Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. A quick announcement before today’s episode. We’ve just added a new podcast to the Freakonomics Radio Network. It’s called Sudhir Breaks the Internet. The host is Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University who spent the first couple decades of his career embedding himself with drug gangs and gun runners and sex workers. You may remember Sudhir from the first Freakonomics book if you ever read it. Sudhir wrote an amazing book himself, called Gang Leader for a Day. That book caught the attention of a guy named Mark Zuckerberg, who was running a company called Facebook, and that is how Sudhir Venkatesh — Ivy League sociologist, chronicler of the criminal underworld — suddenly found himself in Silicon Valley, working at Facebook. He spent three years there and then another two at Twitter. Both companies wanted him to apply the tools of sociology to better understand their virtual communities — but especially to address things like hate speech, bullying, and any plots that might lead to, say, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Sudhir Breaks the Internet is a new show about the people who create and run our digital universe — the massive promise, and the massive problems that often ensue. You can get it now on any podcast app. That’s Sudhir — S-U-D-H-I-R — Breaks the Internet. For a sneak peek, stick around at the end of this episode. And let us know what you think! We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
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DUCKWORTH: This is not scientific — this is scientific-ish.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: When is a good deed an invitation for more bad deeds?
DUCKWORTH: Hello! The Duckworths are not here to collect your poop.
Also: what is the most significant choice that a human being can make in their lifetime?
DUBNER: Whether to part your hair on the left or right, I think, is the obvious choice.
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DUBNER: Angela, I have a question for you about moral hazard, sort of, and poop angels. Do you know what a “poop angel” is?
DUCKWORTH: I think I know what moral hazard is. “Poop angels” is a little tougher.
DUBNER: So, I learned the phrase in a post on Nextdoor, which is this sort of neighborhoody version of Facebook. [AD^I know Nextdoor.] So, one New York City resident was proposing that others join him in going around their neighborhood and pick up dog poop that belongs to other people’s dogs from those inconsiderate owners who leave it on the street. Even though it’s theoretically illegal to leave dog poop on the street, many people do it. So, this guy is saying, “Look, it wasn’t our dogs, wasn’t my dog, but we’d all be better off if you would join me in being a poop angel, walking around picking up the poop.” So, I want to know what you think of the overall value of this idea. Would you consider it an act of civic-mindedness, as disgusting as it may seem, with a net gain, or do you think it is a sort of case of moral hazard, where you not only let the offenders off the hook, but you encourage them, and potentially others, to, in fact, offend more, because now they know these poop angels will be taking care of things.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And they’ll just walk their dogs and not even take a plastic bag with them when they leave the house.
DUBNER: Maybe they’ll go buy dogs for the express purpose of pooping, because you know that the angels are going to take care.
DUCKWORTH: Well, Stephen, you may or may not know this, but now that you defined the term, I would say that my husband, Jason, is, in fact, a poop angel. [SJD^No!] True. [SJD^No!] True story.
DUBNER: Oh, worlds colliding in the most disgusting way ever! Wait, you guys don’t have a dog.
DUCKWORTH: We don’t have a dog! We’ve never had a dog. But here is how my husband is a poop angel. We used to live on this street next to a convenience store, and for whatever reason, people would leave their dog poop — which, by the way, they would take the care to put it in a little plastic baggie, but then they would just deposit the plastic baggie on the stoop of the convenience store.
DUBNER: That is unusual.
DUCKWORTH: And actually, the convenience store had this iron grate that closed overnight. And some of these strange and rude dog owners would not only take the time to curb their dog, put it into a plastic bag, but also they would tie the little plastic bag to the grate of the store.
DUBNER: This does not sound like typical behavior. This sounds like some kind of poop vandalism.
DUCKWORTH: Poop devils, if you will.
DUBNER: Did you know the people who ran the convenience store? Had they offended the dog owners?
DUCKWORTH: Ugh. These were, like, salt of the earth people. And we moved. And also, the convenience store has since closed. But I love this family. And I think the reason why people would do this is because maybe people think that convenience stores ought to have a trash can, which they didn’t have, in front. And maybe they thought that gave them the right to just deposit the bagged poop on the stoop of the convenience store?
DUBNER: It’s so interesting, because it’s also like— you know, those stories about how an architect, when they’re designing a university campus, they’ll think, “Well, I could lay out the sidewalks in this way, or I could just leave a field for now and see how people walk. And then, once I see how people walk, then we’ll pave it and make it a path.” So, it’s a kind of inverse path-dependency here. I guess it is literally path-dependency, but starting in a more organic way. But it’s almost as though one person, one day, left one bag of poop at the convenience store, and then the whole neighborhood decides this is where we put our poop. Philadelphia is so weird, I have to say.
DUCKWORTH: Ugh. It’s going to be really hard to defend Philadelphia right now. I mean, honestly. And so, this is happening, and we really felt terribly, because that’s, like, denigrating. This guy had to literally snip off, with a pair of scissors, these poop bags and then deal with them.
DUBNER: Snip them off because they tied them to the gate.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. So then, I had various schemes to create webcams and catch the perpetrators, because we lived right next door.
DUBNER: Interesting. So, you immediately go for the punitive, but your husband swoops in as the poop angel.
DUCKWORTH: I did. I was like — and I don’t want to repeat the language, but you know what it begins with: M and F. My husband was like, “No, you know what we’re going to do?” Because my husband is like “Mr. Civic-Activist.” He’s Mr. Poop Angel. He was like, “Let’s go to Home Depot, buy one of those big industrial trash cans, install it on the light pole that was in between our house and the convenience store. And then, let’s get those special-size bags, and let’s change it as soon as it fills up with poop.”
DUBNER: So much to say about this. Number one, kudos to Jason. Number two, you and I have talked a little bit on this show and a little bit more offline about the idea of Lewinian handling of problem-solving. So, Kurt Lewin is a famous, long-dead psychologist. And I know that Danny Kahneman, who is a very famous alive psychologist, talked about Kurt Lewin being his main influence in the following regard: in that, when you’re trying to change behavior or solve a problem, very often, the way civilizations respond, or especially institutions that have authority over people respond, is by setting rules, or enforcements, and trying to essentially crack down, trying to prohibit.
DUCKWORTH: Or motivate. Like, incentives or whatever.
DUBNER: Exactly. Whereas, in fact, you can find a way to fight the inclination in a slightly more organic way, or less punitive way. So, what’s interesting is — here you went straight for the old guard, like, “Let’s track these people down and punish them,” right? “Let’s put up cameras, we’ll find these people.” [AD^And arrest them.] And, I have to say, I often think like you. In fact, I once came up with a scheme to cut down on dog poop. We wrote a New York Times column about this — believe it or not. I can’t believe they published it. You know, this is a sort of “tragedy of the commons” problem, or moral-hazard problem, that if one person does it, it’s not a big deal, but if 100 people do it, it starts to become a big deal. So, we wrote a column suggesting that the way to deal with dog poop left on the streets is to require DNA testing as part of the licensing procedure, because you’re supposed to have a license if you own a dog in a city like New York. The fact is that most people don’t. So, that wouldn’t have really worked. But anyway, the idea was you do DNA testing as part of your licensing. You’d submit it, then you’d have a DNA database. And then, if poop were left on the street, someone could collect a sample, test it against the database, and just send that person a ticket for $200.
DUCKWORTH: That’s interesting. That’s actually now possible, I guess.
DUBNER: It is possible. And, in fact, in a few places around the world, this has happened.
DUCKWORTH: Like Singapore or something?
DUBNER: I want to say in Petah Tikva, Israel, somebody did it. I’ve heard of it happening in homeowners association communities that have the technology and the resources to do it. So anyway, that would be my impulse also, which is to find the offenders —.
DUCKWORTH: Track them down, and make them pay.
DUBNER: But interestingly, your husband says, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Let’s not go with that Old Testament punitive version.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, he’s a New Testament guy.
