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DUCKWORTH: After you eat the mixed nuts, there’s nothing else to do!

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner. 

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

Last episode, Stephen and Angela talked about cognitive fatigue and the kinds of work that make your brain tired. Today: What can be done about it?

DUCKWORTH: When my attention is the opposite of the flow state. It’s divided, it’s not unified, and I hate it.

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DUBNER: Angela, last time on the show, I asked you a question — the answer to which was so interesting. You and I went down a series of rabbit holes. We answered about 10 percent of the question, for all the best possible reasons. And so here we are: Part Two.  

DUCKWORTH: For the first time in our lives.

DUBNER: The question last time concerned a new paper by four economists. The paper’s called “Cognitive Endurance as Human Capital.” The four authors are Christina Brown, Supreet Kaur, Geeta Kingdon, and Heather Schofield. And we discussed the paper a little bit — the experiments that went into it, but we didn’t even get to the findings. So, let’s go back to the paper, and then let’s get to the findings.

DUCKWORTH: So, this paper has a field experiment with 1,600 elementary school students in India, and they are randomly assigned to condition. There is a control condition, and in the treatment condition, these elementary school students are given cognitively challenging things to do. In one case it was math problems, and in another case, there were, like, mazes and puzzles that were cognitively challenging, but not traditional academic stuff. The question is: After 20 or 30 hours of these cognitively challenging tasks, what is the effect on your future performance as a student and on tasks of intellectual ability?

DUBNER: And the reason these economists are looking into this question of cognitive fatigue, or cognitive endurance, is because — as they note in the paper — students from low-income backgrounds exhibit cognitive fatigue more quickly than high-income students. I assume, therefore, that if you experience cognitive fatigue more quickly, that leads to worse outcomes in your educational experience, and therefore worse outcomes in your income and health experience, and so on. Is that necessarily the case?

DUCKWORTH: I think that is the idea. I don’t know that there is a lot of direct evidence of that. It is true that kids from lower socioeconomic status households do worse on tasks of executive function — so, these very cognitively challenging tasks, like, “Hold these numbers in your working memory.” I don’t know that I could go as far as saying exactly what you’re proposing is factually backed up, but it is certainly the animus for this paper. If you are a poor child and you are not given the opportunity to do a lot of cognitively hard things in your school, then maybe that is the reason why you don’t do well later in life.

DUBNER: So, these four economists run a series of studies in which they randomize school children in India, have some of them do one type of cognitive task, have some of them do a different type of cognitive task, and then they have control groups where they don’t do these cognitive tasks. And then — correct me if I’m wrong — these economists set out to measure: what’s the difference in these kids when performing actual schoolwork? Is that what it is?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I know they had a variety of outcomes. Some of them were just, like, other cognitive tasks. But I think they also actually had standardized tests of achievement, which are closer to the things that kids are doing in school. And they found that either of those training cases did better than the control group on all of the outcomes. But I’ll just say: What you find, over and over again, when you give people cognitively challenging tasks — they don’t even have to be sophisticated tasks, some of these tasks are incredibly simple, like you’re just watching a screen for a signal, and anytime you see the signal, you press a spacebar. That’s not mental arithmetic. That’s not G.R.E. problems. But what you find over time is: If you ask somebody to do that for minutes, and then hours, they miss the X, they’re very slow. And so, this decline is just what you find in general. What you find in this study is that when you have 20 to 30 hours of cognitive-endurance training, the decline is less. So, what makes this a little complicated is everybody’s getting worse, but the treatment group gets worse less.  

DUBNER: The authors of this paper write that the students who had this cognitive-endurance training, they exhibit increased attentiveness in the classroom and score higher on psychological measures of sustained attention. So, that’s encouraging, but one might also say, “Hang on, what’s the result of this increase?” Each treatment improves students’ school performance by 0.09 standard deviation — so, one-tenth. Can you describe what that means in real world terms? Is that going from a C- to a C+? Not even that? Hard to say? How do you describe it?

