The Three Hardest Words in the English Language: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: mrpolyonymous)

(Photo: mrpolyonymous)

This week’s episode is called “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

So what are the three hardest words? Conventional wisdom suggests: “I love you.” Readers of this blog recently offered up their suggestions of challenging three-word phrases. In their new book Think Like a Freak, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt tell us that the hardest three words in the English language are “I don’t know,” and that our inability to say these words more often can have huge consequences.

On this week’s podcast, we explore where this unwillingness to say “I don’t know” comes from. Dubner talks to Amanda Waterman, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Leeds. Much of her research (gated papers here and here) is about people’s unwillingness – especially children’s unwillingness – to say “I don’t know.” Waterman has found that the vast majority of kids pretend they know the answer to unanswerable questions.

WATERMAN: It has varied between studies, but you’d be looking at two-thirds to three-quarters of children—and we’re talking in the age range here of about five to eight years old—would say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a yes/no question that we know they don’t know the answer to.

Apparently this is a habit that we adults don’t grow out of. You will hear Levitt tell Dubner that he has witnessed people’s reluctance to say “I don’t know” way too often:

LEVITT: So we wrote Freakonomics, and because it was deemed a business book and we sold a lot of copies, that made us business experts. And since we wrote that book I’ve been asked a ton to go talk to companies and give them advice. And what’s amazing to me is I could count on one hand the number of occasions in which someone in a company, in front of their boss, on a question that they might possibly have ever been expected to know the answer, has said “I don’t know.” Within the business world, there’s a general view that your job is to be an expert. And no matter how much you have to fake or how much you are making it up that you just should give an answer and hope for the best afterwards. And I have seen it teaching the business school students, that they are incredibly good — the MBAs — at faking like they know the answer when they have no idea.

Levitt goes on to tell the story of one multinational retailer he worked with whose inability to admit they didn’t know ended up costing them millions of dollars. Finally, you’ll hear his suggestion for how we can all get better at saying these three most difficult words.

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  1. Walter Clark says:

    A company that can forgo millions by not having to admit “I don’t know” can be put out of business by a less arrogant company who responded properly to “I don’t know”. But what if the entity has no competition and the cost of their operation is diffused because it is merely one agency among thousands all of whom draw from the same source of money? That entity perhaps should, with the power of a Constitution or something, not be allowed that monopoly. But that action can only take place with politics. The sacred institution of voting can’t get around the constraint that the only ones to choose from are: new-comers who bubbled to prominence by never saying “I don’t know” and incumbents who in addition to never saying “I don’t know” come from an environment where there is no feedback. Government is the use of force by those who were judged only by their good intentions.

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  2. Mike Frausto says:

    I enjoyed this episode very much and agree that these 3 words are some of the hardest to say in the English language. However, I have to humbly disagree that they are the hardest. I believe the hardest words to say are “It’s my fault”. Given the blameless society that we live in, I’m sure you can find enough examples to fill 3 episodes. Your problem will be where to begin !! Banking… Politics …. environment … Fat kids eating junk food…. I can go on for ever ! Look forward to your thoughts.

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  3. Paauilo Farmer says:

    well, the kids are trying different things to see how the world is put together. actually i thought their answers were very creative and trying to make sense of the world about them. yellow is light and high and red is hell and heavier. loved that.

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  4. Carla Ceres says:

    Nice episode, folks! OK, I don’t know but… couldn’t those children who were unwilling to say “I don’t know” be thinking that it was just a game they were playing? Maybe they were just trying to give creative answers to silly questions.

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    • Will Reynoldson says:

      Yes, I wonder if there’s an alternative explanation other than just fear of saying I don’t know. It seems like a good skill to be able to extrapolate new information from small amounts of info. e.g. “did they listen to music in the car?”, “yes, doesn’t everybody?”. Is probably correct in many cases.

      Really liked the episode – is making me think :)

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  5. James says:

    I think your advertising example is way off base. The problem is not that they don’t know: they do know, thanks to that intern. The problem is (to paraphrase Mark Twain) is not that they don’t know, it’s that they think they know something that just ain’t so.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      They don’t know. They don’t know whether that was a one-time fluke, something that only affects Pittsburgh, something that only worked in that one year, or any number of other things.

      They might have a vested interest in not learning that newspaper ads are useless for them (if, for example, designing newspaper ads is their primary job activity), but they don’t know.

