DUBNER: I’ve seen more dogs dance the flamenco than I’ve seen children voluntarily give a piece of their birthday cake.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: is it possible to be self-interested and altruistic at the same time?
DUBNER: What if I want to be a drug dealer? What if I want to be a politician? That plainly has no good effect on anyone.
Also: why do we become desensitized to the most wonderful things about life?
DUCKWORTH: Can you imagine how blissed out I would be if every time I flushed the toilet I thanked my lucky stars? Like, “What kind of planet is this? This is amazing!”
* * *
Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question for you. In your experience, would you say that ambitious and successful people are also selfish?
Stephen J. DUBNER: So, as with every question and answer in the world, it’s highly context-dependent. I mean ambition and success in service of what? Ambitious in the service of promoting themselves as the best “blank” in the world? Or ambitious in the service of something that’s going to be a social or a public good?
So, my knee-jerk is: I really want ambitious and successful people to be selfish because I want them to succeed if they’re working on something that one cares about. I want them to do what they feel is most in their interest to get to their goal.
DUCKWORTH: You mean you want them to be single-minded and determined.
DUBNER: Yeah. And all the things that might add up to selfish. Here’s the example that came to mind: Jonas Salk.
DUCKWORTH: The vaccine guy?
DUBNER: Right. An inventor of the polio vaccine. You like Jonas Salk, right? We’re all in favor of Jonas Salk.
DUCKWORTH: Vaccines are good, I think.
DUBNER: You have to think back how devastating polio was, because it was mysterious. The cause was not known. There was no good treatment. Many, many people were made sick and disabled by it. And it especially attacked young people, children. So, Salk was really driven to pursue a polio vaccine. There’s a wonderful biography of Salk by a writer named Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs. And one element, she points out, was that he was intensely disliked by the medical community who saw him as operating selfishly.
DUBNER: Well, he was not considered a member of the scientific brotherhood. He was not working with a big research institution, not with a pharma firm. And the way that he approached the creation of the vaccine was very unorthodox. He was testing it in secret. He tested, if I recall, on his own three children.
And then, the establishment claimed that he grabbed the limelight and he didn’t give credit to other scientists — that he was doing his thing in what was construed as a selfish grab for glory. He was accused of pandering and soliciting media attention. Interestingly, he never got a Nobel Prize. Now, you could easily make the argument that, yes, he was maybe vainglorious, maybe selfish, but if you look at the actual result, A, he created a polio vaccine that has saved literally countless lives and eliminated a countless amount of suffering, and B, here’s the big thing — he didn’t patent the polio vaccine.
He wasn’t interested in converting what he saw as an obvious public good into private gain. So, to me, do I like my ambitious/successful people selfish or not? I think if they’re working on something that will create a lot of value for the world, I don’t care how selfishly they may seem to act. I don’t care how antagonistically they may seem to act.
DUCKWORTH: In fact, it might be good.
DUBNER: In fact, it might be good.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I think we might be conflating selfishness with being unorthodox — the lone wolf against the pack. Because I mostly hear that he was convinced that he wanted to do things his way and didn’t want a lot of meddling.
DUBNER: Why don’t you give me an example of an “orthodox” selfish behavior.
DUCKWORTH: Just lowercase “o” on the orthodox there. So, selfishness at the core, is that I care about my own welfare to the exclusion, and maybe to the harm of yours. And its opposite is altruism. Somebody who goes to the house on Halloween that has that sign that says, “Take one, please.” And usually you see this in empty bowls because some kid scooped the whole darn thing into their pillowcase. That is selfish.
DUBNER: Were you that kid? I’m just curious.
DUCKWORTH: No, I was the kid who came upon the empty bowl and felt very indignant.
DUBNER: Poor candy-less little Angela. Her whole life has been coming across one empty bowl after the next, because of all those selfish people out there. Okay. So, obviously, we need to do some defining here. So, Adam Smith, we consider him the founder of classical economics. But let’s not forget, he was a moral philosopher. And he saw self-interest as a key and useful component of human nature. But it’s not the same as selfishness. The Theory of Moral Sentiments was his big moral philosophy book.