DUCKWORTH: What does it mean to change your grades by a tenth of a standard deviation? It’s a lot. Let me say that all things are relative. In a national study of growth mindset. The idea of a growth mindset is that you believe that your abilities are malleable, that they can grow. And it’s the opposite of fixed mindset — believing that abilities like intelligence are simply fixed and they’ll never change. There was a random-assignment study — I was part of the scientific team, but it was a very large scientific team. The two most important people on the team were David Yeager, who was the lead, and Carol Dweck, who is the psychologist who came up with the whole idea. We randomly assigned ninth-graders to growth mindset versus a control condition. And we found something like half the size of the effect of this paper that we’re talking about — it was not 0.09 or 0.1, it was more like we found 0.05 or 0.04. In other words, this treatment that was studied had twice the effect on grades as ours did.

DUBNER: Wow. Let me ask you the cost of the two programs. In the paper we’re discussing, where these economists were running a field experiment with 1,600 elementary school kids in India, they were having them do this cognitive attention-building taskwork using math problems or games. One can imagine how much cost that takes. I would think that, quote, “building a growth mindset” is more extensive than that, no?

DUCKWORTH: I think the costs are not that different for any of these. Let me talk about the growth-mindset intervention. These kids would march into the school computer lab, and they would sit down in front of a computer, and then they were randomly assigned. The computer would either give them the growth mindset activity or a control activity. But if you are the Secretary of Education, or a school principal, or superintendent, the marginal cost to you of having kids do this mindset activity, even to do it twice, is close to zero, because it’s an online activity.

DUBNER: There’s some opportunity costs, though, right? There’s the time not spent pursuing their regular academic work, for instance.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, because, as we all know, two class sessions in a public school are incredibly valuable, right?

DUBNER: Not my words. Those are your words. Dear Teachers’ Union, Angela’s email address is —

DUCKWORTH: I’m a former New York City public school teacher, San Francisco Unified School District teacher, and I would just say that we could do better. There’s some opportunity costs. But I’m just saying, it’s not like, “Well, we need to buy new buildings, books, or computers for all these kids.” Now let’s talk about this experiment in India, the cognitive-endurance training. So, there was the cost of the tablets, but really, this activity itself has no marginal cost. It’s just math problems. So, yes, there’s the opportunity cost, and yeah, you need a school computer lab, or you need tablets, but in so many ways, when you think about this compared to one-on-one psychotherapy, when you think about this relative to reducing class size, when you talk about extending the school year or the school day — there are a lot of interventions that might be actually very valuable, but the marginal cost of this kind of stuff is almost zero.

DUBNER: So, to summarize: Cognitive endurance is really important in a variety of contexts, especially education. As this experiment shows, when you devote a little bit of time and energy to increasing cognitive endurance among students who come from a background where they’re pretty low in cognitive endurance, it turns out they can improve quite rapidly at very low cost. And, since education is a really big driver in general life outcomes, and since cognitive endurance increases educational ability, this seems like a pretty fantastic thing to at least be aware of, if not to do.

DUCKWORTH: I would agree with that. And if somebody says, like, “Yeah, but I saw that paper and I think the effect size was only a tenth of a standard deviation,” I would say, “Show me the intervention that has a bigger effect than that.” And I think you would be hard-pressed to do that.

DUBNER: Let’s talk, now, about interventions. Can you talk about whether this paper offers advice on the best types of activities or training to build cognitive endurance, for students especially?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know that this paper is going to be able to answer that question, because they just tried, probably, what they thought was a good idea, but they weren’t doing a horse race among 10 ideas. I do think, though, where I want to go with this is: What did they actually change? Because that has the biggest implications for what you would do in the future. Did they actually change the capacity of these students in the strength sense? What happens is that these young girls and boys learn to experience fatigue, like, “Wow, you just did all these math problems,” and I think what happened there is they found some way to find that rewarding. In other words, it wasn’t that they actually had stronger brains, in any physical sense, but the experience of fatigue was something they learned to interpret as a good thing. And I want to go back a few decades to a researcher named Robert Eisenberger, who also asked this question: “What happens when people do hard things?” Do you know what operant conditioning is?

