Freakonomics Radio Live: “Where Does Fear Live in the Brain?”

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Christian Finnegan and Stephen Dubner play Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. (Photo: Lucy Sutton)

Our co-host is comedian Christian Finnegan, and we learn: the difference between danger and fear; the role of clouds in climate change; and why (and when) politicians are bad at math. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri is our real-time fact-checker.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is an edited transcript of the episode. 

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This is a bonus episode of Freakonomics Radio Live. It’s the non-fiction game show we call Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. This episode was recently recorded in New York. If you’d like to attend a future show or be on a future show, visit freakonomics.com/live. We’ll be back in New York on March 8th and 9th, at City Winery; and in May, we’re coming to California: in San Francisco on May 16, at the Nourse Theater, in partnership with KQED; and in Los Angeles on May 18th, at the Ace Hotel Theater, in partnership with KCRW.

Stephen DUBNER: Good evening. This is Freakonomics Radio Live Tonight we’re at Joe’s Pub in New York City. And joining me as co-host is the comedian, writer, and actor Christian Finnegan.

Christian FINNEGAN: Thank you.

DUBNER: Hello there sir. Nice to have you here.

FINNEGAN: Lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.

DUBNER: Christian, here’s what we know about you so far: We know that you grew up in Massachusetts.

FINNEGAN: Yes I did.

DUBNER: That you became a comedian because you had no “marketable skills.”

FINNEGAN: Still true.

DUBNER: We know you’ve performed all over TV and the world.

FINNEGAN: Yes, TV and the world. In that order.

DUBNER: And we know that you once lost 70 pounds in nine months, which is a person.

FINNEGAN: Yeah it was — you learn how to hate life and accept that. And I’ve slowly gained it back. So.

DUBNER: You’re such a liar. You can lie on the radio, but usually people lie in the skinny direction not in the fat direction.

FINNEGAN: No, you’re right. I mean there’s pictures — for a long time when you would Google me, literally if you just started a typing “Christian Finnegan” it would be “Christian Finnegan fat,” that would be the first Google search results.

DUBNER: Oh that’s sweet, yeah. So Christian that’s what we know about you. Why don’t you tell us something we don’t yet know about you, please.

FINNEGAN: Well, I’m a man of many talents, Stephen. Thank you for asking. And I am capable of playing either “The William Tell Overture” or “Shave and A Haircut” by banging on my own human skull.

DUBNER: Wow, really?

FINNEGAN: Yep. Very talented.

DUBNER: Can we take an audience request for which song they want to hear and you’ll play it?

FINNEGAN: Yeah sure. William Tell Overture? Shave and a haircut? Okay, William Tell — Okay, here we go. Thank you.

DUBNER: No idea we were going to milk you for this much entertainment so early.

FINNEGAN: I’m slightly concussed.

DUBNER: Well, Christian thank you for being here tonight to play Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Let me tell you how it works. Guests will come onstage to tell us some interesting fact or idea or story. You and I can then ask them anything we want. And at the end of the show our live audience will pick a winner. The vote will be based on three simple criteria: No. 1, did the guest tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2, was it worth knowing? And No. 3, is it demonstrably true?

And to help with that demonstrably true part, please welcome our real time fact checker Alexandra Petri. So Alexandra is a Washington Post columnist and author of the book A Field Guide to Awkward Silences. Furthermore, in order to take her Post job, she turned down an offer to study Renaissance poetry at Oxford. So Alexandra, what have you been up to lately?

PETRI: Well if you’re my agent listening, I’m definitely working on a book. But if you’re anyone else, my husband and I have been watching all of Star Trek, because he claims it raised him. I’m like, “All right. Let’s learn about this.” And I loved the original series because it’s just entirely ridiculous space camp. And everyone was like, “No, it’s logic and ideas,” and it’s not. It’s mostly just like William Shatner yelling about things. At one point Kirk’s body gets taken by a lady because they don’t have lady spaceship captains, and within seconds of his body being taken, this apparent Kirk gets court martialed for being hysterical. And it’s just like you can’t win anyway. Watch it, “Turnabout Intruder” it’s a great, great classic, etc.

DUBNER: Well I’m so glad you could take time out of your busy schedule to be with us tonight, I know you have a bit more to watch. All right then it is time to play Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, would you please welcome our first guest Joseph LeDoux. Joseph, I understand you are a professor of neuroscience at N.Y.U., which makes me think you’re pretty bright. On the other hand, N.Y.U. is about 12 steps away from Joe’s Pub here, so I’m assuming you’re also quite lazy. In any case, I’m ready. So are Christian Finnegan and Alexandra Petri. So what do you know that’s worth knowing that you think we don’t know?

LEDOUX: Where does fear live in the brain?

DUBNER: Where does fear live in the brain, asks the neuroscientist. In the back?

FINNEGAN: Is this a zen koan — it seems like it’ll be at the base of the spine. It feels like it would be a central nerve kind of thing.

LEDOUX: You’re seeing the old tingler movies.

FINNEGAN: No?

DUBNER: Should we just named brain parts we — cerebrum, cerebellum, antebellum —

PETRI: The back.

LEDOUX: Keep going.

PETRI: The front

FINNEGAN: Hippocampus.

DUBNER: Amygdala.

LEDOUX: There you go.

DUBNER: Amygdala?

LEDOUX: That’s wrong. But that’s the right answer.

DUBNER: That’s the right answer but I’m wrong. You’re right, it was a zen koan. Yeah.

FINNEGAN: I bet it’s a trick question. I bet it doesn’t actually live in the brain. I bet that’s what he’s trying to do. Am I right?

