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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: I would like to violently agree with you. 

DUCKWORTH: Yay! 

DUBNER: But before I violently agree, I would like to violently disagree.

DUCKWORTH: Oh no.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: How important is it to be nice?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God, that’s so exciting! You won the swim meet? Okay, tell me everything!” 

Also: is reading books somehow morally superior to consuming other forms of media? 

DUCKWORTH: Someone was bragging that they were on track to read over 30 books this year. I joked that I was on track to watch 300 hours of YouTube. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angela, we get a lot of interesting emails from our listeners, for which I’m grateful. And occasionally there’s a comment to the effect that they enjoy our dynamic so much because it’s a little sweet and sour. They say that you, in addition to being so smart, are also so nice, while I, in addition to being less smart, am also mean, or snarky, or negative. 

DUCKWORTH: Acerbic, sarcastic, critical. I’m just guessing. 

DUBNER: Maybe you’re the one writing all these e-mails. So, whether or not this is true, it did make me wonder: when you have a message to get across, how important is, quote, “being nice.” And I’m particularly curious the degree to which this is gender-related. Are women required to “be nice” while men can get away with being mean? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I do know this literature on gender differences, but I think, for my own self, when I say things, I do, a lot of the time, think, “How is this coming across? And what are the feelings of the person who’s receiving them?” I don’t always do it, but usually when I don’t do it, it’s only because I’m tired, and I’m hungry, and I’m in a bad mood. But I try to do it. What about you? 

DUBNER: So, I was reportedly very nice when I was younger, as a little boy, at least. 

DUCKWORTH: Reported by whom? 

DUBNER: My family. I was very polite, and cooperative, and obedient. And I don’t feel like I turned mean, although I do think I am much more willing to say what I’m thinking now than I was when I was a child. On the other hand, what I do for a living is try to look at the way the world is going, look at what people are doing, look at the ideas that are out there, and challenge them. So, it’s not saying, “Oh, you’re terrible, you’re stupid.” It’s more like saying, “How do you know that’s the case? And why are you sure that this is a good idea?” And so on. So, yeah, I guess I feel that part and parcel of who I am is to ask questions that might occasionally feel a little bit negative or snarky. And I will say this: it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it should, but I feel that, deep down, I am a relatively kind and loving person. So I don’t feel a big conflict. But I am curious that the perception is such that I — compared to you, especially — seem a little bit ogreish, whereas you seem a little bit saintly — and I’m okay with that. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m definitely okay with that. Now, when you say it’s part of your job to ask critical questions, like, “I’m a journalist. I need to question everything, and I need to get you to examine your own assumptions and ferret out the logical kinks in your argument.” Is there a way that you can do your job and at the same time, signal, “I’m an ally, not a foe”? 

DUBNER: I think I do innately try to do that. In fact, the harder the question is, the more I do try to be — maybe not warm is the word I would use — but certainly not hostile, not confrontational. And I might even preface a question by saying, “a critic might say,” or “I can’t help but think,” et cetera, et cetera — just to show I’m not trying to aggressively line up against the person. On the other hand, I think the conversations that you and I have are more like conversations. So, I may be asking you a lot of questions, but I’m not interviewing you, per se. 

DUCKWORTH: When you are, like, actually asking somebody questions in a journalistic way, my guess would be — and this is what I would do — is, I wouldn’t start off with the really critical questions. I think I would warm them up with a lot of like — I don’t want to say flattery, but questions that you’re not going to be asking a lot of challenging follow-ups to. Is that your strategy? 

DUBNER: That is definitely a standard tactic. I know of no journalist, who, when they’re having an interview where they know that they’re going to potentially antagonize the subject to some degree — where they don’t try to ease into things. Because if you start on that foot, it puts the subject on the defensive. And honestly, I try to never really put the subject on the defensive, even if I’m challenging the findings, because I want them to have an opportunity to really put their argument forward. My purpose is not to say, “Hey, I think I’m right and you’re wrong.” Although, occasionally I will ask a question like, “Explain to me why you’re not wrong about this, because I’m not seeing the logic.” And then I also incorporate the old peak-end theory from Danny Kahneman and Donald Redelmeier, having to do with this old paper about colonoscopies, which is: if you make the ending of a negative experience more positive, then the entire experience will be viewed more positively. And so, even if there’s a particularly contentious or difficult interview, if you can bring it back to a moment of collaboration and warmth, then it seems to distill the aggression a little bit. 