Here’s what he wrote: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
So, that’s the man who some people think promoted a form of selfishness, but was actually promoting self-interest. And what he identified was what he considered a miracle, which is that everybody is self-interested to some degree, and yet it works in the favor of collective society and a collective economy.
DUCKWORTH: Because it’s in my self-interest that you are happy. I think in modern economic language, it would be that my utility equation includes your utility equation. So, if I want to maximize my own utility, it would include you being happy or not unhappy, at least, right? So, I think that’s an explanation for altruism in economic terms. Why would I be nice to my neighbors? Because it makes me happy.
DUBNER: Right. And this is what’s called the warm-glow theory of altruism, which is that we get a benefit or a utility from it. Yeah. So it’s a lot harder to discuss selfishness than we think.
DUCKWORTH: If it is self-interest in this Adam Smith way, then it’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.
DUBNER: Right. So, if I had to define selfishness, I would say it’s something like self-interest, which I endorse, without the recognition of and respect for others. I’m sure you’re familiar with Hillel, the Jewish sage from a couple thousand years ago.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, is that what the term comes from? Because I’m familiar with the many “Hillels” that are on university campuses. Oh, there was a guy named Hillel?
DUBNER: There was a guy named Hillel.
DUCKWORTH: I did not know that!
DUBNER: Okay, so, he was a sage a couple thousand years ago. He’s said to have originated the golden rule. And he said basically, “Treat other people the way you want to be treated. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” So, that was Hillel’s greatest hit, but his second greatest hit, which I actually consider his greatest hit — and this gets us back to Adam Smith and the notion of self-interest and selfishness — Hillel is said to have said the following: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, that was Hillel?
DUBNER: That’s Hillel. But that’s only part one of it. Okay? So, that sounds very, like —
DUCKWORTH: Selfish, right?
DUBNER: But that’s only the first part. Again, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” And then finally, “And if not now, when?”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, this is all Hillel? He said everything. He said, “Just do it.” So, this is why context is so important. Right? If you only just excerpted the first part —
DUBNER: That’s a great point.
DUCKWORTH: So, I think that it gets to the idea that you can be self-interested and other-interested at the same time. I’ve had a decade-long debate with Adam Grant about this, because he studies givers and giving.
DUBNER: And giving and taking.
DUCKWORTH: And taking is bad, and giving is good. But one of the things that we went back and forth on for years was whether it was better to be somebody who gave without thinking about their own interest, which was my knee-jerk reaction. I was like, it is better to be purely altruistic versus to think both about your interest and the other person at the same time, which to me felt polluted and lesser, right?
And I’ve come to basically just agree with him. I guess this is how some debates end. You just realize that you’re wrong. But I realize now that if you want to be a sustainable giver, and somebody who doesn’t burn out and get walked all over and taken advantage of, you have to think, “How can I be helpful to this person, and also at least neutral on my own counts, if not positive, in how I’m going to come out in the end?” And that did take me a while, because I basically thought martyrdom was the superior approach for much of my life.
DUBNER: I’m curious where you think in your family system or background that notion of selflessness came from.
DUCKWORTH: Well, my mother, who was raised in China — she was born in the 1930s. And it was clearly and explicitly part of the job, as she put it, of a woman, to be completely selfless. But really, it was part of my world outlook. My mom would do things at the dinner table — she would eat the gristle on the meat, while saving the perfect morsel, of course, for my dad, and maybe for her kids.
And if you think of what you have to give as a zero-sum game, then that arithmetic makes you think, “Oh, isn’t it better to give one hundred percent to other people?” But the reason why that’s wrong is two reasons. It’s not a zero-sum game. There are many options and possibilities. And the second thing is that life is an extended interaction. And I don’t think being a martyr for a month is as good as being a little bit self-interested, but also very generous for a lifetime.
DUBNER: Angela, let me ask you this. Children are, I think, inherently selfish. They need to get what they need to get to survive. So, they cry when they need something, and someone takes care of it. But then obviously, we don’t want to continue to exhibit that sort of behavior. So, is there anything in the evolution of our individual selfishness from childhood to adulthood that you think is useful in thinking about selfishness more generally?
