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Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. You may or may not know this, but I’ve been cheating on you, every week. Along with making Freakonomics Radio, I make another show, called No Stupid Questions, with my friend Angela Duckworth. She’s a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania; she’s also the author of the book Gritand, as you’ll hear today, she’s just a lot of fun to talk to. Every week, we try to answer one question about psychology or society or human nature — really, anything that catches our interest. We started No Stupid Questions a couple years ago, just as an excuse for me to hang out with Angie once a week. Since then, it’s become one of the most popular shows in the Freakonomics Radio Network. So if you’re not listening yet, maybe you should be. What you’re about to hear is a brand-new episode of No Stupid Questions, and I hope it will inspire you to follow or subscribe to the show in your podcast app.

One big difference between this show and Freakonomics Radio is that No Stupid Questions is really just a conversation — which is why, as you’ll hear, we have a fact-checking section at the end, to catch our mistakes. With Freakonomics Radio, we do fact-checking all along the way, during the whole production and interview and editing process. That doesn’t mean we never make a mistake in Freakonomics Radio, but we do catch most of them before you hear the show. Anyway, in this episode of No Stupid Questions, we’ll be talking about how our surroundings can make us smarter — and maybe happier too. As always, thanks for listening — and again, I do hope you’ll also start listening to No Stupid Questions every week. I also feel better now that I’ve told you about my infidelity. It’s a good way to start the new year, with a clean conscience.

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DUBNER: Eighty-eight percent of elementary school teachers encourage their students to hold their pee. 

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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 does the built environment affect human behavior?

DUBNER: It does not matter to him whether it’s 100 degrees or 50 degrees, whether a building is designed well or whether it’s a cave, when he’s doing his work, it just doesn’t matter.

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DUBNER: Angela, good morning.

DUCKWORTH: Good morning, Stephen.

DUBNER: We have an email here that I think you’re going to find particularly interesting. It is from one Yildiz Basol. She writes to say, “Dear NSQ team, I am an architecture student at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, and I find it fascinating how the built environment affects us.” I would have to agree here with Yildiz. It is fascinating how the built environment affects us.


DUBNER: Furthermore, she writes, “I have read a few papers about how children perform academically better in some school environments compared to others, and would love to hear your opinions about it. I believe in using this power of architecture and design to help improve lives. Since a good education has such huge potential benefits on an individual, but also on a community level” — that’s what economists call a positive externality: the more people that get educated, the better it is for everybody — “I have decided,” she writes, “to focus on designing a primary school for my master’s thesis that shares its facilities with the community, offers adult-education classes, and acts as a neighborhood center. So,” she writes, “my question is: does the built environment affect our lives more than we realize? Can architecture really make us happier and more successful, as we designers would like to believe?” So, Angela, let’s start with the basic assertion here, especially the one that falls into your wheelhouse. Is it true, as Yildiz says, that there is research showing that children perform academically better in some school environments?

DUCKWORTH: There is research on exactly that question. But I think long before there was social-science research on whether or not the design of your classroom or your school building influenced your academics, there was an intuition. What architect does not think that there’s some influence of the built environment on psychology?

DUBNER: I mean, look at all the religious monuments and temples throughout history. Think of the Parthenon. Think of every state house that was ever built.  

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure you know this better than I do, like, the famous Winston Churchill quote about the architecture of Parliament? I think the direct quote is, “First we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The context of this was that, I think — and you know I am not a student of history — but Parliament had been bombed, I guess. I think it’s World War II? And it was under Winston Churchill’s watch that it had to be rebuilt. And so, architects came forward with a number of plans. You know, should it be, like, a circular shape? Should it be oblong? And these various plans had little line drawings of where people would sit in the building. And since the British system was a two-party system, Churchill maintained that they should rebuild Parliament exactly as it had been, with benches for one side facing the other. But he felt like that kind of dialogue, the oppositional — like, “I need to face you” — was elemental.

DUBNER: What I’ve read about that, and I have attended — on Wednesdays there’s what’s called “Prime Minister’s Questions,” where the Prime Minister actually sits on the bench there and fields questions. And the opposition, as you said, they’re separated by not very far. They’re face to face so that their spittle actually hits each other, and I’ve always heard that the idea was if you want a government that is accountable to the other side, then it really makes sense for them to face each other, and air their grievances, and so on — the idea being that it will somehow produce a more civil discourse. I have to say, as anybody who’s watched any Prime Minister’s Questions or parliamentary debate, it doesn’t work.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know if it’s supposed to be civil, though. I think it’s supposed to be antagonistic. I think actually it’s supposed to be productive.

