DUBNER: Hey, Angela, how’s your life? No, that sounded insincere. Wait, wait, wait. Hey, Angela, how’s your life?
DUCKWORTH: That’s too big, Stephen. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t answer that in less than a paragraph.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: And I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH: I’m a psychologist at Penn and I run an educational non-profit called Character Lab.
DUBNER: You also wrote the book Grit.
DUBNER: And I’m a writer and I host a podcast called Freakonomics Radio.
DUCKWORTH: And you wrote the book Freakonomics, among quite a few others.
DUBNER: I did.
DUCKWORTH: And you and I became friends …
DUBNER: We did. And we discovered that both of us really like to ask each other questions.
DUCKWORTH: And there’s only one rule.
DUBNER: The rule is …
DUCKWORTH AND DUBNER: There are no stupid questions.
Today on No Stupid Questions: will Covid-19 kill the handshake?
DUBNER: What about a karate chop to their hand to knock it down?
DUCKWORTH: I think we should each carry a cymbal, and then when we meet each other, we can go “cling.”
Also: humans have been dealing with uncertainty forever. And yet:
DUCKWORTH: Why do you think we are freaking out about not being able to predict the future now?
DUBNER: It was hard for me to imagine that it could get better than mom bringing home a cheeseburger.
* * *
DUBNER: All right. So, Angela Duckworth, I have a question for you today. A lot of us, including you and me, have spent weeks or months in some sort of isolation or lockdown because of Covid-19. So what would you predict is one social interaction, or maybe even a personal habit, that you think many people will not revert to when this is all over?
DUCKWORTH: So I’m going to go with a behavior that I’ve long wanted to phase out of human society anyway, that was pre-pandemic, and that is hand-shaking. It’s gross, right? I can’t remember the last time I had a good handshake, but I can remember lots of icky ones. Germs aside, right?
DUBNER: Yeah, what do you have against the handshake besides germs, though? You just don’t like touching?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, people’s hands are usually sweaty or there’s this fleshy— It’s not a pleasant thing to touch.
DUBNER: You’re describing humans, basically. It’s not just the hand, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t want to shake any other part of a human’s body when I meet them. But, look, physical touch I don’t think is going to ever totally go out of style, right? Human beings are obviously craving some kind of physical contact. And I’m very pro-hug.
DUBNER: Yeah, but you— Can I just say, you are the weirdest hugger in the world.
DUCKWORTH: You have criticized my hugging, Stephen, in the past and maybe given me a complex.
DUBNER: I wouldn’t say criticized. I would say —.
DUCKWORTH: Critiqued? Belittled?
DUBNER: I didn’t mean it to be a criticism. I just pointed out how unusual it is. Now that I hear you describe your aversion to touching any part of anyone, it makes perfect sense. Because your hug looks like the action of someone who doesn’t want to get close to the other person but feels they’re compelled to. So, you go in with one arm around the other person.
DUCKWORTH: My right arm. Yeah.
DUBNER: At the same time, though, you’re actually pulling your left arm further back.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, sort of like a pilates move.
DUBNER: It is the most backhanded hug. And then you touch the person as if they’re maybe— Have you ever touched Jell-O to see if it’s firmed up? To just barely on the surface. So hearing you describe your aversion to hand-shaking, my sense is it’s not hands that you’re averse to. It’s humans.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I do want to greet people warmly. But I think the embrace should be as distantly cordial as possible. And that is the problem with the handshake, right? You’re right in there with the person’s own fleshy, sweaty palm. And really, what you want to say is, “Hey, how you doing? Nice to see you.” And I think you could do that with a bow, for example.
DUBNER: How do you like the salute idea?
DUCKWORTH: We could go with the salute. Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of Dave Chappelle, and I like it when he salutes people like the audience. It’s very warm.
DUBNER: I find a salute somewhat ennobling.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I mean, it’s typically a sign of respect to a superior, right? But what the heck? We can democratize that.
