EPISODE 374
Eric Barker
Why You SUCK at Relationships (with Eric Barker)

Mark speaks with Eric Barker, Wall Street Journal best selling author and former Hollywood screenwriter. Eric left Hollywood and scripted a new challenge: organizing the counterintuitive nature of relationships, vulnerability, and cognitive biases.

Eric Barker
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Show Notes

Today, Commander Divine speaks with Eric Barker, former Hollywood screenwriter, speaker, and best selling author. In this episode, Eric discusses the shocking research he uncovered surrounding relationships, vulnerability, and cognitive biases – all detailed in his newest book titled Plays Well With Others.

Key Takeaways:

  • Do you have friends? Do you smoke? The two biggest determinants of your mortality one year after a heart attack. Eric shares the surprising science by Robert Garfield at University of Pennsylvania detailing how not being open and vulnerable in relationships leads to prolonged minor illnesses and even increased lethality from a second heart attack. He also shares effective strategies for forming deep friendships to counteract these data.
  • Friendships are our most coveted relationships, taking the cake over our romantic partners (by 5%). While romantic partnerships are backed by a legal document, as are colleagues with job descriptions, friendships are different. They’re indefinite… which might be just what makes real ones so special. 
  • Think about The Scary Rule, which Eric coined. If it feels scary, say it. Start small, but opening up and sharing something that could be used against you is what builds trust, says Diego Gambetta’s research. It starts with you. 
  • The placebo effect is in your hormones. Contrary to popular belief, the placebo effect isn’t just in your head… it’s actually in your endorphins, which are what carry the signal of the placebo effect. If we shut down the exchange of endorphins, we lose the mystical placebo. What’s more, placebo effect goes up when we experience trust in not only the medication and treatment, but in the doctor’s bedside manner and empathy. 
  • Your first impressions barely beat a coin flip. It turns out, 70% of first impressions are drawn correctly. The trouble is, that 30% of assumptions are what create unhelpful biases, the ones we must confront and try to unlearn. 

Quotes:

“The most giving people are disproportionately represented at the top and at the bottom of success metrics, which basically makes sense when you think about it, we all know people who are super giving super kind and we feel obligated to them, and we go out of our way to help them. We also all are familiar with people who are too giving, who end up as martyrs and get taken advantage of. And that’s what you see in the research.” Eric Barker

“I think it’s important to really kind of be clear about what the definition of success is. Absolutely. Because the popular definition might be things that don’t actually lead to enduring success, like contentment and peace of mind. So some of those people that might be considered to be at the bottom might actually be very content, even if they’ve been victimized, because maybe they’re not holding on to that they learned to forgive, just sort of just serve for the sake of service.” Mark Divine 

“I think the genre of relationship books don’t exactly have the best reputation, and maybe for good reason, in that it’s often telling people what they want to hear. And I saw an interesting challenge there in the idea of, there’s probably a lot here that doesn’t get discussed or gets glossed over… a lot of uncomfortable truths.” Eric Barker

“There’s a tremendous irony in writing a book about relationships during the pandemic, you know, like, wow, you know. Not having good relationships is terrible for you. And here I am locked away not seeing anyone.” Eric Barker

“And some friends or acquaintances, some friends are best friends, we have different levels with different expectations. And there’s no institution backing friendships’ interest, you know. relationship with employer, relationship with a spouse, relationship with your children, these all have a kind of big institution behind them kind of pushing their goals. And friendship doesn’t really have that.”  Eric Barker

“But as I talk about the book, it’s like, that actually, is kind of what proves friendship’s purity, in a way, because friends make us happier than any other relationship is what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found. And part of that reason is, friendship is always a choice, never an obligation, nobody’s going to divorce you, your employer is not going to fire you. There’s no big social implications for no longer being a friend. So it’s always something you choose.” Eric Barker

“And that’s, I think, one of the key reasons why I think relationships, whether it’s a close friend or spouse, or children, our most advantageous arena, or engaging in those relationships are most advantageous arena for personal growth. Because, you know, we get to see some of the things you just described, and we’re getting immediate feedback. And there’s a lot of pain involved in those types of relationships often, right. So a lot of people want to run away or feel like well, I’m not the person who can do relationships. And what they’re really saying is, I don’t want to do the work to grow.” Mark Divine

“Putting in the work is important. Like my wife and I’s relationship has gotten so much stronger when we committed to doing the work together. So instead of us like separately doing, having our experience, and then even separately doing our work, like her run to her therapist, and her going to her yoga studio and me doing my thing, we actually brought those together. And suddenly we found our relationship accelerating in terms of what we would consider success, connection, growth, intimacy, play. I guess, you know, that’s another cliche, couples who grow together stay together.” Mark Divine

“I was shocked to see that when communicating with other people, just how bad we are at reading the thoughts and feelings of others. That basically, with strangers, we actually only correctly read their thoughts and feelings 20% of the time. With friends, we have 30%. And with spouses, we hit 35%. Whatever you think is on your spouse’s mind two thirds of the time, you’re wrong, which is why the kind of communication you described that you have so well with your spouse is essential, because the assumptions we make are more often inaccurate than accurate. We are not great at reading other people.” Eric Barker