DUBNER: The explanation that I heard was that, again, in an accountable government, you want to face the charges and defend them. I mean, I think the example you’re giving is a good example of how architecture influences behavior, but not always, perhaps, the way the architect imagines. There’s another example I think of — you’ve been to the Vatican, I assume?

DUCKWORTH: I have been to the Vatican.

DUBNER: So, when you walk in to St. Peter’s Square there, there are these two, big, rounded colonnades — or rows of columns — that are meant to, as I’ve read, at least architecturally, feel like arms welcoming you into the fold. This is, “I am the Lord, your shepherd, welcoming you into the fold of the church.” Long before I knew that what it was supposed to represent, when you walk in there, it’s an overwhelming feeling of awe, maybe some would feel comfort. But it is — look, we’ve firmly established that architects do stuff on purpose, and we respond to it, right?

DUCKWORTH: We do have that as a kind of given. And then the question is, “Are they right?” Because they could be wrong. There’s an article that was published in 2015 called “The Impact of Classroom Design on People’s Learning: Final Results of a Holistic Multi-Level Analysis.” Pretty sexy title there.

DUBNER: That is sexy.

DUCKWORTH: Equally sexy journal called Building and Environment, and the authors are several, but I think the most senior author on this is Peter Barrett, who was the founding director of this thing called Salford’s Research Institute for the Built and Human Environment. And what this study did — it’s not random assignment. I guess, it’s, in theory, possible to randomly assign kids to go to different classrooms and different schools, and also to have random assignment of architectural styles. So, the big caveat on this is that it’s a correlational study. But, that said, it’s 153 classrooms in 27 different elementary schools — or I guess they call them “primary schools” in the U.K. And the aim was to identify — this is a quote — “the impact of the physical classroom features on the academic progress of the 3,766 pupils who occupied each of those specific spaces.”

DUBNER: Okay, great.

DUCKWORTH: And, very specifically, the report concludes that “seven key design parameters were identified that collectively explained 16 percent of the variation in pupils’ academic progress achieved.” So, in other words, there is an effect of architecture if you trust these correlational findings. And when you ask the question, like, “Well, how much is 16 percent of the variation? Is that a lot or a little?” I can tell you, that is a lot. Most interventions have a fraction of that effect. So, there’s something going on here if it is all about the architecture and not something that correlates with the architecture, like how wealthy that school district is. But if you take it on face value, you have to say, “Wow, what are these seven key design parameters?”

DUBNER: Yeah. Angie, what are these seven key design parameters?

DUCKWORTH: So, they are as follows: light, temperature, air quality — and these are three that the researchers would call, “naturalness.” You know, if you have a lot of natural light, if the temperature is comfortable for you, and the air quality is good — not polluted — that’s all kind of mimicking, in a way, being outside on a nice day. And that actually turns out to be about half of the effect of the built environment when it comes to classrooms. And it’s also what the researchers say that everybody thinks about, right? When you think about a wonderful classroom — maybe your own primary-school classroom and how it may not have been ideal — very often people think, “Was there light? Was it too cold or too hot? And was it stifling? Basically, was there a lot of fresh air? Okay. So, the other four factors are as follows. So, first I’ll give two that they would call “stimulation.” There’s color and complexity. And here color is the variety, the brightness of the colors — how much color is there? And complexity is just, like, how much crap there is. And the interesting thing about complexity and color — these two features of stimulation — is it’s kind of like a Goldilocks story. It’s really important that you don’t have too much color or too much crap in the classroom, but also, not a monochromatic classroom or one where there’s nothing on the walls.

And the final two features fall into what they call “individualization.” So, individualization includes ownership and flexibility. “Ownership,” the researchers define as basically your ability as a student, and also as a teacher, to customize the classroom with things that are unique to you, kind of like when teenagers decorate their own bedroom. And flexibility is: is everything just fixed? Or is there some opportunity to flexibly rearrange chairs, or boards, or anything else, so that you can have round-table discussions when you need them, but line things up for a speaker when they come in? So, collectively that’s the story that they want to tell. Half of the effect of the built environment being about naturalness and then the other half being almost evenly split — maybe a little bit more for individualization, and then, finally, stimulation.