DUBNER: But also, the way that most people who aren’t in the military salute, it is more just like a wave.
DUBNER: I mean, the queen figured this out years ago, we should say. She hasn’t shaken a hand in a long time. I’m not sure that’s actually true.
DUCKWORTH: I do think there’s— when people shake hands or they touch each other in some way, it is an act of trust, right? So I’m not saying that there isn’t some reason why this ritual that I have a disliking for evolved. But I still think we should banish it entirely.
DUBNER: Well, I’m not sure how true this is, but I’ve read that the original handshake, one function of the handshake, was to show that you’re unarmed, right? If I open my hand, I don’t have a little knife or —.
DUCKWORTH: Oh! What about the other hand?
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s like you and your one-handed hug.
DUCKWORTH: Or the dagger strapped to your ankle.
DUBNER: You’re hugging me with the right arm while, with the left, you’re preparing for the shiv that’s going right into the spleen. But it is interesting to me that the handshake used to represent the acknowledgement that there’s no weapon here, whereas now the not-shaking hand is meant to acknowledge that I am not weaponizing myself against you by spreading my germs.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s phase it out.
DUBNER: It certainly makes sense in the short term, but humans are funny. I mean, we’ve had epidemics in the past. I’m sure there’s been a lot of behavior after past pandemics that went away for a time and then came back. And we should say, just to be fair, there have been many, many, many people who’ve been anti hand-shake for a long time. Donald Trump, he’s been anti-hand shake for decades. I mean, Howard Hughes was pretty anti-human contact, too.
DUCKWORTH: But he was a hypochondriac.
DUBNER: Yeah. But there’ve been a lot of people who say, “Wait a minute, this makes no sense.” If we were meeting 3,000 years ago on the road to Damascus and we’re riding up on horses, I extend my empty hand in greeting and to show that I don’t have a weapon. That makes sense. But today, when we’re millions and billions of us and there are a lot of communicable things, does this really make sense? So hand hygiene generally has been a topic that a lot of people have paid a lot of attention to for many years. We’ve written a fair amount about it. I once advocated— I got nowhere with this, but I proposed that the New York City subway system, as soon as you go through the turnstile, they just have mounted there a box of free sanitary gloves that you put on to ride. In fact, my favorite thing about New York is when it gets just cool enough in the fall to wear gloves in the subway and not look like you’re a crazy person. I just wear my winter gloves to hold the subway pole.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, your winter gloves. So you don’t look like a freak.
DUBNER: But if you do that in the dead of summer, you do look a little— now though, it’ll be fine.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think the general principle is going to be: is there some substitute behavior that meets the underlying need? Saluting or bowing, I don’t know if those things are going to meet the underlying need to show trust, to show openness, to show vulnerability, or something. Then there’s a chance that that will displace the old behavior. If we can’t find a substitute behavior to meet the underlying need, then I would agree with you. All things being equal, we’re going to revert back. But there are so many things that you could do that I am feeling that handshakes are going to be one of the first things on the out list.
DUBNER: It’s an easy dismissal, you’re saying.
DUBNER: Answer me this. Are you showing your own trustworthiness or are you showing that you trust the other person? Is it both? And what are some other ways to do that?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah so, I think the thing is, when you extend your hand, first of all, it’s an opportunity for reciprocity. It’s an opportunity for the other person to follow the script and to reciprocate with a mirror action. And that’s a really nice way to begin a social engagement, which is: I do X, and then you immediately follow with your version of X. And so, we’ve now gotten to page two of the social script and now we’re set up for the next thing, which is a nice conversation, or whatever it is. But I do think that’s why some of these alternatives, like the bow— Which, by the way, could be exercise too, if we could— Maybe it should be a lunge.
DUBNER: How about a squat?
DUCKWORTH: A toe touch, a squat, a bicep curl. But something that could be done in a matter of seconds and where there’s a clear visual signal from person A, and then person B immediately follows suit. Cross-culturally there are so many things that other people do do already.
