DUBNER: Gravity is so overrated. Is it not?
* * *
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 can you get the most out of your flying experience?
DUCKWORTH: When you’re on an airplane, you “behave airplane.”
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from a “Steven,” but not you. We have an email from someone who’s not you, but also named Steven. And here it is. “Stephen and Angela, do travelers get any actual work done in airports or on airplanes? Based on my limited observations in airports, they don’t. So, why do they pretend? I understand this is probably hard to accurately measure, but just look around next time you’re at the airport. I drafted this on a Friday while sitting at the Boston Logan International Airport Lounge near three people watching shows on their iPads, playing on their phones, and, quote-unquote, ‘working on their laptop.’ Whatever they were doing looked highly unproductive and pointless. Maybe this is just how corporate America works, and I’m too naive. It almost looked like they were peacocking, showing off how important they were by “working at the airport.’” Here’s the last part of Steven’s email: “I spent the last 14 years — my entire adult life — in the U.S. Army. I guess I’ve been fortunate in that none of the organizations I’ve supported have ever required anything of me while traveling, except to make my flights and to show up ready to fight, which affords me the highly enjoyable opportunity to sit back and people-watch at airports. Regards, Steven B.”
DUBNER: There’s so many, um, fruitful contradictions in there. He’s saying he has limited observation in airports, but I’ve concluded, based on my limited observation, that a lot of people are faking it or peacocking, but even that observation that people would want to “peacock by showing off,” as he says, “how important they are by working at the airport,” that’s an interesting observation to me. Because I certainly think he’s probably right in some of the cases, but I think that in many other cases —.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, if you’re going to peacock, usually you try to show off in front of people who you care a little bit about. Right? Not, like, the people who also are taking this flight from Boston Logan.
DUBNER: Exactly. So, yeah. I find this to be a really interesting email about airports and airplanes — airline travel, let’s call it — and about Steven himself. I think one big differentiator we should maybe start with is: some work is much more portable than other work, right? I mean, that’s a big conversation going on in the world today about occupational flexibility — not just temporal flexibility, in other words, can I do my work when I want to, but how much of my work can be done someplace other than the typical site? So, it sounds like for Stephen, who’s been in the Army for 14 years, he is mostly an onsite worker. Maybe he’s training, maybe he’s fighting, as he says. Looking at marketing reports on an Excel spreadsheet and then sending in his comments to his team is not what is considered fruitful work for him. So, for all of us, working in an airport or a plane, I think there’s just a huge variance. For me personally, I’d say that working in airports and on airplanes, which I have done a lot over the years, is probably, I’d say about 60 percent as good as working in my office. I’m guessing there are others for whom it is 90 percent as good.
DUCKWORTH: Or 120 percent, right? Because you could be better than you usually are, which is actually probably the case for me and for some people I know.
DUBNER: That’s hard to believe. In fact, I already register my disbelief. Yeah. There’s no way!
DUCKWORTH: On a flight, what percentage of time, Stephen, are you working, 100 percent? 50 percent?
DUBNER: Overall, I probably work about — let’s say I work 60 percent of the time. The remaining 40 percent — I would say, probably half of that is sleeping, because I can sleep pretty much anywhere, and I’m often under-slept. And then, the other 20 percent, I would say I would be either reading for pleasure or listening to music with no intent other than being happy and satisfied. And maybe 3 percent would be, let’s say, chatting to a seatmate.
DUCKWORTH: My ratios on that would be pretty different. I try to speak to my seatmate, like, 0 percent. I know that sounds churlish, and I know there’s research, by the way, showing that when you have these unexpected conversations with seatmates, you usually are actually happier and surprised that it was such a wonderful interaction. I know that research, and nevertheless, I want it to be as close to 0 percent as possible. You just never know. It’s like Pandora’s box. Like, the person might be a Chatty Cathy.
DUBNER: Yeah, but if you wear, over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones — which you must, if you’re going to travel — then, you have a built-in signaling mechanism for, “I am now ending the conversation.”
DUCKWORTH: Right, then you can pantomime, like, “I can’t hear you.”
DUBNER: No, no, no, no, no.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t even have to do that?
