What Does Covid-19 Mean for Cities (and Marriages)? (Ep. 410)
There are a lot of upsides to urban density — but viral contagion is not one of them. Also: a nationwide lockdown will show if familiarity really breeds contempt. And: how to help your neighbor.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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No need for a long preamble today. We all know what’s going on with Covid-19. So today on the show, we’ll focus on the economic damage at the individual level — and what one economist says is the best immediate response:
Ed GLAESER: This is the time to write unconditional checks.
And: in this era of lockdowns and very close quarters, we’ll ask a psychologist whether familiarity really breeds contempt — and if so, what to do about it.
Angela DUCKWORTH: You know, I think the most important thing is to have humility. Humility is recognizing that you could be incomplete or wrong. Very hard to do.
And: how to help our most vulnerable neighbors.
Sarah FRIAR: So it’s really important that I can quickly find the best plumber, the best babysitter, maybe find the lost pet.
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Ed Glaeser is an economist who teaches at Harvard.
GLAESER: There are wonderful things about being in proximity to other human beings. We learn from other human beings, we can work with them. But there are also demons that come with density. And the worst of these demons is contagious disease.
Glaeser studies a lot of economic issues, but he’s got one particular obsession.
GLAESER: My whole life’s work has been trying to understand cities and how they work and how they sometimes fail to work.
In 2011, he published a book called Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention — our “greatest invention,” he calls the city — How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. But in the age of Covid-19, cities also have the capacity to make us… sicker.
GLAESER: As of the time that we’re talking, New York is responsible for almost a third of the total cases in America. So it certainly seems as if density is continuing to do its worst. If you look back historically, these things have been rocking cities for millennia, right? We think about the plague of Athens, 430 B.C. We think about the Plague of Justinian, which almost 1,000 years later, hit Constantinople. If you look at sort of the entire European medieval period, there’s a sense in which cities are not particularly safe places. As late as the time of Shakespeare’s London, you’ve got a six-year life-expectancy loss by living in London relative to the rest of England. That was, by the way, still true in New York City in 1900.
And what’s going on in cities to create this danger?
GLAESER: There are two things going on. One of which are, the cities are connected globally. And secondly, the cities are dense when you get to them. And so the cities are the ports of entry for the new disease, whether it’s the rats carrying the fleas or a traveler from Wuhan carrying the virus.
Stephen J. DUBNER: And correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we have now the largest percentage of the human population in history in urban areas. Is that right?
DUBNER: So we have had earlier spikes in urbanization, followed by huge declines. So, I mean, I’m going a way back to the large cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt and so on. Are you worried that Covid-19 and the role that urbanization may play in its spread will turn the tide against your beloved cities?
GLAESER: Of course. Even worse, I’m worried that it should turn the tide against my beloved cities, right? I mean, it’s not as if I sit here during Covid-19 and say, “The important thing is to continue making the case for urban life.” I mean, these demons that come with density are very real. Historically, effective governments have always been able to tame them, although sometimes it took many decades to make that possible. I have at least the hope that an effective government can contain the pandemics of the future. If we had managed to lock it in China earlier, if we had managed to get more research on vaccines of this nature earlier.
So I tend to be an optimist, if we can manage to get effective-enough governments. I mean, 150 years ago, cities were universally killing fields. And for most of my life, they most certainly have not been. And that, of course, required massive amounts of public investment. America’s cities and towns were spending as much on clean water at the start of the 20th century as the federal government was spending on everything except for the post office and the army. But it was something that we managed to do. I guess I remain hopeful that we can continue to do it. But let’s not, you know, let’s not ignore the fact that pandemic is an existential threat to high-density living based around face-to-face contact.
DUBNER: So it is relatively early days in the pandemic, at least in the U.S., and we don’t know what the damage will look like, in terms of loss of life. But the economic damage is already coming into view, suddenly and intensely. So I’d like to hear your thinking on that — especially the economic damage to individuals and families. That damage is not going to be evenly distributed, is it?