      I would have been interested in taking this discussion up to the CEO. They’re predicting the CEO’s reaction to a program that might result in their ads being even more effective, or saving hundreds of millions of dollars by stopping them—and they don’t think he’ll be interested. The response to “the CEO will kill us” should be “Let’s go ask him”.

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      • James says:

        You misunderstand: what they do know is that advertising is necessary. They know it so well that they keep on knowing it in the face of contrary evidence.

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    • Phil Persinger says:


      Thank you for your post.

      For years I have been mocked at the office for arguing that there is probably little or no basis for the general belief that advertising has the magical ability to make people– outside of a few exceptional cases– do what they would ordinarily not do otherwise. I get no argument to the contrary except this: “Billions are spent on advertising, so it must work.”

      There seems precious little direct publicly-available evidence to support the assertions of advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments– who as professional spinners should be the last folks anyone should believe– that they perform some uniformly necessary function.

      If anyone out there knows otherwise, please provide links….

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      • James says:

        I agree. I think some advertising works – the “we have X product that costs $Y and will do Z – but all the advertising money in the world could never convince me to say buy an SUV instead of a sports car or a bike.

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      • Chad Howland says:

        You say that advertising can get people to “do what they would ordinarily not do otherwise.” The statement is misleading. If you mean that advertising does not influence sales ON AVERAGE, then that is wrong (see links below). If you mean that advertising typically influences buying behavior of (only) those within the target market, then that is correct–and precisely the point of advertising. It can be done poorly and be a wasted investment. Or it can be done well, targeting those who either do not understand that such a product exists, or do not understand its features or benefits, or do not understand the products’ connection to personal values (Zaltman, Gerald. How customers think: Essential insights into the mind of the market. Harvard Business Press, 2003).

        You also say that advertising is effective only within “a few exceptional cases.” This is relative. The marketing world often divides the world into love groups, swing groups, and hate groups. The point of marketing is to ignore those who hate, say, SUVs and instead focus on those who would consider buying one, but need to know why the particular model your company offers is important to them.

        Academic research has shown that current advertising can increase future sales if the marketing targets the optimal segment (and that segment is large and profitable enough to warrant the investment).

        Here are a few examples of this academic research:

        Hope this helps. Be careful with blanket statements of the worthlessness of whole business tracks. In some businesses, typical financial practices will hinder innovation practices that would ensure future growth (Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The innovator’s solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth. Harvard Business Press, 2003). To say that finance is a worthless pursuit is misguided and myopic, if not dangerous to businesses.

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  6. Brit says:

    Towards the end of the podcast, you talked about the company who wouldn’t experiment with newspaper ads. The conclusion reached by Dubner was that marketing people would rather spend a billion dollars on useless advertising would than admit they don’t know. My conclusion was different: that suspending newspaper advertising would look so bad to the higher-ups who control their jobs (because it was “obvious” to the higher-ups that newspaper advertising worked) that they would lose their jobs. Even worse, it’s possible that they’d discover that newspaper advertising (and other forms advertising) wasn’t worth the money that the company spends, and therefore, the entire marketing department would get cut (i.e. the marketing people would be destroying their own jobs).

    So, maybe the problem isn’t so much that the marketing people didn’t want to say “I don’t know” as much as the fact that any experiments they do leads to the possibility that they’ll lose their jobs – either because the outcome of the experiments are “obvious” to the higher-ups (and therefore, the experiment needlessly cost the company revenue, and they should be replaced with marketing people who know what the CEO already “knows” about the effectiveness of advertising) or because it would show that advertising wasn’t effective and the marketing people should lose their jobs (because the company was overspending on marketing).

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  7. Chris Land says:

    I found this podcast to be really interesting. One of the concepts that is hammered into us in the Canadian Army is to say that we don’t know when we don’t know something. The second step in that is to go and look up the answer and get back to the person who asked it in the first place. I found the phase “I don’t know” to be not nearly as welcome in the business world as in the Army.

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  8. Daniel says:

    I liked this podcast and completely agree that many problems could be solved if we could more often admit when we don’t know. However, many times the opposite problem is also too relevant, in which “I don’t know” has become an accepted way of stating that one would like to think no further, uttered under the guise of responsibly admitting one’s own ignorance.

    With that in mind, I agree that “I don’t know” should be heard more often, but I also think that the vast majority of the time it should be accompanied by a “yet,” or a “but let’s figure it out.” I continue to be amazed by how many times people are able to arrive at the answer to something they don’t know simply by dropping the appearance of omniscience and slowly working with the things that they DO know.

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