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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: What if it’s so exciting that I pee my pants?

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Are humans becoming smarter or stupider? 

DUCKWORTH: “Don’t read so much because you’ll have to wear glasses and then you’ll be ugly.”

Also: Can you increase your aptitude for curiosity? 

DUCKWORTH: Was it Shakespeare said, “curiosity killeth the cat”? He he he he.

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Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela.

DUCKWORTH: Guess whether we are smarter or stupider as a species now compared to 100 years ago. 

DUBNER: Unless this is a trick question—  

DUCKWORTH: It is not a trick question. 

DUBNER: Unless you have some very surprising definition of “smart” and “stupid,” I cannot imagine that we’re not, on average, smarter now than compared to 100 years ago.  

DUCKWORTH: I actually, by the way, don’t think it’s the obvious choice. I think that if you went and asked 100 people, “Do you think that the human species has globally gotten dumber, smarter, or stayed the same?”

DUBNER: Really? You think people would say dumber?  

DUCKWORTH: I think there’s a call here for a Freakonomics poll.  

DUBNER: Interesting. I mean, off the top of my head, one number I know that amazes me — which is not about smart, per se, but it’s certainly involved — is global literacy rates.  

DUCKWORTH: True. 

 DUBNER: So, global literacy rates today — this blows me away — the whole world, it’s about 86 percent.  

DUCKWORTH: Eighty-six percent of people know how to read?  

DUBNER: Yeah. If you went back 200 years ago, not 100 years ago, as you ask, but 200 years ago, 12 percent only could read. So, if you consider literacy something that requires smarts, which is what your question is about, then yes, obviously, we’re much, much smarter. 

DUCKWORTH: So, we’ve not only gotten smarter, we’ve become two standard deviations smarter than we were 100 years ago. 

DUBNER: As measured by I.Q.?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, the effect is called the Flynn effect. And I know two standard deviations doesn’t make most people’s eyebrows go up, but like— 

DUBNER: It should. 

DUCKWORTH: It should because what it’s equivalent to is essentially moving from average to gifted and talented. 

DUBNER: Or moving from Jersey to New York. 

DUCKWORTH: I knew you were going to at some point denigrate my Cherry Hill, New Jersey, heritage.  

DUBNER: Only because you denigrate it so gleefully yourself.  

DUCKWORTH: I know. That’s true. 

DUBNER: And I have to say, I like South Jersey a lot. 

DUCKWORTH: Good pizza, by the way. Maybe better than New York. 

DUBNER: I feel that any place that promotes as its chief attraction some food item, that’s always a bad sign.  

DUCKWORTH: All right. Fair enough. But — back to the Flynn effect. So, over three generations, how can we leapfrog in intelligence that much? I mean that, to me, is startling.  

DUBNER: Okay, so what is the answer? I’ve read that it’s about nutrition, it’s about medicine, it’s about, obviously, education and so on. What do we know to be most true about the drivers of this rise in overall population I.Q.?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, once this empirical fact came to light, courtesy of Flynn, who, by the way, he’s not even a psychological scientist. He’s a political scientist. 

DUBNER: And that lowers him in your book, that he’s not a psychologist.

DUCKWORTH: No! I thought that it was actually an interesting story because how does a political scientist discover that there are massive I.Q. gains over the course of a century? The answer is that he actually had a political motivation. So, he was looking at the raw scores of various I.Q. tests. 

And he discovered, by looking at the raw data from I.Q. testing agencies themselves, that they had to keep adjusting the scores because they didn’t really want everyone to keep getting higher. So they’ve been adjusting them downward without our knowledge. And he had deeper questions about what these scores are being used for, and questions of equity and so forth.  

DUBNER: I know there’s a lot of questions about how valid I.Q. tests are generally, especially across a diverse population. But I would think the question is even more important if you go back in time. Is there consistency? And how representative do you think they really are of what we’re talking about as intelligence here?  

DUCKWORTH: You know, the more I know about intelligence, the less I truly understand it. But let me just say that there are certainly arguments that these tests are not really picking up on what it means to be a smart person. And certainly I can say, look, on one hand, they do predict things. They’re not random number generators, because I.Q. scores do predict all of the outcomes that economists study like wages and life expectancy, etc. But anyway, since Flynn, the political scientist, gave to psychology this empirical finding, it’s been a cottage industry of scientists trying to figure out why. 