DUCKWORTH: This is often criticized, by the way — you know when you’re giving somebody feedback, and you say something positive, and then you have all this negative stuff that you really wanted to say, and then you end with something positive. There are various ways to describe it. I’ve frequently heard it called a “shit sandwich,” but I think it’s actually a good thing because of peak-end — that to me is psychologically wise. And if it’s cliché, it’s only because it’s good, and therefore we keep doing it. 

DUBNER: So, I am really curious to know whether you have felt, as a female academic, that it is either expected of you or it’s advantageous for you to, quote, “be nice” in a professional setting, because women have often been discriminated against when they are perceived as less nice, whereas men can sort of get away with it.

DUCKWORTH: Usually, in “social cognition,” which is the fancy word psychologists use for how we perceive other people, the dominant theoretical framework is that one of the ways we judge people is, “how warm are you?” The other dimension is competence. There’s actually a scientific study at an engineering firm — very male-dominated industry in general. There were women and men. And as part of their just general performance reviews, et cetera, they got 360 feedback. The study design, had ratings of competence and warmth. And you see that men are rated as confident, which is another one of the ratings that was collected — men are seen as confident if they are seen as competent. But women, to be seen as confident by others, that is only true if you come across as both competent and warm. And I think about Hillary Clinton as always being described as cold. And I never really got that. But for a woman, you have to be competent, and confident, and super, super nice. 

DUBNER: I have seen it explained by one political expert that voters will not vote for a woman they don’t like, even if they think she is qualified, whereas they will vote for a man they do not like if they think he is qualified. And so it’s hard not to take that as a penalty. 

DUCKWORTH: I do think there is an expectation, a reference point almost, a kind of, like, what should women be that is higher in warmth than it is for men. And some scientists would say that’s because it’s actually true, that women do have a baseline higher level of empathy and warmth than men. I know there is research on, for example, the dopaminergic reward system in the brain. And some of this research would suggest that when a woman does something which is prosocial, on behalf of another person — altruistic, as opposed to selfish — the reward system is more sensitive in the woman than a man. If that’s true, and if it’s generally true that we experience women being a little more empathic, a little more warm, that could be the explanation for why we demand it more. 

DUBNER: When you look at economics — which traditionally, was a very, very, very male field and has gotten somewhat more female over the last 10 or 20 years — there’s always been a division in the kinds of work that female and male economists do. There were some areas that remained almost exclusively male, and then some other areas where there were more female economists. Claudia Goldin, for instance, being a very prominent labor economist. She would argue, I believe — that as a woman, she had a little bit of a different view of labor across the board; not just jobs with firms, but also the work that women are doing in the home to a much greater extent than men are doing in the home. When you look around economics now, most of the economists who have been researching and really pushing for holistic reforms over the past decade or two, really trying to make the economy fair to more people — the vast majority of those economists, that I see at least, are women. I think of people like Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato, Janet Yellen. And so, when you say that empathy is scientifically observed, that women have more of it, I am curious whether it is trait or strategy — and whatever the case may be, what could or should men learn from that? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know whether we can ever tease apart these evolutionary questions of whether it’s because women were in the caregiving role and we bear the young, like, is that why there are these differences? Or are they learned, and societally shaped, and constructed, and, like, a feature of culture? But, to me, it’s clearly better. It’s not like, “Well, you know, I say tomato, you say tomato.” Empathy is good. Caring about other people is good. And if it’s true, as many studies suggest, that there are higher levels of cooperation, empathy, caring, prosocial motivation for women, on average, then maybe the real question is: how do we help men catch up? Can we just raise the expectations for what men should be? 