DUBNER: So, I will say, anyone who already appreciates design or architecture, even a little bit, will say, “Well, yeah. Like, no kidding. It took all these academics to find that the design and architecture of a place really matters?” But your argument here is that, not only does it matter in terms of being more pleasant, perhaps, but it does seem to affect individual performance for school children, right? Even though it’s correlational and not causal, necessarily.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, if we give them a pass on random assignment and experimental design, I think the surprise in this might be, “But really? Their actual academic achievement, really?” Like, yeah, I can understand them being, I don’t know, in a better mood, less cranky.

DUBNER: I have to say, it doesn’t surprise me. I do think back to this study from a long time ago that we discussed in an episode of Freakonomics Radio called “Please Get Your Noise Out of My Ears.” It was about noise pollution, essentially. There’s a woman named Arline Bronzaft, who is a sound scholar, I guess, in New York City. There was a study that she had run years and years ago, and it was very unscientific. You’ll understand as soon as I tell you why. There were complaints from a school in the Bronx that some of their classrooms were right next to the elevated subway. And it was really, really noisy. And there were parents, I want to say, who were trying to get this changed, but they wanted some evidence. So, Arline Bronzaft came in to do a study. And the study she did measured academic performance in the classrooms that were right next to the elevated subway and similar classrooms on the other side of the building that didn’t have the noise disruption. Now, you can imagine the many reasons why that may not be purely scientific. We don’t know whether those two sets of classrooms were what you people call “observationally equivalent,” and so on. But she did find that there was something like a full grade level of math achievement different in the noisy rooms versus the quiet rooms. Now, I don’t know about you, Angela, I am sensitive to my environment. I know people, however, who are not — like Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics buddy. He claims that it does not matter to him whether it’s 100 degrees or 50 degrees, whether it’s noisy or not noisy, whether a building is designed well or whether it’s a cave, that when he’s doing his work, it just doesn’t matter. I have a hard time believing it, but maybe that’s just because I am more sensitive to environment. What about you?

DUCKWORTH: I have a hard time believing it doesn’t affect Steve Levitt at all. It strains imagination to think that if you are trying to write a paper and your kids are, like, in the next room — or anything that would be disrupting your attention. However, it does not strain my imagination to think that he’s pretty good relative to other humans.  

DUBNER: A low level of distractibility, you’re saying?

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I’m like him, I think. So, Jason has this complete inability to focus when there’s anything distracting — like, a T.V. on. Just this morning, there was this beep in my house, and I couldn’t figure out where it was. And I was like, “Is it a fire alarm?” And I spent a few seconds trying to figure it out, and then I just went back to my work. Every few seconds this beep would go off.

DUBNER: Jason, meanwhile, would’ve torn down walls looking for the beep. 

DUCKWORTH: Jason’s head would have exploded. So, I think there’s a continuum, and maybe students too vary in how influenced they are. 

DUBNER: Absolutely. It sounds like you and Steve Levitt are pretty good at tuning out a lot of things. It sounds like Jason and I are not. I am curious to know how our listeners feel about this. I almost feel we could make it a team sport here. Are you Team Angela or you Team Stephen?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what’s my team?

DUBNER: Team Angela — she can really work through anything. She is not easily distracted.

DUCKWORTH: Why don’t you call that Team Levitt? I just spent a good portion of my oxygen trying to say that the built environment really does matter. So, why do you make that Team Levitt?

DUBNER: Fair enough.  

DUCKWORTH: Because he’s not here to defend himself.

DUBNER: Team Levitt is: it doesn’t matter if you’re in a 100 degree cave or a 62 degree high-rise office, you’re just going to focus on your work and get it done. Or are you Team Dubner? Which is, “Ugh, I’m like the princess and the pea.” If there’s a little bit of a beeping — like, when I go to the gym, I often bring reading to the gym, and I ride a bike and read. But if I’m in there reading and someone has left a T.V. on, even with no sound, I can’t even read if those M.S.N.B.C. shouters are shouting at me with their open mouths. That’s how sensitive I am. So, I would like listeners to tell us: are you someone whose environment really affects their ability to work and affects their mood a lot or much less so — much more like Levitt? Use your phone to make a voice memo. It’s very easy, and email it to us We may play it at the end of the next episode. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss what modernist author Virginia Woolf had to say about how a person’s environment affects their productivity.

DUBNER: Everyone who’s listening to us should quit their jobs, and become writers, and work on their own, correct?

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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about how physical space affects personal success.

DUBNER: I remember the first time I heard this phrase. It was about 15 years ago. The minute I heard it, I thought, “Oh, that’s what I need to avoid whenever possible.” And the phrase was “cognitive drift.” You’re familiar with this phrase, I assume?

DUCKWORTH: “Cognitive drift”? I can figure it out from context clues, but what is it? Just that your mind wanders? 

DUBNER: Yeah, it just means what it says it means. But what fascinated me about it was the guy who was telling me about it was a medical doctor and a researcher, who was trying to overhaul how his hospital processed, analyzed, stored, and then made available to the medical staff information from all different areas of the hospital. In other words, if you’re working in the emergency department and someone comes in there with a head trauma, let’s say, one of the things you want to know is: have we seen this patient before? If so, what did we see this patient for? If we saw that person before, was there imaging done? If there was, let me take a look at that imaging now.

DUCKWORTH: It’s basically so the left hand knows what the right is doing?

DUBNER: Basically, just having access to all the information you’d want. As he was describing it, cognitive drift is what happens when you don’t get the information you want in a relatively short amount of time. And believe me, the amount of time is really short, and it doesn’t take long for the average brain to get distracted, to start thinking about something else, to start wanting to try a different problem, and so on. And so, the big problem he was trying to solve was to make all information available anywhere, instantly. But the thing that really captured me was this notion of cognitive drift. I began to realize that I’m encountering it all the time. And so, for me to work well, I need to be in an environment where I minimize the possibility of cognitive drift. And when you think about that, it’s not only the built environment, not only the physical space, and the flow, and the light, but some of these other things that we’ve been touching on, like noise pollution, and light pollution, and even things like if you’re working at a desk or a table.

DUCKWORTH: And it’s too cluttered, or it’s too small.

DUBNER: I think, for all the talk about how exciting it is for ideas to collide — this was the idea behind the open office, that was thought to be a miracle — if we put all these people together, then just imagine how these amazing, creative ideas —.

DUCKWORTH: It’ll be like a tsunami of creativity. 

DUBNER: We did a, an episode related to this as well. It was called, “Yes, the Open Office is Terrible, But It Doesn’t Have to Be.” And we looked at a paper which found that a few big companies, Fortune 500 companies, who’d switched from cubicles, meaning semi-closed, to an open-office plan with the hopes of increasing employee collaboration, they found that the openness actually led to less collaboration.

DUCKWORTH: Why would that be?

DUBNER: They basically found that when you put people in an open office, they’re prone to Slack or email each other much more.

DUCKWORTH: Out of consideration probably. Right?

DUBNER: Absolutely.

DUCKWORTH: Because you can’t have one conversation in an open office without it being everybody’s conversation. 

DUBNER: Also, think about it, if you and I were wanting to collaborate on some project, and we were hashing it out — like, it’s not ready for prime time — do we want do it right here and now in front of people who are listening? Or do we want to just shoot the crap on a phone call or in an email? Because the exchange of ideas — you don’t necessarily want to put yourself up for criticism right away. But I will say, we’re seeing a very, very interesting moment now that there’s a return to the office post-COVID. A lot of people don’t want to go back. Those that do want to go back do not necessarily want to be in an open office anymore, because having worked at home for a long time and had a little bit of privacy —. 

DUCKWORTH: Probably foregrounds, how awesome it is to actually have a room of your own.

DUBNER: Speaking of which — A Room of One’s Own — that was Virginia Woolf’s way of saying, how important it is, if you’re a writer — especially a female writer in early-20th-century England —.  

DUCKWORTH: So, I was assigned A Room of One’s Own, and there is a passage — it’s just this indelible image — that when you’re thinking of something, it’s like a fish. You can see a flash of the fish under the water, and you’re trying to catch it on your line. And maybe, maybe if you’re lucky, the idea will catch on the line of your thought. You have to have patience, and just like a good fisherman, try to reel it in, but not too fast. And then, what Virginia Woolf goes on to say is that if somebody says, like, “Hey, you! You, by the pond! You need to move over here.” Any kind of interruption, the fish will run and hide, and it will, basically, escape you. There is absolutely a ton of research showing that when you’re by yourself in a room, your ability to follow your own line of thought, to concentrate, it’s just easier when you have a room of your own. And Virginia Woolf would add, as she does in this essay, ideally a room with a lock on the door.  

DUBNER: So, your message, if I’m hearing what you’re saying properly, is that everyone who’s listening to us should quit their jobs, and become writers, and work on their own with a locked door. Correct?

DUCKWORTH: Well, no. I don’t want you to take that — and especially because this question starts off with schools and classrooms.

DUBNER: So wait, I misinterpreted. You’re saying that all children —.  

DUCKWORTH: We should lock all children in their own room!  