One popular explanation is nutrition, because that certainly has improved. I know it seems like it wouldn’t be the case, because we eat a lot of junk food today. But if you think about the number of calories we ingest and also the amount of protein, it’s way better than 100 years ago, which is also why we’re taller. So that’s a popular explanation. There’s also hybrid vigor: the idea that the intermarriage among different racial and ethnic groups is like getting a mutt dog and then having a slightly better chance of having a non-neurotic dog.  

DUBNER: They’re probably going to be, overall, a little bit healthier at least. 

 DUCKWORTH: They’re less likely to be hemophiliacs or whatever. 

DUBNER: Right. 

DUCKWORTH: And then there are explanations that are about genetics. Is it possible that genes have actually changed at the population level? And the explanation that Flynn himself offered is what he calls the social multiplier effect. So, there are these environmental shifts in the need for abstract reasoning that have caused us to respond as a species by getting a little smarter. But because we’re a little smarter, we now create more and more situations and needs for us to be a little smarter, which makes us a little smarter and so on and so forth.

DUBNER: I think there’s a paradox — that we are smarter, but, in fact, the need to be smart is not greater, it’s actually less. I don’t need to know math or astronomy. I don’t need to know how to grow food or build and maintain tools. It’s all being done for me by a lot of people and a lot of technologies because technology continues to do more and more for us. I don’t need to know how to fix a carburetor to drive my car. I used to. I don’t even need to learn how to drive a car if I can press the Uber app.

DUCKWORTH: Wasn’t there an Atlantic Monthly article years ago now? “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” That’s kind of what you’re saying. 

DUBNER: It’s beyond Google, though, because I think the big question is: What are we doing with all the gains that collective intelligence and progress bring us? And some people would say mostly we doom scroll and fight with each other online.

In the mid-1980s there was a book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death. And it basically was an extension of the Orwellian fear that we were being distracted by bread and circuses, that the individual was getting weaker and weaker and less likely to think for him or herself. And if I fast forward that to now, you think about how much time so many people spend on Facebook, or Tik Tok, or whatever your thing is, very smart people. And it’s the smart people building these things. I don’t know if you know the scholar Zeynep Tufekci?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t. 

DUBNER: She’s at the University of North Carolina. She studies the social impact of technology. And years ago, we did a piece about whether the Internet was being ruined, I think was the headline. And it was about Facebook and Google and Twitter creating these monolithic channels. But it’s also about the fact that these are such attractive ecosystems for people to work. And you can get so rich so quick. 

So Tufekci talked about— here, I’ll read a little quote. She said, “There are all these really smart engineers. They’re the brightest computer scientists. And all they’re thinking about is: How do I keep someone on Facebook for 10 more minutes? What’s the exact combination of things that will keep them on the site as long as possible so that we can show them as much advertisement as possible? It really feels like a waste to have this much intelligence and smarts being used to figure out how to keep you clicking on 10 more animal videos.” That was five years ago. I don’t think that problem has gotten any better. 

DUCKWORTH: It got worse, maybe. 

DUBNER: And I think there are all kinds of counterexamples where unbelievably intelligent and curious and trained people are applying their intellect in super prosocial and productive ways. But I do think that I, let’s say, can get away with being a lot dumber now than I could have a generation ago. And it doesn’t really hurt me. And there’s a lot of intellect being wasted. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I want to take that up directly. But first I want to distinguish between two kinds of intelligence. So, when you look at the gains in I.Q., they are most dramatic on measures of what psychologists call “fluid intelligence.” You see seven abstract puzzle designs and you’re asked to guess what the eighth one is. You’re supposed to discern the pattern. And that is different from knowledge, which psychologists like to call “crystallized intelligence.” And there are massive, massive gains in fluid intelligence, and somewhat modest, and in some cases, for certain aspects of crystallized intelligence, possibly declining levels. 

DUBNER: Which makes sense, in the age of Google. 

DUCKWORTH: What that suggests is that we get better and better at the things that we need to get better at. And we might get worse and worse at the things that we don’t need to be getting better at or there’s not the opportunity to get better at. The general principle is that human nature is plastic to some extent. And we mold ourselves to the needs and the opportunities. 

DUBNER: And why waste resources on things that are easily available in some other format, like a Google search, for instance? 

DUCKWORTH: Like a Google search. When Steve Jobs called the computer the bicycle for the mind, I have to guess that he was addressing this critique that computers would make us stupid. Like, if you have a calculator, you’ll never be able to add on your own. And I think it’s a tool or an extension. I mean, if you ride a bicycle to work, you get there faster, and you use less energy than if you have to walk. You can then use that extra energy and time to do something that you wouldn’t have been able to do. And that’s ideally what we do. 

DUBNER: I cannot disagree with a single syllable of what you just said. But my point is, how is our collective intelligence being applied? In other words, cat videos are awesome. I mean, your mileage may vary, but if we’re so smart as a species and continue to get smarter, why are we not continuing to progress on so many of the dimensions that are so important to many people? 

I don’t mean to make an anti-progress argument. In fact, I would almost always argue the opposite, which is that humankind continues to progress on just about every dimension. And yet, I do think that when we’re talking about intellect and how it’s being applied, I think the argument should be made that a lot of it is being misapplied. In other words, if we’re so smart, why haven’t we done a better job solving political dysfunction, let’s say? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, look, let me just say that the data always happen before scientists can catch up and analyze it. So, it’s very possible that there is a decline in the Flynn effect, or even a reversal of the Flynn effect, that we have not yet seen enough published papers on. And there are certainly certain countries where that seems to potentially have been the case. It’s just that overall, the trend is extremely positive. 

But I think your point is more about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. There is the ability to reason abstractly, which seems to have increased over the last few generations. But there’s the ability to live wisely, which isn’t seemingly an abundant quality right now.  

DUBNER: Right. I think that when you look at things like political dysfunction in this country, in many different countries, when you look at things like tribalism, when you look at some of the great unsolved problems in civilization, as much as we have improved all these problems, including self-inflicted health issues—

DUCKWORTH: Smoking, over-eating.

DUBNER: The vast majority of deaths are still hastened by our own behaviors. 

And I understand the impulses that lead to that, but my question really then goes back to: if we’re so smart, why are we not doing better on some of those challenges? And I think it’s because there is a little bit of an I.Q. mafia out there. And I think it mostly lives in academia where there is a belief that intellect will almost always win the day. But I think that it is time to recognize that things like compassion, and social trust, and emotional intelligence are much more necessary to add to the stew that intellect tends to dominate.  

DUCKWORTH: Now, we could imagine what the world would be like if there were a Flynn effect for, as you say, compassion, or a Flynn effect for curiosity, or a Flynn effect for conscientiousness. What if we got two standard deviations more conscientious? 

DUBNER: And I’m not sure we haven’t, by the way, because I don’t mean to say that 2020 is in any really significant way worse than 1820, truly. 

DUCKWORTH: Maybe there has been a Flynn effect in some of these other dimensions. But I will tell you, Stephen, that when you are arguing that intelligence can’t be a necessary and sufficient recipe for the country or the world doing well, you’re preaching to the converted here. That’s my whole research program, is that I.Q. is not enough. 

And all the things that I study and all the things that could be classified as personality or character are correlated at close to zero with I.Q. There are these dimensions of character and wisdom and so forth that are just not the same thing as being smart. And, to your point, if smartness were all it needed, we should be in a better place. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question. Let’s pretend that you existed, as you do now, 100 years ago, 1921. 

DUCKWORTH: You mean like a time machine?  

DUBNER: Sure. How much less smart are you than you are in real life in 2021, and what would you be doing?  

DUCKWORTH: Let me think. My mother was born in the mid-1930s. So, when I think about the 1920s, it was just basically being a young version of my grandmother. 

DUBNER: Okay. 

DUCKWORTH: So, what would she be doing then? Well, on my dad’s side, she’d be smoking a lot of opium. 

DUBNER: Okay. Great. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m not sure that made her very smart. And then on my mother’s side, she was certainly not reading. And how do I know that? Because when my mom was growing up, my grandmother said, “Don’t read so much because you’ll have to wear glasses and then you’ll be ugly.” 

DUBNER: Chinese and Jews are among the only ethnic groups that seem to tend toward myopia. Did you know that?  

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know that. We’re glasses-wearing people? 

DUBNER: But I think it’s because we’re reading-indoors-at-night-with-low-light kind of people. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, in a way, I can understand a lot of this Flynn effect. Just because you asked me this question, it makes it more real for me. I mean, my grandmother — and even in my mom’s generation, there was a little bit of this — thinking was discouraged. Reading was discouraged because my mom was a woman. So, my grandmother, I’m guessing, did a lot less reading than I do. My grandmother did a lot less thinking than I do.  

I was thinking about my own kids who are, if the Flynn effect holds true, smarter than I was at their age. Look, they do their fair share of drooling, binge watching The Bachelor or whatever. But I have to say that they really think a lot. I mean, they’re usually thinking, and therefore the muscle of their brain is in pretty good shape. And I have to imagine that my grandmothers on both sides probably did less of that. I don’t think they were doing a lot of analytic, logical, well-what-about-the-counter-evidence kind of thinking.  

DUBNER: And they certainly weren’t watching Love Actually, sadly. 

DUCKWORTH: And that may be the entire explanation, Stephen, for the Flynn effect. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether adults can experience the level of curiosity that children have inately. 

DUBNER: I have to say, I dislike—

DUCKWORTH: 85-year-olds. 

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DUBNER: So, Angela, we have a question here from a listener named Samantha Starman. Would you like to entertain her question? 

DUCKWORTH: I would love to, yes. 

DUBNER: “I’ve been wondering,” she writes, “about the nature of curiosity, specifically why some people seem to be more avidly curious than others. Is there a psychology of curiosity that attempts to explain this? Is there a way to increase a person’s aptitude for general curiosity?” So, Angela, considering it killed the cat, allegedly, I’m not so sure it’s always good to be more curious, but I’m guessing you have something to say about this. 

DUCKWORTH: I hate that expression — that curiosity killed the cat. 

DUBNER: Did you know there’s more to it than that? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, what is the origin of that little aphorism? 

DUBNER: I want to say it’s Shakespeare

DUCKWORTH: Was it Shakespeare said, “curiosity killeth the cat?” He he he he.

DUBNER: No. This phrase is more modern, but I think it began in Shakespeare. And there was a later edition that I believe went something like, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” Which ties into the idea of the nine lives of cats and so on. So that’s a slightly happier version of that cat-killing. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that actually, there’s some depth in that little turn of phrase, that little couplet. But, okay, first let me give a definition of curiosity. And that is generally accepted to be the desire to learn more. And the opposite of that would be — at least in terms of the state that you’re in — boredom. Not really wanting to know more about whatever it is. 

DUBNER: That’s interesting. I never would have thought of boredom as the opposite of curiosity. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, I think Sam was really asking more about trait-level curiosity, like being a curious person. But certainly the state of being curious is more or less the opposite of the state of being bored. And there are a bunch of psychologists, including Todd Kashdan, who have questionnaires where you can see how curious you are relative to other people. 

DUBNER: Is it a personality-test-type thing? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Todd does think of it as a personality trait. Meaning, relatively stable, although not entirely stable, individual difference — that you could be more curious as a person compared to other people or less. And he thinks that there are five dimensions of curiosity. 

I think the one that’s most intuitive is what he calls “joyous exploration.” And that is, basically, getting a lot of joy out of new knowledge information — even if it’s not necessarily useful information. And then he has these other dimensions. And they don’t seem as intuitive to me. Like, for example, one of these other dimensions is stress tolerance. And Todd describes this as the willingness to embrace anxiety or doubt that is associated, and maybe part of, exploring new things. 

DUBNER: So, you have to be able to fight off that anxiety to get to the things that your curiosity is leading to, whereas a lot of us are maybe too self-conscious about that. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And by the way, I think for somebody who is extremely curious, they might hear that and say, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What anxiety?” Or maybe I should just confess — for me, I’m like, “What anxiety? Why would you feel any anxiety?” 

DUBNER: But this is like— I would really like to go to this meeting on blank, or this show on blank, but I don’t know those people and I’d feel out of place.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Like, I want to take that macroeconomics class at the community college, but what if I can’t do it?

DUBNER: What if it’s so exciting that I pee my pants?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. And stress tolerance is your friend. There are these other dimensions. There is social curiosity. So Todd says that’s wanting to know what other people are thinking and being curious about their conversations, their thoughts, etc. There is thrill-seeking — so, willingness to take risks, physical or otherwise. And then the last one is what he calls deprivation sensitivity. And that is not just getting joy out of learning more, but this need or this urge — it’s-killing-me-not-to-know-the-answer-to-that-question kind of feeling. 

DUBNER: So, that’s interesting. Those are much more diffuse characteristics than I would have attributed to curiosity. 

DUCKWORTH: But I think actually you’d be surprised that something as basic and as inherently interesting as curiosity is not a huge literature. We’re at the very beginning. 

DUBNER: I am surprised too because it does seem to be such an essential component of the human endeavor. 

DUCKWORTH: We are a curious species. Developmentally, we start off a lot more curious in life as babies. 

DUBNER: I’ve always thought that was amazing, that it’s one of the traits that just seems to disappear as people get older. But I do feel — and maybe this is because I’m in my 50s now — I do feel like you get another burst of it. And I hope it lasts forever because we’re all very curious as children, and we ask those questions that no self-respecting teenager or adult would ever ask because you don’t want to be laughed at and so on. But if you think about the nature of curiosity that children exhibit, it is unbelievably inspiring to me. And it’s such a sadness that it disappears in so many people. 

DUCKWORTH: And do you think it mostly disappears because of self-consciousness and social judgment? 

DUBNER: I do. I think we’ve all had that experience, as you get older and you get in more organized settings, whether it’s school or— 

DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to sound stupid. But a three-year-old doesn’t worry about that. 

DUBNER: Exactly. I remember — I mean, this is much later; I was in my, maybe, late 20s, early 30s — I had just arrived at a new job. I was a young editor at the New York Times Magazine, and I was younger than most of the people and much less experienced. And we had this emergency meeting because the cover story for the magazine a couple of weeks hence had fallen apart for some reason, legal or whatever. And the editor-in-chief said, listen, all hands on deck. We need to come up with something that’s good that we can produce really fast. And he said, there’s no such thing as a stupid idea. 

DUCKWORTH: Like the name of our show, almost. 

DUBNER: Very much like the name of our show. And so he says, “Come on, let’s hear all the ideas.” I’d only been there a couple of months, and I’d had this one idea that I thought was pretty stupid, and I was not going to raise it. But here he was literally saying it’s an emergency, no such thing as a stupid idea. So I said, “Well, I have this one thought.” And I said it. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to rephrase. There is such a thing as a stupid idea. That was it.” And he said it in a loving, encouraging way. But that is the kind of response that I think makes all of us be much less curious. We don’t want to say something or ask something that we can be ridiculed for. 

DUCKWORTH: First of all, I completely agree that self-consciousness is the enemy and self-confidence is the ally of curiosity. Like, my mom — 85 — is such a curious person. And there is something very childlike about her. And I think it mostly comes from the confidence of being okay with mispronouncing things, with not knowing things. She just doesn’t care, and she’s never wondered, “Oh, you probably think less of me.” It just never occurs to her that that could possibly happen. 

So, I would agree with that as one of the things that might happen across the life span where we get older and more self-conscious. But what’s wonderful about an 85-year-old who acts like a five-year-old, which is my mom, is that, I think, in modern times, the benefits to learning and to learning entirely new things are actually different than they were for our forebears. And for many of us, if not most of us, we are actually advantaged by continually learning. 

DUBNER: I have to say, it’s a prejudice of mine. I dislike—

DUCKWORTH: Eighty-five year-olds. 

DUBNER: I really dislike curious 85-year-olds. No. I dislike incurious people. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I dislike the lack of curiosity in people. It just feels like a disrespectful way to be a human. I think part of being a human and being part of the gang and the tribe is to have a general sense of curiosity about each other and about the world. And, I think there are different layers of curiosity. I think that many of us pursue the “what” questions, which are useful. 

DUCKWORTH: Or the “how” questions. 

DUBNER: Then you get to the “why.” 

DUCKWORTH: Those are your favorite people. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I mean, look, the “why” can be really hard to answer. That’s the province of psychologists and philosophers and theologians and so on. I mean, sometimes just the “what” is hard enough, just measurement, and cause and effect. 