DUBNER: I do not.

DUCKWORTH: One of the basic findings of animal learning is that animals, including humans, can learn that a behavior is rewarding. If you’re training a rat, and every time it presses this one button in the cage it gets a pellet of rat chow, it will learn that behavior — pressing the button — is rewarding. So, what Robert Eisenberger asked is: “Can you learn to be a hard worker?” He believed that there are these signals of effort and fatigue, and that in the absence of learning, you just avoid them. We’ve kind of been genetically wired to take the path of least resistance. You know, what a young person learns when they go through life, and they go through school — you learn to interpret that signal of fatigue, of effort, as being potentially a good thing. And the way he did these experiments is that he paired effort with reward. I think in one study, kids were doing problems, — they may have been math problems that very similar to the ones that were being done by these Indian school children in the paper that we’re describing — but he gave them pennies or candies after they got one right, to really make sure that they got the signal that, like, “Good. Yay! Effort? Reward.” And then he found that, later on, these kids worked harder. His theory of learned industriousness is about: You are interpreting that feeling of fatigue in a way which is different than what you did before. Reading this paper that we’re talking about, the cognitive endurance paper, they did not reward kids with candy, or points, or anything like that. But I have to believe that the feedback that these kids got when they were doing these problems, like, you know, “You’re leveling up. Yes, you got that correct! Et cetera,” they were learning that this was good, because they were getting some kind of reward, even if it wasn’t financial or tangible.

DUBNER: Let me take a slight left turn, because I’m thinking about different realms. I’m thinking about work and professional realms, but I’m also thinking about physical realms — athletics, and so on. I read a piece in Psychology Today — not written by a psychologist, but by an ultra-endurance athlete who’s now a science writer. His name is Christopher Bergland. He was talking about different habits that athletes have to improve cognitive function, generally. And with many of these, there are some overlaps with the research in India we were just talking about. One of them is brain-training games, but there’s also curiosity and creativity, mindfulness and meditation. But — and this should not be surprising, because this is an ultra-endurance athlete writing about this — he makes the argument that physical activity is incredibly strongly connected to cognitive function. Now, I don’t think anyone would dispute that. But what it got me thinking about is: If we’re talking about school kids — whether it’s in India, the U.S., wherever it is — if we believe, as the literature encourages us to believe, that physical activity is a big driver of cognitive function, and if we know that students in low-income schools tend to do much worse with cognitive endurance, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that there’s also less emphasis and less resources for physical activity in those schools — whether it’s sports teams, sports activity, even just exercise, and things like that. I guess what I’m asking you is: If we are talking about low-cost interventions that can drive cognitive endurance in a school setting, wouldn’t physical activity be another one?

DUCKWORTH: There is a neuroscientist named Adele Diamond, who has suggested that certain kinds of physical activities — like dance, and martial arts, and so forth — because they’re both physical and mental — there’s a cognitive element: you’re thinking of these moves, you’re, like, concentrating, but also, it’s physically demanding. She actually believed — and she’s an expert in executive function and its development — she believed that’s the royal road. I will say, though, I’ve sat in the back of a lot of classrooms in a lot of school districts, and there is never enough physical activity, except in the really chichi private schools. I remember when I was just starting out working with the KIPP charter schools, some of their classrooms were in Harlem, and some of them were in the Bronx. And I remember saying, to your point, Stephen, “Hey, one of the emerging findings when it comes to school performance and overall brain health is that physical activity — especially aerobic activity, getting your heart rate up, running around, breaking a sweat — this is good for kids’ healthy brain development. What can we do about that?” And what the school principals told me is that they couldn’t let their kids out of the classroom sometimes, because it was not safe. They’re like, “I know you want these kids to take a two-mile run. There’s literally nowhere they can run. I know you want them to go and have recess. I don’t even know if it’s safe to go outside.”

