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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Rabbit hole! Rabbit hole!

DUCKWORTH: No, no, no, white rabbit. I’m not following you down the rabbit hole.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner. 

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

Today on the show: What’s the difference between a habit and an addiction?

DUBNER:  Am I addicted to Netflix? Am I addicted to Facebook? Am I addicted to fill in the blank?

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angela, I have a question today that’s inspired by your behavior the last time we recorded. I don’t know if you remember.

DUCKWORTH: I do remember the last time we recorded.

DUBNER: You were guzzling down a tiny can of Diet Coke. And during our break, you exclaimed with great gusto that it was wonderful. And then, you said, “Stephen, I think I am addicted to Diet Coke.” And I’ve been thinking about that, because I hear people say this all the time these days. “I’m addicted to smoked almonds, I’m addicted to that new Netflix series, or I’m addicted to Diet Coke.” And I wondered: Are you really addicted to Diet Coke? Because we know that addiction is a real, scientifically circumscribed thing. And we typically talk about it in the context of vices — or maybe if not vices, things that are not good for you — drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling. But then, the slope starts to get slippery. People say they’re addicted to food, and food is really good for us in moderation. And people are addicted to sugar, which is, I would argue, much less good. People say they’re addicted to sex, which is kind of important.

DUCKWORTH: This question of “What is an addiction?” I think, is at the heart of what you’re asking. Is that right? 

DUBNER: Yeah. What is an addiction? What’s a habit? What’s a thing you just really like to do? And where should we draw the line? What can you say about actual addiction, and perhaps near-addiction, that could be useful to people — even like you — who say they’re addicted to something like Diet Coke?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know whether I should or should not confess to you, Stephen, that while having this conversation, I am holding another adorable miniature can. I say it’s miniature, but I’m looking at it. It’s seven-and-a-half ounces. I think it’s only miniature by 2022 standards. I think this would have been a full serving back in the day. But it’s cold, and it’s carbonated, and it actually doesn’t taste that good to me, but yet, is in a weird way, delicious. So, let’s tackle these questions. There is, as you will not be surprised, some debate about what constitutes an addiction, but I think a very good starting place would be the D.S.M. You’ve heard of this, right? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  

DUBNER: And it gets updated every what — five to 10 years, something like that?

DUCKWORTH: It does. I remember when I started graduate school, we were on D.S.M.-3, or something like that. Now, I think it’s at six. But it is the official “playbook,” as it were, for therapists and psychiatrists. Insurance companies use it. It’s a catalog of mental illness problems.

DUBNER: Can I interrupt and ask you a tangent that I— I really am curious about? Occasionally, I catch a whiff of a story about the jockeying for position in the D.S.M. for something that should be included that hasn’t been or something that has been included that shouldn’t be. Do you have a story you could tell us about something that was either added or subtracted with some friction?

DUCKWORTH: Right now, the big revolution is thinking that some of these labels that we have are less useful than we might’ve thought — in part, because basically, for every disorder, there’s a list of symptoms. And you don’t have to have all of them. And, in fact, it’s possible to have non-overlapping symptoms. So, you could have, you know, these six out of 12, or somebody else could have these six out of 12. And so, what is it really to be depressed? What is it really to be anxious?

DUBNER: And when I read some of these lists, the symptoms sound like the characteristics of a human being, if you don’t mind me saying so.

DUCKWORTH: Right. And you’re wondering, “Is this psychopathology, or is this just psychology? Is this just a description of human beings?” I will say that there is this way of analyzing the data to see whether the problems that people might be suffering are a difference in degree versus a difference in kind. Like: There are people who have this, and there are people who don’t. But most of the psychopathologies in the D.S.M. are really more a matter of degree than a matter of kind. And so, you can look at these and say, “Well, what about schizophrenia?” And it turns out, even that, for example, is a continuum.

DUBNER: And it really does explain why, when we think about, let’s say, depression or anxiety, it’s hard for me to imagine any human doesn’t sometimes experience some of what we call the “symptoms” of depression. But obviously, it is a matter of degree, and there’s a spectrum. What about with something then like addiction? Is it the same case there, that it’s really, essentially, a matter of degree and how much the consumption of something disrupts your life?

DUCKWORTH: Well, how about we start with the D.S.M.? Why don’t we just read through the criteria?

DUBNER: You mean, start with the thing that you were about to start with until I interrupted you, like, 12 times. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, pretty much.