DUBNER: But, Angela, let me ask you this: when there’s a problem or friction, whether it’s a personal relationship, work relationship, whatever — is niceness a good way to fight back or to get the result you want? Or is it better to put niceness aside to get the result you want? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that 90 percent of the time niceness gets you what you want. Our friend Bob Cialdini would say there’s the principle of reciprocity. You start being nice to someone and without thinking about it people tend to reflexively, to be nice back. And maybe 10 percent of the time it doesn’t get you what you want, and you have to be fierce in a different way, and maybe the lesson for my daughters, for example, as they become young women, is that being nice is great, and yay for being nice as much as you can, except remember that you don’t always have to be nice, and that’s not always the right thing to do. 

DUBNER: I’ve been in situations where I am what I feel is very nice to someone, but then it’s not reciprocated. And when I find it’s not reciprocated, then I don’t go out of my way to be un-nice, but I do try to avoid that person in the future. There’s a feeling of niceness being rejected that is really unpleasant. Now, it’s probably not fair, because maybe the person’s distracted, having a bad day, it could be a million things. But what do you do when you feel that your niceness is not reciprocated or even acknowledged? 

DUCKWORTH: Like, you go out of your way to pick up a turkey and cheese sandwich for a friend and they never buy you a sandwich, ever! Not even half a sandwich. 

DUBNER: Something like that, yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: If you were truly saint-like, like my mom, you wouldn’t even notice. You would never even think that somebody should ever get you a sandwich, as many sandwiches as you might make for them. I think that most human beings are not like that, and that the principle of reciprocity works also in the direction of expecting somebody to reciprocate our kindness. And when they don’t, I feel the way you do, Stephen. I love gratitude. And when I do nice things and there is the absence of gratitude it’s like, “Wait, where’s the thank you email? Where is the smiley face?” I get a little annoyed and yes, it makes me not so inclined to be so nice in the future. 

DUBNER: But what you’re saying here is that niceness is strategic. Yes?

DUCKWORTH: Adam Grant, a common friend and scientist who I work with a lot, would say that this reciprocity — he calls it “matching,” you know, “I did this for you. You should do this for me.” And the true, pure altruism is not matching. It’s just giving, like, “I do this for you, period.” 

DUBNER: But is the true altruist the unicorn of the human? Does it really exist? 

DUCKWORTH: I think we’re, all of us, some blend of a matcher and a giver, and even some little part of us is a taker — somebody who just wants stuff and doesn’t want to be nice at all. We have all three of these things in us. Hopefully, we have them in a ratio which is mostly giver, some matcher, and hopefully not very much taker. But I do think that, outside of family, like, outside of your own children or your spouse, the idea that there’d be some expectation of reciprocity is just logical. Why wouldn’t you say thank you back or, like, “Where’s my sandwich?” Adam Grant actually has this idea of being a disagreeable giver. That is, somebody who’s making a contribution and doing things that are helpful, but they might be a little bit disagreeable, cranky. And I think when Adam evangelizes about this, like, “Oh, they’re the ones to call things as they are” — and he himself has a very high capacity for being a disagreeable giver. I do think that it’s easier for him to do that as a guy than it would be if he were a woman. And I wonder how often there’s, like, a disagreeable but really productive, ultimately contributing woman who everyone’s like, “Bah, we’re still glad to have her on the team.” I do think there is a much higher expectation that women are going to be always thinking about how you feel, how things land. And so, again, I don’t know what the solution is. I would rather men be nicer than for us to lower the threshold for women. 

DUBNER: What do you think is more likely: that men will become nicer or that women will become less penalized when they’re not being, quote, “nice”? 

DUCKWORTH: I think men are already becoming nicer. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m married to one of these guys who’s just so nice. I do think that we are entering a cultural chapter where the traditional gender roles are absolutely blurring, trading, flip-flopping. And I see men, more and more, take public identities as being warm, prosocial, empathic human beings. And I think that’s the right direction.

DUBNER: So, the headline, really, of this conversation that we’re having is: men are more awesome than previously thought. 

DUCKWORTH: Or men are finally catching up. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate the inherent value of reading books versus listening to podcasts or watching documentaries.

DUBNER: Oh my goodness, why would anyone want to do that for pleasure?

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from a John B. 

DUBNER: Hello John B. 