DUBNER: This really gets to the impulse behind this research paper in the first place. These scholars wanted to know what’s going on in these schools where the kids have really low cognitive endurance. They feel that even a school with low resources can and should be spending more time building up that cognitive endurance by doing this sort of work for these students. But it does raise the question of: How much do we think what we refer to so blithely as “the education gap” is really a resource gap, and how much is a strategy gap? Because it seems to me that, if I’m a low-income school, or if I’m a low-income student, I hear about this finding from India, I’m encouraged by the idea that, actually, the gap can be closed somewhat significantly with relatively low cost and little effort.

DUCKWORTH: I think: “Yes, and.” There is so much that we could do better. I mean, if the pandemic taught parents anything, when you got to actually see your kid going to Zoom school — and I know Zoom school is not the same as “school” school — I think there were many parents who were just aghast. For a lot of parents, they were like, “Wow, I thought school was better than this.” And again, not to underestimate the enormity of what schools and teachers are doing, because when parents had to just take over teaching their kid’s fractions, or whatever, they learned how hard it was. But I do think that even with the same school day — should it be longer? Probably. The same school year — should that be longer? Probably. Should there be more resources? Probably. But even within the constraints of the day, and the year, and the budget that we have, I think we can do massively better. I don’t recommend, personally, putting kids on iPads to do 20 or 30 hours of training. I think you can do better than that. Can’t we give kids things that are cognitively hard, and also interesting, and also just what they’re supposed to be studying in the first place? And, by the way, that’s what private school looks like in the most elite places that I’ve been.

DUBNER: What you’re describing is what I would call “thinking,” right? It is cognitively taxing. It’s also interesting.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, a thousand times yes. I mean, what I found in many urban, under-resourced schools — I would sit there for hours in the back of these classes, and just wait for kids to be taught anything. There was no kind of, like, “I am going to engage you in thought.” I remember going through one entire school day in a school that shall not be named, and thinking to myself, “If my daughter went to this school, she would come home and have learned exactly nothing.” There was literally no information transacted, no thinking, no challenge. And so, if this paper shines a light on anything, there’s an enormous opportunity to ask our children to do cognitively hard things, to think — I think they will learn to interpret the feeling of mental fatigue as a signal that they’re on the right track, but I also agree with you that it doesn’t necessarily cost an enormous amount of money to do that.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen and Angela discuss the significance of developing cognitive endurance outside of an educational setting.

DUCKWORTH: You can give somebody a five-minute task, and you can watch their performance go down within the course of five minutes — that’s, like, two Adele songs.

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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about closing the education gap.

DUBNER: How would you advise that educators interpret and learn from these research findings? What are some actual things that should be done, based on this finding?

DUCKWORTH: I think school can be entirely different than what it is today. You can’t learn without struggle, but let me use this illustrative example to give you a picture of what school could be. Some months ago, this guy emails me. His name’s Ed Lopez, and he is a teacher. He teaches in a district, I think, that’s near Palo Alto. It’s a very under-resourced district. And his kids are the ones who have failed in high school repeatedly. And, in a way, he’s the teacher/class of last resort. It’s a semester-long class, and he basically teaches them a ropes course. And they are not just learning it for themselves. What they’re learning is how to become instructors. If I’m not mistaken, when they get through the course, and they pass, they become, immediately, the instructors of a ropes course for, like, all the firefighters in San Francisco. So, you get these kids who have failed out of everything to be completely devoted students to what they’re doing. What they’re doing matters: You better learn this ropes thing because, first of all, somebody is dangling on the end of the rope that you’re belaying. Oh, and by the way, within weeks, you’re going to be teaching firefighters the very thing that you’re learning. So, it’s not this thing which is completely separate from what you really care about. It has urgency. It has meaning. It has importance. Also, it’s interesting. It’s physical. It’s much more engaging than so many of the things that these kids have failed out of. He also builds the whole course around this relationship that he has with these students. I’ve only recently met him, but he reminds me so much of the best teachers that I have watched and studied. He gets these kids. He cares about these kids. He’s thinking about them on Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, and Sundays. He is all-in. So, not only do we have this picture of school where kids are doing things that have actual purpose — that are not about their own lives, but about other people’s lives and making them better — it’s built around this core of a trusting relationship with a grownup. And it doesn’t sound to me a lot like what typical school is for teenagers and children in most places in this country.