DUBNER: No, no, no, no. That would be cruel. I’m saying that all children should quit school and go home, lock their door, and just do their thing and everything will be better.

DUCKWORTH: That’s what the pandemic was, Stephen, right?  

DUBNER: And it didn’t work well, did it?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I have done research on this, and actually I have a paper that I haven’t yet published, but unequivocally, when kids were completely in their bedrooms — in other words, they were not in a hybrid model — so, wholly being schooled at home, their wellbeing dropped on literally every question I could ask. But the paper that I haven’t yet published also shows that there was a cost to their academics. So, if you look in a school district where they had fully-remote kids and then fully in school, the kids who were at home in their bedrooms — you know, that’s “a room of your own,” but they suffered. So, I think the moral of the story of the pandemic, and if you put it together with this new research on classroom design, is that there is a time — and we need a place — for solitude. And that is for concentration and keeping the fish on the line of your thought. But I think there’s also a time, and we need a place, for community, and that, the architecture also has to accommodate.

DUBNER: And that, to be fair, is exactly what Yildiz is talking about in this note. She’s saying that she wants to build, not only a primary school, but she wants it to share its facilities with the community, offer adult education classes, and act as a neighborhood center. The N.Y.U. sociologist Eric Klinenberg, he wrote a book called Palaces for the People. You think about old public libraries Y.M.C.A.s, things like that. So, he discusses what he calls “social infrastructure for public and accessible gathering places.” And he’s made the argument that as more and more of those kind of spaces disappear in favor of more private-market solutions, that when the social infrastructure gets degraded, he writes, “The consequences are unmistakable. People reduce the time they spend in public settings and hunker down in their safe houses. Social networks weaken, crime rises, older and sick people grow isolated, distrust rises, and civic participation wanes.”

DUCKWORTH: Wait, Stephen, I need to ask you, was that written before or after the pandemic? Because, I think —.

DUBNER: That was before.

DUCKWORTH: That is a strikingly accurate narrative of what happened in the pandemic.

DUBNER: And it really goes to Yildiz’s larger point, which is not just that architecture and design matter, and not just that they matter for a school, but that it would probably behoove all of us to think a little bit more about how they matter for society and how we live. I mean, you’ve talked me out of the fact that most people should quit their jobs, or quit school, and go be alone all day like I do. So, I accept that.

DUCKWORTH: Good, that’s progress.

DUBNER: But I will say this: I think when we send people back into the public workforce, or even when you’re working remotely, it’s worth considering how cognitive drift and other ailments like this continue to happen. I read something the other day. This is going to blow you away.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Shoot.

DUBNER: This is a piece from Bloomberg News, which is reporting on a study put out by a cloud-software company called Okta. And they measured how many different apps the average company deployed last year, and how many they deployed in 2015.

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean by “deployed”?

DUBNER: Let’s say I am a marketing executive, or a finance executive, or in accounting at some firm. How many different apps or programs are on my computer that I’m expected to, at least occasionally, engage with?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you mean my company is actually asking me to have this app.

DUBNER: Correct. You have a company. You have an “overlord” — the University of Pennsylvania. So, you probably have different reporting software and communication software, and so on. So, as of 2015, how many apps or programs would you say the average company asked its employees to engage with at least sometimes?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I hope it’s not a super-high number. I was hoping it was, like, two or three?

DUBNER: In 2015, the number was 58.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh.  

DUBNER: And last year, it’s 89.

DUCKWORTH: No. Seriously? There’s close to 100!  

DUBNER: At large employers, that figure is 187.

DUCKWORTH: Wait. How can that be?

DUBNER: Because when you work for a big company and you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s often a really appealing solution to find some software solution to your problem — as opposed to sorting it out and figuring out how to actually address the root cause. So, I’ll read you a little bit here from this Bloomberg News piece. “Of those apps” — the 187 at large firms or the 89 at the smaller firms — “close to 30 percent are duplicative, or add no value according to a survey of senior business leaders by WalkMe, an enterprise software provider.” So, let me point out the paradox here. This is a study done by one cloud-software company, which includes reporting by another enterprise-software provider. I mean, you see that the incentives to do this are huge, because it’s a selling game. 

DUCKWORTH: “You need another app. Let me sell it to you.”

DUBNER: And just think about the cognitive drift, or just the interruption of flow. Every time you’re asked to go to a different environment, or a different window to perform a different task, your task at hand is getting interrupted. And I think that’s a huge issue in how people work today, because we’re asking people to pay attention and then giving them noises, and visual cues, and notifications that almost prevent them from paying attention to a real task.