But I do think one of the most wonderful elements of being a human is being able to exercise curiosity. So for our listener, Sam, who asks: how do you get more of it? Let me ask you, Angela, two questions. How can you develop curiosity in others, and how can you grow, or build it, in yourself? 

DUCKWORTH: My favorite writer on the psychology of interest — which, let’s just say it’s curiosity, right? There are these nuanced differences between interest and curiosity. His name is Paul Silvia. And he says that we have often anxiety or fear about trying new things, or saying something stupid, or floating an idea that everybody might hate. But curiosity is this counterweight, and it gets us to try the things that are satisfying. 

And so his practical advice on this was — you could, for example, get a friend to partner up with you. Maybe you both have a little bit of apprehension about taking a watercolor class, or learning a new language, or learning how to program. And then, you have this pact where you promise that you won’t judge each other. And then also you have built-in social support. And this is like— I remember when I was in my 20s, I thought it would be a good thing to learn hip-hop dancing. 

DUBNER: You seem like a natural for that somehow. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. It was truly humiliating. I mean, Hip Hop I dancing. Everybody there either already knows how to do hip-hop or did ballet for 20 years. Yeah. It was pretty, pretty horrific. But I think if I had wanted to continue with hip-hop dancing, which I didn’t have a strong desire to do, I would have signed up with a friend and said, “Look, we’ll both go, and afterwards we’ll definitely get beers.” But anyway, in this narrative, you have a partner who endeavors in some way to take a risk with you, and the counterweight that you have is now bolstered by your friend being by your side. I thought that was a cute little idea. 

DUBNER: Do you think that curiosity is a trait that can be easily grown in oneself then? Or are the barriers to it — if you’re not naturally inclined, if you don’t have the confidence and so on — are they difficult to overcome?

DUCKWORTH: I think the way to think about this is the way that Kurt Lewin, the social psychologist— He was such a great thinker on some of these questions. And he would say that very often when you want to change something, like increase your curiosity, the answer is not to increase your curiosity but to remove the barriers to curiosity. And I think it’s a particularly appropriate strategy here because we are our infant/toddler/young child selves. And there is an intuition or an instinct toward learning more. And so, what we really need to do is remove the obstacles. So one of the obstacles is editors like you had. 

DUBNER: He did die soon after. I’m sure you’re happy to know.

DUCKWORTH: Good. We’ll dance on his grave! But I’ve been in the back of classrooms where teachers say things — like a kid will timidly put their hand up, or actually, frankly, courageously put their hand up, and then the teacher just humiliates them. And I’m like, “No! Don’t do that.” So, we should try to create circumstances where the obstacle, or the barrier, to curiosity, of self-consciousness and social approbation, is removed. 

And then the other thing is— and this is going to be a lot harder, though, Stephen — Americans, in particular, spend so many hours of their day passively consuming Netflix videos, cat videos, etc. It does seem to me an obstacle to real curiosity. It’s like ersatz curiosity when you’re like, “Oh, I wonder what the next link is.” But reading a very good book — like, a whole book, not just 10 seconds of it. I do think one of the barriers is that there are all these easy fixes that are a little bit like junk food for the mind. They satisfy your hunger. They’re convenient. They’re effortless. But they’re not nearly as nourishing as a sustained engagement with a hard-to-grasp idea. 

DUBNER: That sounded like very mom-like advice. 

DUCKWORTH: Did I feel a little bit like your mom there? 

DUBNER: A little bit judgy — just somebody’s mom. 

DUCKWORTH: A judgy mom. 

DUBNER: I understand what you’re saying, but I would argue that there are many avenues and modes of curiosity. And Angela Duckworth has a very beautifully defined ecosystem for her curiosity. And it happens to revolve around a set of deep questions, and reading academic papers, and reading entire books. But I would argue that if someone listening to this wants to pursue a different level, different dimensions, different types of curiosity that are nowhere near as academic or deep as Angela Duckworth, that they’re still incredibly useful, not only for said person, but for the rest of us. 

Because I think the real story of the dead cat is that curiosity got it into a situation that it couldn’t get out of and it died, okay? But I think that that’s really rare. And I think that mostly curiosity gets us into situations that are a little bit alien, a little bit foreign, and therefore help us grow and inspire us a little bit and make each of us a little bit larger. And that makes all of us a little bit larger. And so I don’t think you have to subscribe to the Angela Duckworth version of deep academic curiosity to still be a productively curious cat. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. So, if curiosity is wanting to learn more, that can take many, many forms.