DUBNER: I stand down. Okay. Let’s begin with criteria number one for substance use disorders. Number one is: “Substance taken in greater quantities and over a longer period of time than intended.” Number two: “Persistent desire, yet repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit, using the substance.” Number three: “Significant time spent obtaining the substance, using, and/or recovering from the effects of substance use.” Four: “Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced due to substance use.” Five: “Use of substance despite knowledge of adverse physical, slash, emotional consequences.” Six: “An increase over time in the amount of substance use or a decrease over time in the desired affective experiences.” Let me unpack that for you, Stephen. Basically, over time, you need more and more to get the same effect. Or, if you’re having the same amount, you’re getting less and less of a benefit or reward from it. Seven: “Withdrawal symptoms when cutting down or abstaining from the substance and use of substance to relieve withdrawal symptoms.” Eight: “Cravings for the substance.” Nine: “Failure to fulfill role obligations due to substance use.” 10: “Substance use, despite interpersonal or social consequences.” And finally, number 11: “Substance use in physically hazardous situations, for example, while operating a vehicle.” So, what do you make of that, Stephen? I think there is a through line to these 11 diagnostic criteria that really begin to tell a story of, “Well, what’s an addiction versus just a bad habit?,” for example.

DUBNER: What I make of that — it’s very clear. I am addicted to golf, as you just described it. I don’t mean to be flip. And I understand the difference between a substance that is harmful to your physical and mental wellbeing, and your family, and your livelihood, and a hobby. I do understand that. But, I mean, this is getting to the point of the conversation. I think I hit at least nine-and-a-half of those 11 symptoms when it comes to golf.

DUCKWORTH: So, you play golf in greater quantities, or over a longer period of time, than intended?

DUBNER: Oh, 150 percent true.

DUCKWORTH: Really?

DUBNER: But, the thing is, when you list those symptoms — this gets us, again, up to this kind of squishy line between substance abuse, let’s say, and addiction to behaviors like, “I watched nine hours of Netflix yesterday.”

DUCKWORTH: I think the center of gravity — like, what are all of these 11 criteria really pointing to — is dysfunctionality. That is, of course, arguable. But I think the idea of qualifying for a mental disorder is that the impairment in your functionality at work, in your close personal relationships, as a member of society, and so forth, is beyond a point where you would say, “You know what? This is really impairing my goals.” And I don’t think you could say that about golf.

DUBNER: I couldn’t. But that’s kind of the point of this conversation, because the D.S.M. definition sets a necessarily high bar. And I would argue — based on knowing almost nothing, except what you said about Diet Coke last time we spoke — was that there’s a lot of room under that bar where you can still feel an addiction, a compulsion, that really does get in the way of your life. And I’m not saying this is you and Diet Coke. But I do know a lot of people who say they are “addicted” to eating sweet things at night. I know people who say they are “addicted” to watching Netflix. And look, all the digital firms — like Netflix, and Facebook, and so on — are really good at playing into that appetite. They make it really easy to keep doing what you’ve been doing for the past hour. So, you don’t even have to press a button anymore for the next episode to come up, and so on. And so, under that high bar that the D.S.M. sets for substance abuse addiction, when you said you were addicted to Diet Coke, how much of a joke was that? Are there things in your life that you feel that you’re sort of addicted to? Or do you have total control over all your consumptions and behaviors?

DUCKWORTH: I will address that question. I don’t want to sound like a politician. But first, I want to say that when we talk about addiction really having this high bar to qualify for D.S.M. — and remember this is used for insurance payment to providers. And so, there has to be a bar, and understandably, it is a pretty high bar for dysfunctionality, but it is a continuum. So, when you ask yourself, “Am I addicted to Netflix? Am I addicted to Facebook? Am I addicted to fill-in-the-blank?,” you should ask yourself, “On the continuum of dysfunctionality, where am I? And where you choose to draw the line to call it addiction or not is, I think, to some extent, arbitrary.”

DUBNER: Unless I’m trying to get reimbursed from my insurance company for watching too much Netflix, for instance.

DUCKWORTH: In which case it’s still arbitrary, except for you have to make it sound not arbitrary, right? So that you can get compensated by your insurance company. 

DUBNER: Wouldn’t that be a super-fun lawsuit to bring, though?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I am guessing it has been brought. So, I am actually not addicted to Diet Coke. You interact with me in these conversations, and you’re like, “Wow, Angela always seems to have an adorable miniature can of Diet Coke with her.” But that’s only because they have them for free in this sound studio. But during the week, and in between our conversations, Stephen, I rarely drink Diet Coke. 