DUCKWORTH: So, I have an example of what it should be. Because I think we have all had personal experience with what it shouldn’t be: too many interruptions, not enough daylight. The example that I want to give is this little town. It’s called Seaside, and it’s in Florida. Many people saw The Truman Show — the Jim Carrey movie, about this kind of utopian, but it turns out to be, like, secretly dystopian town that’s too perfect. It’s an actual town, and the town is Seaside, Florida. And when the movie directors were scouting out places, they looked for literally the most beautiful place in the world. And they found this little town that isn’t even that old. And it was built by two people, Robert and Daryl Davis, who I actually used to tutor their son in math. And then, they’re family friends now. Anyway, it’s this little gem, because each of the buildings is actually built by an architect — very often a serious and famous architect.

This place has a little school called the Seaside Neighborhood School. This school is almost exactly what Yildiz is talking about. It’s not only a school for the children, but it’s also a community center. And it’s actually built to mimic what Thomas Jefferson had created as the University of Virginia plan. It’s actually got these little pavilions, I guess, that are all white wood. And then, they are surrounding a central green, just like Thomas Jefferson thought was the ideal plan for the commerce of ideas, et cetera. And anyway, it’s just magical. And I have to say, there’s something about being in that building and walking along the colonnade — and it connects all the classrooms outside, because it’s Florida — you have this sense that if you have the right people creating the built environment, that what they really are are psychologists. They figure out, “Oh, let’s make a place for community, but let’s also make rooms where people can be by themselves. Let’s make it beautiful.” They check all of the boxes of that study that say, like, “Is there natural light? Is there fresh air? Is there enough complexity, but not too much complexity? It’s, like, the platonic ideal of the built environment.

DUBNER: Hearing that, it makes me want the people who designed and continue to maintain that — or someone young, like Yildiz — to turn their attention to one particular type of institution whose built environment is, in my personal experience, almost always terrible. And it’s a really important one. Can you guess what I’m thinking?

DUCKWORTH: I’m thinking hospitals.

DUBNER: Hospitals.

DUCKWORTH: Because they’re terrible!

DUBNER: It’s the worst. I think it’s one of these — I don’t know, some people would call it a “coordination problem” or a “principal-agent problem,” which is: the people who are involved in doing the work of a hospital are so devoted to doing important work that this seemingly less-consequential component, which is, “How does it feel to be in there? What does it look like” — and I know that there has been some work. There was a paper way back in the 1980s I once saw called “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery.” There were some environmental psychologists, led by a guy named Robert Ulrich. I mean, it’s a very small experiment. I wouldn’t say it would stand up to a lot of scrutiny, but he compared the outcome of 23 patients in rooms with windows that looked out at nice trees and 23 that faced brick walls, and found that they recovered faster when looking at nature. I know there’s been more recent research related to COVID, not in hospitals. There’s a paper I’m looking at here called, “The Importance for Wellbeing on Having Views of Nature From and in the Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” And all these studies find a similar effect, which is that, yeah, your environment affects how you feel. None of this should surprise us. In a hospital, I think the double whammy is that you’re there because you’re ill and hopefully recovering. One key component of recovering is sleeping well, and it’s so hard to sleep in a hospital because of all the —. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. It’s ridiculous. The beeping!

DUBNER: So, maybe Yildiz and the next generation can really turn their attention to that.

DUCKWORTH: When Yildiz moves on from the master’s thesis, which will be awesome, I’m sure, to hospitals, I think this checklist that Professor Peter Barrett and his colleagues put together for the seven factors that really matter — it’s just the right checklist for anything, I think. And here’s what they say, not just categorically, but I think it’s just very helpful in its specificity: “Daylight, fresh air, low noise, personalization, flexible/movable furniture, functional colors, open layout, lack of clutter.” That’s not what a hospital sounds like to me. But isn’t that kind of what we all want for almost all of the things that we spend time doing?

DUBNER: It is. And that’s not even including the major components of what I think about when I think about architecture and design — things like flow and things like materials, all of which are important. And you know what else is important?


DUBNER: What’s something that most people do a few times a day, but often is a little bit inconvenient to get to?

DUCKWORTH: The bathroom?

DUBNER: The bathroom! So, check this out. There was a study from the Journal of Urology, which is one of my favorite journals.

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure it’s a page turner. 