DUBNER: It’s like, you take out the headphones, you say something like, “Okay, great talking to you. Got to get back to work now.” Then you put them on. That’s like closing your door. Just wait for a pause. By the way, I will also say this. I understand your churlish motivation. I do. But I will also say that I have learned a great deal over the years from talking to people I didn’t know. I mean, that’s what I do for a living, essentially, is talk to people I don’t know and ask them questions. In fact, this show that we invented and had for a couple years that you were on — this is how we really got to know each other. It was called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. That was a show inspired by airline travel. And what happened is I had just started to fly a lot, a lot, a lot after Freakonomics had come out. But one thing I found is: it is this weird little intimate private spot — you and someone sitting right next to each other, in a tin can 35,000 feet above the earth. And I found that if the person told you what they did, and if your immediate response was, “Oh, huh, tell me something I don’t know about that thing you do.” Like, “I produce porn films. I am a rancher. I am a marketing consultant,” whatever. I would say nine times out of 10, if I would ask them to tell me something I don’t know about what you do, they would take that as both a challenge to tell me something truly interesting, and also, people seem to be flattered by it. Like, “Oh, this person actually cares about my life a little bit.” So, I’m not saying that everybody should do that. And in recent years, I talk probably a lot less, but not quite the zero level of Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Three percent. I like your prompt, you know, “Tell me something I don’t know,” but the reason I’m not going to ask that is that I mostly want to do something else more. And that is work. Like, I don’t know, this Steven B. who sent us this email can’t imagine why anybody would work except for if they, A) absolutely are being coerced to, or B) are trying to peacock. But isn’t there the possibility that work is something that you enjoy and, therefore, given the opportunity to work in this little tin can 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface, that’s what you happily do?
DUBNER: I agree with you entirely. And you and I happen to be in that same category of people who really like our work. So, I would say to Steven B. I, personally, am not a peacock in that regard. I will say this, however. I would argue that it would probably behoove most academic researchers that I know to spend a little bit more time outside their heads in the research. Yeah, talking to humans. It’s one of the things I love about journalism. It is a commitment device to constantly be seeking out and hearing perspectives that are different from yours. And I just think it’s good for the human instrument.
DUCKWORTH: The problem with the 3 percent rule, right, “Oh, I’m going to spend 3 percent of my time on this flight talking to this lovely person from Kansas who’s sitting next to me” — is that it could become 100 percent.
DUBNER: Listen to you. Listen to that sneer in your voice! “That lovely person from Kansas,” as if there are no lovely people in Kansas!
DUCKWORTH: I love Kansas! Kansas is great. But look, 100 percent is what I’m worried about. It’s like, you know, I can’t say what you say — like, “Oh, it’s been great talking to you” — and put on my noise — which I don’t have — noise-canceling headphones. But I think the real thing is that I can never say to that person next to me, “I’m so glad this conversation happened. And now, it’s ending.” It has happened to me. Has this not happened to you? That you end up spending, like, four hours in conversation with somebody, and you just couldn’t find a way out? That’s what I’m worried about. I don’t have any problem with 3 percent.
DUBNER: Okay. Here’s what astonishes me. You are capable of getting a Ph.D. in psychology. You’re capable of writing a book. You’re capable of having a family and functioning in all these different ways. And yet, you’re not capable of saying next — to a stranger next to you on an airplane, “It’s been really nice talking to you.” You can’t do that? What does that mean you can’t do that?
DUCKWORTH: I could practice this, right. But, you know these Milgram experiments that, of course, everybody’s heard of by now? I was rereading the original Milgram stuff. Actually, Milgram — Stanley Milgram, Yale professor of psychology. This is now, I think just after World War II, right? He was asking the question, you know, how could it be that in Nazi Germany, like, completely healthy, normal, and kind people would end up killing, viciously, other people? How does conformity — and especially obedience to authority — how does that work? So, in these famous Milgram experiments, you have these, passersby who are off the streets of New Haven, that Milgram invites into the lab. And he sets up this experiment where the participant in the experiment — again, just a civilian, you know, nobody sadistic, nobody unwell — they’re put into this position where they’re asked to be a, quote-unquote, “teacher.” And the experimenter says to the teacher, like, “This other person who also walked in off the streets of New Haven, I’m randomly assigning them to be the learner. And your job as the teacher is: every time that learner makes a mistake, I just want you to, like, flip a switch on this box here.” And the box has increasing amounts of electrical voltage. And that learner is going to experience first, extremely mild, almost barely sensible pain — all the way up to the last two switches, and they were, like, fatal, basically.