“The best way to understand others is not to try and improve your skills, but to try and get them to send you stronger signals that are more more easily readable.” Eric Barker

“I mean, that’s one of the things I talked about in terms of the issue of reading people is that we do much, much better when there are stakes. And if we can artificially create those stakes, that’s great. But people are, for instance, better people readers on first dates. Why? It’s like, okay, all of a sudden, there’s stakes, you know, some of the gain, something to lose. Versus in the average conversation, our brains kind of idle along, because there’s not much to be won or gained here.” Eric Barker

“I mean, it was fascinating to me that so much of pain is perception. And that issue that when people go to a therapist and they fill out the intake form, if you survey them, they already report feeling symptomatic relief. And what that has to do with is just the issue of… Are we alone? Are we getting help? Because we’re, by our nature, a social tribal species. And that feeling of I’m alone, no help, is common.” Eric Barker

“Basically the most powerful way to build trust in another person is to first show them trust. And then if they reciprocate, you escalate. This is how you deepen trust between you and your friends.” Eric Barker

Mark Divine 1:05
Coming up on the Mark Divine Show,

Eric Barker 1:07
There’s no big social implications for no longer being a friend. So it’s always something you choose. And you know, without the obligation, that’s why friends… one of the reasons why they make us so happy, but it also means friendship is very fragile. And if we’re not proactive and deliberate in supporting it, it can easily fall by the wayside. The research shows that after seven years 50% of close friends aren’t close friends anymore.

Mark Divine 1:35
Mark Divine and this is the Mark Divine Show. On the show, I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of the world’s most inspirational, compassionate and resilient leaders. I speak to notable folks from all areas of life, including martial arts grandmasters, military leaders, high powered executives, motivational scientists, and authors who are doing incredible work. Like today’s guest, Eric Barker, author of plays well, with other Eric’s, the author of Wall Street Journal bestseller Barking Up The Wrong Tree, which has sold over half a million copies translated in 19 languages. He’s a former writer for Hollywood, creating movie scripts and his blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree, has over half a million subscribers. His work has been covered in New York Times, The Atlantic, Financial Times, and others, and he’s a sought after speaker. And his new book, Plays Well with Others, we’re gonna dive into today.

I always like to start kind of just getting a sense for, like, what were the mental models and the things in your life that shaped you to become fascinated with relationships and writing and, you know, basically doing what you’re doing now? Like, what’s the origin story? And was there a pivot or some sort of moment? What got you, kind of, on this path?

Unknown Speaker 2:49
Yeah, well, it was funny for me that I didn’t know anything about social science until, you know, I was in my 30’s when I had a big career shift. I went from writing in Hollywood and transitioning out of that. I had a lot of big questions — and at that point, had been exposed to social science — so I was looking for answers. And I figured… Hey, what’s better than to look at what research says? And yeah, that’s when I started my blog. I found that, like, a lot of the questions, you know, we’re all routinely asking ourselves, you know, work has been done on this, it’s just kind of stuck in the ivory tower. And, you know, the first book was looking at stress, testing the maxims of success, and then followed it up with kind of the same format, but for relationships. And I’ve never been very good at relationships at all, so it was very interesting for me. And oddly, you know, I closed the deal for the book and then two weeks later California locked down. I was like, “Oh, everybody might be needing this book by the time it comes out.”

Mark Divine 3:46
So you mentioned you were a writer in Hollywood. What inspired you to write to begin with, and that experience sounded maybe suboptimal, which led you to ask these questions. So what was it about that experience that was challenging you? Why were you searching for answers? What questions were you trying to ask that you were searching seriously in?

Eric Barker 4:04
In terms of what I was going to do next, because I did focused on writing since I was 15, you know… writing movies was fun, but it was really up and down and inconsistent. I did far better than most, but it was still very, you know, unpredictable, and inconsistent. And I knew I was transitioning out of it, and kind of just trying to figure out what was next for me. And like I said, looking at the research seemed like a good way to go.

Mark Divine 4:33
Did you write original scripts? Or were you like an adaptation writer? You know, like, “Here’s my book… let’s turn this into a screenplay.” And anything that we would know?

Eric Barker 4:41
Nothing anybody would know. I did a couple direct video action movies, which nobody really should watch. But I did work on the Aladdin franchise. Those were the direct video Aladdin sequels. But when Disney acquired Pixar, Steve Jobs came in and was like, “You’re diluting the brand, you shouldn’t be making the sequels.” So like the entire product line got killed.

Mark Divine 5:03
He was right, by the way.

Eric Barker 5:04
I think overall, absolutely. He was right. Didn’t work out that well for me at the time, but it was probably the smart move in the big picture.

Mark Divine 5:11
So let’s talk about your blog. Why did you call it Barking Up The Wrong Tree and what was… what were you focused on? What were some of the insights from your first book by that name?