DUCKWORTH: John writes, “I have a problem with society’s reverence for reading. I was part of a conversation recently where someone was bragging that they were on track to read over 30 books this year. I joked that I was on track to watch 300 hours of YouTube.” There was a, quote, “disagreement,” unquote, over which was a better use of time. “I argued that someone who watches hours of quality documentaries, explainer videos and science experiments on a screen is getting more enrichment than someone who spends an equivalent amount of time reading supermarket-checkout-line paperbacks. I’m not putting down anyone that reads books like this, but I don’t believe it’s something to get on your high horse about. We spend a lot of time telling people to get off the screen and read. I wonder if there was a time right after the printing press was invented where people were told to put the book down and go tell a story around the campfire. Some dad back in 1475 probably told his kid, ‘That book is going to rot your brain.’ I’m curious about your take on this.”

DUBNER: I love John B. 

DUCKWORTH: I know, right? 

DUBNER: So, I’m not sure which camp I’m in at the moment, because I’m a person who used to write books, and now I make radio and podcasts. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! That is true. You’re part of the problem! 

DUBNER: I am part of the problem. So, there was an article several years ago in Slate by Vaughan Bell, who’s a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at U.C.L., University College London. It was called “Don’t Touch That Dial: a History of Media Technology Scares From the Printing Press to Facebook.” And, it is indeed true, as John said, that there have been people shouting about this kind of thing, but it precedes the printing press. So, Socrates famously warned against writing, because it would create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they wouldn’t have to use their memories. 

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. Socrates wanted you to just commit everything to memory and never write it down. 

DUBNER: I mean, these were cultures where there was an oral tradition, an oral history, and you were prided on your ability to tell stories, to recite genealogies, and so on. And then, in terms of the printing press itself, there was a Swiss scientist named Conrad Gesner who may have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. He wrote a landmark book in 1545, describing how the modern world was overwhelming people with data. And that this overabundance was confusing and harmful to the mind. And then, in the 18th century, as newspapers were becoming more common, there was this argument that getting news from the printed page was socially isolating to readers, and it detracted from the socially — and, I guess, spiritually — uplifting group practice of getting news from the church, because the church was always a disseminator of certain kinds of information. So, this is an age-old story. But it sounds like John’s problem here, if I may call it a problem, is that he doesn’t like the moral high ground that readers seem to take. So, one consolation to John would be the fact that almost nobody actually reads books. 

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean? 

DUBNER: So, here’s my favorite story about how little people read, even the people who buy books. There is a prize in England. It used to be called the Man Booker Prize. I think the name has changed a little bit now. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s just Booker Prize. 

DUBNER: Yeah, because I think Man was actually a sponsor. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I was going to say Man did something terrible and got canceled. 

DUBNER: It could also be that. I don’t know. But there was an experiment in which, I believe it was the winning book, that someone cheeky — it might have been a newspaper like The Guardian — went into bookstores and put a coupon that was redeemable for twenty pounds, something like that, into the middle of the book to see how many people who bought it actually would redeem it. And let’s just say that whoever pulled that cheeky stunt did not have to pay out very much money. Many of the people who bought the book because it was the prize-winning book never got to page whatever it was, 184. 

DUCKWORTH: That is so clever. And because of the invention of electronic books like Kindle, there’s actually been much more comprehensive, systematic, and complete data analysis on how much people read, and then how much of which books people read. I think Harry Potter books are the most read. People buy them, and they finish them. And I think there are books like Chaos, where you’re like, “That sounds good. I really should learn about Newtonian mechanics. or whatever.” And then, people read the first three paragraphs and then that’s it. And I always wondered — you know, it takes so little to be on The New York Times bestseller list. When my publisher told me that you have to sell thousands of books in a given week, not hundreds of thousands of books. I was thinking about the population of the globe, or the United States. And I was like, “Oh, you must have to sell 150,000 books to be number one on the The New York Times bestseller list that week. And that’s not true. 