DUCKWORTH: Well, first, let me say that in defense of children everywhere, yes, they have selfish impulses, self-interested impulses. Like, “I am hungry. I am tired. I don’t want to be in this museum anymore. Let’s go home.” But they also have altruistic, benevolent impulses quite early on. Jerry Kagan, the great developmental psychologist, had a theory that morality and moral sentiments like guilt and shame, but also generosity, that these emerged around the age of three.
And his idea was that, in part, that was because birth separations were roughly around two years or something. When you have an infant brother or sister, if you didn’t have those moral sentiments, you’d probably kill them out of self-interest — more mommy and daddy for me. And then what would happen to the human species, right? So, there would be a sort of evolutionary pressure for the emergence of moral emotions in early childhood.
DUBNER: Wouldn’t that imply that most twins or triplets would kill each other, though?
DUCKWORTH: Well, if you’re a twin or a triplet, that is your universe. And it’s always been that way. You came into conscious awareness understanding that there was this other person around. So, I think Jerry would have said that it’s different when there’s an intruder on the scene that wasn’t there before.
The problem with evolutionary explanations, of course, is that you can’t really test them in the most obvious way. You can’t go back through evolutionary time and run the counterfactual. But I do think it’s important to just say descriptively that young children are generous. I mean, you see it happen all the time. They take a part of their birthday cake and they put it on somebody else’s plate.
DUBNER: I’ve never seen that.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, come on.
DUBNER: I’ve never seen that. I see grabbing. I see hoarding. I see bleeding and bawling. I’ve seen more dogs dance the flamenco than I’ve seen children voluntarily give a piece of their birthday cake.
DUCKWORTH: Children sharing?
DUBNER: Maybe in Philadelphia, not in New York, lady.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, New York, you’re jaded, hardened, even at pre-school. Yeah.
DUBNER: No, I see your point. The thing about selfishness is that I can’t divorce it from the mission. So, if I see someone being selfish because they want the success and ambition for themselves, that doesn’t feel very pro-social. So, here’s an example. You know when you think about the “money-harvesting professions,” as I call them, professions where people basically make money by making money. So, there’s hedge funds, and there’s venture capital, and there’s private equity.
I will just say one reason that that world doesn’t appeal to me, personally, is because the idea of making money by making more money doesn’t feel very satisfying. But also, there does feel like an underlying selfishness to it. Okay? So, that’s my bias. I’m just declaring it. But if you go back 25 years ago, who would you say was considered one of the most selfish, single-minded businessmen?
DUCKWORTH: I’m guessing, you’re thinking about Bill Gates?
DUBNER: I’m thinking about Bill Gates. Microsoft was considered the monster monopoly that was gobbling up everything.
DUCKWORTH: Some people still do, by the way.
DUBNER: Sure. But you know what? Bill Gates has totally turned around certainly his own reputation by not just deciding to give away all the money, and getting everybody else to give away most of their money, but by actively looking for viable solutions to address real-world problems.
DUCKWORTH: Full-time, actively acting on behalf of society.
DUBNER: And of course, he was considered not just selfish, but ruthless and opportunistic. And look, Gates now is practically headed for canonization, and he’s not even Catholic. So, Angela, is there any actual research on the relationship between ambition, success, selfishness?
DUCKWORTH: The research that’s most relevant — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Schwartz World Values Survey?
DUBNER: I have not.
DUCKWORTH: So, this is a project where they’re trying to map the core fundamental values that transcend history and culture. And the key is: what do you value more? So, in the Schwartz Values taxonomy, there are self-enhancing values like achievement and power. But then, there are self-transcending values also, like believing in benevolence, or believing in fairness.
And the idea is that, of course, everybody cares about all those things, at least to some extent. But the question is: how much do you value these things, relatively speaking? I took one of these questionnaires and I scored very high on benevolence.
DUBNER: Well, la-dee-da.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, I didn’t want to flex my moral muscles there, but I also came in pretty high on achievement. These are, in some ways, in tension. But I think they can be in harmony. Okay, go work your butt off trying to help other people. I am going to work really, really hard on this paper about how teenagers can resist cell phones.
DUBNER: Oh, you’re cheating then. You’re cheating by working hard on the things that you care about, which also happen to have good positive spillover effects.