DUBNER: You are so unaddicted to Diet Coke that you can joke about being addicted even while knowing that many people are addicted to things. That’s heartless!

DUCKWORTH: Yes! I can be callous. Well, look, I speak from experience. All the way up to about 10 years ago, I would drink maybe a couple of cans — and the big cans, not these adorable miniature cans. And then, feeling virtuous, I would switch to caffeine-free Diet Coke. And then, one day, a professor from Yale — and I’m desperately trying to remember her name, but I can’t remember — she came to visit my university, the University of Pennsylvania. And we got to be talking about her line of work, which was addiction, and the research that she felt was compelling — that Diet Coke was really bad for you. In particular, she was talking about random-assignment-controlled trials of animal studies. So, like, water that had sweetener in it, like Diet Coke has — you know, Splenda, or aspartame, or whatever — compared to sugar and then compared to nothing. Our conversation was, “Did you know that when you ingest these drinks that have this artificial sweetness, but your body’s not getting the actual sugar, that it completely disrupts your homeostatic balance? And your body doesn’t know what’s going on. And then you can actually crave sugar later, etc.” And the details elude me, but I do remember this. I was like, “What am I? I am a psychologist. What do I study? I study behavior change.” That day, I said, “I am going to stop drinking Diet Coke.” And then, I went about using all the tricks of the trade that I was familiar with to change my habit. And now, I do not have that habit anymore.

DUBNER: Well, congratulations. I will say: In your choice of Diet Coke, you definitely have good taste in terms of keeping with the rest of America. It’s the number-two selling soda in America. After Coke. I’ll read the top 10: Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Sprite. Number seven rhymes with a beloved holiday character.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, God, this is too hard.

DUBNER: How many truly beloved holiday characters are? It’s not Easter Bunny. 

DUCKWORTH: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

DUBNER: Correct holiday, wrong character.

DUCKWORTH: Frosty the Snowman. 

DUBNER: Again. Correct holiday.

DUCKWORTH: Santa Claus?

DUBNER: There you go.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Fanta?

DUBNER: Number seven. Fanta.

DUCKWORTH: I cannot believe I got that, Stephen. Wow. 

DUBNER: You are so good at every riddle.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, thank you. All right. So, that’s the list of popular drinks. The memory that I have — you know, this decade-old memory of a half-hour conversation from somebody at Yale whose name I can’t remember — there’s been a lot of science since then. There’s basically mixed findings about the long-term effects on your appetite and whether you compensate. You might have a higher tolerance for what it means to be sweet. I don’t want to say that science has decided one way or the other, but given that there’s nobody saying that soft drinks are good for you, and there’s mixed findings on how it could be bad for you — 

DUBNER: I dispute that statement.

DUCKWORTH: What? Wait, somebody’s saying that soda’s good for you?  

DUBNER: I believe the Coca-Cola Company has pretty much been persuading us for years that soda is at least good for our spirits — as has Pepsi-Cola.

DUCKWORTH: Just for, like, holding hands in a circle and smiling, but there haven’t been health claims, recently.

DUBNER: They haven’t, but I will tell you this: Coca-Cola does explicitly say that they’re not addictive, which is an interesting statement to me, because let’s keep in mind there’s also caffeine in Coke and Diet Coke. And I’m pretty sure caffeine is established to be an addictive substance. But here’s a statement on the Coca-Cola website. Quote, “Many people enjoy sweet tastes from time to time, and that’s normal.” Oh my God, this sounds like a children’s book about masturbation or something. Let me read that again. “Many people enjoy sweet tastes from time to time, and that’s normal. Regularly consuming food and drink that tastes good and that you enjoy is not the same as being addicted to them. Caffeine is a mild stimulant. And if you have it regularly and then stop abruptly, you may experience some headaches or other minor effects, but most of us can reduce or eliminate caffeine from our diets without serious problems. 

DUCKWORTH: Now, look, I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole, of, you know, what’s defensible, what’s not.

DUBNER: Rabbit hole! Rabbit hole! Come on.