It’s not immediately obvious how this is at all related to sitting next to somebody from Kansas on a plane. But I think they’re really very similar. In these experiments, two out of three perfectly normal civilians actually shocked other people that they thought were actually being shocked — but it’s actually an actor — to the fatal zone. Two out of three people! Now, lots of questions have been asked about, like, how can that be? What is going on? And what Milgram said is that, you know, when you’re in this social situation, there’s just no easy way to, like, break from the script of, like, okay, the experimenter says, “This experiment must go on. Please continue.” And you just have this friction against saying, “I’m standing up. I’m going to walk out the door.” Nobody walked out the door in those experiments. And I think when I’m in a seat on a plane sitting next to someone from Kansas who’s like, “Oh my gosh, my second cousin’s also from there,” I also cannot get up out of my seat, as it were, or say, like, “Yeah, you want this conversation to continue, but I’m putting on my noise-canceling headphones.” I’m like those people in the Milgram experiment. I can’t get out. It’s a script. And the script is very strong. And I personally don’t feel comfortable breaking the script.
DUBNER: It’s an interesting parallel you draw. I find it to be mostly a fraudulent parallel, only because the circumstances are quite different. But I hear you, and I believe you. What I would say is the fact that you use a word like “script” to describe what it’s like to sit next to a stranger on a plane and the fact that you can’t break the script, I will say it surprises me, because among the other things that you believe in as a human, but also as a psychologist, are things like agency. Like, “I am the author of my life story.”
DUCKWORTH: “I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul.”
DUBNER: There you go. And so, it does surprise me a little bit that a given person, but especially you, would have such a hard time doing this.
DUCKWORTH: We like to think of ourselves as agentic and basically in charge of what we do. But I have recently been thinking about how we are not the captains of our fate and we are not the masters of our soul. It is the ocean which is carrying us — the winds at our back that are carrying us where we need to go. So, not us, but actually our circumstances. And my thinking has been influenced by this psychologist I had never heard of. It’s a fellow by the name of Roger Barker. Have you heard of Roger Barker?
DUBNER: I haven’t.
DUCKWORTH: So, Roger Barker started out as a child psychologist. And he asked the very common-sense question, “Why do some children do what they do and other children not?” You know, some children are honest, and others lie. Some children are kind, and others are selfish. So, he decided that the most common-sense way to tackle this question was just to be observant of children. He wanted to kind of go out of the lab where you’re, like, carefully controlling all of the circumstances. And Roger Barker said, “That’s hooey. Like, you have to go out into the world and just observe people in their natural habitat.” So, he found a little town, Oskaloosa, in I think it was Kansas. He convinced the people in this town that they should invite these researchers to just basically embed themselves, kind of like anthropologists tend to do. And he would do things like have his research team — with their clipboards and their stopwatches — watch a child continuously from the moment of waking, and then all the way into the moment of sleeping. And through these meticulous observations, Roger came to the conclusion, that really the thing that determined what someone did was the setting, was the situation, was the context. As he put it, when you’re at the drugstore, you “behave drugstore.” And when you’re at a faculty meeting, you “behave faculty meeting.” So, Roger Barker, I think, might say, when you’re on an airplane, you “behave airplane,” whatever it is that you think is the script — the proper thing. When I’m in a conversation, Stephen, my understanding is that you hold up your end of the conversation. You don’t abruptly end it. And so, it’s not that we don’t have any free will, but I do think if you just pause to consider how much you conform to at least what you think is the script for the situation, you realize it’s a lot of the time.
DUBNER: I don’t disagree with anything you said. And I fully appreciate how much circumstance can dictate behavior. All I’m saying is that I don’t feel that the circumstance of sitting next to a stranger on a plane rises to the level of dictating your behavior in such a way that you would not be able to excuse yourself from that conversation. But I also think that I’ve tried to talk you into talking to strangers once in a while, you’re not ready for that, Angela. I am willing to accept that what makes Angela happy and productive is devoting 100 percent of her time on an airplane to working. Going back to what Steven was saying, I will say this: the circumstance of where you’re trying to do work can really dictate how well you do your work. I don’t know about for you, but I know that for me, there are certain kinds of work that I know I won’t do well when I’m in an airport or in an airplane. I think about it as deep-focus work. So, writing or editing. If I want to be writing or editing successfully, I mostly need to be in a really quiet place like my own office. I think there are a lot of people who do a lot of, quote, “work” when they’re in transit that they think is really well-done work. And then if you go back and look at it, you might see that it’s not well done at all. But because we feel we have to communicate and we have to respond to things while we’re traveling, we do it so that we can tick the box. But I think we often don’t do it well. So what I would advise anyone is: categorize your work and save the work that can be done well in transit. And don’t try to do the deep-focus work that you may need a better environment for.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to partly agree with you. There’s this term that actually was invented in psychology. It’s called an “affordance,” that certain situations “afford” you certain things — they invite you to do certain things, and they allow you to do those activities well and others not so well. So, for example, you could argue that the airplane has certain affordances. Now, for you, you would say that is not a place where the affordances invite you to do your best, hardest, deepest work. Another person might say, “Oh my gosh, airplanes are the only place where, like, nobody’s interrupting me, nobody’s bursting through the door of my office. The fact that it doesn’t have great WiFi is terrific, because I’m not constantly toggling to my email.” So, for whatever you are trying to get done, I do think asking yourself, like, “What would I like to do that’s perfect for this behavior setting and these affordances — for me — and I could be delusional, because you raised the point that maybe you think you’re getting really great work done, but you’re not — I think I do some of my best work on airplanes for all the reasons I just said.
DUBNER: And your best work is actual thinking, and writing, and editing. Yes?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. I think this time is awesome. But it’s because, for me, the airplane has all these affordances. You’re just sitting there. What else is there to do?
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Can changes in oxygen levels and air pressure affect your brain?
DUCKWORTH: “Are you having any cognitive impairment?” “No, I’m fine.”
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the challenges of working on planes and in airports.
DUBNER: So, Angela, one reason you can be productive on planes may be, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re not the biggest person in the world. You’re a little on the petite side.
DUCKWORTH: I am, 5’1.”
DUBNER: If, however, you’re a larger person — and especially if you’re not flying in first, or business, or Economy Plus, whatever — it is kind of all you can do just to keep your body in its space. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: That’s true. I’m small enough, Stephen, that if I take my shoes off, I can, like, cross my legs. One of the benefits of being an extremely small person.
DUBNER: The petite premium, we could call it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. They should have a petite-premium, you know, class.
DUBNER: I think that’s what economy is, essentially. Now, I will share with you a few things about airplane travel — this is from the Cleveland Clinic — which I think are worth considering for those people who feel they aren’t at Angela Duckworth level in getting a lot of work done. This is from a piece called “Six Ways That Airplane Travel Affects Your Body.” No. 1: raises your stress level. No. 2: dehydrates you. Exposes you to germs. Empties your energy tank. Puts stress on your ears and makes your belly bloated.
DUCKWORTH: “Your belly bloated.” Really?
DUBNER: Well, it says the same pressure changes cause the gas inside your stomach and intestines to expand, which is why you may feel bloated. Here’s another piece from BBC Future called “How Flying Seriously Messes With Your Mind.” It says, “The reduced air pressure on airline flights can reduce the amount of oxygen in passengers’ blood between 6 and 25 percent,” and with that effect, “healthy adults can start to show measurable changes in their memory, their ability to perform calculations, and make decisions.” So, it could be that you think the work you’re doing is awesome, but that when you are back at full oxygen levels, it may not be. Now, that may also not be the case. Maybe you are doing your very best work on airplanes.
DUCKWORTH: Let me just back you up on that for a second. So, the sleep deprivation research is so interesting in that there’s nothing so reliable at impairing cognitive function as sleep deprivation. And these experiments are very straightforward, right? You just, like, restrict the amount of sleep that somebody can have over prolonged periods. And then, you just give them tests, and you see how well they do. They think they do great, but they do terribly. And you ask them, like, “Are you having any cognitive impairment?” “No, I’m fine.” So, maybe I’m doing terrible work on airplanes, and I just think I’m doing great.
DUBNER: It would be interesting to know, now that we’ve had this conversation, if the next time you examine the work you’ve done on an airplane is up to your actual standards.
DUCKWORTH: That’s a very good point. I will try to “self-monitor,” as they say in psychology.
DUBNER: I will say this. This goes back to Steven’s point about airports versus airplanes, which is: how can all these people be really productive if there’s all this chaos going on? Airports are an interesting environment. We’re actually doing a Freakonomics Radio series on airline travel. If you look at the World Airport Awards, which is done by some outfit called Skytrax, only 14 of the top 100 airports in the world are American. I mean, that doesn’t sound like such a terrible number, but American airports are not known for being super awesome. They’re noisy. They’re disorienting. And most of the airports we’ve built have been during an era when what we were mostly thinking about was airports as sort of bus stations for airplanes.
DUCKWORTH: Like a waiting room.
DUBNER: The point is to get you in and get you out. We’re not here for entertainment. We’re not here for comfort. We’re not here to soothe you. And so, therefore, we don’t need to focus on that.
DUCKWORTH: Distribution center.
DUBNER: But now, there is a big change, especially with the privately-owned ones, where they consider an airport much less a place you enter into for just a utility — just to get from one place to the next — but as they like to call it: an “experience.” One thing that you’re seeing is that they treat your senses differently. There’s better design. There’s better lighting. There’s better sound. Higher ceilings. There’s more art. One of the airports I toured recently had a “sensory room,” which was a special room, small, designed for people who have sensory issues that may make airline travel very stressful for them. This may be somebody on the autism spectrum. It may be somebody who has a fear of flying. So, this little room actually has a mockup of an airplane where you can sit in and get to know the controls. It also has this kind of smooth sensory environment where you can just chill out.
These new airports also have — I think it’s commonly called either the “Disney corridor” or the “Vegas corridor” — which is to say at Disney, or in the Vegas hotels, they build these service routes, which is a hallway where all the work traffic goes, all the delivery carts, and cleaning carts, and things like that, so that they’re not mixed up in the main traffic with the people. And all of these things are being done in these airports to try to turn the experience more into a pleasurable experience and less into a sensory overload in this place where I’m just spending an hour trying to get from where I am to where I’m going. So, I do think that as skeptical as Steven is, there are enough people, millions of people, who want to either be productive in airports or just want to not have it be unpleasant, that there’s a movement toward changing that.
DUCKWORTH: Well, Roger Barker would approve of all this. He said of these behavior settings, like, when you’re in the drugstore, you behave “drugstore,” when you’re in the airplane, you behave “airplane.” He also said that these settings could evolve, that we could, if we wanted to, collectively change a setting. And when you think about changing a behavior setting, like an airplane or an airport, Roger said you have to think of the physical elements. Is there going to be a sensory room? Is there going to be a separate corridor for the dollies and the work trucks? And he also said you have to think about the social elements, right? Like, the scripts and the norms. And of course, it’s probably easier to change the physical elements than it is to change the social ones.
DUBNER: Yes, but the physical elements certainly have a big influence on the social ones. Right?
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Because the physical elements often, like, signal to you what the social norm is. A trivial example is that, like, when you see a seat, you just know that, like, oh, you’re supposed to sit there. Like, there’s a tray, oh, that’s to put stuff on. So, I do think that this idea that we could take the behavior setting of the airplane and the airport and change it is interesting. And I think there are always going to be, like, the Angela Duckworths who are hoping that the behavior setting is going to be very work-friendly. Like, please make even more affordances for me to get really high-quality work done. Then there’s probably going to be like most of humanity, which is, like, “Yeah, let’s change the behavior setting of the airplane and the airport to be more fun. I want to have an enjoyable time there.”
DUBNER: I think you’ve just stated very beautifully the dilemma of anyone who does design for a living, which is to say that not all people are the same. And if you want to make a space work for the most number of people possible, you need to think that through. Even if you are the minority, the person who wants to do nothing but work, you are worth creating an affordance that works for you, while realizing that maybe the vast majority of people want to spend their time a little bit differently. Can I ask you: all of us who travel a fair amount have, I think, a hack list of how to do it well. Pro tips. Can you give me your pro tips?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Okay. Let’s see. First of all, I’ve gotten really good at flying.
DUBNER: You don’t even need a plane anymore. You just ascend yourself.
DUCKWORTH: No, I haven’t gotten that good.
DUBNER: Gravity is so overrated too. Is it not?
DUCKWORTH: No. I’ve gotten really good at being an airplane passenger. I always think to myself in advance, “What am I going to get done on this flight?” If it’s a Google Doc, I try to, like, enable the “make this available offline.” But I, um, recently took this flight sitting next to some guy who worked at — you know how Google has, like, all these different divisions? He worked in the part of Google that makes robots.
DUBNER: Wait a minute. How do you know that he worked there?
DUCKWORTH: Because I talked to him. I know. I, I broke my rule!
DUBNER: I thought you didn’t talk to people on planes!
DUCKWORTH: Look, here’s the exception and how it happened.
DUBNER: You said 0 percent, Angela.
DUCKWORTH: That is what I’m aiming for.
DUBNER: Do you know what “zero” means?
DUCKWORTH: That was what I would like it to be.
DUBNER: That was unclear to me.
DUCKWORTH: No. It wasn’t descriptive. It was what I’m aiming for. Here’s what happened. I’m trying to get on the WiFi on this plane, and I can’t get it to work. And I’m, like, restarting my computer — entering my credit card again. And the stewardess says to me, “Oh, ask the guy who’s sitting next to you,” who she somehow knew was from Google. And so, I did. And this guy was, like, the maestro. He was like, “Oh, let me see where we are. Okay, we’re flying over Denver. That means they’re going to go to this satellite.” And, suffice to say, that he very helpfully helped me get on WiFi. So, I was very happy to be sitting next to this guy. And here’s what he got me doing on airplanes. He was like, “Oh, order a V8.” Have you ever heard this? Order V8s when you’re on an airplane?
DUBNER: I drank V8s for about five years on airplanes, without ice, of course, but yes. So, tell me where you’re going with your V8.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t know if this is why you were drinking V8 on the airplane. But he was like, “Oh, you know, things are different because, I don’t know, air pressure. But it will taste different to you.”
DUBNER: It tastes okay on an airplane!
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know. I’m not a big fan of drinking V8 on the ground, but I ordered it. I was like, “All right, I’m letting my hair down. I’m, like, talking to you. I never talk to anybody, but you got me on WiFi. I’m forever grateful.” And I don’t know whether it was the placebo effect or whatever, but it was a great V8. I was like, “This is fantastic.” And I do think there is some research on, like, tomato juice and the cabin pressure. I don’t know how this all works. He probably gave me a lengthy explanation. He was giving me, actually, I have to say, lengthy explanations of a lot of things — which I put up with because he got me on WiFi. Since then, I have been ordering V8 with ice, by the way, which is a violation of your rule.
DUBNER: I do remember coming across V8 on the list of pro tips for flying years ago when I started to do it a lot. So, I actually don’t dislike V8, even on the ground. But I’m told that the reason that people do like V8 in the air is because it’s sort of substantial and nutritional.
DUCKWORTH: You feel like you’re kind of almost having a meal.
DUBNER: There you go. And also, our taste buds are quite different in the air than they are on the ground. I have to say, I don’t care about the V8. I’m so proud that you actually had a conversation with somebody sitting next to you on a plane. And it worked out fine. So, I would like to hear from listeners. Tell us about a conversation you had with a stranger on a plane and what happened. Maybe, like Angela, you just got some good advice. Maybe you married them. Maybe you went into business together. Maybe you murdered them later. So, successful or unsuccessful stories talking to strangers on planes. Use your phone to make a voice memo. Do it in a quiet place. Try to keep it relatively short. And send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we will play it in a future show.
DUCKWORTH: You know what I want to know? You know how there’s this, like — is it a myth? Is it a thing? Do people really, like, in the bathroom —?
DUBNER: Have sex in airport bathrooms?
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t want to say it, but yeah. I wonder if that actually ever happens.
DUBNER: I would say if you take the entire fleet of U.S. airplanes, for major airlines, and lined them all up and you could do some kind of truth serum: “You, plane A, has anyone ever had sex in one of your bathrooms?” I’m guessing you’d get a very high hit rate. I’m guessing there aren’t many planes out there that have not had —.
DUCKWORTH: That are truly virgin. So to speak.
DUBNER: “Truly virgin.” Maybe that’s a better name for an airline then.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Maybe so. Maybe that’s what Richard Branson really meant.
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 breaks down the infamous Milgram experiments. She says she thinks they occurred right after World War II, but they actually took place in the 1960s. She also says that the subjects were quote, “passersby off the streets of New Haven” — since the study took place at Yale. However, the 40 men who participated in the study were found in a slightly more systematic way — through direct mail solicitation and newspaper advertisements.
Later, when discussing airport rankings, Stephen says that airline review site Skytrax included only 14 American airports in its rankings of the top 100 airports in the world. He was referencing the 2021 list. In 2022, only 12 American airports ranked in the top 100. No American airports made it to the top 25. The No. 1 spot was given to Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, which also ranked first in 2021.