DUBNER: Which found that 88 percent of elementary school teachers encourage their students to hold their pee.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, I’m so not surprised. Didn’t that happen to you all the time when you were in elementary school? And middle and high school, honestly.

DUBNER: And you’re made to feel like a failure for having to go to the bathroom. In what world does that make sense? So, bathroom access is probably something —.

DUCKWORTH: Bathroom design.

DUBNER: Open doors! You don’t have to open the filthy door with your clean hands.  

DUCKWORTH: Wait. Open doors? How? You don’t want to have doors on the stalls in bathrooms?

DUBNER: Well, I was thinking about the actual front door. So a lot of airports are getting this right now, but a lot of other places, including hospitals, are still not. So, if you think about it, one thing you want to do in a bathroom is design it so that when you leave, you don’t have to put your hand on a doorknob or a push plate. Because you’ve just washed your hands.

DUCKWORTH: And then you undo all that good work that you just did. Oh, so in bathrooms in the airport, it’s just, cleverly, like, you turn left and you turn right. So, you can’t see anything. But there’s no door.

DUBNER: You got it.

DUCKWORTH: It’s this kind of creativity — like, I cannot tell you how genius Robert and Daryl are. And we’re close enough that I’ve been in their home for, lunches, dinners, I slept over.

DUBNER: Do they have doorless bathrooms there?

DUCKWORTH: You know what? They have everything that you want. And you might think, like, “Well, they have a lot of money,” which is true, because Seaside’s a very successful development. But more than that, they have creativity. And this is the thing. Every single time I go back and visit them, something has changed or moved. Like, “Oh, what happened to that rack you used to have?” “Oh, well, we decided that it made even more sense to put things over here —.” And I think this idea that if you have, not necessarily a lot of money, but if you just have this mindset that, like, hey, the built environment works, and I’m constantly going to just experiment to see — we should be able to do things like doorless bathrooms. We should be able to do things like making sure that kids have enough daylight. I mean, it doesn’t necessarily take a high-tech or even high-dollar sign solution to these things, if you just start with the question, which is: “How can we make the built environment work?”

DUBNER: I think that is such a great point, because mindset matters so much. I would also say there’s a behavioral component here, which is not so much about how am I going to fit into the space and benefit from it, but how am I going to help other people enjoy the space? In other words, how am I going to respect, really, the other people in this space and be aware of the noise that I’m making or be aware of how I may be impeding the flow of other people. Arline Bronzaft — the environmental-noise consultant in New York City — she’s lovely and a real New Yorker who speaks very directly and has a lot of roses and a lot of thorns. In terms of the big thorn, what she’ll say has really contributed to our environments getting noisier and noisier — she says, “It comes down to one word, it’s ‘respect.’ People have lost respect for other people.” And I think we’re living in a funny time right now, especially re-emerging from this frozen, weird womb-state of COVID, where a lot of people are now coming back out into public and sort of forgetting how to behave in public. So, maybe it’s a good fresh-start opportunity. We can be aware of how our environments affect us and be aware of how we affect other people in that built environment.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I like that. And can we build an environment that can do a little bit of the work of reminding us. Like, is it possible that somehow we can do what Churchill said, which is, shape the buildings intentionally so that they can shape us in the way that we want?

DUBNER: I love it. So, solution-wise, we probably need more people like Yildiz who are actually thinking about the benefits of good design that go beyond the individual people who are meant to benefit from that particular building. And I also think it’s really important to just acknowledge that we need more researchers to measure the gains and losses from good and bad built environments. That’s the way I would sum it up.  

DUCKWORTH: Amazing. Yes.

Coming up after the break: a fact-check of today’s conversation.

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

In the first half of the show, Angela struggles to remember the context of Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “First we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” And she guesses that it was after parliament had been bombed during World War II. This is correct. In May of 1941, the Commons Chamber was struck by German Air Force bombs and entirely destroyed. The Commons debated how to rebuild and decided to retain its, “adversarial rectangular pattern” which Churchill insisted was responsible for the essence of British democracy. Parties are separated by what the House has referred to as “two swords’ lengths apart” — although it has been over 700 years since weapons were allowed in the Chamber. Also, Angela notes that this design reflects the United Kingdom’s two-party system. Since World War II, all governments in the U.K. have been formed by either the Conservative or the Labour party, occasionally in coalition with smaller parties, but there are other parties that hold seats in Parliament. Currently, the Scottish National Party, the Independents, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists, and six additional parties are all represented in the chamber. The party in power sits on one side of parliament, and all other parties sit in opposition.