LEDOUX: That’s too tricky, no no no.

DUBNER: All right, so we’re intrigued, we’re confused. Tell us what you’re all about then.

LEDOUX: Well the amygdala is famously known to be the brain’s fear center.

DUBNER: Famously except among all of us.

LEDOUX: And, unfortunately, I’m partly responsible for that because of misinterpretations of my research, that idea has been put out into the public quite a bit. And so I’m here to correct it tonight.

DUBNER: So where does fear reside?

LEDOUX: Well it depends. You have to define what fear is first of all. So fear as usually talked about in terms of the amygdala is simply the ability to detect and respond to danger. As people, we go around in the world and we have fearful experiences all the time, but that’s not the same as simply detecting and responding to danger. So the amygdala is detecting and responding to danger, but higher centers in the neocortex, in my opinion, my theory, are responsible for the actual experience of fear.

DUBNER: So the amygdala in the brain is kind of an early warning system, or it’s what detects the danger.

LEDOUX: Correct.

DUBNER: But it doesn’t generate the sensation of fear, you’re saying?

LEDOUX: I wouldn’t call it a sensation but the experience of fear. So one way to think about it is: no self, no fear. In other words, if you aren’t personally involved in a situation, then you can’t be afraid of it. You can respond to it, but you can’t be afraid. So if you start asking how far back in evolution does the ability to detect and respond to danger go, you never stop until you get to the beginning of life. Bacteria detect and respond to danger. But —

DUBNER: They don’t experience fear.

LEDOUX: Well, how do we know, but I don’t think so.

DUBNER:I was just talking today to a bacterial friend and he said, “You know what Dubner, it’s funny; I detect danger almost daily. It doesn’t bother me.” So that’s my research, Joseph LeDoux from N.Y.U.

FINNEGAN: Can I ask — does all fear reside in — all kinds of fear reside in the same place? Like the kind of fear when a bear is chasing you, is that the same fear as when your girlfriend starts scrolling through your phone? Are those same kinds of fear?

LEDOUX: Well actually there are lots of different kinds of fears. So there’s social fear, predatory fear. There’s fear of an immediately present stimulus, there’s fear about a future stimulus. There are existential fears about the eventuality of death, of the meaningless of life. So fear is a very complicated thing.

FINNEGAN: What I call being alive.

LEDOUX: That’s right. So there are 37 words in English alone for different sort of variations and twists on fear.

DUBNER: So, what’s the mechanism by which the perception of danger is turned into fear in the brain?

LEDOUX: So the amygdala generates a response in the body. For example you might be freezing in front of a snake. Your heart is beating fast, your brain is now aroused, releasing chemicals, so you start to attend to the environment to see what’s there. So I think there are a number of components that come as a result of all of this that come into the actual experience. One is all this body feedback, another is brain arousal. Another is the retrieval of memories about past dangers. And another is your awareness that you as an individual, you as a person are in that situation and are about to be harmed.

DUBNER: I’m really curious about something you said about if the danger is not toward you, you don’t experience —.

LEDOUX: If it’s not about you.

DUBNER: And it’s funny; it sounds so obvious in retrospect but I never thought about it. A terrible thing could be happening to someone else right next to me —.

LEDOUX: A lot of my colleagues don’t like this idea either.

DUBNER: I actually like the idea, it’s just a very powerful and kind of alienating idea because it makes you ask, well, where’s empathy in the brain?

LEDOUX: Well, so I think all emotions are made pretty much the same way, that you have to integrate a variety of different sources of information, what’s called working memory, which is a product of the more frontal areas of the neocortex where you can do that kind of integration in real time. And it’s a matter of what information working memory is working with as to what you experience. So if you’re looking at the bottle of Poland Spring water.

DUBNER: That’s gin, actually.

LEDOUX: Okay, well — I experience it as water. So my experience is mine. I can’t ever be wrong about being afraid or angry. You can tell me, No you weren’t afraid or angry, you’re something else. But my experience is my experience. It’s incorrigible in the moment.

FINNEGAN: The kind of fear you might feel when you’re watching a horror movie is not the same chemical experience of actually being afraid if something’s happening to you in real life.

LEDOUX: So we have these things called schema in our brain that are catalogues of all of the kinds of things we know about danger and experiences of threat and harm that we’ve acquired as we go through life from the earliest days. And that information is brought into mind by the presence of a threat. It’s called pattern completion in the mind. So the presence of a snake at your feet and that your heart is beating fast is enough to pattern-complete this whole concept of fear. And you also know in that concept that you know what your responses to fear are, and that biases how you interpret and respond in that situation.

DUBNER: Okay, let me ask you a big concern of mine. You’re saying all this stuff that sounds real and smart and —

LEDOUX: Thank you.

DUBNER: Eh, wait for the thank you — And it might be. And we’re all way too dumb to know if what you’re saying is demonstrably true. What’s your degree of confidence that it really is? Because it’s really a remarkable little engine up there, plainly.

LEDOUX: This is a theory. So it’s based on a lot of facts that I’ve assembled over the years and been putting together and trying to conceptualize as I assemble it all. So you won’t necessarily find this in the textbooks.

DUBNER: So Alexandra, Joseph LeDoux is telling us about a really interesting construct, the relationship between the detection of danger in the brain and the experience of fear which happens in different places. Is it true?

PETRI: As far as I can tell, definitely, but it also sent me down a rabbit hole of fears. What are people afraid of that they are subjectively experiencing? And apparently our top 10 fears are flying, heights, clowns, death, as you mentioned, rejection, people, snakes, and something illegible that I’ve written in handwriting that I cannot see, but it might be failure or driving. A study found in 2014 that Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to have a fear of clowns. Which, I’m just going to let that joke make itself.