DUBNER: “Let’s just make it a little easier for people to do the right thing, even if it costs us some.” He’s not really a poop angel flying around picking up poop. He’s like a poop collection agency, because he established a protocol. I think it’s remarkable that he just had such a good solution. But let me ask a few questions about it. Did it prove to be a lasting solution in your neighborhood?
DUCKWORTH: Well, actually, talk about moral hazard — we became the place to walk your dog. I swear to God, there was, like, dogs from I don’t know how many Zip codes, but that poop added up to the point where we had to change it every day. I was like, “There aren’t even that many dogs on this block.” And I think we really ended up being one of the only outdoor trash cans in the neighborhood. And then, the convenience store closed, and then we moved, and that all happened in the space of like six or seven months. And this is the problem with this solution. We were like, “Hey, who wants to take over the trash can?”
DUBNER: Someone needed to collect the trash bag, and put it in what? In their own garbage, for pick up?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, we kept all this dog poop in our own garbage, which, you know, I didn’t love.
DUBNER: So, I have to start to look into the, uh, fetishizing literature here to see if you’re crossing the line.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe my husband’s got something he needs to talk to me about.
DUBNER: Maybe poop angel is not exactly what’s going on. But let’s untangle this a little bit more. You said the convenience store closed. Do you think that put an end to the poop problem anyway? Do you think most dogs were pooping on the way to and from?
DUCKWORTH: Well, we thought it might. We were like, “Great, since there’s not really an open convenience store, nobody’s going to expect that on this particular corner they have the civil right to deposit their dog poop.” But, it’d become a habit or whatever, by then. And so, even after the store closed, there was just as much poop as before. And then we moved. And I said to Jason, “What are we going to do?”
DUBNER: “Where are we going to get our poop from now, Jason? We’ve become so dependent on it.“
DUCKWORTH: Well, we had to take down the trash can, because none of the neighbors wanted to take it on.
DUBNER: So Angie, I don’t know how voluminously you’ve read on the history of pooper-scooper laws.
DUCKWORTH: I have not read up on pooper-scooper law.
DUBNER: No? Well, I will tell you, I believe they came into effect in New York City, I think this was the 1970s. These laws were opposed by animal rights groups, including the A.S.P.C.A. Can you think why they might have opposed that?
DUCKWORTH: Huh. I really can’t. Why?
DUBNER: Dog adoption in New York had risen a lot in response to the rise of crime. A lot of people got dogs, because they were scared of crime. And the A.S.P.C.A. thought that if people were required to pick up the dog poop, that they would just abandon their dogs. Like, “No way I’m touching the poop.” That position did not win that day, though, and the pooper-scooper laws went into effect. And yet, as we can tell from this poop-angel story with which I began this conversation, there is still a problem of some recalcitrant owners who don’t pick up. So, look, this may not be the purest example of moral hazard, but if you think about instances where you’re basically allowed to take more risk, or to take advantage —you know, one example, it’s very different from this, but one example that I’ve always found really interesting is football helmets were introduced for one reason, which was to prevent skull fracture, because that happened in football in the early days. They became so good as a technology — the football helmets did —so good at letting a football player feel almost indomitable, that they began to use the helmet as a weapon against the other players. So, obviously it’s a different consequence in different circumstances than random dog poop and poop-angel behavior. But I do think, wherever there’s a solution that we come up with, that may have some unintended consequences — you know, flood insurance is one of these. If I am able to buy flood insurance, I’m more likely to move into an area that is likely to flood. So, getting back to our original poop-angel question, what do you think about this poop-angel movement in New York City? These people going around picking it up: net gain or net negative?
DUCKWORTH: In the course of this saga, where my husband was helping thousands, it seems, of dog owners dispose of their dogs’ poop, I think there really was a moral hazard or externality problem. I think the idea when you have a dog is not only that you’re supposed to walk it, follow it around, pick up its feces, put it in a plastic bag, tie it up. But the last thing you’re supposed to do, I think, is put it in your own goddamn trash, right? Hello! The Duckworths are not here to collect your poop. So, words to the wise: before you go and set up your little trash can, or do whatever you’re going to do for the inconsiderate dog owners, be aware that you are going to create an incentive for them to shirk their final responsibility. I just want to remind all the pandemic puppy owners, bring it home!