DUBNER: On the other hand, we’re going to have probably significantly less exposure to international customs over the next couple of years.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Except by Zoom calls.
DUBNER: Oh, that’s an interesting— So maybe you could start this new social convention via Zoom?
DUCKWORTH: This might be too convoluted, but I think one thing that builds trust is vulnerability. This might be too much to ask for the first five seconds of a human interaction with another human, but maybe the first thing you do when you get on your Zoom call is, “I’m a two out of 10 on a scale from zero to 10. How are you?” That’s probably not the right thing. But it would be cool.
DUBNER: Emotional candor, you’re saying? Or vulnerability.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. A little disclosure.
DUBNER: You know what I like to say to people? Which, it only works because it catches them a little off-guard, so if it got common it wouldn’t work anymore. But I like to say, “How’s your life?” Which is a much bigger-sounding question. And it actually causes people to pause and say, “Whoa! Umm. Hmm.” As opposed to, “How’s it going?” Which is— Everybody’s like, “Fine.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So we could start the tradition of, “How’s your life?” until it gets banal and—
DUBNER: Sure. Well, let’s practice. Let’s go back to the beginning of this and rather than say, “Hey, Angela, how’s it going?”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, let’s do that.
DUBNER: Hey, Angela, how’s your life? No, that sounded insincere. Wait, wait, wait. Hey, Angela, how’s your life?
DUCKWORTH: That’s too big, Stephen. I can’t answer that in less than a paragraph. Unless you’re going to say, “Hey, Angela, how’s your life on a scale from zero to 10?”
DUCKWORTH: But I don’t like that either. I don’t think that’s going to stick.
DUBNER: By the way, I liked— You really took the deep breath, which made me think that if we’re in person, that you’re just sucking up all those microbes in the air. That might be worse than the handshake.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And then I’m going to exhale them on you.
DUBNER: All right. So, Angela, I understand entirely your aversion to hand-shaking and your prediction and belief that it will go away. But what are you going to do when you meet someone, at a conference let’s say, and the handshake is expected? What do you do?
DUCKWORTH: This is exactly the problem, Stephen. You can’t change any of these social traditions on your own. We all felt that, by the way, right? Remember the very beginning of quarantining. And then there was this liminal period where some people were doing the elbow pump and other people were still extending their hand. I actually met a doctor on the street. I remember this. All the offices were closed. Sometime in late March. And he stuck out his hand. And I reflexively shook it without even thinking. And then I thought, “Oh, that’s a) bad, and b) ironic because, you know, physician.” I think we can’t do this in an uncoordinated way. This is why, Stephen, you need to champion a public health campaign where all at once on, a given day, we honor the handshake, we acknowledge its long and proud history, and then we basically put it away forever.
DUBNER: How about this? You know those fake rubber hands you buy in a stunt store? What if we just all carry those around and shake rubber hands with each other so that we still get the sensation of trust exchange?
DUCKWORTH: Well if we’re going to go that far, I think we should do something like each carry a cymbal, and then when we meet each other, we can go cling.
DUBNER: Nice. That’s a clever idea. So let me ask you this. What happens the next time you’re out on the street and someone says, “Oh, Professor Duckworth, so nice to meet you.” And they stick out their hand. What do you do? Let’s say this happens tomorrow.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So I need a plan. All human habits where you know that you reflexively do something and then you want to do something else, you actually need to plan in advance and mentally visualize it, rehearse it. So I love this question. You’re right. What is my plan for what I’m going to do the next time some insensitive person sticks out their hand to greet me? It has to be very quick. It has to be easy. It has to be maybe even something which uses my arm.
DUBNER: What about a karate chop to their hand to knock it down? That would send all the signals at once. “No, we’re not doing that.”
DUCKWORTH: We’re not doing that. I’m going to go with the salute. Because then it’s a similar motion, right? It’s a very dramatic visual.