DUBNER: Alexandra, thank you. And Joseph LeDoux, thank you so much for coming to tell us something we didn’t know.

LEDOUX: Thank you.

FINNEGAN: I just want to put out there, I don’t believe that anybody is truly afraid of clowns. I think that is what I refer to as a public domain personality quirk. That’s the kind of thing that people say they think it makes them sound interesting but nobody’s actually afraid of clowns. Just stop it.

DUBNER: Can I just ask, are you now or have you ever been a clown?

FINNEGAN: I — there was a time —

DUBNER: All right. Just what I thought you were gonna say.

FINNEGAN: I’m leaving, squeak, squeak, squeak.

DUBNER: Let’s bring up our next guest. Her name is Kate Marvel. Come on up, Kate. Kate Marvel, it says here you’re a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Kate, what can you tell us tonight that we don’t know?

MARVEL: So other than human behavior, which is a big other, what is the biggest wild card in climate change?

DUBNER: I would have said, had you not qualified it with “other than human behavior,” I would have said that the biggest wildcard in climate change would almost surely be Kanye. But I will guess cows.

MARVEL: Cows.

DUBNER: I know cows produce a lot of methane, and meat production is super environmentally needy, resource intensive, etc.

MARVEL: It’s a good guess. But I feel like we know about cows. I feel like they’re not really a wild card.

DUBNER: Oh this is an unknown, an unknown known.

MARVEL: Yeah. We’re good with cows, I think.

DUBNER: When you say wild card, you mean could be good, could be bad?

MARVEL: Could be less bad. Could be really bad.

DUBNER: So the choices are bad or really bad?

MARVEL: I’m not going to win this am I? When you’re a climate scientist those are your choices.

FINNEGAN: “What’s awesome about the climate?” Nothing. Is it an actual animal that we’re talking about?

MARVEL: No.

FINNEGAN: Okay. Boy.

DUBNER: Vegetable?

MARVEL: No.

DUBNER: Mineral?

MARVEL: Kind of.

DUBNER: Kind of a mineral.

PETRI: Oh, how about volcanoes maybe.

MARVEL: Oh that’s a good guess.

DUBNER: We do know that volcanoes, they can — if there’s a big one. Pinatubo cooled the earth for a while, right? Okay. Why don’t you tell us.

MARVEL: Okay. It’s clouds.

DUBNER: Oh, clouds. So clouds are terrible?

MARVEL: Well, clouds might be good, they might be friendly. So we don’t know exactly how hot it’s going to get. And a lot of that is because of human behavior. We don’t know what humans are going to do. But even if you take out all the uncertainty surrounding humans, there are still uncertainties in the physical climate system. And this is really embarrassing because people are like, “Come on climate scientists, like, you have one job.” And we’re working on it. But the wild card is really clouds, because when we talk about global warming, we mean climate change. And a lot of stuff is going to change when it warms up. And one of those things that’s going to change is clouds. And clouds are really important in the climate system because they both warm the planet and they cool the planet at the same time.

DUBNER: The same clouds?

MARVEL: Not the same clouds, different clouds do different things. So basically, those low thick clouds, they’re really good at blocking the sun. They’re what you think of when you think of a cloudy day. Right. If you block the sun, it gets cooler. But there’s also — clouds are made of water vapor. And water vapor itself is a really powerful greenhouse gas. So clouds, especially those high thin clouds like cirrus clouds, are really effective at trapping the heat coming up from the earth.

DUBNER: So why is it such a wild card? What will be the variables that change the behavior or the proliferation whatever of clouds that might dictate temperature?

MARVEL: So clouds are so hard to understand. They’re really hard to shove in a climate model because they’re both really small — they’re nucleated by tiny, tiny grains of sand or dust — but at the same time they’re really, really big. They cover a giant, giant portion of the Earth. And it’s really hard within a computer model of the climate system to simulate something that’s both really small and really big. So basically we suck at it. We are really, really bad at modeling clouds.

DUBNER: Is it possible that a series or whatever of clouds, a family of clouds that are in a low position, and therefore potentially cooling, that same family or generation or whatever of clouds could eventually migrate higher? In other words, good clouds could become bad clouds?

FINNEGAN: Can these clouds be rehabilitated? That’s —

MARVEL: No that’s a great question. We’re actually —

DUBNER: Which, his or mine?

MARVEL: All of them. All of them. They’re all great questions. That’s really interesting because we actually are becoming more and more sure that bad clouds are actually going to become worse clouds. And this is why this is such a terrible —

DUBNER: You just lost the crowd.

MARVEL: Right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. So we’re actually pretty sure that those bad clouds are going to get worse as the planet heats up.

DUBNER: Because why?

MARVEL: Because they’re going to trap more heat, because the planet itself is heating up, that planet is just chucking more heat out into the universe.

DUBNER: And that makes the clouds literally escape to a higher altitude or something?

MARVEL: So the clouds are going to a higher altitude. So the clouds themselves are not getting warmer or cooler. They’re staying at exactly the same temperature. So they’re not losing more heat to space themselves but they’re continuing to trap the heat that comes up from the planet below.

DUBNER: Well let me ask you this, since low hanging clouds, at least some can generate cooling, right, by blocking the sun, is it not possible to generate on purpose a certain kind of low hanging cloud? I’m guessing you know a lot more about this than I do, but I know some mad scientists who want to do some sort of cloud seeding with salt water vapor or with dust to kind of create a nice little sunscreen around the planet. You like that idea?