DUBNER: Okay. So, I hear your pain. I really do. But can Philadelphia not just get some garbage cans, put them on the corner?[AD^Apparently not.] I live in New York. I have a dog. Many of my friends have dogs. When we take the dog out, it’s pretty simple. You have attached to the leash a little container with poop bags. It’s not complicated science. If and when your dog poops, you bend over, you pick it up.
DUCKWORTH: You do that whole, like, inside-out bag move I see all the dog owners do.
DUBNER: You make it a glove. Tie it. Becomes second nature. Becomes almost a satisfying thing to do. Emphasis here on the “almost.” But anyways, I don’t then carry it inside my building, up the elevator, and put it in my kitchen trash. There’s a thing in some cities where they have what they call “garbage cans” on the streets, where you’re actually supposed to just throw your stuff away. [AD^In the land of New York.] Now, I don’t know — Philadelphia, maybe we can bring you up to speed on this public trash can situation.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s agree on this: dogs are good. We can also agree that dogs poop, and we can agree that municipalities, (Are you listening, Philadelphia?) need to put more trash cans on the corner. I think those are good laws for life.
DUBNER: But if they can’t, then it’s good to know where the Duckworths live. And you can bring your poop to them. In fact, what about this? Here’s a very Lewinian idea. Rather than fighting the inclination that seems common, which is for dog owners to leave poop, maybe just look for a way to harness the existing behavior, and somehow turn that deficit into a benefit. [AD^Like how?] So, from what I’ve read about dog poop, and that’s plainly quite a lot, it’s a pretty good fertilizer for some uses — not for crops that you’re going to eat, because dog waste can transmit parasites and infectious disease. So, you don’t want to use it to fertilize anything you might eat or drink. But it’s apparently a good soil additive for, like, revegetation and landscaping once it’s properly composted. So, dog poop could become fertilizer. So, maybe the trick here is to incentivize the collection of dog poop by maybe subsidizing a dog poop-as-fertilizer incubator or startup.
DUCKWORTH: Ah. And you harness the power of the private sector.
DUBNER: Exactly. A poop angel could become a poop angel investor, and everybody’s happy.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: which is more significant: choosing a life partner, deciding whether or not to have kids, or identifying a greater purpose?
DUBNER: You’re married to Jason. I’m married to Ellen, and we’re both happy as crap.I think that proves it. Science wins.
DUCKWORTH: Plus one for science!
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a question from a listener named Colin Liu. Here it is: “I was having a conversation with one of my friends about a previous episode the two of you had done around the best question you’ve ever been asked.”
DUBNER: I don’t remember that. Do you? “The best question we’d ever been asked?”
DUCKWORTH: I think we did an episode on the best interview question.
DUBNER: Oh, like job interviews. Yeah. I remember that.
DUCKWORTH: Alright. So, Colin, minus one for you. But we really liked your email, and you said, “That got us thinking: what is the single most powerful, or significant choice a human being can make in their life?
DUBNER: Wow. I mean, I think it’s pretty easy, really, which is whether or not to pick up someone else’s dog poop.
DUCKWORTH: Quite obvious, Colin, actually.
DUBNER: Whether to part your hair on the left or right, I think, is the obvious choice. All right. So, you want me to be serious. Before I try to give an answer to this question, I have to Talmudicaly untangle it a tiny bit — only because he used two words that I think are both appropriate words, but they’re not the same word, which is to say he asked, “What’s the most significant or powerful choice that a human can make in their life.” So, one could interpret those in many ways. The way I would read it, “significant” would be more about your own outcome, the outcome of your own life, or maybe those around you. Whereas, the most “powerful” choice would— again, this is just how I would read it — would imply that you’re maybe trying to influence the outcome of others: potentially thousands, millions, even billions of others. So, I guess if you’re thinking “significant” choice, it might be something like whether you’re going to have children, whereas a “powerful” choice might be whether to have a child that turns out to be Adolf Hitler.
