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On Wednesday, May 1, 2024, Columbia University’s Mario Small sat down with Nicholas Epley at the Gleacher Center for a fascinating conversation about who we confide in when facing challenging times. This event was part of the Think Better speaker series hosted by the Roman Family Center for Decision Research. 

The following recap was written by Cellestine Harig, and photos are courtesy of Anne Ryan. 

Mario Small speaks while seated on stage

Mario Small, a quantitative and qualitative researcher, opened the discussion by speaking about the importance of qualitative literacy. Small says that to develop qualitative literacy, you need to develop the ability to assess how other people think. This is distinct from quantitative literacy, which is the capacity to read and evaluate quantitative data. Small mentioned that in the past several years, there has been a notable improvement in quantitative literacy, especially within well-known news journals and other media outlets. However, there has not been similar increase in qualitative literacy. Qualitative literacy is important because it improves critical thinking skills and urges everyone to improve their qualitative literacy: it would simply make us better thinkers.

How do we take the qualitative approach?

Small says that it can simply be about the types of questions that we ask. To demonstrate this, Small recalled one of his early studies that sought to understand access to banks in different neighborhoods. He said that 20 years ago, his team took the wrong approach to this research project. From a large quantitative database, they found data at the zip code level, then drew their conclusions about access to banks based on where there were the lowest or highest number of banks per capita. While this provides some information, this doesn’t reflect the lived realities about access to banking. No one is asking “how many banks are there per capita in my zip code?” The simply wonder how long it takes to get to the bank. So, the better way to do it is to get the perspective of the individual – to take a qualitative approach.

Instead of accessing zip code data, Small and his team went to the neighborhoods, and block by block either walked, drove, or took public transportation to a bank and calculated how long it took to travel there. This approach, while collecting and calculating quantitative data, took a qualitative approach because it took the perspective of an individual.

Mario Small & Nick Epley on stage

Why does quantitative fall short of accurately portraying the human experience?

The short answer: it’s because people are complex. Small shared an anecdote about how his father-in-law voted for former President Trump. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Small had a conversation with him, asked why he voted for Trump and learned that in previous elections, he had voted for a different party based on the issues and electoral platforms at hand. Small explained that when you listen to people’s experiences and perspectives, their decisions are less of a shock, and it fosters a more communal level of understanding. If we sought to understand the world the way others see it more often, we would get better at it and naturally begin to do it more often.

Small and Epley on stage with audience

Who do you confide in? The answer may surprise you…

Qualitative research is important because people are connected to others within a social network. In 2018, Small published his book “Somone to Talk to” which focuses on who we go to in our social network to confide in or talk to. To demonstrate Small’s qualitative approach in answering these questions, Epley asked the audience to write down answers to three questions:

  1. There are people with whom we talk about matters that are personally important. These are the people we confide in. Who are those people for you?

    This first question is to get a snapshot of someone’s social network. Who do they think they confide in? It’s a standard question for eliciting strong ties.

  2. What are the most personally important matters that currently concern you?

    This second question is a practice-based question. It helps to identify what are the pressing matters in their life that they may talk to someone about.

  3. Think about the last time you talked with someone about each of those topics. Who did you talk with about it?

This last question is where Small’s research reveals something interesting: many people, including members of the present audience, wrote down different answers for questions one and three, which is to say, they confide in different people than they think they do. Why the disconnect?

What Small found is that people often avoid difficult conversations with their closest confidants if there is a fear that those people will react adversely. A common theme throughout this talk was that relationshiops are complex and people play different roles in them. Your closest confidants—spouse, best friend, parent—likely play multiple roles at once–critic, supporter, mentor, spouse, etc. We tend to avoid our confidants when we fear that they might take on the wrong role. For example, if you are navigating a career change, you may want your spouse to simply listen to your venting as a supportive friend, rather than trying to solve the problem as your career coach or financial partner.

Nick Epley laughing

Small found that people are as likely to avoid their close confidants as they are to talk to them when they are struggling.

So instead, we may confide in those we have weaker ties with. The weaker ties in our social network are vital in this way because those people play fewer roles in our lives. Our relationships with them are less complicated, and it can be clearer what kind of role they will play when approached. This makes confiding in them easier because they are less likely to act in the wrong role.

Are we avoiding others too much?

Small explained that, while it still needs to be tested, the negative effects of avoidance are greater than the positive effects of talking on our overall well-being. Avoidance can be misplaced, and in our minds, we tend to overstate the negative consequences of talking to someone. So, if our goal is improved well-being, then we should avoid others less.

Mario Small shakes hands with an attendee after the event

How does this tie into qualitative literacy?

If we collectively improved our qualitative literacy, it would improve our ability to talk to others and improve our ability to understand what role we need to play when someone confides in us. There are likely people in our lives who are avoiding talking to us. Cultivating collective qualitative literacy could decrease the fear and tendency of overstating negative consequences of a conversation in our minds.

How can we give and receive the support we need?

  1. As a confidant, be aware of the multiple roles you play in that person’s life. Ask your close relations what they need from you or who they need you to be in that moment. You don't need to be a mind-reader – just ask.
  2. If you need support, articulate the role you need your confidant to play. Say to a parent, for example, “Right now, I need the supporter, instead of the critic.” This also makes it easier on the confidant so that they don’t get it wrong.