MARVEL: No, I hate that idea. But it’s not a stupid idea. It would work. It would —

DUBNER: You’re such a lovely bundle of contradictions. 

MARVEL: So, it would probably cool down the planet. Right. If you block sunlight it cools down. But I don’t like that idea because I like sunlight, and plants like sunlight. If you look at the tracks of ships crossing the Atlantic, you can actually see that they are cloudier, because those ships are spewing out gas and dust, those particles are nucleating clouds, and it’s actually cooler where a ship’s been than it is where a ship hasn’t been.

So this is an idea that people have kind of seized upon. They’re like, “What if we just make a lot of clouds, could we actually cool down the planet?” And we could. But I don’t just care about the temperature of the planet. And maybe we’ll get to a place where we’re like, “Oh my god, this is our only option, we have to do this.” But that doesn’t fix rainfall patterns. That doesn’t do anything about ocean acidification. So it’s kind of like not altering your diet or not getting more exercise and just trying to take a magical diet pill. Maybe it’ll work but there could be really, really bad side effects.

FINNEGAN: And in the meantime we’ve made the world Scotland, essentially. 

MARVEL: Right.

DUBNER: So what are you doing about it?

MARVEL: What am I —

DUBNER: Are you figuring out — Was that rude? She’s a climate scientist, that’s what we pay her for. Two-part question. No. 1: of all the known things to be known about clouds. How much do you, meaning you and your peers, know. In other words, is it still a pretty big research question? And No. 2, assuming you get to know as much as you need to know, is there any kind of behavior, mitigation, etc., that could take advantage of that cloud knowledge to help?

MARVEL: So we’re getting close to sort of nailing down the role of clouds in a warming climate. And it turns out to be bad news. It looks like we’re actually going to lose a lot of those low clouds, especially over the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. And we’re pretty, pretty sure that those high clouds, those warming clouds, are going to get worse in the future. So basically we shouldn’t count on clouds to save us from climate change. I think we’re actually going to have to do that ourselves.

FINNEGAN: Can I ask, when you say it’s going to get worse, over what time frame?

MARVEL: Basically, right now, and in the future, and in the future, and in the future. 

FINNEGAN: I believe that the title of the show is, Tell Me Something I’d Rather Not Know.

DUBNER: So Alexandra Petri, Kate Marvel has come in here from Columbia University with a seemingly scalding indictment of clouds and us. And a seemingly despairing prognosis, even with the best cloud scientists on the job. Can you help?

PETRI: I cannot help, but it does seem to be factual. And I was in fact so depressed by this information that I just started looking at Joni Mitchell’s — “Clouds” — entire discography and how did that originate. Because like you, she’s looked at clouds from both sides, both good and bad. She said in a 1967 interview, “I dreamed down at the clouds and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them. And having dreamed at the clouds from both sides, as no generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”

DUBNER: Thank you, Alexandra. And thank you Kate Marvel for coming to tell us something we did not know. Let’s welcome, if you would, our next guest. Her name is Allison Schrager. Come on up. Nice to see you. Allison is an economist, it says here, and self professed pension geek who writes for Quartz, and is the author of the forthcoming book An Economist Walks Into A Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places To Understand Risk. Allison, that sounds fun. Tell us something we don’t know. Please and thank you.

SCHRAGER: Well, you probably already know a lot of thoroughbred horses are inbred but they’ve become a lot more inbred in the last 30 years. In fact, almost every horse now that’s sold is related to one horse, Northern Dancer, who died in 1990. Do you know why they’ve become more inbred?

DUBNER: How many horses are related to Northern Dancer, what share of —

SCHRAGER: 95 percent.

DUBNER: Wow.

FINNEGAN: I think I know. Because Northern Dancer was the mack. Apparently not.

SCHRAGER: That is true.

DUBNER: What does that mean?

FINNEGAN: It means that he was very active sexually, very desirable. As a I —

DUBNER: I see.

PETRI: I thought it was a horse specific term and I was gonna start googling.

DUBNER: I too would have said in different language — I would have thought maybe because he in particular had a very big … winning record. Was he very good?

SCHRAGER: Yeah, he was.

DUBNER: So he was mack-ish.

FINNEGAN: Yeah yeah. They play Sade in the stable.

DUBNER: Can we ask you a question to help us answer your question? Have horses gotten faster?

SCHRAGER: No.

DUBNER: So they’re more inbred, and slower, like some royal families we know.

PETRI: The Habsburgs! The Habsburgs!

DUBNER: Oh yeah. Was it cheaper?

SCHRAGER: No, it’s more expensive.

DUBNER: It’s more expensive to inbreed?

SCHRAGER: Yes, because the inbreeding is coming from a small pool of desirable sires, who everyone wants to breed with. So it drove up the price.

FINNEGAN: Was there a genetic problem with other big horses at the time where it was like he was the sort of safe tree?

SCHRAGER: No.

DUBNER: That was such a good question though.

FINNEGAN: Thank you, I appreciate it. Thank you.

DUBNER: So how many times did he do it?

SCHRAGER: I have no idea. I mean he had about a 20 year breeding career. Maybe a 30 year —

DUBNER: And how good was Northern Dancer?

SCHRAGER: As a sire?

DUBNER: As a horse. As a racehorse. I wouldn’t have asked you that, because I wouldn’t have expected you to know. And now we’re doing a whole different show, which is not the show we intended. Was he a fast-running horse is what I was after?

SCHRAGER: Yes he won big races.

DUBNER: Did he win a Triple Crown?

SCHRAGER: He didn’t win the Triple Crown.

DUBNER: Did he win parts of it, did he win a derby or something?