DUCKWORTH: Pro tip. Yes!
DUBNER: Not every profession affords that possibility.
DUCKWORTH: Yours does, though.
DUBNER: Yeah. But what if I want to be a drug dealer? What if I want to be a politician? That plainly has no good effect on anyone but myself.
DUCKWORTH: It would seem so. But, I think many professions can give away while also getting ahead.
DUBNER: And I think that’s the key. So, whatever sort of life you choose to live, you can certainly create it in a way that marries ambition and treating other people really well. If you’re a great singer, if you’re a great designer, if you’re a great psychologist, whatever, you should do that to give the most benefit to society. And if you’re great at making money, make as much money as you can, since you’re so good at it. But have an aim to repurpose some of that to where it can be used better.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela tackle some of the strangest aspects of human attention.
DUBNER: The bunny rabbit didn’t attack me, even though it had 100 opportunities to attack me. I’m not going to worry about the bunny rabbit anymore.
* * *
DUBNER: Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: I sometimes listen to other podcasts.
DUCKWORTH: Me too.
DUBNER: Not very often, but once in a while. So, I was listening to a podcast recently about the construction of the Holland Tunnel, which connects the Lower West Side of Manhattan to New Jersey.
DUCKWORTH: Growing up in New Jersey — I’m a Jersey girl.
DUBNER: And the tunnel goes beneath the Hudson River. At the time the tunnel was built, roughly 100 years ago, it was considered an engineering marvel.
DUCKWORTH: It’s pretty unbelievable. I’m still in deep admiration.
DUBNER: Okay. Ditto. That’s really the question I want to ask you about.
DUCKWORTH: It’s astonishing.
DUBNER: I want to ask you about habituation, which is I think what people in your tribe of psychologists call this. So, basically, when I think about the tunnel now, we barely think about it as existing other than like it’s dark, and smelly, and we don’t wanna get trapped here.
DUCKWORTH: You’re not thinking about, “It’s a miracle of engineering.”
DUBNER: Exactly. And it struck me that we all experience this phenomenon constantly, which is accepting as normal something that we would have been incredibly grateful for had we been around for its inception or, similarly, that we fail to appreciate something, that the first few times we experienced it, we appreciated a lot. So, we get used to something. We habituate. So, my question is this: what are the upsides and the downsides of habituation?
DUCKWORTH: The upside is that it makes you more sensitive to things that are probably more important from a survival standpoint. So, habituation has the feature of making you neglect that which is the same as it was the last time you were there and the time before that. That frees up your attention to notice the things that are different, right? And that is probably, from a survival standpoint, better.
DUBNER: So the bunny rabbit that didn’t attack me, even though it had 100 opportunities to attack me. I’m not going to worry about the bunny rabbit anymore.
DUCKWORTH: Not going to worry about that. But that big wolf that’s baring its fangs? Maybe I should look over there and see what’s going on. I mean, many of us have experienced this. I’m natively Chinese. My parents are immigrants from China. And I went to China to go and see this place where my parents had grown up. And I remember when I was there, I was thinking, “I will never take for granted a flushing toilet again. I will never take for granted air conditioning.”
DUBNER: And then how long did it take you to take those for granted once you got back?
DUCKWORTH: Four, maybe five, days.
DUBNER: Honestly, I’m impressed it was that long.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right? But, you know it doesn’t last. And I think it is because we only notice things that are changing. We don’t notice that which is constant.
DUBNER: Okay. So, one upside, as you’re pointing out, is that we habituate and it’s a heuristic. It’s a shortcut. And it lets us get on with our lives. We don’t have to worry about the things we don’t have to worry about, essentially, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think that is, by the way, the chief benefit. I’m not sure that there are actually other benefits.
DUBNER: Well, can I suggest an upside? I may be wrong. You’re the psychologist.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Go.
DUBNER: So, I’m sure most people listening to this are familiar with the following argument: The world is demonstrably overall in a better place than it’s ever been at any time in history. There are more people living in some version of prosperity. There is overall less hunger. There’s overall more literacy.
DUCKWORTH: Fewer murders.