DUCKWORTH: No, no, no, white rabbit. I’m not following you down the rabbit hole. However, I’ve read a lot of books on habit. And there are a lot of really good ones. But one that I read again last week was by Russ Poldrack. He’s at Stanford, and he’s a neuroscientist. And his book is called Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. I’m going to read for you his definition of addiction. Here’s what he writes: “Judging from the titles of popular songs, one can be addicted to just about anything — including love (Robert Palmer), orgasms (the Buzzcocks), danger (Ice-T), and bass (Puretone). However, neuroscientists reserve the term ‘addiction’ more specifically for the compulsive and uncontrollable engagement in a particular behavior, in spite of its harmful consequences to the user.” So, there’s a lot of overlap between the D.S.M. criteria and then this definition from Russ. But what I want to underscore here is the compulsive nature of the behavior. And, I think, when you ask the question, like, “What do neuroscientists or psychologists, what do they mean by compulsive?” The idea is that you are doing something out of an urge to do it, but it’s no longer fulfilling. It’s no longer actually that the craving to do something lines up with the reward. What it really is, is that the “wanting” and the “liking” of whatever you’re doing no longer line up. In healthy behaviors, you want what you like and you like what you want. But when it comes to certain drugs, it’s possible to have the wanting and liking come apart.  

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela dig into the idea of wanting things that you no longer like.

DUBNER: I’m starting to think that maybe we’ve cracked the Angela Duckworth code. It’s not Diet Coke. It’s not heroin. It’s not golf.  

*      *      *

Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about addiction, we asked listeners to tell us about things or behaviors they may feel addicted to outside of the realm of substance abuse. Here’s what you said:

Hanna MCLEAN: Hi, my name is Hanna McClean. Before the pandemic, I worked at a tech start-up with free snacks and beverages in the office and I became absolutely addicted to Polar Orange Vanilla Seltzer. It was to the point where I was drinking eight or nine cans a day, and also waking up in the middle of the night with terrible acid reflux from all the carbonation. While I loved the flavor of the seltzer, I really think part of the addiction came from the benefit of being able to leave my desk and take a walk to the kitchen throughout the day. My new year’s resolution in 2020 was to only drink one can per day, and I stuck with it until March when we stopped going into the office. I actually haven’t had a can since then, because I’m worried my addiction would come straight back.

Shlomo HUBSCHER: Hi Stephen and Angela, this is Shlomo Hubscher from the suburbs of Jerusalem. My addiction to the adrenaline I get after a good run on the treadmill keeps me coming back for more. I run three to four times a week, but if I ever miss one, I find myself hankering for my drug.

Jacob BERELLA DE HERERRA: Hi. My name is Jacob. And I want to share a little bit of a story about how, when I was growing up, my mom would grow these very strong addictions to these very random foods. And it all started with a tuna fish sandwich. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she would eat a tuna fish sandwich. When she didn’t have a tuna fish sandwich, she would show the classic signs of withdrawal. And this is how I learned that I have addictive tendencies. Last Easter, my work was leaving out Cadbury eggs, and I’d grab one on the way to my desk every morning. And when they ran out, I was grumpy for what seemed like a few days. So, I went to the store to buy, essentially, a lifetime supply of Cadbury eggs. And I realized that Cadbury eggs had turned into my tuna fish sandwich! So, I put them back and realized I need to be a little bit more  aware of my addictive tendencies.

That was, respectively, Hanna McClean, Shlomo Hubscher, and Jacob Berella de Hererra. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the line between habit and addiction.

DUBNER: I once came across an argument that, basically, anything can be addictive as long as it offers a reward, and that it’s the reward that attracts us. So, A) Is that true? And B) If that is true, it sounds like what you just told us overrides that a little bit. Because you’re saying that even once the reward diminishes or even disappears, the habit has been formed, and we can’t get away from it.

DUCKWORTH: So, we’re going to have to now talk about how habits and addictions have overlap, but also how they’re not exactly the same thing.

DUBNER: Okay.

DUCKWORTH: So, what is a habit? What a habit is, is a behavior that you repeatedly do in response to some cue and that you are rewarded for in a way that eventually it becomes an automatic behavior, and you do it unthinkingly in the presence of the cue. 

DUBNER: So, if I can interrupt for a second, it sounds — from that definition — as though every addiction would be a habit, but not every habit would be an addiction. Is that the case?