SCHRAGER: I can’t remember, I think so.

FINNEGAN: Is it something to do with who the owner is? Does the owner — like has he or she financially cornered that market in some way? That has nothing to do with the horse specifically?

SCHRAGER: Sort of.

DUBNER: All right. I think you should put us out of our misery. Why are so many horses inbred now dating back to Northern Dancer?

SCHRAGER: 1986 tax reform.

DUBNER: I was about —

PETRI: That was my next guess.

DUBNER: Mine too. So you’re saying that Ronald Reagan is responsible for the inbreeding of all the horses. Are you interested in taxes as well?

SCHRAGER: I have a background in public finance.

DUBNER: So how did the tax reform of 1986 affect the horse breeding industry?

SCHRAGER: Before you could write off a lot of your capital gains, your long term capital gains, which is an investment you held for more than six months or a year. But 1986 tax reform wiped that out. So there really wasn’t an incentive to hold investments for so long. And breeding a horse and training it to race takes three years before you realize your investment. And it’s really risky. So once they changed the tax structure, the benefit of holding a horse for three years went down. So the breeding industry changed. Instead of breeding a horse to race, people would breed horses to sell them after one year.

DUBNER: And after one year, you don’t know how good a horse is going to be.

SCHRAGER: Yeah. You only have two data points. You have who its parents are — when there’s only so many desirable sires, the pool shrank and prices went up. And you also can sort of start to see muscle tone, and sprinters have better muscle tone. And if you breed two sprinters together you get a sprinter. And they actually can trace back the concentration of sprinters to Northern Dancer’s sprint gene.

DUBNER: So here’s my question: if it’s gotten more expensive and they’ve gotten less fast, why isn’t there competition to that inbreeding model?

SCHRAGER: This is because everyone sells at one year. But there is a hope that this might change, because now with genetic tests — they just sequenced the horse genome a couple of years ago — you can maybe at the one-year mark now see how good a racer it actually will be, and the hope is that that will align incentives, so they say a horse that can sell and a horse that can race will be the same thing.

FINNEGAN: I still don’t understand, because obviously tax reform affected everyone and obviously the ultra rich, there wasn’t just one of them. Why would it all come down to this one horse, when probably 30 or 40 people were major horse people at the time?

SCHRAGER: Well it was just timing. Northern Dancer died in 1990.

FINNEGAN: He was that guy at that point.

SCHRAGER: So he had — he was a pretty popular sire. Then you had his offspring. And everyone wanted to inbreed.

DUBNER: Alexandra Petri, Allison Schrager has talked to us about tax reform and a change in horse breeding. Anything further you can tell us?

PETRI: Well I can tell you that when I googled “Ronald Reagan and horses,” I got Mike Pence’s tweet that, “I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”

FINNEGAN: You do not want to invert that. 

PETRI: And I also did a little looking into horse names. Because apparently there’s a long list of restrictions for what you can and cannot name a thoroughbred horse. And there is a horse named Allison’s Pal, just for you, and apparently a horse named Freakonomics. But they also have a thing that says there’s a restricted list where you’re not supposed to have suggestive or vulgar or obscene-meaning names. But some owners do try to get around that, there’s a horse named Hoof-hearted which if you say that wrong you get a fart joke.

DUBNER: Yeah, I think we should stop now. Allison, thanks for playing Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.

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DUBNER: Before we get back to the game, we’ve got some FREAK-quently asked questions written especially for you, Christian, you ready to go?

FINNEGAN: I see what you did there.

DUBNER: So Christian, what percentage of your fellow Massachusetts natives would you say are certified Mass-holes? Now wait. It’s actually multiple choice. 90 percent, 95, or 99.5?

FINNEGAN: I have never been a big fan of my hometown. I moved here mostly because when I was growing up everybody was like, “We hate New York City,” and I was like, “Well, I hate you, so I guess I’m going to New York.” If I’d grown up in Cleveland it would have been the same thing. That’s more about me than Massachusetts. Anyway. So I’m going to say 99.5.

DUBNER: That is the correct answer.

FINNEGAN: I have a cousin who is pretty cool.

DUBNER: I’m glad we won you. I’m glad we got you here. If you were not doing what you’re doing now what do you think you would have done instead?

FINNEGAN: I wish I could be a background singer. I don’t want to be a dude on the stage. I just want to be one of the dudes with his finger in his ear in the background. Like, “Oohweeooh.” That’s what I want to do.

DUBNER: What do you collect and why?

FINNEGAN: I used to collect record store T-shirts. That was sort of my hobby. I do stand up and I travel around this great nation bringing laughter to dozens, and I wouldn’t want to buy vinyl and stuff like that to bring back to New York because it seemed like a waste of space and all that. But I’d want to spend money, and generally I think if you go to a new city and you find out where a cool record store is, that’s going to put you into a cool neighborhood. So I used to just every time I’d go to a new city I’d buy a record store T-shirt and then I realized that I’m a 45-year-old dude wearing a record store T-shirt. And that’s enough of that.

DUBNER: I was going to ask you to tell us something that you once quit and why. So tell us something you once quit other than buying records store T-shirts and why and how it worked out.

FINNEGAN: Well I want to say quitting gets a bad rap. Without quitters, stampedes would never end. So I’m all for quitting occasionally. Every six months I pick up my bass guitar and I’m like, “I’m going to get really serious about this.” And that lasts about 10 days. And every time my wife comes home and I’m awkwardly noodling through an old Jane’s Addiction song or something like that and then I’m like, “Oh yeah this is clearly a waste of everyone’s time.” So yeah, I quit bass guitar at least 10 times and I’ll quit probably five more times.