Eric Barker 5:21
Barking Up The Wrong Tree was, you know, just kind of a play on my last name. I guess it tied into the fact that a lot of what I was finding was counterintuitive, in a lot of ways, but primarily it was just a play on my last name. And my URL is in Japanese. I wasn’t… probably not the best branding decision, but I started the blog on a lark and it seems to have worked out otherwise. But it was a lot of fun to give myself kind of like a quick back of the envelope education in that. And then for the first book, I just wanted to look at those maxims of success we all grew up with like, “Do nice guys finish last?” Or “Is it what you know or who you know?” And to kind of go down the rabbit hole because these are hippie maxims that get passed around, but not sure if they’re true. We’ve all seen exceptions to them. So it was fun for me to look. Like I said, having made this big career transition to say like, “Okay” I was shifting careers. “What is true here?” “What is… Is this advice we’re getting actually accurate or not?”

Mark Divine
What were some of the most surprising things or interesting things you learned?

Eric Barker
In terms of the, “Do nice guys finish last?” it was really interesting to see that nice guys do finish last. But they also finish first.

Mark Divine
Right

Eric Barker
And that basically… this was researched by Adam Grant. Was what you saw, if you look at it, as the results are bimodal, basically, the most giving people are disproportionately represented at the top and at the bottom of success metrics, which basically makes sense when you think about it, we all know people who are super giving super kind and we feel obligated to them, and we go out of our way to help them. We also all are familiar with people who are too giving, who end up as martyrs and get taken advantage of. And that’s what you see in the research is that people who surround themselves with good people who are smart enough to set some boundaries, or protect themselves, those people who are giving do exceptionally well, but people who aren’t surrounded by good people, and who don’t take some steps to make sure they don’t get exploited, they don’t do as well.

Mark Divine 7:25
I think it’s important to really kind of be clear about what the definition of success is. Absolutely. Because the popular definition might be things that don’t actually lead to enduring success, like contentment and peace of mind. So some of those people that might be considered to be at the bottom might actually be very content, even if they’ve been victimized, because maybe they’re not holding on to that they learned to forgive, just sort of just serve for the sake of service.

Eric Barker 7:44
Now, one of the things that I’ve talked about in the book is, is in the end, exactly what you’re saying, you know, just having a personal definition of success. Because in the modern era, first of all, the office doesn’t close at 5pm. You can keep working as much as you want. And we have the work life balance issue. So in the end, you’re going to have to set a limit for yourself on how much you work. But to your point, a personal definition, you know, it’s kind of like if it’s all career and no personal or no family, is that what you in the end are not going to call a successful career but a successful life? So, exactly to your point, it requires some proactive thought on our part because we’re very lucky to have freedom and options, but freedom and options means we need to decide for ourselves.

Mark Divine 8:27
So what led you to want to dig into relationships more and you know, want to write the book Plays Well With Others? Which is a cool title, by the way. And I love that, you kind of like use these maxims and try to then either prove or disprove them. That’s kind of a cool social scientist’s approach to writing.

Eric Barker
I think for me, it was like Freud basically said that, basically, work and love are the two fundamental aspects of people’s lives. And with a book about success, I wanted to cover career, so it seemed natural to kind of look at that. And also, I think the genre of relationship books don’t exactly have the best reputation, and maybe for good reason, in that it’s often telling people what they want to hear. And I saw an interesting challenge there in the idea of, there’s probably a lot here that doesn’t get discussed or gets glossed over… a lot of uncomfortable truths. Because I knew with success, people probably have their perspectives on success but it’s a little bit abstracted. Versus with personal relationships, people have certain things they want to be true, and they don’t want to be true. And I knew that this was a ripe area for kind of getting to something a little bit deeper, some of the truths that perhaps are talked about, for better or for worse. And so that was really interesting. And on a personal aspect, I’ve never been very good at relationships. I’ve never been very focused on them. And so it was kind of humbling for me to go in there, read a lot of this stuff and be like, oh yeah, I do that. Oh, yeah. That’s not good. Okay.

Mark Divine 10:00
You kind of confronted my next question. I was gonna say, you know, you’re putting up a book about relationships, and whatnot and so, how are yours? And probably a better way to look at that is how does yours improve as a result of writing this book?

Unknown Speaker 10:11
It’s definitely been an education. It’s at least nice to know some of the things I’ve been doing wrong. There’s a tremendous irony in writing a book about relationships during the pandemic, you know, like, wow, you know. Not having good relationships is terrible for you. And here I am locked away not seeing anyone.

Mark Divine
You weren’t alone there. Everyone else was. (laughing)

Eric Barker
Exactly. That was the only thing that I think kept me going was I’m like, “I think we’re all gonna need this.” It was tricky, but to come to understand a little bit more specifically, in terms of friendships… I saw that what the research showed consistently in terms of deep enduring friendships, you know that time and vulnerability are two real critical factors and I don’t think I ever prioritize either one of those. And so all of a sudden making those the kind of the top of my to-do list became a really, really important debate, post book.

Mark Divine 11:01
Yeah, I love your style of writing to where you just, you know, you’ve got a, you know, some social construct or social research that’s validated. You tell a really compelling story around that either from the researcher himself, for example, John Christ who ended up committing suicide, but who proved that altruism wasn’t actually part of the human equation. He proved that we are transactional, and yet he didn’t believe it. Right? Even though he found a mathematical theory, he didn’t believe it. And so he went out and tried to be altruistic and find it, and to be a friend, I guess, or to be a good person. I thought that was a fascinating story, I’d never heard anything like that. Nor did I know that you could actually mathematically prove something in a social construct sense like that. I love the storytelling.