DUCKWORTH: I will say that every addiction does hijack habit machinery, but not every habit is an addiction. But I think that the key is that, when you want to understand what an addiction is — this compulsion element that Russ Poldrack was talking about, the compulsive and uncontrollable engagement — if you think about drug addicts who actually make plans of how they’re going to get their heroin, and they’re thinking really hard. They might have schemes. Like: “First, I’ve got to rob this person in order to get the money. And then, I have to go over here—” So, that is not habit-like. Habits are behaviors that are so autopilot that they are not even enacted with conscious awareness. So, already, we have this coming apart between habit and addiction. They don’t look the same. And this kind of conscious, planful behavior already tells you that it’s not exactly the same thing as habit. Because habits are more like, “Oh, oops. I turned left. I always turn left at this stop sign. I didn’t even realize I turned left.”

DUBNER: But that sounds almost a little backwards to me. Because you’re saying that addiction requires a certain level of intentionality, and planning, and so on, which sounds less like, quote, “addiction.”

DUCKWORTH: Not always, but it can. It’s just an existence proof that the behaviors of addicts can actually often be planful and goal-directed. Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s good. And it doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t regret it. But it’s not that kind of unconscious autopilot, like, “oops,” of mere habits.  

DUBNER: Do you know the famous paper by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy back in the— I want to say the late 1980s? And I believe it was called “A Theory of Rational Addiction.” Do you know that paper?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know it as well as you do, but I did read it once. So, refresh my memory.

DUBNER: So, Gary Becker, for those who don’t know, was an economist at the University of Chicago — incredibly interesting human. He died maybe five to seven years ago. And my partner, Steve Levitt, on Freakonomics, is an economist very much in the mold of Gary Becker.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. He’s kind of neo-Beckerian.

DUBNER: Gary Becker loved economics, but he didn’t resemble an economist at all for many—

DUCKWORTH: He was more like a psychologist, I think.  

DUBNER: I know he was interested in sociology, because he had a lot of curiosities and questions that a typical economist— Especially of that era, the 1950s and 60s, economics was not at all about human behavior. It was really about the math of the economy. I believe the story is that he found sociology great on the topics, but not very good on the rigor. And so, he wanted to bring the rigor of economic analysis to these things. Gary Becker went on to write many, many papers that were often ridiculed within the economics establishment.  

DUCKWORTH: Is that right? 

DUBNER: Oh, he was considered not only a heretic and a fool, but, like, downgrading the whole reputation of economics. Fast forward 30, 40 years, he wins the Nobel Prize. He’s considered one of the most humane, and interesting, and thoughtful economists who’ve ever been around, because he applied economic analysis to a lot of elements of the modern world that economists had typically ignored. Also, he wrote, as I said, this paper called “A Theory of Rational Addiction” with Kevin Murphy. And in it, they argued that addiction is — well, the title kind of says it — it’s rational in that it shows a set of revealed preferences, and that rather than thinking about someone who’s addicted, even to a drug, as someone who is in the throes of this intense craving, which they may be also — they basically argued that someone who is an addict is weighing the costs, and weighing the benefits, and making a decision, and revealing their preference through their addiction. Now, as you can imagine, it was a very controversial idea. And there were those, especially in the treatment community, who absolutely went against it. But the paper has really held up as something that is at least a great foundation for a discussion.

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s provocative. But here’s the thing: I wish Gary Becker had been alive to see this research really come to full prominence. In the neuroscience literature, one of my very favorite thinkers is Kent Berridge. And he has done this path-breaking work explaining to the rest of us how “wanting” and “liking” are not the same thing. I’m going to read from a 2021 paper that he wrote with two colleagues who are also neuroscientists. And they write, “The positive affect of rewards is an important contributor to wellbeing. Reward involves components of pleasure, liking, motivation, wanting, and also learning. Liking refers to the hedonic impact of positive events with underlying mechanisms that include hedonic hotspots in limbic brain structures that amplify liking reactions. Wanting refers to incentive salience, a motivational process that makes reward cues attractive and able to trigger craving for their reward, mediated by larger dopamine-related mesocorticolimbic networks.”

DUBNER: All I heard was “miso,” and it made me hungry.  