GLAESER: You’re exactly right. So if either you have substantial assets or you have a large, highly stable employer, your financial worries during this shutdown are really relatively small. Now, if you’re living hand-to-mouth, and your employer just shut down, and all of a sudden, you’ve got no income coming in. And you’ve got a couple of kids to pay for as well. And you can’t just move into your parents’ house because maybe they’re on the other side of the country or maybe they’re in a nursing home. And then you’re looking at just an absolutely terrifying world.
DUBNER: How can you compare this situation to past economic calamities, whether it’s pandemics or wars or financial collapses?
GLAESER: I mean, the last sort of pandemic of this scale is really 1919, the influenza, which occurred at the same time as a great recession. I don’t know that we’ve ever sorted out what role that pandemic played in creating the recession. There were many other things that were going on. When you think of the fact that one-fifth of the American labor force is in retail trade, leisure, and hospitality, those are the sectors that are absolutely on this front line. So I could easily imagine that we start seeing joblessness numbers that look a lot more like the Great Depression than anything that we’ve seen beforehand. These jobs are ones which seemed like they were the future.
Now, what if all of a sudden we’re terrified of face-to-face interactions? Where do those jobs go to? And while there may be a few jobs in delivering the Amazon grocery products that we then turn to, that’s a trickle of what we had in the 32 million Americans who work in these big industries. And if this is a permanent shift away from the face-to-face economy, it’s one that will have catastrophic impacts on those Americans with less formal schooling.
DUBNER: Okay. I would like you to walk us through, quickly, what you see the current aid package, federal aid package, looking like. It seems that there’s a fundamental choice to make, which is: are you going to help from the top down, meaning fund the firms and the industries that are most in trouble, and hopefully they will take care of their employees and customers, or are you going to fund from the bottom up, individuals?
GLAESER: So most of the time, I am not a fan of universal basic income. You know, six months ago, two months ago, my view was that it was crucial to get more Americans working. Income inequality bothered me much less than the rise of prime-age male joblessness. The fact that when I was born 52 years ago, only less than one in 20 prime-age males were jobless. For most of the last 15 years, more than three in 20 prime-aged males have been jobless. I think of this as being sort of an absolutely catastrophic thing for America, and so that’s where I was before Covid-19. Now, all of a sudden, Covid-19 strikes us and none of that applies.
In the case of the financial crisis or any sort of normal recession, what you’re trying to do is shore up the financial system and then make sure people are still spending, make sure people are still working, make sure that the economic system functions as well as it possibly can. During a pandemic, that’s not what you’re trying to do at all. What you’re trying to do is, you’re trying to make sure everyone goes home. We don’t care if nobody’s working. We want those people to be at home. And so this is the time to write people checks. And you’re not writing people checks the way that you would be during a standard recession, with the idea that this is going to gin up some stimulus and make sure there are dollars for the system. That’s not why you’re doing it. You’re just insuring them. You’re making sure that the mom who worked as a waitress, who has a couple of kids at home, and who has no idea if she’s ever getting her job back, you’re just making sure that she can put food on the table. If you’re going to ask yourself what you’re going to do to eliminate the short-run suffering, let’s insure those Americans whose jobs have vanished for the foreseeable future. And this is the time to write unconditional checks.
Now, there’s a question as to why make it unconditional. I think my preferred model is one in which everyone gets the checks, but let’s say you come around to next year’s tax season, if you’re earning more than $200,000 and you spent that check, you’re going to pay 100 percent tax on that check. If you’re earning between one and $200,000, you’re going to spend 50 percent. But if your earnings are less than $100,000, then the money’s free and clear.
DUBNER: And why would you do it that way instead of withholding checks now from anyone earning $200,000 or more?
GLAESER: I just don’t want anyone to think about it. I just want the money to get out. Just get it out right now. Let’s sort it out when we aren’t all terrified of a pandemic. Let’s sort it out later. One thing that is clear is that just the experience — between rich and poor during this pandemic — seems to me even more unequal than the usual experience gap between rich and poor. So I think in some sense, this is just an order of magnitude more terrifying at the low end of the income distribution than at the high end of the income distribution.