DUBNER: And you’re not rejecting them outright.
DUCKWORTH: I’m honoring them. I’m saluting them, Stephen. Yeah.
DUBNER: So you say the handshake will likely go away, at least for a while, which I think makes perfect sense. I think the thing that I might drop would be agreeing to do things that I don’t really want to do. So the lockdown has basically isolated us all, which has meant that many of our interactions and obligations you can’t meet them even if you wanted to so —.
DUCKWORTH: And everybody understands that. That’s the other part of this, right? Nobody’s going to say, “What?”
DUBNER: There’s no guilt. So one thing that I have enjoyed is there’s a lack of these forced interactions that are either socially —.
DUCKWORTH: So can you give me an example or two?
DUBNER: “Hey, let’s grab a drink.” Or, “Hey, I’d like to pick your brain about that.”
DUCKWORTH: This sounds like pretty much all social interaction. You’re really enjoying being quarantined.
DUBNER: Well, I’m not going to say I don’t. And I should say my life is built for social isolation. I work mostly alone. There are some people I enjoy. There’s family; there’s friends; there’s strangers even. But there are these forced interactions, that I think I might find a new way to reject them once they start coming back.
DUCKWORTH: I would say that in the post-Covid era, my recommendation is that you express enthusiasm for what they are enthusiastic about. Like, “Stephen, could you blurb this book?” or “Would you be on my show?” So you say “Oh, my gosh. Sounds like a great book” or “Sounds like a great show.” Then the next sentence, you express complete devastation that you can’t do it. Like, “Unfortunately, tragically, I’m not able to blurb your book, be on your show.” If you just say, “Unfortunately, I can’t,” that’s actually no added information. There is no “because” there, right?
DUBNER: And that’s good?
DUCKWORTH: It’s just like, “Oh, great idea for a book. Unfortunately, I can’t blurb it.”
DUBNER: Leave it there.
DUCKWORTH: They can conjure up whatever they— By the way, most people on the receiving end of this dismissal, I don’t even know if they care that much about the reason. They’re just skimming their email for the yes or the no, right? And then if you’re going to go with some kind of reason, I actually wouldn’t recommend saying, “I stared into my soul and I realized that I don’t want to spend any time with you.” Really, if you just say, “Unfortunately, I can’t,” and leave it there, that person is going to fill in the blank. And they’ll probably do it in a way that’s generous, especially if you communicate a lot of positive emotion and regret that you can’t do that.
DUBNER: Well, okay. This is nice. This is tactical advice for how to do what I’m suggesting that someone like me might want to do. But do you think that this is a social convention that will, in fact, change as we come out of lockdown?
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s going to be a general learning effect where because of this forced reset, people will discover things about themselves that they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. But the question is, how long will those learnings last? There are many people, for example, who come back from a vacation, and they’ll say something like, “Oh, my gosh, I appreciate my flushing toilet. Never in my life will I take for granted that I have a flushing toilet.” And then a week later, they’re complaining about their Wi-Fi connection. But I think sometimes we revert back to— Because there’s a reason why, Stephen. There is not only the fact that you don’t want to go to these social interactions, it’s also that something is compelling you to go to them in the first place. You feel a sense of obligation. Your family wants you to go.
DUBNER: And you’re saying that’s not going to go away.
DUCKWORTH: Those things I would not have any reason to believe that they are going to evaporate in the post-pandemic era.
DUBNER: So if you had to put money on it, you would say the handshake is much more likely to recede than forced social interactions.
DUCKWORTH: That would be my prediction. And remember, Stephen, I’m wanting to extinguish the handshake altogether, so I’m hoping it doesn’t come back.
DUBNER: Let me just say one last thing, though, to try to persuade you to come over to my side, to see the lack of utility in these forced social interactions. Just think, if you would adopt my mindset, how much less handshaking you would have to do over the course of your lifetime.
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “I’ve solved the handshake problem. Just never see people.” Yes, much more efficient, Stephen.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question for you.