DUBNER: So, first of all The New York Times bestseller lists are interesting because there are now many lists: there is hardcover, softcover, how to, et cetera, et cetera — which means that it’s a lot easier to make any one list. But I do remember the number of copies of Freakonomics that we sold the first week. And it was thrilling because this was my first New York Times bestseller. I believe it was something like 23,000 copies, which, you know, is, in some ways, a lot of copies of a book. But of the top thousand videos on YouTube, I’m guessing there are more than 25,000 people watching it every third of a second. So, it’s all relative. And this was a while ago when there were probably more hard copies of books being bought and sold. That got us to, like, number five, I think, on The New York Times bestseller list. So, if you look at the data across the population, very, very few people read books. So, I would say to John B., don’t sweat it. You’re on the winning team here. So, if you feel bad about not being a reader, it’s okay, because you really are in the majority. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you think that people are getting less or more out of what you’re producing now compared to what you were writing before? 

DUBNER: It is an interesting question with a lot of answers. One big factor for me of making a weekly Freakonomics Radio podcast versus writing a Freakonomics book every four or five years is that, when you make a weekly show, your audience travels with you. So, most people who listen to podcasts “subscribe” — or these days they’re changing the word to “follow,” because subscribe connotes that you pay, and most of it is free. So, if most people follow you, their phone, or their computer, automatically gets the next one — in most cases, not in all cases. Whereas, every time you write a book — which takes a long, long, long time — you have to sort of say to the universe, “Hey, Universe, it’s me. I’ve written this thing that we call a book, and you have to try to find these people and remind them that there is a thing called a book and that this is where you can go to buy it.” The other thing is — my favorite part of writing was always interviewing. And what I loved about interviewing is, I feel like, conversations — like this conversation that we’re having, although I’m certainly dominating right now, there is something alchemical about it. There’s something that happens when two people are exchanging ideas, and challenging, and so on. And what I disliked about the writing process, turning that interview into an article or a book, is that so much context got omitted. And so the audio format, I find, is in some ways superior, because for the listener, versus the reader, the context is more intact. And I find that incredibly useful.

DUCKWORTH: Why is the context more intact? 

DUBNER: Well, it’s the difference between hearing the conversation, even if it’s edited, and reading a quote on the page. For instance, if I write an 8,000-word article about Steven Spielberg,,, let’s say, of those 8,000 words, maybe 1,500 words are quotes from the person. And those quotes are being inserted into a context by the writer. In other words, the writer controls the ecosystem, or the environment, of that piece a lot more. Whereas, in the audio interview, the balance is most likely to be close to flipped. You hear a lot more from the person being interviewed, and you hear them, typically, in a more native context. And so, I would make the argument that, yes, every medium is different. A newspaper is different from a book. A podcast is different from a documentary film, and so on. But I think my favorite answer to John B’s question is there are so many avenues for learning interesting stuff out there, depending on who you are and what you want to learn, that no, you shouldn’t feel discriminated against because you choose to not be a reader of books. Full stop. But let me turn the question back on you, Angela. You are a pretty constant reader, it would seem. You’re always reading at least a book or five, right? 

DUCKWORTH: I am a nightly reader. I read right before I go to bed. And then, probably, like, two hours during the day. 

DUBNER: And what about your kids? Do they read less or more than you? 

DUCKWORTH: Maybe we’re about the same. 

DUBNER: And what if one of your kids, or someone else in your family, says, “I just want to watch YouTube all day instead of reading?” What’s your response to that? 

DUCKWORTH: I am sure one of them did say something, when they were little, like, “I want to watch hours of YouTube.” I mean, my kids are 18 and 19. So, the horses have left the barn and I have no control over them anymore. And look, I guess you’re giving me some historic tableau in which I’m just yet the next generation of people to crankily bemoan that the young’uns are getting on to some new technology that’s going to rot their brain. But I will say that when my girls were young, I thought to myself, if they watch this technicolor video with Elmo and whatever, even if it’s kind of educational, it’s just so much easier than the work that has to be done when you’re really thinking about something. And reading does seem to be more effortful, at least for me, than when I am passively watching a documentary, no matter how good the documentary is. So, I think there is a level of engagement and self-pacing in reading that doesn’t happen in some of these other mediums. Say, for example, you’re listening to a podcast and you hear something and you don’t really quite understand it. And before you know it, you’re on the next minute of the podcast, because it just keeps moving. Right? 

DUBNER: You know they have a little pause button. 