I believe very strongly in relief right now, policies that stop economic Armageddon from spiraling out of control. So having some sort of a moratorium on foreclosures is perfectly sensible. Doing a few things that would slow down any sort of bankruptcy proceedings for any particular companies is probably the right thing.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about Italy for a minute. Let’s start with the history of the quarantine.
GLAESER: So as far as I know, this is a Venetian response to the Black Death. They’re forcing boats or people, in some cases, to stay for 40 days, hence “quaranta.” And it’s an attempt to sort of stop the disease from entering into the area. And so you really do need a state that is strong enough to actually enforce these types of quarantines for them to be effective. And I think that’s one of the things when you look at, let’s say, the modern Italian experience, versus the modern Chinese experience, that the Chinese government is just much more effective at imposing a lockdown or a quarantine than its modern Italian equivalents would be.
DUBNER: Other than the virtues of a more authoritarian government to dictate a quarantine — other than that, why do you think the Italian situation has gotten so much worse than really anywhere at this moment?
GLAESER: I was struck by the number of people who were cheating in some ways, they weren’t — cheating is maybe too strong. They weren’t— they were still shaking hands. You know, they weren’t doing proper masks. They weren’t following the quarantines. There’s a sense in which many Italians are skeptical about orders given by their government — there’s not necessarily a strong cultural norm of following them, perhaps for good reason, but certainly that makes things harder. And whereas in many cases, it’s right to ignore nonsensical orders from the government — during a pandemic, having a government that you trust is really valuable.
DUBNER: So, with Covid-19, there is potentially a critical shortage of hospital beds and equipment. Now, in the U.S. at least, governments are typically not very involved in health care facilities the way they are in schools and police and fire departments and transportation and so on. And I’m curious whether you think that may be a shortcoming, a blessing, and whether this pandemic may change the way we think about the relationship between government and hospitals.
GLAESER: So it’s interesting — historically, the line was often quite blurry, as it was with universities. They have certainly evolved to be a clear distinction between public and private, where the public hospitals — they have to take the poorer patients, they have to take emergency rooms. And whereas the non-for-profit, private hospitals have evolved, in one economist’s words, into something more like doctors’ cooperatives. So I think there’s a lot to like about that system. But of course, there are larger issues as well. And no individual hospital is set up to deal with the catastrophic risk of a pandemic.
But I think there’s a good case to be made that whoever we decide is going to be the U.S.’s chief pandemic officer going forward — and I think there’s a reasonable view for having a pandemic czar in the country after this — such a person would want to think about how it is that you’re going to actually deliver a lot more capacity to hospitals. Because I think it’s very unlikely that any individual hospital’s going to do it. Because you’re trying to deal with 50 different things every day that are painful and excruciating. But you are not set up to think about, how am I going to deal with, if all of a sudden, a once-in-a-generation pandemic shows up.
DUBNER: If we were to compare military preparedness and the dollars connected to that with pandemic preparedness and the dollars connected with that — my guess is that it would be an incalculably large spread. Now that we’ve actually got a pandemic that threatens to really attack the root of modern economic and civil society, does this seem like terribly short-sighted planning or does this seem like, well, the world throws things at you, and you have to adjust, and adjust we shall now?
GLAESER: I mean, I certainly agree with the spirit of your question. I mean, I think there were enough warning signs — SARS 17 years ago, swine flu 2009, MERS eight years ago, Ebola over the years — there were more than enough warning signs that something like this was a real possibility. And if we had had any ability to look forward to this, we should have been spending radically more money than we’ve been spending. So the comparison to military spending is apt. But it also makes sense to compare our spending on pandemic preparedness with our spending on routine medical expenditures, with our spending on Medicare. We as a nation do not underspend on health care. We spend an enormous amount of money on health care.
But what we spend on are the sort of routine medical business of the country, we’re set up to do that. We’re not set up to spend money for the risk that hasn’t happened, for the pandemic that hasn’t shown up. And I think that’s the crucial thing going forward, is that we need to recognize that this thing has the capacity to do trillions and trillions of dollars of damage. And so it’s worthwhile spending at least billions and billions of dollars to actually protect ourselves to mitigate future risks.
DUBNER: With all the changes that are happening right now in response to Covid-19 — a lot more remote working, a lot more remote education, a lot of people considering if all the things that they’ve done on a daily basis as habit are really so valuable. I can imagine all kinds of shifting of supply and demand in real estate, among other things, if more people are working from home and so on. So I’m just curious if you look down the line at any possible silver linings that you see.
GLAESER: So it depends a little bit about whether or not you think that currently we’re all making a bunch of mistakes about interacting with each other or traveling. And if you think that we’re making a lot of mistakes, we might realize that those things are mistakes. I think for some of us, maybe it will teach us to prune some of the unnecessary trips in our lives. That’s good. I think there is a sense in which — if I think that there’s a single political dividend — this certainly reminds us that having a really functional public sector is really valuable. That in fact, you don’t actually just want a government that’s about taking from one group and giving to the other.
There are actually real jobs for government, like preventing pandemics! And you really want a government that is actually capable of doing that. And to the extent to which voters in this election — and I’m not saying where that should lead them and who they vote for — but the extent to which voters realize that actually it’s really not about which person you think is being on your team, but it’s really about who’s going to do the most capable job of producing a government that can actually protect all of America, that would be a really salutary outcome.
DUBNER: So, many of the recent viral outbreaks and pandemics, maybe all of them, have originated in non-human species, non-human animals. And there’s a pretty strong argument that without the environmental destruction that’s a product of capitalism, that this would be happening much less, if at all. That, you know, that’s what’s driving these animal-borne diseases and pandemics. So I’m curious — you are, at least according to my reading, a pretty strong — I don’t know about dyed-in-the-wool, but strong free-marketer. How do you get the bounty of the free market without the destructive capacity of the environmental destruction? So how do you think about that balance?
GLAESER: Well, you’re absolutely right. I think there are tremendous virtues of capitalism. I think everything is about balance. And a pure capitalist system is not one that will necessarily protect us against pandemic. And it is not one that will necessarily protect the environment. That does not mean that the right answer is some non-capitalist system. It means that you need a public sector that protects, just as we have a private sector that creates. And if we’re worried about protecting the natural ecosystems, we need to have a public sector that views that as clearly one of its jobs, and that it takes steps to do that.
DUBNER: On the show last week, we discussed that NASA imagery showed that air pollution in China fell so much during their Covid-19 lockdown that many, many more lives will be saved from cleaner air than will be lost — directly, at least — from Covid-19. So how do you think about tradeoffs like that? What does that suggest for policy going forward?
GLAESER: Well, if we think that there are that many lives that will be saved by reductions in Chinese air pollution, then we are at a very bad place in terms of the policy ex-ante. I was in India in December, and I was amazed by the deterioration in air quality in and around Delhi over the last three or four years. Again, it’s important that we recognize that horrendous air quality that firms pollute is not fundamentally an indictment of the capitalist system. It’s an indictment of a government that doesn’t protect people from the excesses of the capitalist system. And we really do need robust policies that stop firms from overly polluting.
I think most appropriately is a straight-out pollution tax. But if you can’t implement that, then other Clean Air Act-type policies are necessary. But if that many lives are going to be saved, then we really need to redouble our efforts as a planet to try and reduce the pollution that costs lives.
DUBNER: Let me ask you one more question about cities and pandemics. You’ve spoken about a number of downsides. In fact, as someone who happens to live in New York City, they seem like a lot of downsides. So thank you for emphasizing those. But what are the advantages to being in a city even during a pandemic?
GLAESER: So you have hospitals, you have health care providers. I mean, one of the issues with the Milan’s hospitals right now is, they’re currently filled with people who got sick in outlying areas and then had to move to Milan to be taken care of. So the fact that cities have these sort of large pieces of health-related infrastructure is clearly an asset. The fact there are lots of smaller providers — so, nimble health care clinics that can take care of things quickly. Providers for food or other forms of services. So right now, suburban life looks relatively good, relative to high-density urban living during the height of the pandemic.
What if we now see a storm on top of it? What if all of a sudden large numbers of eastern suburbs start losing their electricity? It’s one thing to be involved in lockdown if you actually can get all the electronics to work. If all the electronics cease working, it becomes a much worse story.
DUBNER: Well, if that happens, I’ve got a spare cot somewhere for anybody that needs to migrate to New York, who’s willing to put up with all the downsides of the city. And that goes for you and your family, if you can squeeze in a cot. So you’re welcome here.
GLAESER: Thank you, Stephen.
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More and more government and public-health officials are calling for Americans to distance themselves from others; to stay home; to limit any non-essential interactions. This means a lot of us will be spending more time at home with families, partners, roommates, often in close quarters. What will be the long-term results of all this indoor clustering? There are already plenty of theories. A baby boom, nine months hence. A massive decrease in workplace sexual harassment, since so many workplaces are closing. Perhaps an increase in domestic violence.
Angela Duckworth is a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania; she also wrote the book Grit. Over the past few months, she and I have been recording a series of Q-and-A’s for a new podcast we plan to launch soon. One topic that came up recently struck me as particularly relevant in the era of Covid-19 lockdowns:
DUBNER: So here’s my question. Does familiarity breed contempt, as the old saying goes? And assuming the answer is at least “sometimes it does,” which I’m guessing is probably a correct answer, what can you do about it? Because here’s the thing. It seems a real paradox that we become contemptuous of the people who we have the most familiarity with, which would tend to be family, friends, people we work with. Because contempt is something that I don’t want in those relationships. So it’s always struck me as a flaw in human relations, if that’s indeed the case.
You’d think it’d be better to have contempt for people you, you didn’t know. So if it’s true, what are some coping mechanisms so that I can feel warmth and kindness and forgiveness, et cetera, toward the people that I am closest with?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Yeah. You want less contempt in your life, it sounds like.
DUBNER: I’m happy to have contempt for people who are contemptible.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, okay. But not your loved ones, for example, or close relations.
DUBNER: Well, presumably my loved ones are people that I don’t want to feel contempt for. In fact, I’ve read literature that says the single biggest indicator of a failing marriage is a high level of contempt.
DUCKWORTH: Contempt. It’s John Gottman, right? The very famous marriage psychologist calls it one of the four dark horsemen of divorce. There are three others, of course. One is criticism. Another is defensiveness. And then, finally, stonewalling. But I think Gottman has said that contempt is actually the number one, as you pointed out. It really is the harbinger of the end of a relationship. I mean, first, let’s start with what contempt is, right? So we all know it’s a negative emotion.
But it’s different from anger. So when I’m in a fight with my husband, I can feel angry toward him, right? I could also feel misunderstood. I can feel like he hasn’t been fair in our conversation. But contempt is different. Contempt is actually very close to the emotion of disgust. You’re looking down on someone, right?
DUBNER: So it’s a judgment. It’s not necessarily a moral judgment. It could be an intellectual judgement, et cetera.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It could be. I mean, it’s got to be one of the most negative emotions you can feel about another person. So I do think that familiarity can breed contempt. And there is some pretty respectable scientific research by Mike Norton at Harvard and others about circumstances under which the more you get to know something or someone, the more contemptuous you feel.
DUBNER: Because you see the flaws?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Because when you first get to know someone or something, there’s a lot of ambiguity. And so, contempt really suggests a kind of certainty that like, “I know who you are, and I don’t like it,” right? And actually, there’s this opposing process that’s very well established in social science. You know, the familiarity effect. When you show people little graphic images, like little nonsense characters, the more they see something, the more they like it. You know, it’s just completely random. But people like things that are familiar. So familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.
DUBNER: By the way, we should say, “familiarity breeds contempt,” the idea sort of originated with an Aesop’s fable.
DUBNER: “The Fox and the Lion.” But it got reinterpreted into the modern aphorism. But here’s the thing. You can certainly feel contemptuous toward people you don’t know.
DUCKWORTH: But do you think that it ever reaches the level of contempt that you might have with somebody you do know when things are really falling apart? I don’t know. Maybe.
DUBNER: Okay, so let me ask you this. How much contempt do you think is reflective? In other words, I’m ultimately disgusted or upset with something in myself. And the reason I projected onto this person is because I can feel them judging me.
DUCKWORTH: Judging me? Yeah. I mean, I think there’s some quote, I can’t remember what it is, but something like, you can only see the flaws in other people that you feel about yourself. I think that the more useful question might be — because I think we all know what it feels like to feel contempt, and I think most of us don’t like the feeling of contempt, especially when it comes to our friendships, our family, our romantic relationships. If you’re trying to not have this dark horseman on your doorstep and what can you do — you know, I think so much of life is where you pay attention. And the fact is that human attention is extraordinarily limited. In other words, we cannot pay attention to everything…
DUBNER: Sorry, what’d you say? I was thinking about something else.
DUCKWORTH: See. There you go. Where was your attention, Stephen? Yeah. And it’s true, though, your mind can wander. So, for example, when you’re having a conversation with your spouse, you can pay attention to those little peccadilloes, those little, rough edges that you obsess about and like, “Well, there you go again!” And that bias of attention can lead to more contempt.
But if you do the opposite, if you deliberately try to pay attention to the times where your spouse was funny, or affectionate, or understanding, or — you know, I like this exercise, the three blessings, you go to bed and you think of three good things. You could do a version of that with your relationships, where you think, what are three things I liked about our interactions today? And that biases you in the opposite direction.
DUBNER: That is really interesting and useful. I like that a lot. Can you imagine doing that exercise in the moment, however, rather than just retrospectively?
DUCKWORTH: I think that when you are in the middle of an argument — I actually tried to practice some of the psychological strategies that I study, while I’m in the middle of a heated argument with my own husband, Jason. And yeah. Not easy. I think a lot of these things actually don’t work when things have escalated to a certain point. When you’re in the middle of an argument and if someone said, “Hey, wait, I am going to stop everything. Do you want to get less angry? Would you like to de-escalate?” And you’re like, “No, let’s go all the way!” That’s true for me. And I imagine it’s true for other people.
DUBNER: So what would you say would be the most tangible advice for someone who’s feeling contempt and doesn’t want to feel contempt because they value the familiarity? Maybe it’s a sibling. Maybe it’s a spouse. Maybe it’s your own kid. Let’s say it’s someone you really admire at work. You think they’re very smart. They’re very devoted, but —.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe you are going to vote different ways this fall, right? I think actually this is a relevant question right now, because I don’t know if there’s a contempt meter, but it’s got to be at all-time highs in this country, because there’s contempt on the left for the right, and there’s contempt on the right for the left. So what’s the recommendation there? You know, I think the most important thing to do is to have humility.
Humility is recognizing that you could be incomplete or wrong. Very hard to do. And so trying to recognize that, and trying to take another person’s perspective may be the most straightforward thing to do in addition to paying attention to all things you do like about this person who irritates you in other ways, is to actually have a real conversation.
DUBNER: About the thing causing the contempt?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, if you can, right? If you could do this without things spiraling out of control — if you can have an argument. You can have a discussion. I—
DUBNER: So I could say that, “I have to tell you that when you talk about this issue in this way, it makes me feel contemptuous because I feel very differently.”
DUCKWORTH: Are you mocking my recommendation?
DUBNER: No. I’m really trying!
DUCKWORTH: No, but yes, if you can do that earnestly and not ironically—
DUBNER: That was as earnest as — that was as earnest as I get.
DUCKWORTH: Is that it? Oh wow.
DUBNER: I was maximizing my earnestness, and you didn’t buy it.
DUCKWORTH: I should give you some feedback on that some time. Look, I’m not very good at this. I actually had lunch with somebody recently —.
DUBNER: Of whom you were deeply contemptuous?
DUCKWORTH: Well, we were friends, and I use the past tense because talk got to politics, and I left in the middle of the meal, and I haven’t spoken to them since. So I’m not a great role model for this.
DUBNER: Did you really walk out during the meal?
DUCKWORTH: I did, I’m not sure I’m proud of that.
DUBNER: Did you storm out?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, I paid the bill first. Does that help? I paid the bill.
DUBNER: It’s not about the money, but it’s about you consciously and deliberately — Well, you — it was obvious that you left—
DUCKWORTH: I said out loud, “I can’t—
DUBNER: I can’t sit here with you.
DUCKWORTH: I can’t like — Yeah. I think maybe we’re not supposed— Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to be friends any more.”
DUBNER: It’s funny because that — I know that’s—
DUCKWORTH: Can I just say it’s not admirable? I’m not proud of it.
DUBNER: Is it, is it uncommon for you to do that kind of thing?
DUCKWORTH: That was the only time actually I can remember in my life that I have walked out.
DUBNER: It’s just so paradoxical to me, though, that if you think about interpersonal relationships, generally, the clichés are we fear the stranger. Right? We fear the person we don’t know. We’re contemptuous of the people we know the best. So it seems like the answer is just to have a bunch of casual acquaintances to whom you can’t really feel anything terrible. Is that the solution?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, Stephen — I don’t think so. You know, here’s one idea that I heard there’s some politician who was trying to get two sides of the room to agree. And he very strategically made everybody eat first. So everybody had to have dinner together. And it was very hard to feel the kind of contempt and the distance for that when you’ve really broken bread. So maybe if we could all go out for an all-you-can-eat buffet—
DUBNER: Yeah but you’re telling us that you stormed out of the meal right after you had eaten.
DUCKWORTH: I know. It didn’t work for us. Maybe it doesn’t work every time. I’m an extreme case.
DUBNER: You sure you’re a psychologist?
DUCKWORTH: I should probably make up. I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.
DUBNER: All right. So let’s say you’re in a relationship with someone, and rather than being the contempt giver, you’re the contempt receiver. You can feel, or maybe they’ve even told you.
DUCKWORTH: You’re on the receiving end of contempt.
DUBNER: Your partner feels contemptuous toward you. So, A) What do you do? But B) Here’s what I really want to know — don’t you want to ask the other person what is it that’s causing you to feel this? And can I do something about it? First of all, I want to know if it’s legitimate, you know, is it a misunderstanding? And if it’s not, then maybe we could talk it out. Because one feature of contempt, it strikes me, is that there’s a little bit of a veil of secrecy over it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It’s maybe not out in the open, right? Yeah. Well, I think you just answered your own question. Well done! Because if you’re on the receiving end of contempt, that is surely what you should do, right? Like why? Every behavior has a reason, right? And if you’re on the receiving end of contempt, it doesn’t mean that that person is exactly right. But there has to be a reason why they have that contempt. And I think the challenge, though, is, Stephen, if you are on the receiving end of a, a storm of contempt, would you say, “Well, what I hear you saying is you think I’m an awful person. Do I have that right? Like, what — can you tell me more? What is it that I’ve done? And I’m really listening.”
DUBNER: I know you’re trying to make fun of that. But that actually sounds to me better than the alternative, which is usually, “Is something wrong? Is something bothering you? Did I do something to offend you?” It almost sounds better if we’re talking about a radical-candor idea, to say, “I feel as if you feel contemptuous toward me right now.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t mean it to be mocking. I think you’re right. Yeah.
DUBNER: “And it doesn’t feel good to feel contempt toward me. And I would really like to know what’s causing it. And if I can do anything about it.”
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t mean to say this sarcast— like, yes, that is the right thing. But you know what? I’m just acknowledging that in the emotional grip of a relationship crisis like that, not many of us are enlightened enough to do that. And that is why I think there is therapy. I think that is why people go to couples counseling. Because they could, in theory, have these conversations on their own. But they need a professional third party to guide them through what they probably know they ought to do.
DUBNER: I’ve read that couples therapy is more successful when practiced while the relationship is going well, but I’m skeptical of that finding, because I think it just means that there’s a couple that’s doing so well, they want to proactively engage in couples therapy, and that just indicates that they have a good relationship. Do you know anything about that?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t. It’s very hard, by the way, to do real random assignment studies of couples therapy.
DUBNER: It’d be fun, though, wouldn’t it?
DUCKWORTH: You know, “You get to go to couples— you can’t, I know you want to go, but you can’t. You’re in the control group.” But common sense says it’s good advice. What you learn in couples therapy is how to communicate, especially under stressful or like antagonistic circum— Like, I recently had dinner with a newlywed couple.
DUBNER: Did you storm out on them, too?
DUCKWORTH: I decided to not only stay until the end of dinner, but to maintain our friendship. And I was really happy when they told me that they were already in couples therapy. And I gently asked whether everything was going okay. I was like, wow, the honeymoon is barely over. And they had the idea, even when they were dating, to start couples therapy because they didn’t— they were like, “Oh, it sounded to us that what couples therapy is that you learn a lot of skills about how to have a relationship. And that sounded good. So we started.” And I was like, wow, you’re so much smarter than me.
DUBNER: Prophylactic couples therapy.
DUCKWORTH: Prophylactic couples therapy.
DUBNER: It’s a good bumper sticker.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it’s got a ring to it.
Before we finish up today, there’s one more thing you might like to know about. As Covid-19 forces more and more of us into lockdowns and quarantine, we need to think about the people who just aren’t set up to thrive in a locked-down world. Like elderly people, especially those who live alone. Or anyone limited by income or geography or illness. The good news is that most of us have the internet. Can you imagine a pre-internet lockdown? Can you imagine doing without all the communication and entertainment and deliveries that we currently squeeze out of our phones? But there are still plenty of gaps in what we can do online. And as much reach as the internet provides, it doesn’t do all that well on the local level.
When I was a kid, in rural upstate New York, when somebody was in trouble they’d call their neighbor, and their neighbor would call their neighbor, and pretty soon everybody within ten miles knew you needed help. And before long, somebody would step up and do their best to help you out. Doesn’t that sound like something we could use right now, a more modern version of that? We recently talked to someone who thinks they can help. She’s the C.E.O. of a social-networking service called Nextdoor. Yes, they are a social-networking service, based in San Francisco, with venture-capital funding. The elevator pitch is Facebook for neighborhoods. So: you’re allowed to be skeptical. But the C.E.O., Sarah Friar, makes Nextdoor sound better than that, especially now.
Sarah FRIAR: There’s really three things that we do. The first is we connect neighbors who probably don’t know each other. What I love about Nextdoor is the power of proximity. So it’s not the power of like-minded people. It’s the power of the people who live around me. And while neighborhoods have their own homogeneity, there’s more heterogeneity than I would see commonly just in life.
So even thinking about my own community, right? I live amongst people who are from all different age groups. From early 20s through, I’m sure I have a neighbor in their 90s. I live amongst people that have grown up and emigrated, and so they come with very different cultural backgrounds. People in different stages of life and with different beliefs.
Okay, that’s the first thing.
FRIAR: The second thing we do is we help you stay informed. So you know what’s going on around you. Can be little things like, why are they digging a hole in the road outside my house, all the way to, if Hurricane Barry is coming, what do I need to do to prepare, what do I need to do to survive? And then when things are over, what can I do to recover?
And then finally:
FRIAR: And then it helps you to get things done. I’m a working mom, so it’s really important that I can quickly find the best plumber, or the best babysitter, maybe find the lost pet. There’s a lot of utility in our platform, which makes it different from a lot of other social media.
Before Covid-19, Nextdoor was already catching on…
FRIAR: So we started in the U.S. but we’re now quite strong in Europe. We’re showing great momentum in Australia.
They were already operating in more than 250,000 neighborhoods…
FRIAR: And we work very closely with public agencies — so the local fire department, police department, all the way up to folks like FEMA here in the U.S., in the U.K. folks like the Home Office or the Metropolitan Police.
And with Covid-19, there’s been a huge spike in demand for Nextdoor — among users as well as public agencies. In California, governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, and he instituted a campaign called Neighbor-to-Neighbor, encouraging people to help their most vulnerable neighbors, to make sure they’re getting food and medicine at the very least. And Nextdoor.com, Newsom announced, would be the online partner to help make that happen. Let us know if you are a Nextdoor user, or if you become one. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always happy to hear from you about anything. Maybe you’ll need some help this week; next week, maybe you’ll be able to help someone else.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Daphne Chen. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Isabel O’Brien. We had help this week from James Foster. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Ed Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard.
- Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Sarah Friar, C.E.O. of Nextdoor.
- Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Ed Glaeser (2011).
- Grit, by Angela Duckworth (2018).