DUBNER: I will try to have an answer for you.
DUCKWORTH: It’s about uncertainty. Very timely topic. And here is the puzzle I’m struggling with. Everybody’s complaining, and rightly so, about uncertainty about the future, not being able to predict what’s going to happen. But uncertainty has been a bedfellow for human beings for all of our history. Why do you think it is that we are freaking out about not being able to predict the future now?
DUBNER: So I like that question, although it feels a little paradoxical. You’re saying that uncertainty is part of the human condition and yet, you say, we’re flipping out about the uncertainty. So isn’t that a tautology?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m just saying that the fact that we don’t know when the economy is going to be back to normal, or schools are going to be open, or when will there be a vaccine, if there’ll be a vaccine. Okay, these are all real questions. But there’s such a discomfort with this uncertainty. For example, if our great, great, great, great, great grandparents were unable to predict whether there was going to be a continuance of the plague or not, would they have the same reaction, or have our expectations about certainty maybe ratcheted up with weather reports by the minute, et cetera?
DUBNER: So, I think our expectations have changed in part because we have gotten a little bit better at prediction in some realms. So meteorology —.
DUCKWORTH: Now we can predict the weather.
DUBNER: Yeah. Meteorology is not perfect. But within a local geographical area, 36 hours out, rainfall predictions have actually gotten much better. And in other realms, we’ve gotten better at predicting the future. But the fact is that predicting the future is still really, really hard. So here’s the thing about uncertainty. As you know very well, better than I, but in psychology and economics and elsewhere, there’s a ton of research showing that uncertainty is indeed a huge stress producer, right? We tend to make suboptimal decisions under uncertainty. It weighs on our physical and our mental health. So your question is one of those questions about us as a species really that I find myself asking all the time, which is since this has been an issue for humans for millennia, why haven’t we collectively mastered it?
DUCKWORTH: Dealing with the fact that we can’t predict the future.
DUBNER: Yeah. And being distraught by uncertainty. Why haven’t we gotten to the point where we say, “You know what, there’s certain things that can be predicted pretty well, many can’t. Why don’t we do our best to do what we can and not freak out as much over those that we can’t?” And I think one answer why is that we don’t act collectively all that much. We act individually. We’ve talked in the past about death, dying, immortality, just as friends, because that’s the kind of thing we like to talk about.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Because that’s the kind of thing friends do.
DUBNER: And it strikes me that, when you make the comment that many people don’t deal with death very realistically or very well, I sometimes think it would be different if a whole generation died at once, because then there’d be real collective motivation to deal with it differently. Instead, we all do it individually. So, when I die, my family will respond and they’ll have thoughts about it and grief or maybe not. They may be happy to get rid of me. But if everybody of my age or cohort died at the same time, then there’d probably be a movement to say we should probably talk about death a little bit differently.
DUCKWORTH: So you think that one of the problems is synchrony, that people don’t undergo the same experience at the same time, so you don’t have this collective coordinator. But right now, by the way, we have exactly that, right? We are all, in a way, across the entire globe worrying about the same thing. So aren’t we experiencing that kind of collective moment of uncertainty that you wouldn’t have even probably been able to make up in a scenario three months ago?
DUBNER: I would say yes. But I would also say that in order to solve a problem, you need to have some tools to solve the problem. And I don’t think that many people have thought much or care to think much even about learning those tools. So I would say— Let’s look at what uncertainty is. There are two kinds of uncertainty, as far as I know, or as far as what scholars who write about this know. There’s epistemic uncertainty, which is actually not knowing the facts or the numbers or the process, the science of something. And then there’s aleatory uncertainty, which is basically something you can’t know because there’s randomness, or because there’s indeterminacy, or there’s luck.
DUCKWORTH: One is: it is known, but I don’t know it. And the other one is: there’s no answer.
DUBNER: So most uncertainty mixes these two. For instance, a lot of things right now, like how many more people are going to get Covid-19. And of those, how many will die. And of those, how many will be below the age of 45, let’s say? There are facts and science that aren’t known fully yet. And then there’s a lot of indeterminacy that has to do with how people behave, how much people pay attention to contagion, and so on. So I don’t blame people for being kind of walloped by uncertainty. But I think the first step is to not confuse uncertainty with risk. That’s something that economists have done some pretty good work on. So risk, according to economists at least, is some potentially bad outcome that can be measured. You can put a probability on it. Uncertainty is more imagined, the probability is harder to come up with, and our imaginations often lead us to the worst possibility. And that’s why it can be so paralyzing for us.
DUCKWORTH: I think we can agree that there’s different ways to think about uncertainty, and I agree with you that knowing that something is a one out of 10 risk is different from not knowing anything about the odds at all.
DUBNER: Although we should also say that a lot of people are pretty innumerate when it comes to probabilities, too. I mean, there’s been a lot of medical research that’s shown that people don’t really understand what a one in 10 risk really means.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Not to mention, apparently, that a lot of people think that a quarter-pounder is bigger than, if there were such a thing, a third-pounder, if McDonald’s came out with it. Because four is bigger than three. Anyway, so — Yeah. These things can be hard to communicate. Which is why we need, I guess, visuals.
DUBNER: Okay. Do you want a good visual? Do you know the famous case of the Ellsberg Paradox, as it’s sometimes called?
DUCKWORTH: I think I know. But since I’m not certain that I know, why don’t you tell me?
DUBNER: All right. So you’ve heard of Daniel Ellsberg, probably. He’s most famous for his involvement in the Pentagon Papers. That was him that got those released. But the Ellsberg Paradox was something that he’d done earlier when he was, I guess, an academic economist, or maybe getting his Ph.D., or something like that. And it was this experiment that he set up to illustrate a notion that had been worked on by a guy named Frank Knight, an economist at the University of Chicago. Frank Knight is kind of considered the pioneer in economics of discussing the differences between risk and uncertainty. So Daniel Ellsberg was interpreting Knight’s work and he set it up as this beautiful visual experiment. So the way to see the difference in risk and uncertainty is you take two urns. Imagine them: just jars or whatever, but not see-through. They’re opaque. And the first one, you are told, contains 100 balls, all of which are red or black. And in fact, there are 50 black and 50 red ones. Okay?
DUCKWORTH: You’re making the math easy for me.
DUBNER: Okay. Nice and easy. And the second urn, you are told, also contains 100 balls, all red or black. But the number of each color is unknown. So it could be 50/50, could be 99/1, could be 1/99. If your task is to pick a red ball out of either urn, which urn do you choose? So imagine that. Then tell me your answer.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, I’m a little bit advantaged here because I have heard of the Ellsberg Paradox. But I will tell you my visceral intuition, which is that there’s something more attractive about the urn where I at least know that it’s 50/50. In not knowing anything else about the second urn, of course, the expected value would be 50/50, right? Because it’s just as likely that it would be one out of 99 red versus 99 out of one. And so the average of all those would be 50/50 anyway. But it’s a really beautiful illustration of how aversive it is to consider those scenarios where you don’t even know what the odds are. And I think that’s why people tend to say “Oh, given that choice between picking out of the one urn or the other, I’ll choose the one where I know it’s 50/50.”
DUBNER: Let me ask you this. Scholars of early religion argued that one reason that religion came to be and came to be so popular was that it helped people deal with uncertainty. And perhaps the biggest uncertainty of all, which is death— What happens once we all shuffle off this mortal coil? And the afterlife is an unprovable but very attractive answer to what lies beyond. So I’m curious whether you think that as the world has, for the most part become, over time, more secular, whether you think that’s changed our human relationship with uncertainty. Obviously, it’s hard to say because a lot of other things have happened as the world became more secular, including technology and so on. But I’m curious whether you think there might be a relationship there.