DUCKWORTH: That is a nuanced distinction.
DUBNER: Here’s one more slight distinction before we talk about answers. I also think the question is harder to answer than it might appear, because it implies that you make a choice, and then the choice essentially guarantees an outcome, even if it’s, like, the choice to marry and whom to marry, or to have children and what those children turn out to be, or your vocation, or whatnot. Whereas, in fact, the world is a bit more random than that. And other people’s choices, or actions, will interfere with your own. Let’s say, you argue that the most significant, or powerful choice you can make is choosing the right life partner. And let’s say, you get married to someone who you think is the best possible choice, and then that person gets cancer and dies. Does that make your choice less good somehow? But I think the bigger issue is: I don’t think any one choice you make can be guaranteed to have the significance, or power, that you think.
DUCKWORTH: So, in other words, you’re thinking that when people think of “the most important life choice,” they’re probably actually thinking “the most important life outcome.” Right? Because choices and outcomes are not the same thing, and we don’t have control over the outcomes entirely. I mean look, when I got Colin’s question, I did what every self-respecting scientist would do, which is: I created a Twitter poll. That’s actually, by the way, not what a scientist should do. But I had ready access to my Twitter feed. And I posted the question.
DUBNER: I love that you think we might assume you don’t have ready access to your Twitter feed.
DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s not trivial, because I keep forgetting my password.
DUBNER: I thought you were saying it’s that you’ve abused it so much that your colleagues keep you away from it.
DUCKWORTH: Nothing deep like that. But anyway, this is what I wrote: “Please reply. What is the single most powerful, slash, significant choice a human being can make in their life?” And I got 450 replies. Which then, this is not scientific — this is scientific-ish. I had a research coordinator categorize and sort into themes. I also asked a few scientist friends. And in fact, the three most popular types of response — the categories of response —these are not in order, but the first of these: kids or not — which you had mentioned. I asked Carey Morewedge, who’s a leading decision scientist, and that was one of Carey’s responses. Second one was: choice of mate. Nicholas Christakis from Yale University, he wrote specifically, “The life partner one selects, typically in one’s 20s.” That’s very specific. And the last one was purpose. So, one response from someone named Ken Zhou said, “The single most powerful choice a human being can make in their life is how they choose to give back to the world. Humans flourish because of emergence. Alone, we are limited and weak. Together, all of our collective hopes and dreams suddenly become possible.” So, anyway, I have a little data. Again, not as systematically collected as in a real science experiment, but I think it’s interesting that I didn’t get 450 totally different responses. There was this convergence on kids, mate, and purpose.
DUBNER: So, that makes a lot of sense. We’re also working with a little bit of a selection bias here, in that these are people who respond to the Twitter feed of Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Not a representative sample of humanity.
DUBNER: And also, just to be slightly cynical, there may be a little bit of virtue signaling going on here —especially if my spouse happens to follow the same Twitter feed, and I can say, “Well, choice of mate, and I made a heck of a choice.” But, I mean, it makes a great deal of sense that people would say these things, because these are relatively high-stakes choices or events in ones’ human life. Whether to have a life mate, and who that life mate is. Whether to have children, and how those children may turn out —your relationship with them. That all makes a lot of sense. And I have nothing against those. I guess, I would say, if I had to answer Colin’s question honestly for myself, choice of mate — super important. But, you know, I probably say it’s important, because I think I did well. If I didn’t do well, I’d probably say it wasn’t that important.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t know. If it was terrible —.