DUBNER: Right. There’s more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff by a long shot, fewer wars, etc. So, we know this. And yet, we also know that we really feel the danger and the flaws in our system. So, one could argue that they’re more accentuated, because we can pay more attention to them, because we habituate. So, if we didn’t habituate so much, we would not worry so much about continuing to try to improve the world for ourselves and others. So, that could be considered an upside of habituation.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s a subspecies of the first argument.
DUBNER: That’s not a superspecies?
DUCKWORTH: No, I think it’s the same idea, which is that we get used to certain things, which frees up our attention for things that are changing or that we want to change. It’s certainly pervasive. And I think it explains a lot. The peak-end rule, Danny Kahneman‘s famous —
DUBNER: Is this the colonoscopy paper?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The famous study where if you’re getting a colonoscopy —
DUBNER: Can we just stop? All right. Sorry. Go ahead. I’m just going to plug my ears.
DUCKWORTH: First, imagine yourself having a colonoscopy.
DUBNER: You tell people about the colonoscopy. I’m just going to listen to music for 30 seconds.
DUCKWORTH: In this random assignment study some people got a colonoscopy as usual, which apparently is not an entirely comfortable, almost mildly painful, experience. Some got the colonoscopy followed by an additional period of time where “the probe” was left where it was for an additional few minutes.
Now, from a purely economic reasoning standpoint, that is additional pain, right? Maybe not as bad as the part where it’s getting moved around, but it seems like it would be worse than not having anything else at all. But the peak-end phenomenon is that those last few moments where the pain isn’t as great, end up actually coloring your whole retrospective experience. Those patients were like, “Oh, not so bad,” compared to the patients who had a traditional one.
And I’ve always wondered whether it was not necessarily that what comes at the end, or at the peak — because that’s what the peak-end rule says, that we disproportionately weigh what comes at the end of an experience, but that we’re very sensitive to changes. And anything that’s a change in our experience is going to get more weight in our memory. And that could happen at the end. It could also happen in the middle. Anything where there is a slope as opposed to a plateau.
DUBNER: So, where does gratitude lie in relation to habituation?
DUCKWORTH: Well, the idea that we habituate too many of the good things in our life is not hard to grasp, right? I use the flushing toilets example. Can you imagine how blissed out I would be if every time I flushed a toilet, I thanked my lucky stars? Like, “What kind of planet is this? This is amazing!” So it would be a wonderful thing. I think I’d be a happier person, etc.
So, the idea that we struggle to be grateful for the many, many things that are constantly good, and are only grateful for things that are changing and good, which is a smaller number of things, of course, is a problem. That is the reasoning behind — one of the most robust findings in the positive psychology literature is that thinking of three good things, for example, as a daily practice, reliably makes you happier.
DUBNER: What’s the opposite of habituation?
DUCKWORTH: Habituation in the psychology literature was studied extensively starting a century ago in these behaviorist experiments where you’d have a rat or something. And it would habituate to a sound. At first, it’s startled by the sound. And then, you keep playing the sound and, pretty much, the rat tunes it out.
The opposite, in this same animal experimental literature, would be sensitization. So, that is, you play a sound, and the rat freaks out about it, but then, if it’s sensitized, it means that the next time you play a sound, it’s even more freaked out about that sound.
If you imagine this — so, we all habituate to ice cream. The first lick is different from the second, and by the time you get to the end of the cone, it’s good, but it’s not quite as good as the first taste. Can you imagine the sensitizing ice cream cone where the second bite is better than the first, and then the third, and by the time we get to the end, it’s just way better?
DUBNER: That’s what rum raisin is, by the way. Rum raisin is the best.
DUCKWORTH: Rum raisin, really?
DUBNER: Nobody eats it. It’s the best. Leave it for me.
DUCKWORTH: That is such an old-person ice cream flavor.
DUBNER: It’s true. And now my children are trained. Whenever we go anywhere that has ice cream, they’re always looking for rum raisin for me, because it’s not that easy to find.
DUCKWORTH: Do you like butter pecan?
DUBNER: I love butter pecan, yeah. All the old flavors.
DUCKWORTH: I want to take your pulse and make sure you’re still going to be with us.