DUBNER: What was the actual effect or outcome? Did it change things substantially?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think Ed Lopez has tracked the outcomes, and, also, there’s no control group. So, even if the kids did do better, a cranky economist—

DUBNER: Would say, “Hey, where’s the counterfactual? Where’s your control?”

DUCKWORTH: “How do you know that it wouldn’t have happened anyway?!” But anecdotally— And he’s actually — because he is a great educator — maintained a relationship with the students that he taught even decades ago in this ropes course. Not to say that every single one has turned over a new leaf and, like, is living a great life, but he finds lots of encouragement that students had a confidence that they didn’t have before. Showing somebody that they can do something hard — they can move to a life trajectory that’s entirely different. To me, that’s the exact story of Outward Bound, which has been studied scientifically and rigorously. And it does seem like, when you, in the right environment, give people hard things to do, there can be enduring benefits. Because you’ve learned to interpret effort and struggle as a signal that is not necessarily bad, but good.

DUBNER: One more thing I want to say about this research paper we’ve been talking about today is that they also discuss, a little bit, the realms outside of education. They write, “Using supplementary data” — in other words, not data from a field experiment that they ran — “we present two examples from substantially different high-stakes activities: productivity among data-entry workers, and voting at the ballot box.” I guess one might argue a little bit with how high-stakes those are. Data entry is an important job, but it’s not quite like running a nuclear power plant, let’s say. Anyway, they write, “We plot the hourly performance of full-time data entry workers. On average, error rates increase roughly 12 percent between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.” So, people are getting worse as they go.

DUCKWORTH: They’re getting tired.

DUBNER: “Less-educated workers — that is, those without a high-school degree — experience a decline in accuracy that is twice as large as that of more educated workers. This counts for 10 percent of the productivity gap between more- and less-educated workers in the sample.” That’s just, to me, a really interesting, empirical illustration of the fact that learning to have cognitive endurance is not just good for school, it’s good for lifetime earnings. And then, they write that, “We find similar patterns in voting behaviors.” They find that, when you’re looking at ballot initiatives, “when items are further down-ballot, individuals are substantially more likely to vote the default option.”

DUCKWORTH: The “lazy” option.

DUBNER: “And these effects are substantial,” they write. “An additional 6 percent of propositions would’ve become laws if they had appeared first on the ballot.”


DUBNER: When I read that, Angela, I thought, “Wait a minute. Are we talking about cognitive endurance there? Or are we talking about what I believe your tribe calls the ‘primacy effect’?”

DUCKWORTH: I mean, it could also be primacy, but it is amazing how fast these, quote-unquote, “fatigue effects” — how fast they happen. You can give somebody a five-minute task, Stephen, and I have, and you can watch their performance go down within the course of five minutes — that’s, like, two Adele songs, right? It doesn’t take long for people to start to check out. And by the way, it can’t be that your brain got that tired in five minutes. It’s just that you were not motivated to sustain your attention.

DUBNER: Speaking of motivation, there’s also really interesting research about how cognitive endurance differs by incentive. This is a paper by John List, Uri Gneezy, and a few others. It’s called “Measuring Success in Education: The Role of Effort on the Test Itself.” I’ll read you just the key part from the abstract, here. They write, “We experimentally offer students incentives to put forth effort in two U.S. high schools and four Shanghai high schools. U.S. students improve performance substantially in response to incentives, while Shanghai students, who are top performers on assessments, do not. These results raise the possibility that ranking countries based on low-stakes assessments may not reflect only differences in ability, but also motivation to perform well on the test.”

