Eric Barker writes probably my favorite newsletter. As someone who likes to, ya know, range widely, I appreciate the scope of his posts — from a hostage negotiator explaining how to lower your bills, to tips on breaking bad habits without relying on willpower. Plus: he’s funny.
I read an advance copy of Eric’s brand new book (out today) on relationships, Plays Well With Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong. In the book, Eric reviews a mountain of research, from work on friendships, to healthy marriages, to nonverbal communication. I found it fascinating, so I invited Eric to do a Q+A.
This post is longer than usual, but I think there’s something for everyone so I didn’t want to cut much. (And Q+A’s make for brisk reading.) To the questions….
David Epstein: For years, I’ve seen headlines about how marriage makes people not only happier, but healthier, and improves longevity, even compared to unmarried cohabitation. Based on your review of the research, though, the picture is a lot more complicated. As you report, a lot of that research suffers from so-called “survivorship bias.” Can you explain what you mean, and tell us what the picture looks like when the research is done without that bias?
Eric Barker: Many studies survey a bunch of married people and then survey a bunch of unmarried people and compare health and happiness levels between the two groups. The former come out on top and then they proclaim that marriage makes you happier and healthier.
But if you want to accurately study if “getting married” improves your life, you need to include the divorced, separated and widowed in with the married people, not the unmarried people. And once you do that, you get very different results. Simply put, what you find is that marriage doesn’t make you happier and healthier; a good marriage makes you happier and healthier.
And a bad marriage can be very bad for you indeed. A bad marriage makes you 35 percent more likely to fall ill and lops four years off your life. A study of almost nine thousand people found divorced and widowed people had 20 percent more health problems (including heart disease and cancer). And most surprisingly, some of those effects never went away, even if they remarried.
DE: That’s why I only recommend to friends that they have great marriages. Seriously though, the entire section in your book on marriage is a tour de force. I loved this phrase where you describe what a great marriage should look like: a “unique culture of two with its own crazy but harmless beliefs and rituals.” Can you give us the context for it?
EB: Tolstoy said all happy families are alike but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Well, when it comes to marriage, Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappily married couples typically commit the exact same mistakes, but happy couples have a unique union.
A big problem in trying to improve marriage is we always focus on fixing the problems. That’s not a terrible idea, but if you only concentrate on fixing the bad and not increasing the good, you don’t necessarily end up in a positive state. You may end up in a neutral state. I currently have a not-negative relationship with every stranger on this planet – that’s not love.
You cannot totally nerf your marriage against problems. John Gottman found that 69% of ongoing marital issues never get resolved. Now that may sound depressing and might make people want to immediately start drinking like a fraternity pledge, but that stat was true of both unhappy and happy couples. The amount of negative by itself is usually not a predictor of doom; it’s the ratio of positive to negative, with 5-to-1 being optimal. Sometimes we can’t reduce the negative all that much, but if we boost the positive, a marriage can still thrive.
DE: In defense of poor helpless Tolstoy, that was his narrator in Anna Karenina, but I see your point. …Early in the book, you discuss how certain tactics that work for hostage negotiators during conflict don’t work in romantic relationships. I thought this was a hilarious and harrowing part of the book. Can you describe what works for hostage negotiators but not for, ya know, the rest of us?
EB: Yeah, I went and trained with the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team for a few days. They use “active listening” to deal with dispute resolution and it’s very effective for them. And many have long recommended this for other difficult conversations like marital conflict.
There’s one little problem: in marital disputes it doesn’t work. Theoretically, it should, but most people just can’t do it. When you’re a third party to a situation, like a hostage negotiator or a therapist, it’s an extremely powerful tool. But when you’re the one who is being yelled at for not being a good spouse, studies show the average person cannot stay calm and objective enough to perform “active listening” effectively.
DE: One of the most surprising things in the book to me was the research on just how good we all are at profiling people — including people we’ve known forever. What did that research show?
EB: We are absolutely terrible at reading the thoughts and feelings of others. I know a lot of people probably don’t want to hear that, but this is science and the customer is not always right. Nicholas Epley at University of Chicago found that with strangers, we correctly divine what’s on in their minds only 20% of the time. With friends we hit 30%. And with spouses we peak at 35%. So whatever you think is on your spouse’s mind, two-thirds of the time you’re wrong. But we’re often blissfully unaware of this.
Ask people to rate their partner’s self-esteem, and they get it right 44 percent of the time. But they’re confident about their guesses 82 percent of the time. And the longer you’ve been together, the more your confidence goes up. Accuracy? No, that doesn’t improve. But you sure do get more confident.
But that doesn’t mean we should give up. Here’s the M. Night Shyamalan twist: while we can’t improve our people-reading skills all that dramatically, we can perform better by focusing more on making the other person more readable. Our detection skills are fundamentally weak but if we can get the other person to send us stronger signals, we can become more accurate.
Or we can try another rarely used technique: asking them.
DE: Ha, novel idea! And speaking of making people more readable, that reminds me of the research on lie detection. You note at one point that police officers trained in lie detection actually got worse! But also that, surprisingly, there is some research on legitimate lie detection that we can all use. Can you describe that?
EB: Most of what we’ve been told about lie detection has a Magic 8-Ball level of scientific accuracy. We often look for signs of stress or anxiety -- but this has never been shown to help. What does work is focusing on “cognitive load.” Telling good lies can require a surprising amount of brainpower. And so by utilizing techniques that place even greater demands on the liar’s gray matter, we can make their deception easier to notice. Merely telling police officers to switch from asking themselves “Is this person lying?” to “Do they have to think hard?” notably improved their abilities.
One effective lie detection method is using “unanticipated questions.” No liar can prepare for every possible question you could ask them. And so by making queries that would be very easy for a truth teller to answer but hard for a liar, we can increase their cognitive load and potentially make them stumble. If a bartender asks an underage-looking person, “How old are you?” they’ll just answer “21.” But what if the bartender asks, “What year were you born?” It’s an exceedingly easy question for someone telling the truth but a liar is probably going to have to do some math. And that delay is likely to be glaring. One study showed that airport security methods usually catch less than 5 percent of lying passengers. But when screeners used unanticipated questions, that number shot up to 66 percent.
DE: Continuing on the reading people note: is it true that women are better at reading nonverbal communication than men?
EB: Women, on average, are definitely better at reading nonverbals than men. It’s not a huge effect – roughly 2% — but it’s extremely consistent across different cultures and various studies.
What’s powerful about this insight is it gives us a clue as to how we can all get better at intuiting what others are thinking. Women’s better performance isn’t due to anything directly biological; they just try harder. A 2008 study found when researchers told men that being more empathic would make them more attractive, suddenly their skills improved. Human brains are pretty lazy in general. But when we see potential loss or benefit, we up our game. So by increasing our motivation to read others accurately we can actually get a bit better.
DE: Ok I want to switch gears to friendship. I liked this quote: “The weakness of friendship is also the source of its immeasurable strength.” Can you explain what you mean there?
EB: Friendship gets the short end of the stick as far as relationships go. Which is sad, because work by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman shows friends make us happier than any other type of relationship. I’m not trying to cause a Category 5 Twitter Storm here, but friends beat spouses when it comes to increasing our happiness. (Sorry, spouses.)
The issue here is that most every other form of bond has an institution behind it, a metaphorical lobbying group promoting its interests. You have an employment contract with your boss, a marital contract with your spouse and you can go to jail for not taking care of your kids. Screw up any of those relationships and there will be direct consequences. With friends, uh, not so much. We can just walk away.
Friends are only in our lives because we want them to be. And this is why friendships make us happier than any other relationship: it’s always a choice, never an obligation.
DE: So what did Dale Carnegie get right and wrong about “how to win friends and influence people”?
EB: Most of what Carnegie wrote has been validated by the research. Seeking similarity is powerful. Paying people sincere compliments is effective. (Did I mention that “Range” is an utterly amazing masterwork of a book?) The only big point Carnegie was wrong about was saying we should try and see things from the other person’s perspective. Studies show we’re pretty terrible at this and it actually makes us worse at relating to others.
The real problem with Carnegie’s work is that while it’s great for the initial stages of a casual friendship, it doesn’t offer much in the way of building deep connections. Carnegie wrote the book for developing business relationships. Everything in it is fairly easy to do, which is why we like it – but that also makes it a great playbook for manipulative people. To build deep friendships we need to display “costly signals” that can’t be easily faked. If you think that just noting similarities and paying compliments is going to get you a brother-from-another-mother or a sister-from-another-mister level of friendship, you probably believe disco is going to make a comeback.