DUBNER: And maple walnut. Those are my three flavors.
DUCKWORTH: The trifecta of old.
DUBNER: All right. Let me ask you this, whether this has to do with ice cream or not. What do we know about how much variance there is among individuals when it comes to habituation versus sensitization?
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. First of all, these things are complete opposites, sensitization versus habituation, but they come from the same experience, which is repeated exposure to the same stimulus. So, we need to ask a question, which is: why do we sometimes habituate to things? We don’t notice that the flushing toilet is a miracle of modern engineering. We take it for granted.
But in other cases, your spouse has an annoying habit, and every time they say or do something, it irritates you even more than it did before. Why do sometimes we habituate and sometimes we sensitize? And I asked this question of Bob Rescorla once. So, Bob Rescorla is a great psychologist who passed away within the last year. And much of what we know about animal learning comes from Bob Rescorla’s work. And I was in his graduate seminar. And I asked Dr. Rescorla: why do we habituate to things most often, and occasionally, we sensitize? And he said, “I don’t know.”
DUBNER: Great. That’s so helpful. I think that was worth the price of tuning in alone.
DUCKWORTH: It’s a mystery, though. I don’t think it’s known.
DUBNER: I mean, if you want to look at an evolutionary argument, it might be that we don’t want to engage in a mistake that might prove costly to our survival and the furtherance of our species, right?
DUCKWORTH: So, that would argue that we would habituate to good things but be sensitized to bad things.
DUBNER: Exactly. Right. So, if your spouse does something that’s really annoying, it’s some kind of stressor or danger, potentially, I mean, in some form. But you talked about the variance of us collectively — why there are some things that we habituate to and some things we sensitize to. I’m also curious about individually — I’ll be honest with you. I try to de-habituate, or maybe to sensitize myself, to things like transportation, and communication, and medicine.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re basically doing the three-good-things gratitude exercise.
DUBNER: I guess, I am. Yeah. I don’t actually try to think of three in a given day. But sometimes — my daughter was sick recently. She got a really high fever out of nowhere. It turned out fine. But on the day that we were taking her to the hospital — and this is, of course, during the pandemic, so we’re thinking about Covid. And the day that we took her to the hospital, high temp, got the doctor to prescribe an antibiotic, which turned out to work, which indicated it wasn’t Covid, etc.
But when I was at the drugstore, even before I knew she was going to get better, I was just struck by, “Oh my goodness, if I was standing here being this girl’s father 100 years ago, or even 80 years ago, this would not have been happening.” There’s a drugstore that’s open that I can have a doctor call in, or send an email, to get a prescription, and try to get this medicine.
And I thought, “Look at all the effort, and all the progress, and all the research on many different levels — scientific, technological, communication, etc. — that afforded this opportunity, and it may not even work.” I was struck by that. But I find that the older I get, the more I do have those kind of feelings. And I guess what I’m looking for is to do it a little bit more intentionally and a little bit more broadly.
DUCKWORTH: When I think about my mom — so, she lives in a senior retirement home. One in which, by the way, there has been a fair number of Covid cases. My own father, I should say, passed away from Covid living in that nursing home. My mother just could only think of positive things. “Well, thank goodness he passed quickly.” “Thank goodness the nursing staff were so kind to him toward the end,” which I don’t even think she knew. She probably just imagined, because she wasn’t able to be with him.
“Thank goodness I am living” — these are verbatim, by the way — “Thank goodness I live in this part of the nursing home down at the end of a hallway” — my mom can only see these positive things. Somehow, she is able to not habituate to positive things, at least not ignore them. Right? I don’t know if that’s exactly the same thing, because some of these things are not repeated.
DUBNER: Do you think that’s what comes from eating all that gristle?
DUCKWORTH: From her selfless upbringing.
DUBNER: I’m not really joking.
DUCKWORTH: Well, they’re related, but not in the way that you were maybe inferring, which is to say that the selflessness, the other-centeredness, leads her to be grateful. I actually think the causal arrow goes more strongly in the opposite direction, that when you are grateful and you’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, my life is so wonderful, and I’m so fortunate, and, wow, this is such a great piece of unburnt toast. It’s amazing.”