DUCKWORTH: Well, if that is true, I think you could say that it could have one of two effects on our comfort with uncertainty. I mean, it could make us less comfortable with uncertainty or more comfortable. So one might imagine that minus those strong narratives or accounts that we’re unmoored and then we should feel less certain. And then I guess you could argue against that and say, “Secularization should make us just more comfortable with the fact that we can’t know.” Right? You take away those traditions and people just should be like “Oh, okay.” That you’re not even supposed to know. I mean, one thing I think is a related trend is that there’s this huge upswing in science as part of what everyone believes — well, with notable exceptions, let me say — that we turn to science, we turn to scientists, we look at peer-reviewed publications and random-assignment studies to really know whether a vaccine works, or what you should do with your diet, et cetera. And I think the irony here is that scientists are among the most forward about what they don’t know. They always want to say, “This estimate could be as high as this number and as low as that number.” These are what are literally called confidence intervals in statistics. The irony might be that as the world thinks, “Oh, let’s turn to scientists because they have certainty about what’s going to happen.” It’s usually the scientists are the most intellectually humble and the most likely to say “Oh, there are all these nuances.” And that’s actually why a lot of people don’t like to talk to scientists because they feel like the answer is a paragraph when all they really wanted was a sentence.
DUBNER: That’s so interesting. And I totally hear what you’re saying. Although, I wouldn’t have put it in terms of uncertainty as much as I would put it in terms of nuance. In other words, things aren’t as binary as people want them to be.
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s both. So, scientists would completely agree with you. They have jargon for that. They call them moderators and boundary conditions, right?
DUBNER: Yes. So I find there’s one more element of uncertainty that’s really hard, that’s really damaging or frightening, is when there’s something that you are fairly certain about and it doesn’t happen. So, let’s say you’re a kid. “My mother will come home from work today,” and then she doesn’t. She dies in a car crash. Or, “my best friend will take my side in this argument.” And he doesn’t. And I’m devastated. So that to me is, long term, a more difficult problem than something unlikely actually happening. Because now you’ve learned to stop trusting the things that you were certain you could trust.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, that’s genuine surprise, right? Because you had a mental model of the world and then that model was violated. And by the way, both of the examples that you gave were bad. As opposed to, “I thought my mom was going to bring home a cheeseburger. But actually, she came home with a unicorn.” And I’ll say this about kids and growing up and— One of the things that parents are always told is that you’re supposed to be consistent in your discipline. But I think one of the reasons why you’re given that parenting advice is that, in general, if you think about kids as little organisms that are trying to figure out what the world is like, in order to respond to it adaptively, if your kid grows up feeling like the world is a completely unpredictable, uncertain, and dangerous place, then they are going to adapt to that by being perhaps a little more emotionally reactive, maybe always looking on the horizon for threats, and maybe not taking feedback well. And developmentally, if you have the opposite, a kid who grows up in a very trustworthy, and to some extent predictable, world, then they might be more inclined to take risks, to challenge themselves, to delay gratification. And I think if you squint at the developmental literature, you do come to the conclusion that, no, the future is not entirely predictable, but to the extent you can create a world for your kid that is, within bounds, consistent and at least benign, then you will incline your kid to grow up better.
DUBNER: Yeah. It was hard for me to imagine, when you were describing that scenario, that it could get better than mom bringing home a cheeseburger.
DUCKWORTH: That’s as good as it got.
DUBNER: Yeah, and then you upped the game by bringing home the unicorn. So do you have recipes for how to prepare unicorn that would be better even than the cheeseburger?
DUCKWORTH: I’m very anti the eating of unicorns. Of course. But on a note of some seriousness, one of my friends —.
DUBNER: Wait what do you think wasn’t serious about that?