DUCKWORTH: So, they’re talking about a standardized test — randomly assigning students to actually get money for doing well or not. There’s a psychologist named Henry May, and he was analyzing data on standardized tests taken around the world. So, they’re not the S.A.T. and they’re not the G.R.E. They’re tests where you can compare: How’s Finland doing compared to Japan? Compared to the United States? et cetera. Some countries famously do a lot better than other countries. Some countries do, famously, a lot worse. And when you then look at the number of questions in this part that comes after all the academic stuff — there’s this, like, voluntary, “And now, we have a few more questions to ask you about your study habits” and whatever else is asked in this non-academic part that comes at the end. When you look at missing-ness in that section — which you could take as a proxy for laziness — that actually explained much more of the achievement gap across countries than pretty much anything else that we looked at. So, one possibility is that in these countries that do really well on standardized tests, the motivation is very high to work hard on that test that day. And that’s very related to this paper that you’re talking about, because, in those countries — and I do recall China, for example, being one of them — there’s not a lot of missing data on the sort of voluntary part. And, likewise, incentives don’t work very much, because the kids are already at ceiling. They’re trying really, really hard.

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question. We’ve been talking about cognitive endurance today. We started this conversation last week, and at the beginning of last week’s conversation, we also talked about cognitive load. I think, for school children, somehow, we expect that, “Oh, when they’re in an academic setting, they’re just thinking about their academic task,” which is absurd, because we all have distractions all the time.

DUCKWORTH: And those distractions can be outside or inside our heads.

DUBNER: I think about this a lot in the context of our new world of hybrid work, and working from home, and so on. There’s an economist at Stanford named Nick Bloom, who has studied all different sorts of really interesting labor economics questions. And he did one of the first — or, maybe, only — papers — that I know of, at least — about working from home before the pandemic, when some companies were experimenting with it. As he likes to say, “The three biggest enemies of working from home are the refrigerator, the television, and the bed,” because those are all beckoning to you, in some way. That said, some people did much better working from home, and some people did much worse. He did find, in this one experiment that he ran, that the biggest downside for people who worked well from home was that they were less likely to be promoted, simply because they were less in the flow of the whole corporate promotion structure. Perhaps not very surprising, but it does make me think a lot now about all of us, whether we’re working from home, working in a hybrid situation, and all the distractions now, including — look, I love the modern world. I love having access to so many technological tools. If you think about just digital communication tools alone, you’ve got email, and text, and Slack, and on, and on. But I really do wonder, as we’re talking about students and cognitive load, and cognitive endurance, and cognitive fatigue, if you have anything to say to those of us who struggle with keeping our mind on the work itself? Is there anything that you can help summarize how the rest of us can deal with cognitive load and cognitive endurance, especially with so many distractions that modern technology affords?

DUCKWORTH: Learning requires that we put energy and attention toward a task. The devotion of that energy and attention, I think, produces a signal — the signal we could call fatigue. And we can learn that signal doesn’t mean we should stop. It could even be a good thing. But I do think also that when we have attention devoted to our math homework or — I know for you, Stephen, sometimes I will text you or email you and you’re like, “I’m on deadline.” That means that you have something that you do — I don’t actually know what you do. There is a signal that we get when we have these divided loyalties. Part of you thinks that you should be doing this task, part of you wants to do something else. And the closer those other temptations are — my cell phone is right there next to me, so I could look at this document, or I could just answer this text message, or look at my email — we get a signal from that divided motivation, and I think that signal is a very negative feeling. I know what that’s like — when my attention is the opposite of the flow state. It’s divided, it’s not unified, and I hate it. And I think the practical recommendation is that when you have to do something that is cognitively effortful, you need to put yourself in a monastic circumstance. You need to take that refrigerator, television, and bed — whatever it is for you that ends up being where your attention wants to wander — and take it out of the picture completely. For me, when I get on a cross-country flight, I used to bring along a trashy magazine, like Us Weekly. Now, I don’t do any of that, so that when I get on a flight, you know, after you eat the mixed nuts, there’s nothing else to do! So, the experience, then, of putting a lot of cognitive energy into the work that I’m doing on that flight is entirely different.