DE: One more friendship question for you: You marshaled a mountain of research on how important deep friendships are for health and happiness, and yet, we don’t always treat friendships as a daily priority. Any suggestions?
EB: Making time is critical. A Notre Dame study of 8 million phone calls showed friendships were more likely to persist when people checked in roughly every two weeks. Still, that can seem difficult for many of us with busy lives. The secret here is making it more organic. Turning the regular time together into something more of a ritual or a habit. Exercising together. Having a lunch or call every Sunday. Starting a book club. Routine activities like this can make keeping up with friends relatively effortless.
DE: I lied; one more friendship-related question. Should we try to impress new people when we meet them?
EB: In business contexts there might be a benefit to this but if you’re trying to build deep friendships, acting like a big wig can be a profound negative. Sure, it might impress people, but this creates distance, not closeness. Go around bragging all the time and your friendships will have the lifespan of a Brita filter. We actually create better connections when we display vulnerability.
The most effective way to get someone to trust you is to first display trust in them. And sharing information that could make you look bad or weak says, “I trust you not to hurt me.” This can be scary -- but that’s the point. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a very costly signal of trust.
DE: Before the lightning round I have one more marriage question. You write that the idea of marrying for love is not only not universal, but also relatively new. Can you explain what led to this innovation, as it were?
EB: For most of human existence, life was a lot more precarious. An individualistic life of autonomy was simply not an option. Marriage had strict rules because we desperately needed each other to survive and the group had to come before personal notions of happiness and fulfillment. Marrying for love was often strongly discouraged. Weddings were a lot more about building alliances with powerful families who could help you and your kin consolidate resources to maintain your “not-dead” status.
This changed in the Enlightenment era. With free markets, individuals gained more power and were able to marry for love over survival. This has been a multi-century experiment that made marriage more fulfilling – but less stable. The upside is that the happiest marriages today are the happiest marriages that have ever existed. Period. The challenge is that, given we don’t have the strict rules and norms of the past, it takes a lot more effort to maintain even an average marriage than it did historically. If you want to keep believing that marriage doesn’t require any effort to sustain, my book is probably one to regift.
DE: I think you just made me alternatively elated and frightened in the span of 10 seconds.
⚡⚡ LIGHTNING ROUND ⚡⚡
DE: This is just a statement: I thought there were zero things you knew about sports that I didn’t, but you surprised me with the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are named after the Edgar Allan Poe poem.
EB: I am in no way claiming I knew that before I started researching the book. You still know infinitely more about sports than I do. I can’t even tell you how many home runs the Lakers scored last year.
DE: Who invented marriage counseling, and does it work?
EB: Marriage counseling, believe it or not, was originally created as part of a 1920’s Nazi eugenics program. And it rarely works. Only 11-18 percent of couples achieve notable improvements. Not that it can’t help, but the problem is that couples usually wait too long to go. There’s an average six-year delay between the first cracks in a marriage and actually seeing a therapist.
DE: How long did Americans in 1975 spend with friends or family each weekend, and how does that compare to today?
EB: Northwestern professor Eli Finkel noted that in 1975 Americans spent two hours every weekend day with friends or relatives. By 2003 that number had dropped 40 percent. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 2000 the degree to which a happy marriage predicted personal happiness almost doubled. Marriage isn’t one of your relationships, it’s the relationship.
DE: Give us one thing you’re implementing in your own life or relationships based on your research.
EB: Relationships have never been my strong suit. Relationship-wise, I’ve been stumbling around like Mr. Magoo for most of my life. Me giving my personal advice on human connection would be like hiring Godzilla to improve the infrastructure in your metropolis.
But researching and writing this book basically terraformed my brain. Opening up about my feelings and concerns with friends used to be a habit I engaged in every other decade or so. Now I try to do it more often. Discussing my fears is something I don’t hold back on now when talking with friends…
And on that point: I’m afraid of snakes, David.
Thanks to Eric for answering my questions, and there’s so much more in his fascinating book. The book, to me, felt like an extended conversation with a friend who just happened to spend a few years devouring research on relationships. Plays Well With Others is out today, so check it out!
Until next time…