Then, Stephen describes how airports are starting to add separate hallways and tunnels for service workers. He calls them “Disney corridors or Vegas corridors.” Their official name is “utility corridors.” In Disney parks, they’re “Disney utilidors.” Supposedly, Walt Disney conceived of them when he passed a Disneyland employee in a cowboy costume in Tomorrowland, the park’s futuristic area. Disney’s next park, Walt Disney World in Florida, was built on top of a web of tunnels through which staff can travel from one area to another, out of sight of paying guests.
Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder why people often think that V8 vegetable juice tastes better on airplanes than it does on the ground. Researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer Society concluded that people enjoy tomato juice more while flying because human taste and smell receptors are less sensitive at high altitudes, and the low humidity in the airplane cabins exacerbates these sensory changes. The result is that airplane passengers may only taste the juice’s acidity and saltiness, without the earthy flavor.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on last week’s episode on how to deal with knowing that so much of the world is suffering. Here’s what you said:
Kirk MASDEN: My dad used to joke that he’d resigned as general manager of the universe. In retrospect, I think it was his way of keeping from getting overwhelmed by the world’s problems. He really cared about the suffering of other people, and repeating this line may have helped him stay focused on doing what he could for the people that were close to him.
Hesha ABRAMS: Hi. I just listened to your episode on “Is It Wrong to Enjoy When the World Is Burning?” And I think the flaw in the Batson analysis, when he did the seminarian students, is having somebody homeless and half-dead laying in front of them is too big of a thing. What are you supposed to do? Pick the person up, take them to a homeless shelter, clean them up, put them in your house? It’s too overwhelming as something to be able to do. But if it were something small, like helping someone cross the street, or someone had dropped their purse or their iPad and you gave it back to them, I bet you anything, even if people were in a hurry, it still would have jumped up to a 95 percent compliance. And that’s my answer for what I do when I’m faced with these existential issues — is I do something small within my capability, within my purview, because I can’t handle all the big issues. The world is burning, but I can pick up trash or I can recycle in my area and do my part.
That was, respectively: Kirk Masden and Hesha Abrams. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about a time when you spoke with someone who sat next to you on an airplane. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss what it takes to become a “super ager” — someone who remains both physically and mentally healthy into their 90s and beyond.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, that is kind of what happens when Edward Cullen bites your neck, right? His vampire blood goes into you, and then you become immortal.
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, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen 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 email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: You know when the stewardess is like, “Do you need anything to drink? Would you like anything?” I’m like, “No.”
DUBNER: “Get out of my face, ma’am.”
DUCKWORTH: I’ve got my laptop open. Yeah!
- World’s Top 100 Airports 2022, by Skytrax (2022).
- “Airports Are Creating Inclusive Quiet Spaces Where All Travelers Can Find Calm,” by Jessica Puckett (Condé Nast Traveler, 2022).
- “Why Does Tomato Juice Taste So Much Better on an Airplane?” by Ashlie D. Stevens (Salon, 2022).
- “Relational Diversity in Social Portfolios Predicts Well-Being,” by Hanne K. Collins, Serena F. Hagerty, Jordi Quoidbach, and Alison Wood Brooks (PNAS, 2022).
- “What Was the Milgram Experiment?” by Kendra Cherry (Verywell Mind, 2022).
- “Sleep Deprivation Impairs Cognitive Performance, Alters Task-Associated Cerebral Blood Flow and Decreases Cortical Neurovascular Coupling-Related Hemodynamic Responses,” by Tamas Csipo, Agnes Lipecz, Cameron Owens, Peter Mukli, et al. (Nature Scientific Reports, 2021).
- “6 Ways Airplane Travel Affects Your Body + How You Can Prepare,” by Cleveland Clinic (2018).
- “How A Small Kansas Town Changed Environmental Psychology,” by Danielle Hogerty (K.C.U.R., 2017).
- “How Flying Seriously Messes With Your Mind,” by Richard Gray (B.B.C. Future, 2017).
- “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014).
- “Odor and Taste Perception at Normal and Low Atmospheric Pressure in a Simulated Aircraft Cabin,” by Andrea Burdack-Freitag, Dino Bullinger, Florian Mayer, and Klaus Breuer (Journal für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit, 2011).
- “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” by Stanley Milgram (The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1963).
- “Why Does Everyone Hate Flying? And Other Questions Only a Pilot Can Answer,” by Freakonomics Radio (2016).
- Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, series by the Freakonomics Radio Network.