And there’s lots of good research on this. It makes you more generous. It actually makes you more honest. You have a feeling of abundance in your own life, that makes you want to be more generous and kind to other people.
DUBNER: Tell me this. Is there one thing that you experience regularly that you could imagine, if you really stopped hard and thought about it and didn’t take it for granted, that you would think was just amazing?
DUCKWORTH: So, I can think of something that I’ve not yet habituated to, but that’s not exactly answering your question. Wall-to-wall carpeting. I grew up in South Jersey where everything was carpeted. I mean, I grew up in a house that had carpeted bathrooms, which is kind of gross, by the way.
DUBNER: It’s a little less gross when you have only daughters, let me just say.
DUCKWORTH: Well, there was one boy. And I know what you mean. So, we’ll just leave it at that. So, I love wall-to-wall carpeting, and I write my papers usually by sprawling out, flopping on my belly on this wall-to-wall carpeting that I convinced my husband was necessary, in at least some of the rooms in our house.
And every time I crawl around on my wall-to-wall carpeting, I thank the gods that I grew up in South Jersey and had the wisdom to install it in my own domicile. And I’ll never habituate to it. It’s amazing. And all you hardwood floor people are wrong. It’s a joy in my life. So, anyway, I have not habituated to that. I’m having a harder time, of course, because of the nature of the question, what do I think I’ve habituated to, that if I stopped and thought about it?
DUBNER: Look, it sounds like wall-to-wall carpeting makes you so happy. I don’t think you really need anything else. So, there’s one thing that I am habituated to. But when I take time to think, I sensitize myself to, which is eating.
So, I sometimes think it’s an absolute marvel that this thing that we have to do, often, for our survival is actually unbelievably pleasurable. It’s delicious. But even beyond that, it engages all these senses. It engages all the cultures around the world. You get to do science and art at the same time. It’s the best craft project.
DUCKWORTH: It’s creative.
DUBNER: Right, it’s creative, and it’s as social as you want it to be, or not. So, to me, every time I eat anything, I think how cool it is that this is actually a requirement and not just a pleasure. But I do have to remind myself, because it is easy to get into any pattern like that where you fail to appreciate.
DUCKWORTH: I have also reflected on the fact that this biological necessity, which framed the wrong way, could be like, oh, what a drag. First of all, it’s expensive. It takes up a lot of time. Things go bad in the refrigerator.
DUBNER: You have to use your mouth for it when you could be talking or whistling.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly.
DUBNER: Wear and tear on your teeth.
DUCKWORTH: I think the thing is this: it’s really about reminding yourself. And if you want a tip from the self-control research, it would be that you could make a visual reminder. You could make a little sign that goes on the dining table that says—
DUBNER: Like a smiley face? Words?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, you could maybe find a good quote. The trick will be, Stephen, don’t habituate to your visual sign.
DUBNER: It’s a vicious circle, habituation.
DUCKWORTH: That’s the problem.
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen attributes “the golden rule” to the Jewish sage and scholar, Hillel the Elder. It’s true that Hillel was one of the early leaders credited with communicating this message. But other individuals across different ancient cultures shared similar sayings as well. The Stoic philosopher Seneca famously wrote, “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.” However, he was referring to the treatment of enslaved people, so it arguably doesn’t hold that same sort of moral weight as the principle that Hillel outlined.
Later, Stephen declares rum raisin to be the best flavor of ice cream. This is clearly incorrect. In 2017, The International Dairy Foods Association conducted a survey of ice cream processors and retailers in the United States. Two-thirds of the stores ranked vanilla as the number one-selling flavor, followed by chocolate in second place, and cookies n’ cream in third. The poll lists the top 16 flavors, and rum raisin is nowhere to be found. However, Stephen’s second favorite flavor, “buttered pecan,” is surprisingly the sixth most popular flavor of ice cream in the country. Although, when you remember that about one in every seven Americans is a senior citizen, it’s perhaps not surprising at all. That’s it for the fact-check.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern, Emma Tyrrell, for her help with this episode. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. And if you’d like to hear our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela drop a reference to something that you’d like to learn more about, you can always check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the studies and references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening!