How Exactly Do You Design a Good Life? An Interview with Nick Epley

Didn’t bid enough points for Designing a Good Life last quarter? I had a chance to sit down with Nicholas Epley, the John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business. Famous in the academic world for his work in personality and social psychology, he is popularly known among students as the man behind one of the most “expensive” classes of Winter Quarter. Dressed down in jeans and a polo shirt, his casual demeanor amidst an office full of books was an appropriate representation of his mix of intellectual and outdoor pursuits. 

Araba Nti, '17

Araba Nti, '17

On how he spends his time: “I grew up in rural Iowa and have always been a farm boy at heart, so I like to be outdoors. Hunting, fishing, working in the woods. I do a lot of gardening at home. I have an orchard, and I’m planting trees with great regularity. We own a little bit of land in Central Illinois—50 acres that we manage as part of a forestry program. We’re doing a prairie grass restoration there, so I’m actually going out there this weekend to do some turkey hunting and also burning some of the grassland and wood to beat back the invasive species and make it better for wildlife.”

Despite his love for the outdoors, Epley was drawn to an academic career in social psychology after his first psych course in college: “I was really interested in why good people do bad things. A classic problem in intellectual thought and everyday life. Philosophy gives you lots of ways to talk about this issue, but no ways to really answer that question. But psychology allows you to think those kinds of big questions but also gives you the tools to answer them.”

In his 11th year at Booth, Epley has found the environment at Booth to be one which has not forced him to narrow down the scope of his research to an explicit business focus. Rather, it has enhanced his research by forcing him to think hard about why the work that he does matter. (After a little provocation), Epley responds to the “soft” label often heard applied to Organizational Behavior courses at Booth: “The mind is the most complicated thing ever. Ever. It’s not reducible to a simple math problem, not even a complicated math problem. So referring to [research that addresses this] as ‘soft’ is very odd.”

Nicholas Epley, the John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science

Nicholas Epley, the John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science

Offering the course for the first time this year, Epley’s goal in creating Designing a Good Life was to provide a course that explores ethics in a manner that would be both interesting and useful to students: “The class builds up from a basic understanding of what ethics are and what leads us to do things that aren’t in line with our own understanding of what would be good. It builds up from a basic understanding of the psychology of this to the organizational level—how to create an organization that helps good people not do [the things that they recognize as unethical], then it ends by asking the question of whether ethics and hedonics are aligned—whether being good feels good.”

So does being good go with feeling good? Epley argues “yes”: “Being good and feeling good are deeply aligned. Ethics is about pro‐sociality, and having good social relationships is one of the key ingredients of happiness.” Don’t believe this? Take the course and participate in an original experiment that substantiates this.

The one idea that he would want all Booth students to leave with: “Overconfidence is the biggest problem that psychologists have identified in everyday life. You can always learn better. There is always a lot that you don’t know. The most critical element of learning is having some sense of humility.”

On what’s next for him: “I’ve gotten really interested in how we misunderstand each other in fundamental ways. The things I have gotten interested in most recently is a phenomenon we might refer to as ‘de‐humanization.’ These are cases where we fail to understand that somebody has a fully human‐like mind like we do. There are lots of subtle instantiations of this. You think that someone is not quite as smart as you are. Not quite as compassionate or as empathic, not quite as moral. These are all judgments that someone lacks some fundamental feature of humanity. That’s gotten me really interested recently in the power of a person’s voice. We’re finding that the ability to communicate fundamental capacities—your ability to think, your ability to reason, that you’re a thoughtful, compassionate person—are not so much a thing that you can read about or see in others. It turns out that people can hear it. That your voice communicates thinking, empathy, compassion, feeling. And when people communicate in mediums that lack a voice, they are more likely to dehumanize a person.”

Araba is a first year at Booth who recently discovered that there’s life above the 2nd floor of Harper Center.