DUCKWORTH: I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, which I should never do, obviously. But one of my friends was saying recently that one of the hardest things about quarantining is that life is so scheduled, and we don’t have surprise anymore, right? The surprise of what someone’s just going to say in the middle of homeroom or something you see on the street. And I do wonder, all kidding aside, whether we can both try to make life a little more consistent and benign but also like, little positive surprises. The next time you order your online groceries, just throw something in that your kid is just going to be like, “What? You got me that?” And don’t tell them about it until it comes.
DUBNER: I love surprise as the alternative to uncertainty. It’s a nice way to think about it and helpful to me. I think it is to a lot of people, too, because when you say uncertainty, you usually picture adverse outcomes, but there are unknown outcomes, some which may be bad, some which may be great, and some which may just be strange. And I think right now we’ve all gotten accustomed to strange, and having a hard time sorting out the good necessarily from the bad, because it’s all new. But yeah, I love the idea that as we come out of lockdown, one of the things to most look forward to are, as you said, the surprises. That’s what makes life interesting.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Maybe you could plan some surprises. I mean, you can’t plan to surprise yourself, but you could plan to surprise some other people.
DUBNER: I disagree with “can’t plan to surprise yourself.” I do it all the time.
DUCKWORTH: Like how?
DUBNER: I leave things that I know I will like in places that I’m not likely to come across them.
DUCKWORTH: And then you forget, and then you come across them? And then you think, “Oh, there’s a little blueberry muffin.”
DUBNER: Yeah, because I’ve got a very bad memory.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. This depends on having no memory.
DUBNER: Well, let’s say I’m not in my car that often, maybe on average once a week or twice a week, because we live in New York so we don’t use it that much. But sometimes I’ll leave a candy bar in the car just so that the next time I’m like, “Oh, look at that! Candy bar!”
DUCKWORTH: “Look at this melted candy bar. I’ve got to scrape it off the seat. Yay!”
DUBNER: You turned my lovely surprise into a pile of melted —.
DUCKWORTH: All right, Stephen. You go and surprise yourself with little scavenger hunt candy bars. I’m going to go and surprise other people because I’m nicer than you.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And I’m here with a quick fact-check of today’s conversation.
Stephen was uncertain about Queen Elizabeth’s hand-shaking habits. In fact, she does shake hands, but royal etiquette dictates that you must not touch the queen unless she offers her hand. First Lady Michelle Obama famously breached this protocol when she put her arm around the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2009. In her memoir, Obama wrote that, in the moment, she didn’t know that she was committing a “epic faux pas,” but that the Queen did reciprocate the gesture, and was likely okay with this departure from protocol. My guess is she would have been less okay with Stephen extending a rubber hand, or clanging cymbals at her.
Later on in the episode, Angela mentions that many people think a third-pound burger is smaller than a quarter-pound burger, because four is a larger number than three. In the 1980s, the fast food chain A&W tried to capitalize on the popularity of McDonald’s quarter-pounder by introducing a third-pound burger. Americans were not interested in the sandwich, even though it cost the same as McDonald’s quarter-pounder and it outperformed it in blind taste tests. Focus groups revealed that this was indeed because Americans thought the third-pound burger was smaller than the quarter-pounder.
Finally, Stephen and Angela discussed how increasing secularity might have an effect on how we think about uncertainty, but is our world really becoming more secular? Religiously unaffiliated people have grown in numbers in recent decades, and according to Pew research, they now make up about 16 percent of the global population.
Here in the United States, people still pray more than in any other wealthy nation, but today, American young adults are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. Religious people around the world are having more kids, but it’s unclear what that means for the future of secularity. Again, the only thing certain about our future is that it’s uncertain.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. 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 our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. To read about or hear more No Stupid Questions, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening.
DUCKWORTH: So do I shake your rubber hand or does my rubber hand shake your rubber hand?
DUBNER: We each have a rubber hand.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, we each have a rubber hand.
DUBNER: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a post lockdown, rubber-hand handshake convention. Because we like to shake hands apparently, but it’s not good for us. So —
- “Covid-19,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2020-2021).