And some of the, you know, just the points that you elicit are fantastic. Like, “A friend in need is a friend indeed, you need a friend, indeed, you know. I learned that, you know, everyone on average has two friends. And I’m thinking, well, that’s interesting, like, well, how do you define a friend? And you go into that. But my best friend is my wife. But then you’d say, well, that’s not a friend. That’s a family relation. So I’m, you know, it’s a little confusing. Let’s get into this a little bit. What is a friend?

Eric Barker 12:05
What was really interesting to me was exactly that issue. Because I think when it comes to a spouse, you know, it’s pretty clear when somebody is not being a good spouse. But when somebody’s not being a good friend, it’s a lot blurrier, because there’s kind of a hierarchy of friendships, there’s not really a hierarchy of spouse.

Mark Divine 12:22
There’s not really a contract, but I suppose you kind of have like the social contract, yeah. Friend, you don’t.

Eric Barker 12:27
Right, and some friends or acquaintances, some friends are best friends, we have different levels with different expectations. And there’s no institution backing friendships’ interest, you know. relationship with employer, relationship with a spouse, relationship with your children, these all have a kind of big institution behind them kind of pushing their goals. And friendship doesn’t really have that.

But as I talk about the book, it’s like, that actually, is kind of what proves friendship’s purity, in a way, because friends make us happier than any other relationship is what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found. And part of that reason is, friendship is always a choice, never an obligation. Nobody’s going to divorce you, your employer is not going to fire you. There’s no big social implications for no longer being a friend. So it’s always something you choose. And you know, without the obligation, that’s why friends, one of the reasons why they make us so happy. But it also means friendship is very fragile. And if we’re not proactive and deliberate in supporting it, it can easily fall by the wayside, the research shows that after seven years, 50% of close friends aren’t close friends anymore

Mark Divine 13:37
Interesting.
Mark Divine
It was interesting, when you kind of draw on Aristotle’s work in this idea that a friend is someone that you’re close enough to that the boundaries between self and others start to blur and dissolve. So you see yourself in that other individual, that sounds almost like a spiritual equation for growth, right, the dissolution of the self? And to see the sameness and others I’ve used those words in my, very, you know, show here talking about kind of vesting. That’s an outcome of the evolution of consciousness. So you can almost say that good friends are a catalyst for growth in that it’s a good thing to have this idea of dissolution of self and see the same as matters because it exists in everybody.

Unknown Speaker 14:32
Yes, Aristotle defined a friend as another self. And I thought that was pretty poetic. But I’m like ahhhhhh, this is like quotes on Instagram. And then sure enough, it took us 2000 years to get around to it, but it turns out when you look at the neuroscience, he’s right. That, basically just what you said, as we grow closer to someone emotionally, our vision of ourselves and our vision of them are like a Venn diagram that increasingly overlaps. And it was crazy to see the results in this in terms of, if I asked you, “Is this quality true of you? Or is it true of your best friend?”, you are going to take longer to respond, because it takes your brain longer to disentangle who you are from who they are, because of that overlap. And that basically, that is kind of the, almost at a biological level, definition of empathy. Where once we start to entangle ourselves, our definition of self with other people. And it was so powerful to me to see a definition of friendship, which in general in mainstream use, is so lax. Is a Facebook friend, a friend? Is your neighbor really your friend? Or it’s like, here you go. And near biological level, you’re able to test the bounds of friendship and they actually tested it to the degree where, you know, when that overlap was strong, when that delay and character distinction was strong, when those friendships dissolve, those were the ones instead made people more likely to question: “Who am I, you know? Who am I without this person? To have to rethink it, it’s really crazy to see that we really are wired that deeply to connect with friends, with non biological relationships like that.

Mark Divine 16:16
Right? And that’s, I think, one of the key reasons why I think relationships, whether it’s a close friend or spouse, or children, our most advantageous arena, or engaging in those relationships are most advantageous arena for personal growth. Because, you know, we get to see some of the things you just described, and we’re getting immediate feedback. And there’s a lot of pain involved in those types of relationships often, right. So a lot of people want to run away or feel like well, I’m not the person who can do relationships. And what they’re really saying is, I don’t want to do the work to grow.

Eric Barker 16:50
I mean, potentially, it definitely depends on the specific circumstances. I think it’s interesting to see how different people respond, you know, personality wise, when you look at like the five factor personality traits like agreeableness versus disagreeableness. Some people are much more attuned to that, and some people less so. It’s interesting, because culture-wise, for most of human history, we’ve had more of a one-size-fits-all kind of system. I talked about this in the last chapter with marriage, and that being very, very defined. And now we have an enormous amount of flexibility. The definition of marriage and other relationships has become kind of, in some ways more akin to the loose definition of friendship. You know, the benefits of that are that it allows for customization. The weaknesses are, again, we need to define it for ourselves, we need to shape it ourselves.