DUCKWORTH: “You got me at mesocorticolimbic,” I think is the expression. But look, the point here is that, after studying this, what Kent Berridge has discovered is that dopamine, which people talk about all the time — it’s like, “Oh, dopamine is the pleasure chemical” — dopamine, at least in the context of what he’s investigating here, is really more about the wanting system. It’s essentially that when we have certain experiences, it can stimulate parts of the brain that make us motivated to do that thing again. And that’s different from stimulating parts of the brain that make us enjoy the thing. Now, typically these things go together. We want what we like, and we like what we want. And it’s all good, right? Like, “Oh my gosh, I want to listen to that music. And I like listening to that music.” Great. But the funny thing about drugs — and one of the through lines of all of the substances that have been studied that have very strongly addictive qualities — is that they stimulate the dopamine system, and they stimulate this wanting response — it’s called “incentive salience,” in the technical terms — in a very unusual, intense, and prolonged way. And I think it’s really not that these drugs make us like things more. And it’s not a pleasure thing. It’s actually the stimulation of the dopamine system related to wanting and craving that actually make these things addictive. So, to go back to Gary Becker, if Gary Becker wants to say “Hey, you look at an addict, and you just are seeing his revealed preferences. That’s what he wants.” But I think what economists are now going to have to wrestle with is that the very notion of “utility” in economics is the things that you like, but here we have a separation between the things that you like and the things that you want. And that’s very complicated.

DUBNER: That is fascinating. And it makes me think of something else Gary Becker once said. And since you’re so good at guessing things, I’m really curious to know if you can get this one.

DUCKWORTH: Uh-oh, another riddle?

DUBNER: Gary Becker once said — this was in casual conversation, I think, with Steve Levitt, who told me about it, and I talked about it later with Gary. But he once put forth his argument for what he thought was the most addictive thing in the world. What do you think Gary Becker might’ve said is the most addictive thing in the world. 

DUCKWORTH: The most addictive thing in the world. I think Gary Becker probably said something like reading.

DUBNER: That’s a very good guess. Not correct. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s not golf, right?

DUBNER: No, not golf. He was a big tennis player. It’s not tennis either. It’s much less prosaic than golf or tennis. It’s something that is a very core part of the human experience for just about everyone.  

DUCKWORTH: Praise?

DUBNER: Very good guess. Gary Becker said the thing that most people are most addicted to is other people.

DUCKWORTH: Hmm. Interesting. So, what did he mean by that exactly?  

DUBNER: My interpretation was that, if you really look at human beings and you think of all the things that we are, quote, “addicted” to, or drawn to, or want, or need, or like, that people is the strongest and most universal among them. We are very much social animals. And people want and need other people. And they do want praise from them. And they want love. And they want approval and all those things. And what I thought was most interesting when he said that was I thought of a counterexample of someone that I’d written about years earlier — the Unabomber. The Unabomber was this guy who went cold turkey. He went without people. And the reason he did that was long and complicated. He had a childhood where he was very, very, very smart. And his parents kept encouraging him to move up a grade, and up a grade. So, by the time he was in like sixth or seventh grade in school, he was two or three years younger than his peers. And you could look at that and say, “Well, that’s pretty hard for a kid who may not be the most socially competent kid in the first place.” And then, he had a really hard time forming friendships. He had a really hard time having girlfriends, all of which he craved very much. And there came a certain point at which he gave it up, went and lived in a cabin in Montana, and started building bombs and sending them to people to blow them up. Now, I’m not saying that everybody who becomes unaddicted to people, or distances themselves from other people, is going to go move to a cabin in Montana and start making bombs to blow people up. But it did speak to me as a counterexample of what Gary Becker talked about — our need to be around other people.

DUCKWORTH: You think it’s a counterexample to what Gary Becker was claiming? Because you could argue it’s just an example. He could have, you know, moved to a remote cabin. And then, I think if you really didn’t need people, you wouldn’t need to interact with them at all — including sending them bombs. So, he was clearly still interacting with people, even in a violent and terrible way.

DUBNER: That is true. I must say, you’ve given the whole word “interacting” a new definition in my mind.

DUCKWORTH: But he’s looking for attention, you could argue.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s true.

DUCKWORTH: Here’s the thing about saying that being with other people is “addictive.” So, if you go back to either the D.S.M. criteria or Russ Poldrack speaking on behalf of neuroscientists, there’s an element of dysfunctionality, of compulsion. And, by the way, one of the hallmarks of such a behavior is that it’s regretted. It can be regretted in the moment. It can be regretted afterwards. I don’t know that people would say that about their dependence on other people.

DUBNER: Ah, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: So, I could say, like, “Oh, I’m so addicted to talking to my best friend every Tuesday morning when we go running.” I would miss it. I depend on it. It’s an integral part of my life, but it lacks that dysfunctionality part. It’s not like I do it, and I regret it. So, I think that’s an important thing to not lose sight of, that perhaps when the dopamine system that’s related to the incentive salience, or the wanting part of the brain — which, by the way, it’s not a part of the brain that’s bad. It’s a part of the brain which is good.