DUCKWORTH: Nobody uses that to pause and go back 30 seconds when you’re walking to the grocery store. I mean, if I’m reading a book, you know, my mind wanders, and I’m like, “Oh crap, I have no idea what that last paragraph was that I read.” Just very reflexively, I go back and I start over where I lost the thread of logic. And I really don’t think we do that with YouTube videos, with podcasts, or any of these media which are inherently passive. And I do think there’s this active engagement that happens in reading that is different. 

DUBNER: So, I would like to violently agree with you. But before I violently agree, I would like to violently disagree for a moment, and say that I dispute your argument that no one pauses and rewinds on podcasts, or films, or videos, or whatever, because there is that awesome little — every medium is a little bit different — but the 15-second rewind button.

DUCKWORTH: The little arrow that’s going counterclockwise. 

DUBNER: Now, maybe I’m the outlier here, but I really doubt it. I use it all the time. 

DUCKWORTH: What!

DUBNER: I use it in audio books. I use it in podcasts. 

DUCKWORTH: No. 

DUBNER: I do. 

DUCKWORTH: You do? 

DUBNER: I do. It sounds like we just got married. 

DUCKWORTH: Why? 

DUBNER: Why? Because I missed something. I didn’t understand something. I was maybe driving and I had to focus. I use it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I have such a hard time listening to live radio or watching live TV now, because I instinctively look for that 15-second rewind and it’s not there. And that’s very frustrating. Even Jeopardy!, when you’re watching Jeopardy!, don’t you hate when you, “Wait. Wait. Wait. I didn’t quite get that, and I want to go back.” Don’t you have that experience? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, of course I have that experience, but I’m not the person who looks for the rewind button. I’m just like, “Whoops, okay.” 

DUBNER: So, that was my violent disagreement. But my violent agreement with you is, I would say, much larger and stronger — which is, yeah, I think reading is fundamentally awesome. And there are so many ways in which it’s a system for learning that is unique. That doesn’t mean it’s always better than all the alternatives, but it is unique. Now, that said, I’ve always been interested in how good a reader a given person is. And I think there’s a lot of variance in that. 

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean how “good a reader” someone is?

DUBNER: Look, reading, as you said, takes effort. There’s all this decoding, there’s comprehension, there’s focus. There’s making connections in your mind between the words that you’re seeing and the concepts that they’re portraying. And because there’s so much complexity there, there’s a variance in ability. There are people who are really good readers and there are people who are less good. I know there’s this book called The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham, who’s a professor of psychology. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh I love Dan Willingham. 

DUBNER: He writes about the difference between a, quote, “good reader” and a “less good reader.” “If you’re a good reader, you’re more likely to enjoy a story, because reading it doesn’t seem like work. The enjoyment means that you have a better attitude toward reading — that is you believe that reading is a pleasurable, valuable thing to do. A better attitude means you read more often, and more reading makes you even better at reading.” So, you can see how if someone gets off on the wrong foot with reading, that it might seem like, “Oh my goodness, why would anyone want to do that for pleasure?” And I would say, if you look at the data, and look at the fact that very few people read a lot of books, that this is describing most people, not a minority. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, this gets back to that decision I had as a mom. It’s like, Lucy wants to be on the iPad all day. Is that okay? Or should I put the iPad away and make her read? And I think what Dan Willingham is referring to is research by Keith Stanovich and others on what’s called the “Matthew Effect” in reading. So, the Matthew Effect is a biblical allusion to the rich getting richer. And the readers get more “readery.” So, when I had that decision as a mom and my daughter wanted to do the easy, colorful, musical, engaging, fun thing of watching whatever she wanted to watch on the iPad, I knew that if I sent her down the kind of, like, iPad-only diet, or YouTube-only diet, that she might never get into this Matthew Effect cycle. And what did happen is that Lucy and her sister Amanda ended up becoming what Dan Willingham would call good readers. They were good at it and they enjoyed it. And by the time they were in fifth grade — this is maybe not such a great parenting story — they had finished the whole Twilight series. They would bring these thick teen novels into school. They would hide them in their desk, and then they would secretly read them. And I do think that, to this day, it is something which is relatively effortless for them. And they can get pleasure out of it. So that’s my, kind of, like, “Yay, reading is great.” I think we should encourage it, and it’s going to be harder to get kids into that virtuous cycle the more attractive these easier options like watching YouTube videos are. 