And that’s what I was really shocked by in researching the love and marriage section, you know, is that basically, the average marriage has kind of gotten worse, you know, on average. It’s not a lot of good news here, marriage doesn’t necessarily make you happy, a good marriage makes you happy. But the good news is, we now have an unprecedented ability to customize and tailor love relationships, romantic relationships, because they’re no longer defined by religion or by state, you know, quite as much. So if we do the work to your point, then we literally — and this is Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern — we can literally have the best marriages, you know, the best romantic relationships that have ever existed because they’re tailored. But to your point, in order to achieve those, we really do need to put in the work.

Mark Divine 18:25
Putting in the work is important. Like my wife and I’s relationship has gotten so much stronger when we committed to doing the work together. So instead of us separately having our experience, and then even separately doing our work, like her run to her therapist, and her going to her yoga studio and me doing my thing, we actually brought those together. And suddenly we found our relationship accelerating in terms of what we would consider success, connection, growth, intimacy, play. I guess, you know, that’s another cliche, couples who grow together stay together. There’s some truth.

Eric Barker 18:57
Oh, there’s enormous truth there. One of the terms that’s actually used in the literature is self expansion, you know, and those self expansion activities are what rejuvenates love, is that when we don’t do those things that make us feel like we’re growing, learning… because that’s what’s one of the things that’s so exciting about early love is, you know, you are meeting this new person, you’re learning about them.

Mark Divine
Like traveling, you know, to a new country, you’re traveling to a new person. (laughing)

Eric Barker
Exactly, exactly. And it’s like you’re learning, you’re probably going out on fun dates, you’re doing fun stuff together. And the thing is that needs to continue. Kind of to your point, you know, with your relationship, it’s like, if that continues, that’s really a positive. If it doesn’t, then basically entropy sets in after time, typically, after about 18 months.

Mark Divine 19:43
I’ve never thought about it, but I think this principle would also extend to children. If you’re a parent who can actually look at your kids at whatever age and say, Okay, this is an opportunity for us both to grow up together. Not me as a parent forcing growth or education or whatever on the kid. This, you know, dovetails with our discussion with learning about that syndrome, where love and connection is the only toggle on right? Is it Willis syndrome or something W.S. or Williamson.

Eric Barker
Williams Syndrome?

Mark Divine
Yeah. Where there’s an excess of oxytocin, everybody’s your friend, and that boundary doesn’t turn off, you know. How did you stumble upon that and what, you know, what are those people like to be around? I guess you don’t know, I guess, maybe you read about it.

Eric Barker 20:23
Yeah. No, no feeling that someone… I’ve never personally encountered anyone, no. Williams Syndrome is a congenital genetic disorder. But in some ways, it’s actually the most endearing of disorders. People who have it just basically love others. They have an enormous love and desire and capacity to deal with others. They find people endlessly fascinating. They are incredibly warm, supportive.

Mark Divine
Sounds like a good problem to have. (laughing)

Eric Barker
I mean, it is incredibly wonderful. From the reading I did, the documentaries I watch, the only issue is that it is also a developmental disorder. So the average IQ of somebody with Williams is about 69. You know, oftentimes they have to live elsewhere and to have, you know, support around them. But it’s so fascinating to see, like, what do they call it, an uneven cognitive profile, where on one hand, they have delays, and issues. On the other hand, with storytelling, they’re frequently known to be exceptional with music, and just their passion and their ability to get along with others. I mean, it gets to the point where it’s almost problematic, where as children, they’re just like impossibly trusting, which can be very scary to a parent, you know, trusting of anyone. But it just shows us in some ways, like, what is possible at the extreme end of the distribution.

Mark Divine 21:45
What else was really surprising to you in this book, you know. Your first chapter is about first impressions, it’s titled, “Can You Judge A Book By It’s Cover?” What did you learn there? What are some of the interesting things you learned?

Eric Barker 21:58
I was shocked to see that when communicating with other people, just how bad we are at reading the thoughts and feelings of others. That basically, with strangers, we actually only correctly read their thoughts and feelings 20% of the time. With friends, we have 30%. And with spouses, we hit 35%. Whatever you think is on your spouse’s mind two thirds of the time, you’re wrong, which is why the kind of communication you described that you have so well with your spouse is essential, because the assumptions we make are more often inaccurate than accurate. We are not great at reading other people. And the interesting aspect is that it seems like we kind of have an upper threshold on that, that we’re not going to be Sherlock Holmes, that the best way to understand others is not to try and improve your skills, but to try and get them to send you stronger signals that are more more easily readable.

Mark Divine
Right? That’s interesting, because I don’t know about you, but I have a ton of friends who are convinced that they can tell a person’s character by their first impression or the first meeting. And so this is a pretty common misperception in our culture.

Eric Barker
Very common. Nicholas Epley researcher, University of Chicago talks about basically, established cognitive bias called egocentric anchoring, where we just tend to believe that other people think like we do. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this where somebody assumes you agree with them, maybe on a contentious issue, like politics, or religion or something, and you’re like, “No, we’re not the same.” Or somebody starts sending you stuff or talking about something, that’s a huge interest to them, but I was of little interest for you. But what we’re usually not as cognizant of is, we do it too. We tend to assume that others are just like us, and certainly human beings as a whole are more similar than they are different. But we tend to make this assumption. And our brain shifts into confirmation bias mode, where our brains are usually not scientific hypothesis testers. They’re much more like prosecuting lawyers, who once we have decided where we’re at, we look to confirm the evidence that supports our beliefs and to dismiss the stuff that doesn’t.