DUBNER: And finally: if you had a time machine when would you travel to and what would you do there?

FINNEGAN: Maybe to my parents first date and I would’ve been like, “Really guys? Think about this. Oh yeah, and the whole kill Hitler thing, yeah yeah.

DUBNER: Oh yeah, the whole kill Hitler thing. Ladies and gentlemen Christian Finnegan. Well done. Thank you. Let’s get back to the game; would you please welcome our next guest, Michael Hallsworth. Michael, I understand you are the director of the American arm of the Behavioral Insights Team, a quasi governmental outfit in Britain that we all know as the Nudge Unit. So welcome to America. And tell us what you have for us tonight.

HALLSWORTH: Thanks. So my question is: generally speaking, how good do you think politicians are at math?

DUBNER: So, I’m going to go with the idea that this is a trick question and say that they are fantastic at math.

FINNEGAN: I bet that they know a lot of mathematical quick tabulations because they’re looking at poll numbers and they’re looking at demographic numbers and stuff like that. So, yeah, I’m going to say that they’re good at math because so much of their life involves numbers.

HALLSWORTH: So, I’ll give you a bit more to go on. It depends on a few things. What might it depend on?

DUBNER: Does it depend on their brain?

FINNEGAN: Does it depend on the level of office? Like national versus local?

DUBNER: Oh I like that. Does it depend on gender?

FINNEGAN: Don’t answer that.

PETRI: Okay, Larry Summers.

DUBNER: Does it have to do with some kind of prior experience?

HALLSWORTH: I think that’s getting closer.

FINNEGAN: Are successful politicians better at math than unsuccessful? Candidates who win, are they better at math than candidates who lose?

HALLSWORTH: The “prior” bit is the more interesting bit here.

FINNEGAN: Okay, I get it. Stephen is more interesting, I get it.

DUBNER: I feel like every second that goes by we’re getting further from the answer.

HALLSWORTH: How good they are depends on their political beliefs. It depends on whether the answer is something they want to hear.

DUBNER: Oh. So it’s basically their priors are strong enough to make them good or bad at math.

HALLSWORTH: Yeah. Let me give you an example. Take a problem like, say you have some simple figures about two schools, School A, School B. And all these figures do is show you for each school, how many parents were satisfied and how many were dissatisfied. But the schools are of different sizes, so you have to do a bit of rough percentages in your head to account. But it’s pretty simple. One is clearly better. Now when you do this with the, in this case, Danish politicians, about 75 percent get this right. Which is not too bad, actually. But here is the interesting part: if you then introduce political beliefs, the results transform. So, say you call the schools publicly-funded and privately-funded. If you’re on the right politically and the numbers are showing that the privately funded school is doing better, then actually you get it right 90 percent of the time. It goes up from 75 percent to 90. If it’s not in line with your beliefs, if it’s telling you something you probably don’t want to hear you go down to 50. It’s actually the same as chance.

DUBNER: So let me make sure I understand this. You are saying that people who participate in our political system, if they tend to disagree with something, they kind of act stupid? That is so amazing. I’ve never heard of a phenomenon like that.

HALLSWORTH: I think what’s interesting about this is recently we’ve got empirical evidence because we actually started doing experiments actually with politicians that this is the case. But also here are some other interesting things here: if you give more information, it gets worse. So it’s not that people come and change their minds after getting — “Oh I’m convinced now.” Actually, it has a negative effect on the ability to solve the problem. Also, it’s not about intelligence. In fact, more intelligent people are actually not telling the right answer because they work ways of —

DUBNER: Finding confirmatory evidence for their argument.

HALLSWORTH: Exactly. And I told you it’s about politicians, but it’s also officials. So lots of large scale experiments done with the World Bank and the U.K. government, same thing happens with officials. Not just a political thing.

DUBNER: Let me ask you this. You guys are the nudge people and you want to provide evidence for policy makers to help them do what you think is prosocial or whatever, a good solution. But you’re finding that I guess partisanship or your set of priors will make that evidence just not be received. Given what you’re trying to accomplish then, how do you nudge the supposed nudgers when they’re not capable of figuring things out for themselves?

HALLSWORTH: Yeah. So we’ve recently tried to think through this and we have a few solutions in it. One is collaborative red teaming. Pre-mortems.

FINNEGAN: That was the name of my band in high school. The Pre-Mortems.

HALLSWORTH: Pre-mortem is all about the idea that you have post-mortems when something has gone wrong, and you work out why it happened. The idea of a pre-mortem is you do it before it goes wrong and try and stop it. So you ask a team to sort of imagine the future when your policy has been a disaster, it’s been a failure. Why did it happen? You work back from that failure to come up with the reasons why might have happened.

DUBNER: So you’re saying if you sit down a bunch of policymakers, some of whom may like or not like something you’re trying to accomplish, and you do a pre-mortem with them collectively, and you say, “Imagine this project has failed. Why do you think it would have failed?” That makes them more likely to accept or to figure out the math properly, or look at the evidence properly?

HALLSWORTH: Actually, we have a few solutions for that, one of them is consider the opposite, which is where you take a piece of evidence that goes along with what you’re thinking. The idea is you say, “Well what if the same thing, the same study had given the opposite answer?” And that allows you to understand better the quality of it and put aside the conclusion. This pre-mortem idea is just basically, we’re over-optimistic when we make plans, and how do we adjust for that? So it’s a different solution for a different problem.

FINNEGAN: Can I ask — how much of the bad calculations are bad-faith arguments, and how much of it is just sort of lizard brain, “This is not confirming what I already believe, so my brain is just going haywire?”