DUBNER: Look, maybe somebody binge-watches 80 hours of Netflix over the next week. And that triggers some recognition about storytelling, about acting, about movie distribution, about the economics of movie-making. I don’t care. I just think that the activity is almost secondary to how you apply your mind to the activity. And so there.

DUCKWORTH: So there. And, if you do nothing with that 80 hours except for click on the next 80 hours, then I think you would agree with me that that’s not really the same. 

DUBNER: It’s not the same. But maybe what triggered me is when you talked about the people who read only 10 pages of a book because I probably read 10 pages of about 50 books a week. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I didn’t say 10 pages. I said 10 seconds. 

DUBNER: Or maybe 10 minutes. It was 10! It was definitely 10.

DUCKWORTH: There was 10 in there somewhere. 

DUBNER: But it wasn’t the whole book. 

DUCKWORTH: Sorry, there should have been a trigger warning. No shame. No shame on not reading the whole book. I just worry that people are reading snippets, bibs and bobs. 

DUBNER: Jots and tittles. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. 

DUBNER: Ebbs and flows, flotsams and jetsams, cats and dogs, dead cats and satisfied cats. 

DUCKWORTH: I think we should stop. Because I can’t breathe. 

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

In the first half of the episode, Stephen and Angela discuss the Flynn effect. The political scientist James Flynn died in December at age 86. His final book examines how universities censor their teaching. The title of the book was originally In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor, but was changed to A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities after his publisher, Emerald Press, canceled its publication for fear of “the potential for serious harm to Emerald’s reputation and the possibility of legal action.” Flynn said that this response raised the question of whether the U.K. truly has free speech. The book was ultimately published by Academia Press. 

During the conversation about curiosity, Stephen and Angela discuss the origin of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat,” and Stephen posits that Shakespeare was the first to use this idiom. Shakespeare actually did use a version of the phrase in Much Ado About Nothing. In Act Five, Scene One, Claudio and Don Pedro ask Benedict to cheer them up. Claudio says, “what though care killed the cat / thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.” “Care” in this case refers to worry, not curiosity. But Shakespeare actually wasn’t the first to use the phrase in this way. Ben Jonson included it in his 1598 play Every Man and His Humor, which came out a year before Much Ado. However, Shakespeare’s theatre company was the first to perform Jonson’s play, so Shakespeare may have heard the phrase, liked it, and decided to use it in his own work. It’s unclear how the language shifted from “care” to “curious” but both words did once refer to an aspect of uneasiness or concern. According to the linguist John McWhorter, “One of the earlier shades of curious— didn’t only mean you wanted to know how to spell Connecticut, but that you wanted to know what that bad smell was, why that grocer looked at you funny. So, in Middle English and into Early Modern, care and concern met on that ground.” The cheery rejoinder to “curiosity killed the cat” — “satisfaction brought it back” —became a popular addendum in the early twentieth century

Finally, Stephen says that Chinese and Jewish people share high rates of myopia, or nearsightedness. This is true, but not because they’re a “reading-indoors-at-night- with-low-light kind of people.” Myopia is primarily a genetic condition that occurs when the shape of your eye causes light to refract incorrectly, and although reading in dim light does tire your eyes quickly, there is not strong evidence that it actually worsens your vision. That’s it for the fact-check.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster and Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: Listeners to Freakonomics Radio are always very helpful at pointing out the things that I say that irritate them. And apparently, one thing I say a lot in questioning, which I never noticed until people started to point it out, I’ll say, “So, I’m curious to know, blah, blah, blah.” 

DUCKWORTH: No! I think you should say it more! 

*In this episode, Stephen says that Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death is an extension of the Orwellian fear that the public is being distracted by bread and circuses. George Orwell did explore this idea in 1984, but in Brave New Planet (published nearly two decades before 1984)Adolph Huxley famously envisioned a world where humans would come to adore technologies that undo their capacity to think. Postman addresses the dystopian fears of both authors in his book.

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Sources

  • James Flynn, former professor of political science at the University of Otago.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University.
  • Kurt Lewin, American social psychologist.
  • John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.
  • Paul Silvia, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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