DUBNER: Ok, that said, I do think the choice of what medium you are going to consume in order to gather a certain piece of information is an important choice. And there are a lot of options. So, I think it’s incredibly context- and goal-dependent. In other words, if I want to work on my golf swing, am I going to read that or am I going to watch a video? Well, that feels pretty video. Right? 

DUCKWORTH: Baking, you know, unicorn cookies. 

DUBNER: Do you watch baking videos, and do you feel bad about that? 

DUCKWORTH: I love watching baking videos, and I think that is an example of something which is appropriate for the medium. And I’m very into the habit of doing the rewind on those kind of videos, Stephen. So, I shouldn’t say that I have never used the rewind. 

DUBNER: So, there’s something I learned from my good friend Angela Duckworth, which is that, when considering this kind of question or dilemma that John B. is posing, that you could say either/or, but either/or is limiting. So, I’m going to go both/and. I’m going to say: read as much as you possibly can when you feel it suits your purposes. But also, John B., watch your “quality documentaries,” as you put it, and your explainer videos, and your science experiments. And I don’t think anyone is the worse off. And for those high-horse readers that make you feel inferior, I think they’re doing no one any good, to be honest. 

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

Stephen argues that nobody actually reads books anymore. It’s true that time spent reading has dropped significantly in recent decades. According to the American Time Use Survey, in 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. In 2017, that figure was only 19 percent. However, there’s early evidence that during the global pandemic, reading rates increased significantly for the first time in years. In the US, market research group NPD recorded an 8.2% increase in sales of print books and a 17% increase in sales of e-books. But we’ve yet to see if this trend will continue as Covid protocols change. 

Later, Stephen and Angela discuss the Booker Prize, formerly the Man Booker Prize, and speculate about the reasons behind the name change. The prize was first awarded in 1969 as the Booker Prize for fiction. Publishers Tom Maschler and Graham Greene, the nephew of the famous novelist of the same name, came up with the idea for the award and secured the wholesale food operator Booker McConnell Ltd. to sponsor it. But in 2002, the company stopped its funding and the investment management firm the Man Group came on as a sponsor. Thus, the honor became known as the Man Booker Prize. Then, in 2019, the Man Group left, and Crankstart, a charitable foundation, took over as sponsor. Instead of changing the name of the award to the Crankstart Booker Prize, the foundation decided to revert back to the original name. So, Stephen was correct in assuming that the change was related to funding. However, Angela wasn’t totally wrong to suggest a cancelled sponsor. The origin of the prize has been described as problematic. In his acceptance speech in 1972, art critic and author John Berger openly criticized Booker McConnell sugar firm’s historic exploitation of Guyana and African slavery. 

Finally, I wasn’t able to find any evidence of the book store stunt that Stephen described. So, please shoot us a message if you have any memory of reading about. However I did come across several similar antics. For example, Rutgers psychology professor Sean Duffy left a $20 bill in the middle of his 2004 University of Chicago dissertation with the idea that no one would ever read it. 15 years later, he found that the dissertation had not only been opened, but also the $20 bill had been replaced with a $1 bill. Now that I’ve read about this pattern, I, for one, will be much more likely to finish books, or at least page through the rest of the text to see if cash falls out.

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, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. 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 at 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! 

DUCKWORTH: There were, like, 780 people in my graduating class. 

DUBNER: You know how many were in mine? 

DUCKWORTH: Six. 

DUBNER: 54. I could have been valedictorian if there were six. 

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Sources

  • Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • Donald Redelmeier, senior scientist at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
  • Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University.
  • Kate Raworth, professor of environmental economics at Oxford University.
  • Mariana Mazzucato, professor of economics at University College London.
  • Janet Yellen, the 78th Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.
  • Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
  • Adam Grant, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Vaughan Bell, senior clinical lecturer at University College London.
  • Socrates (deceased), ancient Greek philosopher.
  • Conrad Gesner (deceased), 16th-century physician and naturalist.
  • Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
  • Keith Stanovich, professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto.

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