And when Fay Bound Alberti at the University of York looked at old texts she found that the word “lonely” didn’t have the negative stigma attached to it. It just meant “apart”, not that you were emotionally suffering. But in the 19th century, individualism exploded and societal connections started to break down. To beat loneliness we don’t just need to spend more time with others, we need to deepen those bonds so that we feel like we’re “in it together.”
AR: What the heck happened in 1997? Was that really the beginning of our problems?
EB: Harvard’s Robert Putnam tracked the decline of American community throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He attributed this movement away from groups to the rise of television. Between 1985 and 1994 there was a 45 percent drop in involvement in community organizations. No time for bowling leagues and Boy Scouts anymore. The time spent on family dinner dropped by 43 percent. Inviting friends over dropped by 35 percent. Putnam writes, “Virtually all forms of family togetherness became less common over the last quarter of the twentieth century.”
In 1997 we saw the rise of the internet. This only accelerated the trend. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of times that Americans invited friends over to their house declined by half. Club participation dropped by two-thirds in the three decades after 1975. And we are experiencing severe picnic deprivation. Yeah, picnics are down 60 percent over the same period.
AR: Disasters tend to bring Americans together. Were you surprised by our collective reaction to the Covid pandemic?
The Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware reviewed over seven hundred studies and found that when things are at the worst, we’re often at our best. The majority of the time it’s not “every man for himself”; people cooperate and help one another.
The toughest thing about the pandemic was that unlike most tragedies, like war or earthquakes, this was a disaster where we were forced to be apart to fight the virus. It’s difficult to assist and soothe others when you have to stay away from them. That made it really hard for us to feel united in the struggle.
AR: Investors and financial advisers are correct to focus on wealth accumulation. Your book tells us an investment in ‘belonging’ will likely bring more happiness. Is that a contradiction or just a different emphasis?
EB: Money’s great (and essential) but time with those you care about often provides a more efficient happiness return. A 2008 Journal of Socio-Economics study found that while changes in income provide only a minor increase in happiness, more time with friends boosts your smiling to the equivalent of an extra $97,000 a year.
And if making money crowds out good relationships you may not like the result. Repeated studies have shown that what the happiest people have in common is good relationships. One economics paper put the happiness value of a better social life at an additional $131,232 per year.
We all need to make money but there’s a threshold where you need to ask if one more hour at the office is going to improve your life more than that same hour spent with those you love. Call it “emotional opportunity cost.”
AR: Thanks Eric for your time. Good luck with the book!
*Full disclosure: Eric was kind enough to send me a hard copy of his book.