HALLSWORTH: Yeah. Really good question, so I think so there are a few different reasons for it. One is just that it’s easier for me to sort of deny that because I don’t like it, and find reasons why it’s not true. And I think also part of it is the fact that if you get more information, you get worse at it. I think that implies that there is a real denial factor going on here because in some ways you should respond to more information by getting better at it, but it’s just a retrenchment. So it’s really inconvenient, and I’ve got to find a way of getting out of the situation.

DUBNER: Alexandra Petri, Michael Hallsworth is telling us that strong political beliefs make us bad at math. Factually, do you find concordance?

PETRI: I find so much concordance.

DUBNER: How much concordance do you find?

PETRI: Well, I agreed with you and so I assumed that the math backed up that you were right. So that’s that’s the math that I did. But I actually I feel like I know optimism bias well as a chronically late person, which leads me to believe that I can somehow arrive at the same time that I depart. Which I know is not math but, they do say optimism helps you live longer.

HALLSWORTH: Actually one thing I should say about me being this podcast — it may backfire a bit because there is evidence that if you go and tell people about these biases it actually makes it worse. Because what happens is people are actually quite bad about recognizing their own biases so they kind of think about their own behavior and say, “Well, I actually I didn’t see any evidence of bias there, so I’m fine.” And that makes them more biased later, so I don’t know if I should have said all that really.

DUBNER: That’s a good wrinkle. I feel our show is going great tonight. So Michael Hallsworth, thank you for playing Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Would you please welcome our final guest tonight, Cydney Dupree. Hi Cydney. It says here that you are an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale. You have got our final slot tonight. So make it good, what do you have for us?

DUPREE: Let’s say that two white people walk into a bar.

FINNEGAN: You mean, like Stephen and me.

DUPREE: Much like this one. And but they have very different perspectives about race. One is a bigot.

DUBNER: He’s from Massachusetts. Come on, it’s not a stretch, people. Okay, for our radio listeners: I’m pointing at Christian.

DUPREE: So this person thinks that some racial groups are worse than others, and he doesn’t think that racial equality is needed. The other isn’t a bigot. In fact, he considers himself an ally. He thinks that racial groups should be on equal footing and he wants to help our society get there. Then a black person walks into the bar, sits next to them both, and strikes up a conversation. Which white person is more likely to talk down to the newcomer by using words or phrases that signal low status?

DUBNER: Interesting. Signal low status about oneself or about the other person?

DUPREE: Well that can mean a couple things, like using fewer words related to agency or power or dominance or just describing yourself in a less competent way.

DUBNER: Oh presenting oneself as less competent.

DUPREE: Yes. Presenting yourself as less competent.

FINNEGAN: Yeah I definitely feel like we’re being led. My first impulse would be that the “liberal” would do more talking down. And my guess would be maybe because that person is projecting a racial hierarchy onto this one individual human being. That they’re bringing a bunch of political theories and social theories into bear talking to this one person, as opposed to the bigot who might just be like, “You’re Bill,” or whoever. I don’t know.

DUPREE: Okay. Maybe.

DUBNER: Question. Are either of these white gentlemen a politician?

DUPREE: They could be. They could be politicians or they could be everyday people.

DUBNER: So I liked Christian’s hunch. Of like a patronizing liberal. I think that’s a stereotype that’s fairly familiar. I don’t know how true it is. I know it’s familiar.

FINNEGAN: I think that part of being a liberal is sort of asking yourself constantly, “Am I being patronizing? Am I being patronizing by asking if I’m being patronizing? Am I being patronizing if I’m asking” — like is to go down that wormhole. That’s part of being a good liberal I think.

DUBNER: That was such a persuasive argument that I’m going to say it’s the liberal. It’s the ally and not the bigot.

DUPREE: All right, well your instinct is right. My research shows that white liberals are actually more likely to talk down to black people in this way. This is a phenomenon that I call the competence downshift in which white liberals, presumably trying to get along with racial minorities, actually end up being patronizing towards them, by presenting themselves as less competent to black people relative to other white people.

DUBNER: Question. Is it intentional?

DUPREE: I suspect that it is unintentional. If you ask white liberals whether they wanted to come across as less competent with black people than they did with white people, they generally deny it. But I don’t have data to speak to whether it’s truly unintentional. I do see it as a bit of a strategy. Like you said, I’m trying to get along with these people by essentially dumbing yourself down.

DUBNER: And how do you do this research? I mean this is hard, in the real world research. So is this something that happens in a Yale undergrad lab with a bunch of Yale undergrads who are—

DUPREE: I have found this effect in a couple of different — and multiple — populations. I found the effect among undergraduate students, not necessarily at Yale, among everyday adults from around the country. And I’ve also done some archival work that does content coding of the speeches delivered by white Democratic and white Republican presidential candidates. And I tend to find the same effect there, that Democrats but not Republicans significantly downshift their competence when responding to minority audiences like the NAACP, or H.B.C.U.’s. But not so when they respond to mostly white audiences.

DUBNER: Can you just identify someone in the public sphere, whether in politics or not, that you feel sort of embodies this issue? Is it more pronounced among the political class, though, since the stakes are different there?

DUPREE: That’s a good question.

DUBNER: I’m just thinking like, let’s just take a fictional candidate like Schmillary Schminton, let’s just say. I’m just wondering.

DUPREE: I see what you did there.

PETRI: I’m not finding a Schmillary Schminton. 