DUBNER: You have intentionally limited your choice set into the choices that you’re going to feel good about having made later. Can I just say, Angela, I am proud of you. I’m happy for you. But I’m also a tiny bit — “disappointed” is not the right word, but I’m a little bit shook, because my perception of Angela Duckworth is an identity which includes a total love of Us Weekly and, in your very productive and busy life, budgeting the time to say, “You know what? I’m going to take this 45 minutes, and I’m just going to cram my brain with this.” And we’ve talked about your love for this on the show.

DUCKWORTH: But, Stephen, I don’t find it to be productive to be torn. When I have my Us Weekly, it should be right before bed where I’m just chillin’ like a villain. And by the way, I stopped reading Us Weekly, partly because I feel bad about the paparazzi — like the Britney Spears thing or whatever got to me. But I have other indulgences, like reading female memoirs before bed. But I don’t want to have that memoir in my backpack at the same time as I have to, like, copy-edit a manuscript.

DUBNER: Next time I open a dictionary and I look up the phrase “growth mindset,” I’m going to expect to see a picture of Angela Duckworth. You’re evolving. I’m so proud of you. I really am.

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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 episode, Angela says that the costs of both the growth-mindset interventions in the United States and the cognitive-endurance interventions in India were close to zero, because they were simply online activities. However, access to school computer labs differs dramatically in the United States and India. As of the 2019-2020 academic year, 82 percent of U.S. public schools reported having computers available for many or all students. Education Ministry data from the same year shows that only 22 percent of schools in India had internet access. So, investing in computers or tablets for educational interventions would result in greater cost for most schools in India.

Also, Angela recalls advocating for KIPP students to engage in more physical activity and feeling frustrated by their limited ability to run around outside. The New York City Department of Education does not mandate that students in grades K through six have a daily recess — although they encourage it. But Angela will be happy to learn that the city does require these students to engage in physical education three days a week for a total of 120 minutes.

Finally, Angela breaks down the unique ropes-course curriculum led by California teacher Ed Lopez. Lopez teaches in Daly City — a community located just south of San Francisco. While many of the students who take his course have not found success in a typical school setting, others are simply looking for an alternative to a traditional education program. In addition to learning to become ropes-course instructors, the students also take part in a 10-day backpacking trip, and they participate in a variety of community service projects. Also, they don’t teach, quote, “all of the firefighters in San Francisco,” but they do help facilitate ropes programs for various groups that occasionally include local fire departments and law enforcement.

That’s it for the fact-check. 

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is the midlife crisis a real part of human development?

DUBNER: “I decided to get a strange part of my ear pierced with my 19-year-old niece.”

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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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. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, and Alina Kulman. We had additional research assistance 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 To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I think you sound so good!

DUBNER: Oh, thank you very much. I think you sound good too.

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  • Christopher Bergland, science writer and retired ultra-endurance athlete.
  • Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University.
  • Christina Brown, postdoctoral fellow in economics at University of Chicago.
  • Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.
  • Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Robert Eisenberger, professor of psychology at the University of Delaware.
  • Uri Gneezy, professor of economics and strategy at University of California, San Diego.
  • Spureet Kaur, professor of economics at University of California Berkeley.
  • Geeta Kingdon, economist at University College London.
  • John A. List, professor of economics at University of Chicago.
  • Henry May, professor of education and director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware.
  • Heather Schofield, economist and professor of medical ethics and health policy at University of Pennsylvania.
  • David Yeager, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.



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