Mark Divine 24:04
I’m sure you’ve done this, but you want a really interesting, few hours wasted, just go down the rabbit hole of research and cognitive bias. There’s a great graphic, you know, if you just research cognitive bias, Codex, I think is what they call it. You know, whoever put this together, I wish I knew his name, I can credit but it’s this big round kind of wheel. And it shows all of these biases. There’s like hundreds of them grouped by kind of major category. And you look through these and you’re like, oh, my God, yeah, there’s that I’ve got that. I do that, I do that. You recognize that we’re pretty much just this big, conditioned ball of biases. The framing bias reinforces confirmation bias. You know what I mean? Similarity bias, reinforces confirmation bias. Everything kind of seems designed to fit things into our view of reality. And then we project that out there. And we get back through projection bias, kind of what we put out, we tend to think everything is exactly the way we see it.

Eric Barker 24:57
There was one researcher, I remember, who found when discussing this, that people always responded the same way, which is “Oh, yeah, I know, people who do that.,, I mean, I don’t, but I know other people who have that bias.” So what he started doing was beginning his lectures with visual illusions, where it looks like the two lines are different lengths, but they’re actually the same length.

Mark Divine
The old lady young lady illusion.

Eric Barker
Yeah, exactly. to basically show people it’s like, no, like, you make these mistakes, too. They’re kind of wired into you. And after showing people, “You make these errors,” people are much more open to the idea of… “Whoa, he caught me again with that other one… Hey, wait a second. Maybe we all do this.”

Mark Divine 25:47
They want to take a short break here from the Mark Divine show, to hear a short message from one of our partners.

And now back to the show.

That’s a big part of my training is to try to get people to expand their contextual awareness to become aware of the conditioned reactions, and also the biases that are driving their behavior so that they can pause. In the SEALS, we use that acronym PBTA. Pause, breathe, think about this, and then, you know, construct the most effective action that you can think of in the moment that’s going to lead you towards success, and then act on it. And then you know, reset, pause, breathe, think, and a lot of that is to just question the assumptions that you’re making.

Eric Barker 26:33
It’s a huge, huge part of it. In the book I talk about it’s all about first impressions. And unlike reading people’s thoughts and feelings, you know, in the moment, first impressions, reach about 70% accuracy. We’re better at sizing people up the first time out. Now, the only issue is the old tale is true. It’s like, first impressions are sticky. Once we kind of make them, they tend to stick around. And one of the ways to address that is exactly what you’re talking about, which is we need to realize that our assumptions are just that assumptions,

Mark Divine 27:02
You know, 70% accurate at what level? I can look at you when you, you know, ZenCaster pulls you up, and I can make some assumptions. I’m like, okay, yeah, you’re male, you’re middle aged, you’re white. Right? You know, you’re an author, because you wrote a book. So I’m like, oh, yeah, I size you up pretty good. But I know nothing about your beliefs, and you know, your most deepest held cherished concepts. And I could project those onto you, because I have some similarities, you know, in terms of age, and race, and gender and all that. But again, that’s all projections are assumption.

Eric Barker 27:14
Most of the research has been around what’s called thin slicing, which is they will basically record someone, have no audio, and they’ll show subjects, you know, a video recording of a teacher in a classroom. And people make their assumptions which are immediate, largely unconscious. And usually for a number of characteristics. Most importantly, competency, people are eerily accurate. Like I said, 70%, which is far from 100. But still better than a coin toss. People are able to look with no audio, just a few minutes, sometimes even shorter, and be able to say, “Yes, this person is pretty good at their job.” “No, they’re not.” For certain personality characteristics, especially like extraversion conscientiousness, their gut instincts in that arena, are definitely better than chance.

Mark Divine 28:19
I wonder how much of that are the social cues that have been programmed, you know, so the, the dress, the mannerisms, etc. If they’ve done studies, you could take someone who’s like a world class concert violinist and put them on the street in rags, and people just walk by him, the 70% accuracy falls apart when you take away all those social cues.

Eric Barker 28:41
Oh, well, I think that probably has more to do with people not knowing anything about classical music.

Mark Divine 28:48
Touche, I love it. (laughing)

Probably right, too. The point is that it’s very it’s complicated, right, and Kahneman, who you referenced earlier, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” man, is a brilliant book, and he won the Nobel Prize for it, because he really helps you understand how involved when he calls System One Thinking is in quick, reactionary judgments that we make, and all the biases that are pre-programmed.

Eric Barker 29:11
I mean, basically, it’s shortcuts for our brain, you know, it’s to be able to respond either quickly or fuel efficiently, because our brains can get pretty lazy. I mean, that’s one of the things I talked about in terms of the issue of reading people is that we do much, much better when there are stakes. And if we can artificially create those stakes, that’s great. But people are, for instance, better people readers on first dates. Why? It’s like, okay, all of a sudden, there’s stakes, you know, some of the gain, something to lose. Versus in the average conversation, our brains kind of idle along, because there’s not much to be won or gained here, you know, versus once our brains know, hey, it’s game day, this is important, all of a sudden, you know, performance goes up, because we can’t, or at least our brains don’t want to, maintain that high level of performance all the time. You can’t sprint for miles. So a good thing to do anytime we’re trying to get more accurate in terms of people reading, is to create some stakes create some gain or loss, so that we’re a little bit more focused.