Next, Stephen describes a 1975 study led by environmental psychologist and noise expert Arline Bronzaft. He says that she found “something like a full grade level of math achievement different in the noisy rooms versus the quiet rooms.” However, the study did not address students’ math abilities. Instead, Bronzaft and her colleagues found that students on the noisier, east side of the building consistently demonstrated lower levels of achievement on standardized reading tests. After the Transit Authority cushioned the nearby subway rails with rubber pads and the classrooms were set up with sound-absorbing materials, students’ reading levels improved as much as a grade level.

Also, Stephen mispronounces the name of the IT service management company featured in the Bloomberg article that he referenced. He calls the company “Oak-ta,” but it is actually pronounced “Awk-ta.”

Then, Stephen references the 1984 article “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery” and says that the author’s name is Robert Ulrich. The environmental psychologist who led the study is actually Roger Ulrich. Ulrich is a professor of architecture at the Centre for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. He is credited with popularizing the idea of “evidenced-based design” in healthcare.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear listener thoughts on some of our recent episodes of No Stupid Questions.

Here’s what listener John Cosgrove had to say after hearing episode number 119, “J***s C****t, Angela, Why Are You Such a F***ing Potty-Mouth?”

John COSGROVE: Hello, No Stupid Questions. My name is John Cosgrove. I’m from County Fermanagh in the north of Ireland. But I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the past 23 years. There aren’t a lot of Irish natives here in the Twin Cities, so we get to swear because people generally think it’s cute, and they think it’s funny. I’ve been on local radio, and I’ve hosted corporate events where I’ve introduced Irish swear words such as [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP] and [BLEEP]. Those words are offensive in my country, but they’re not offensive over here, because people are not quite sure about it. 

Here’s what listener Lynn Chen had to say in response to episode number 124, “How Do You Stop Grinding Your Teeth?”

Lynn CHEN: Hello. My name is Lynn Chen. I live in Los Angeles, California. And I just had to send a voice memo, because I recently cracked two dental guards in my sleep, because I grind my teeth. And I finally went to go get Botox in my masseter muscles a few weeks ago and am still waiting to see if this actually helps. But in the meantime, I was just so excited to find out that there are two more things that I have in common with Angela Duckworth. We’re both Asian-Americans who have mothers named Theresa. We both love Diet Coke. And now, we both grind our teeth and have Botox in our jaws. Very exciting for me. 

And here’s what listener Justine Benjamin said after listening to episode number 121, “How Good Are Your Snap Judgements?”

Justine BENJAMIN: Hi, I’m Justine from San Jose, California. And a first impression that I had was about a person, a man, that I met when I started entering the dating field. This gentleman was living at home, was working at his parents’ business because he was in between jobs, and drove a 1994 Ford Mustang. All red flags for me. But I proceeded to date him, just thinking it would be fun. Turns out the reason why he was living at home was cultural. You don’t leave until you’re married, and even when you get married, you might just stay with the family still. Turns out the reason why he was working at his parents’ business was because he quit his job when his father had a stroke to take care of the business so it wouldn’t fold. I can’t give any reasons or excuses for the 1994 Mustang, but nonetheless, we’ve been together for 14 years, married for nine of those, have two amazing children. So, sorry first impressions — you were wrong!

Thanks so much to those listeners and to everyone who sent us their stories. And remember, we’d still love to hear whether you’re Team Dubner or Team Levitt. Are you highly sensitive when it comes to your surroundings, or can you pretty much work anywhere? Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner again and that was a special episode of No Stupid Questions. If you enjoyed listening to me chat with Angela Duckworth about psychology, architecture, and quitting your job — or if you’d like to hear us talk about swearing, teeth-grinding, and first impressions — you should go, right now, to your podcast app and follow or subscribe to No Stupid Questions. There are more than 100 episodes waiting for you there.

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Freakonomics Radio and No Stupid Questions are both part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes People I (Mostly) Admire and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas and mixed by Greg Rippin and Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Ryan KelleyKatherine MoncureAlina KulmanRebecca Lee DouglasJulie Kanfer, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin KlingerDaria KlenertEmma TyrrellLyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. Our executive team is Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our original music is composed by Luis Guerra. The theme song for No Stupid Questions is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music.

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  • Peter Barrett, emeritus professor of property and construction management at the University of Salford.
  • Arline Bronzaft, environmental psychologist; founding member of The Quiet Coalition.
  • Robert and Daryl Davis, co-founders of Seaside, FL.
  • Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University.
  • Roger Ulrich, professor of architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.