DUBNER: We have bad parts of the brain?

DUCKWORTH: No. We have no bad parts of the brain. But that’s my point, Stephen. It’s just hijacking a part of the brain which is designed to help us do things like achieve goals, and get off the couch, and so forth. The thing is that the unnatural stimulation of the dopamine system in this way, especially, by the way for, opioids. There are certain drugs where the effect on this wanting system is so profound, it not only changes your dopamine response in the moment, it creates long-term structural changes. And that system gets all screwed up. You can become more sensitive in the short term, which makes you do drugs more. Then over the long-term, it gets less sensitive, which means you have to increase the amount of drugs that you’re doing. I feel like I’m Nancy Reagan here, or something, telling everybody not to take drugs. 

DUBNER: Just say no. 

DUCKWORTH: That was a terrible campaign.

DUBNER: It’s that easy.

DUCKWORTH: It has no evidence of it working. But I will say this: when we talk about, like, “Oh, I’m addicted to Diet Coke,” or “I’m addicted to Netflix,” or “I’m addicted to social media,” you could ask these questions with seriousness, but I do think you want to keep in mind, like, do you really mean that on the continuum you’re at the level of compulsion and dysfunction?

DUBNER: So, those are great points. In summary, I would say: Number one, Angela Duckworth says Gary Becker — mostly wrong on being addicted to people. Okay. And number two, I’ve concluded from this conversation that you are plainly not addicted to Diet Coke. You were yanking all of our chains. That’s pretty obvious. It sounds like you are not at all an addictive type. And so, I don’t think you probably ever will be addicted to anything, except —

DUCKWORTH: Except for No Stupid Questions.

DUBNER: That’s what I was going to ask you. You just keep showing up every week here.

DUCKWORTH: “What are you doing here?!”

DUBNER: I barely have to do it. I just have to give you the slightest nudge. It’s, like, one little email. “Hey Angela, do you feel like going to the studio?” And you’re there. So, I’m starting to think that maybe we’ve cracked the Angela Duckworth code. It’s not Diet Coke. It’s not heroin. It’s not golf. It’s No Stupid Questions. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s not the worst vice in the world.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Angela says that she thinks her seven-and-a-half ounce can of Diet Coke is only miniature by today’s standards. This is correct. Bottles of Coca-Cola were originally six-and-a-half ounces. The 12-ounce can that we’re familiar with today was introduced in 1960.

Later, Angela says that she used the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — or the D.S.M. — while in grad school, but that publication would have been out of date at that time. She would have instead used the revised D.S.M.-4, which was published in the year 2000. She also said that the most recent publication of the manual is the D.S.M.-6. This is incorrect. The D.S.M.-5, which was originally published in 2013, was revised and republished in March 2022 as the D.S.M.-5-TR — or “Text Revision.” There is not currently a release date for the D.S.M.-6.

Then, Angela assumes that there has already been an addiction lawsuit brought against Netflix. It doesn’t appear that anything of the sort has occurred just yet. However, people have been sued for binge-watching behavior. In 2019, Robert De Niro’s company, Canal Productions, filed a $6 million lawsuit against a former employee who was accused of binge-watching enormous amounts of television on company time — including 55 episodes of Friends over a four-day period.

Finally, Stephen begins to list the 10 best-selling sodas in the United States, but he only gets to number seven. According to a recent publication from Newsweek, Sierra Mist, Sunkist, and 7-Up round out the list.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: What’s so bad about nepotism?

DUCKWORTH: We talk a lot about how unfair it is that people who are less qualified get certain positions, but perhaps the trust and ease of communication that comes with someone being a family member or a friend is also important.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to know if you’ve ever hired a family member, been hired by a family member, or worked with someone who was hired by a family member. Let us know how it worked out. To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Nepotism.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, Freakonomics, M.D, and Off Leash. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. We had 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 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. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: As they say, you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a Nobel Laureate in the department of economics at Chicago.

DUBNER: And believe me, they are swinging a lot of dead cats. There’s a whole dead cat department, by the way.

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Sources

  • Gary Becker, professor of economics and of sociology at the University of Chicago.
  • Kent Berridge, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan.
  • Kevin Murphy, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
  • Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology at Stanford University.

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