Mark Divine 30:11
That actually ties into kind of the next subject I want to dig into. And it has to do with healing and the placebo effect. You have some really interesting stories around that. And I think what you just said is part of it, like why does the placebo work? Because you’ve got a high stake situation, you know, regarding your health, your belief in the person or the healing modality has a big impact of whether it works or not. What did you learn there and you’re, you’re digging into the placebo effect?

Eric Barker 30:36
I mean, it was fascinating to me that so much of pain is perception. And that issue that when people go to a therapist and they fill out the intake form, if you survey them, they already report feeling symptomatic relief. And what that has to do with is just the issue of… Are we alone? Are we getting help? Because we’re, by our nature, a social tribal species. And that feeling of I’m alone, no help is common. The alarms start going off. When we feel lonely our brain scans for threats twice as fast. And that issue of once we know there is help, it’s good help, it’s competent help, this is investment… all of those things increase the placebo effect. When a doctor is more interested in you, when they ask questions, when it seems professional. If I give you a placebo pill, a placebo injection actually offers more relief. Now they’re both fake. They’re both placebos, but the injection seems serious, right? It seems intense. And it’s, “Oh, give me the good one.” That kind of feeling.

But a lot of the placebo effect comes from that issue of “we are being helped someone is caring for us, that person seems competent, you know, we’re in good hands.” To think of pain, less as an issue that is caused by the physical damage, and more as it’s the like, the oil light in your car, where it’s like “get service.” And once you’re getting help, that gets dialed down, because it’s like, hey, help has arrived, I don’t need to scream at you anymore. You’re gonna get your oil refilled, everything’s gonna be okay. But it’s really powerful. Because, you know, medicine has become, you know, there’s not as much attention from doctors, not as much bedside manner. And what this research shows is that that really matters, it makes a difference. When a doctor shows interest in you and cares, that actually provides legitimate relief. A lot of this came from the story of Ted Kaptchuk, who did a lot of the research here. And that’s what he found is that to optimize relief, you want to optimize the placebo effect, because it’s really critical that the drug alone only does so much. A lot of it comes from the perception, the handling and the presentation of the drug.

Mark Divine 32:53
I find it interesting that even if you give someone a placebo, and you label it as placebo, it still has a similar effect. It’s the power of the subconscious mind right there. Right?

Unknown Speaker 33:03
It’s that issue of getting help, you know. Where it’s like we are being tended to. I mean, if you think about any situation, where when you’re alone and in pain, versus when you’re with your spouse and in pain, you’re gonna feel better. Maybe it’s not going to relieve the most serious of pain, but you are going to feel better. Somebody’s here, I’m not alone. Somebody’s looking out for me. That’s really critical. And yes, the research is pretty clear on open labeled placebos, placebos that are labeled placebos, they help. You can actually buy them on Amazon.

Mark Divine 33:32
You know, it’s interesting, because that shows that what’s happening is happening at a beyond conscious level, we’re not just talking about, “Oh, I got a placebo, so therefore, I should feel better. Okay, I feel better.” And you’re tricking yourself. I mean, literally, your brain is sending some signal that either takes your mind off of that pain, or shuts down or mutes the pain receptors, because there is an actual mitigation of pain, or that whatever the symptoms might be.

Eric Barker 33:59
No it’s totally fascinating to see, like all the ins and outs of pain. It’s a fascinating subject and very little understood. But you know, there is the signal from the part of your body. But then there’s also the emotional component, which gets looped into a mix of sorts, when we’re stressed out, pain is more severe. You know, when we’re cool about it, when we have an understanding, we feel we have a control over it. Again, that mental next, the signal is still coming that your leg hurts, but your brain says we’ve got this under control, we can handle it. You know, you’ve got the issue of placebo effect is it actually works via endorphins, you know. It’s that if you give someone Narcan, which is you know, the drug that’s used to treat overdoses, the placebo effect stops working, you know, so it is actually happening via, you know, endorphins. It’s interesting that the brain is choosing when you’re getting help when you’re getting assistance. The brain is turning on the endorphin spigot saying, “Okay, I get it, I got the signal. But don’t worry, it’s okay, it’s being dealt with.”

Mark Divine 35:00
I’ll paraphrase this. This is a statement you make that would make Brene Brown’s hair curl a little bit. Not being open and vulnerable doesn’t just kill friendships, it can also kill you. What do you mean by that? Because it seems kind of one of those counterintuitive things, right?

Eric Barker 35:09
Yeah. Oh, no. This is research by Robert Garfield at University of Pennsylvania where when we are not open and vulnerable in our relationships, it prolongs minor illnesses, increases chance but first heart attack and increases the chance of that heart attack will be lethal. I mean, at one level, we need the stress relief, you know. But at another level, if you’re not sharing your problems, people can’t help you. People can’t offer assistance. We need to be able to share these things. It’s tricky. You know, another study I found really interesting was Robin Dunbar is a professor at Oxford, you know, looked at all the research and said, okay, one year after a heart attack, what determines whether you’re alive or not, and you know, tons of factors, obviously exercise, nutrition, etc. But only two that really stood out really mattered. One was: Do you smoke? And number two was: How many good friends do you have? Crazy.