DUPREE: I will say though I think it’s important to consider, okay, why is this something that’s happening. And there are really two pieces to this story. It’s ultimately an unfortunate story about stereotypes. So, white Americans are sometimes stereotyped as being racist or as being cold or close minded. Going into interracial interactions, they tend to have the goal to be really likable, friendly. But we also know that black Americans are still stereotyped as being incompetent or lower in status relative to whites. So in trying to reject the negative stereotype that describes their own group, they seem to be drawing on negative stereotypes that describe blacks.

FINNEGAN: Can I ask a question? Is this something that can be consciously addressed by a white person or if merely by being aware of it, you are then guilty of doing it? Do you know what I mean, like — Because if I’m thinking, “All right. Don’t be condescending.” It’s like, don’t think of the white elephant. Do you know what I mean? How do you address this without just reinforcing it?

DUPREE: Well if it is really a story about kind of stereotypical concerns — the idea that I don’t want to look racist, so I’m going to talk down to this person in this way — educating people about it might actually ramp up those concerns in a real dynamic, face to face, interracial context. In which case that might actually exacerbate the problem. I have done some pilot studies that look at how we can reverse the effects. But those have basically tried to change the way we think about the black person in interaction. So by characterizing a black interaction partner as being highly competent, you reverse the negative stereotype that depicts black Americans in this negative way.

FINNEGAN: I don’t know if there’s an actual tidy answer to this but I’m assuming that if I as a white liberal person am interacting with a black person for the first time, some of that unconscious condescension might seep through. But theoretically if I were to then meet that person and see that person, like a co-worker and I knew them every day, that that would dissipate over time. If so, is there any sort of gauge on how long it takes somebody to stop doing that?

DUPREE: I don’t know that yet. I don’t know the kind of endurance of this phenomenon. I would suspect that — again, thinking about the mechanisms that explain this effect, that kind of the need to prove yourself might dissipate, the more someone who is not a member of your own race, the more that person gets to know you in which case ideally the need to prove goodwill by engaging in this competence downshift wouldn’t be as strong. That’s what I would predict. But I haven’t run that study yet.

DUBNER: So I find the idea of competence downshifting, as you call it, so interesting, just because it’s a couple of really interesting things at the same time. It’s a kind of idea that you are consciously controlling or presenting your competence for one and then also altering it. And I’m just really curious if you’ve seen it or if it’s been seen in contexts that have nothing to do with race. So let’s say it’s in it in a work situation and let’s say everybody’s the same race, let’s say everybody’s the same — considers himself all part of the same in-group, whatever that is. Do you see that still when there’s different levels and so on, and if so, does it seem to signify the same thing there as in this situation that you’ve been describing?

DUPREE: The initial answer is, yes there is some evidence that suggests that we’re really talking about kind of a status differential there. So your idea about kind of there existing this hierarchy and and trying to kind of cross these status divides in ways that encourage collaboration and connection and affiliation. I think that’s true. There’s actually work by Jillian Swencionis that suggests that managers talking to workers, for example. They may engage in a similar strategy, essentially trying to dumb themselves down to appear more likable.

DUBNER: But it sounds like you’re thinking that the racial stereotypes are stronger.

DUPREE: I think that they could be. Yes. And in interracial contexts, that’s absolutely true.

DUBNER: Such an interesting idea. Alexandra Petri, can you look up, “Are liberals actually patronizing,” please?

FINNEGAN: My aunt sent me a great e-mail forward about that.

PETRI: I’m going to try to look it up with extreme competence though. I find fascinating the whole like warmth versus competence scale as like a way of interactions, which I feel does explain every female RomCom protagonist ever. Thinking more about warmth versus competence, I started thinking about invading Russia in winter. Because that’s the exact opposite of being warm and competent. Don’t do it. But a fun fact is that Napoleon didn’t actually invade in winter. He just forgot to leave by winter so that’s a somewhat relevant fact.

DUPREE: Okay.

FINNEGAN: Is there a polite way to ask people to intentionally downshift their competence when talking to me? You have no idea the burden of people assuming what they are talking about all the time.

DUBNER: Cydney, thank you so much for coming to play Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, great job. And could we give one more hand tonight to all our guests, who I thought were just fantastic. It is time now for our live audience to pick a winner. So who’ll it be?

  • Joseph LeDoux from N.Y.U. with “everything you know about fear is wrong,”
  • Kate Marvel from Columbia with “good clouds and bad clouds,”
  • Allison Schrager, our economist writer friend, with “the tax policy behind inbred thoroughbreds,”
  • Michael Hallsworth from the Behavioral Insights Team talking about “how to nudge the nudgers,” or
  • Cydney Dupree from Yale with “patronizing liberals.”

DUBNER: Okay the audience vote is in. Once again, thank you so much to all our guest presenters. And our grand prize winner tonight, thank you so much for telling us about wicked, wicked clouds. Kate Marvel, congratulations. And Kate to commemorate your victory, we’d like to present you with this certificate of impressive knowledge. It reads, in part, “I, Stephen Dubner in consultation with Christian Finnegan and Alexandra Petri do hereby vow that Kate Marvel told us something we did not know for which we are eternally grateful.” Thank you so very much. And that’s our show for tonight. I hope we told you something you didn’t know. Huge thanks to Christian and Alexandra, to our guests and thanks especially to you for coming to play “Tell Me Something…

AUDIENCE: I Don’t Know!

DUBNER: Thank you so much.

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know and Freakonomics Radio are produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Alison Craiglow, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Emma Morgenstern, Dan Dzula, and David Herman, who also composed our theme music. The Freakonomics Radio staff also includes Greg Rippin and Alvin Melathe. Thanks to our good friends at Qualtrics, whose online survey software is so helpful in putting on this show, and to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater for hosting us.