Mark Divine 36:06
It’s interesting, also, because most guys that I know aren’t open and vulnerable. It’s not our norm, right? We’re not taught it, we’re not modeled it. And so that’s, it’s an opportunity, I guess, to grow or to learn how to do that.

Eric Barker 36:17
There’s no doubt. I mean, the research is consistent that, you know, women are better about maintaining friendships, about being open and vulnerable. It’s tough for a lot of guys, their number of friendships really shrinks, you know, as they get older. And opening up a little bit, like I talked about in the book, I call it the scary rule. I say, you know, if it feels scary, say it. But start small, don’t confess any murders immediately. But it’s like to open up a little bit. There are many areas of life where it can be less threatening, you can talk about, “Hey, I’m not making as much progress in the gym as I’d like,” “Hey, maybe I’m having some trouble in my marriage.” “Hey, maybe I’m having some trouble at the office.” Whichever of those is less threatening. There are many different facets of the diamond to just open up and express that because it’s so powerful. This was why I was shocked at how powerful it is in deepening our friendships. Because basically, by expressing something that makes you look bad, by expressing something that isn’t very flattering, you are handing the other person a weapon, you are telling them, “You could hurt me.” And that is the most powerful expression of trust, to say, “Hey, you could use this to make me look bad. But I trust you not to.” And what the research found, Diego Gambetta’s research is that basically the most powerful way to build trust in another person is to first show them trust. And then if they reciprocate, escalate. This is how you deepen trust between you and your friends.

Mark Divine 37:42
Yeah, I love that. There’s probably an app for that to help guys. If not, we should develop it. (laughing) Eric, what’s next? I mean, you’re done with this book? When’s it due out?

Eric Barker 37:55
It’s out now. Okay, I’m still doing the newsletter, and I’m promoting the book. But we’ll see. I mean, Freud only had two categories, you know, work and love. And I kind of covered both of those. So I may need a new model because I’ve otherwise exhausted this. And I’m not in my elderly years yet. So I’m gonna need to find somebody who’s got holistic group.

Mark Divine 38:19
You’ve got work, relationships and health and finances. There’s four, there’s two more categories. (laughing) Those are the Big Four.

Eric Barker 38:25
To your point. I think those are two other things that people are big illusions about.

Mark Divine 38:30
You’re 100% right. That’s awesome. Eric, it’d be great to meet you in person someday. And I appreciate the work you’re doing. And I love your style. And this has been a really fun conversation and very informative. So thank you very much.

Eric Barker 38:41
Thank you for having me, dude. I really appreciate this. It’s been great.

Mark Divine 38:45
All right, my friend. Take care. And to reach out, what’s your social handles and website, wherever you’d like people to find you and connect with you.

Eric Barker 38:50
All my social handles are Bakadesuyo, which is really hard to spell. B-a-k-a-d-e-s-u-y-o, my Twitter and my Instagram. If people go to Ericbarker.org, they can find the website.

Mark Divine
Got it. And Plays Well With Others, wherever books are sold. Yeah, I look forward to talking again and digging into whatever your next domain of expertise is. If you’re ever down in San Diego, look me up. I’d love to see you.

Eric Barker
Absolutely, man. That’s fantastic. Thank you.

Mark Divine 39:19
All right. Take care.

That was a super fun episode with Eric Barker, author of Plays Well With Others. Show notes and transcripts are up on my site, MarkDivine.com. You can find a video up at the YouTube channel MarkDivine.com/youtube. If you want to reach out to us, propose a guest or ask me questions then you can find me on Twitter, @MarkDivine and on Instagram and Facebook @RealMarkDivine. Also have a LinkedIn page which is pretty easy to find.

If you’re interested in my newsletter, Divine Inspiration, it comes out every Tuesday where I provide a synopsis of the podcast, a blog that I write every week, a habit or a practice, a book I’m reading, all sorts of stuff like that, things that might be valuable to you, go to MarkDivine.com and subscribe and refer it to your friends.

Super appreciate my incredible team Geoff Haskell and Jason Sanderson and Jeff Torres, Melinda Hershey to help produce the show and bring incredible guests to you every week, like Eric. And reviews, and ratings are extremely valuable. So if you haven’t reviewed or rated the show, please consider doing so at Apple or wherever you listen. It’s very helpful for others to find the show, because it will show up in their search results if we have more ratings, we get more reviews. So thanks very much. My goal is 5,000 5-star reviews by the end of this year.

The world is changing fast. Technology is exploding. We’re in the age of exponential growth in the conceptual age where creativity and connection are one of our most valuable skills as humans. So it’s incumbent upon us to develop those skills and to pay it forward by teaching others and showing up as more inclusive and more whole. And that’s my mission. So thanks for being part of that journey and thanks for supporting the Mark Divine Show. Till next week, play well with others. See you then.

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