DUBNER: Yeah, you could go the other way. Whether to have children. I mean, I really wanted children, and I come from a big family. So, to me, that was almost, like, an obvious one —as was the choice to have a life mate. So, I wouldn’t answer that way. I think what I would give as an answer — I’m not so sure how fully this is a choice, but it feels like a choice. I would say it’s the choice to accept that life is a bountiful enterprise that will also necessarily be full of disappointment, and discomfort and grief, and yet, that it will still be really worthwhile. And again, what I mean by “I don’t know if it’s a choice” — that just may be my nature. And I know I’m really lucky, overall. I’ve had health my whole life. I’ve had a good career — much, much better than I ever would have imagined I would have. I have a family that I really love. So, I’ve always just had this, sort of, appreciation for the fact that life has possibilities. They’re not infinite, but they’re large. And, yeah, you’re going to be constantly disappointed, and frustrated, and ticked off, and so on, and yet, the urge to keep doing: to keep doing more, to keep doing better, to keep having fun, to keep meeting people, to keep playing backgammon, to keep making podcasts, like, that’s never diminished. And again, I don’t know if that really was a choice, but it’s something that I try to do actively.
DUCKWORTH: And there was an alternative. A choice requires that there’s an alternative, and the alternative is to withdraw, to not think about the things that you appreciate, to not live life in that way. There was a choice.
DUBNER: And again, I don’t mean to be ridiculously naive about it. I realize that the spectrum of the amount of opportunity people have across the board is huge and many people have much, much less. And so, I think maybe if I were in a different circumstance, I wouldn’t have this view of life.
DUCKWORTH: Well, look, I have been thinking about this question ever since we got it. I thought about what these people said on Twitter. I was thinking about these three top answers: children, marriage, and then purpose. And I was thinking about Victor Frankl as well —the great existential psychotherapist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. But I was actually recently reading a book by Bill Damon, who’s a colleague and a friend at Stanford who works on purpose, and he points out — in this new book that he’s written about his life —that the original title of Man’s Search for Meaning was supposed to be Nevertheless, Say Yes To Life. And the publisher decided that Man’s Search For Meaning sounded better or whatever, like it would sell better. And the idea that Frankl had — as a clinical therapist who saw people in practice, as a survivor of four different concentration camps — was that there are things that you can’t control. And by the way, my sister is a reproductive endocrinologist and she will tell you that not everybody can choose to have children. It’s not just a choice. They are factors beyond your control. Many, many, many people would love to have a wonderful marriage, but can’t yet find the mate, and so, that’s not entirely in your control. And many people would want to have a calling for their work and would love to have a positive impact on humanity, but can’t figure that quite out either.
I think the core of Frankl’s philosophy and what he attributes surviving through the death camps and thriving afterwards as a clinician, and what he would try to teach his patients in his clinical practice, was that there are things in life that you cannot control. He could not control that the Nazis decided to have death camps in the first place. You may not be able to control the factors that are going to influence your fertility, or your meeting of a soulmate or not. But nevertheless, there’s always a choice that you can make. Nevertheless, there is some freedom of the will over your response to your situation. And I think, actually, that’s the through line of these Twitter responses —there’s an element of autonomy, and in all these things, there’s an element that you can’t control. But, I think, to me — and I hope this isn’t just a clever and cute answer to the question of, “What is the most significant choice that you can make?” It’s just to realize that you have choices, right? To live your life realizing that things are not totally outside of your control, but there is always your autonomy over how you react.
DUBNER: That’s such a good answer. I am curious if there’s data and literature on things like mate choice, and lifetime happiness or satisfaction, or choice of having and not having children on lifetime happiness and satisfaction.
DUCKWORTH: So, there is a contentious literature on whether parenting makes you happy or not happy. And, by the way, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should and shouldn’t have them. But one point of view from Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues is that her empirical data suggests that parenting can be not great for happiness —at least that it can lead to stress. And that there is less well-being in some cases. On the other hand, even in the same data sets, I believe, there is evidence that other dimensions of happiness, maybe not like, “Oh, yay! Today was a great day. It was really easy, too,” but more like meaning —what’s often called eudaimonic well-being. Again, it’s a contentious literature —but there’s some evidence that the relationship between parenting and subjective well being, or happiness, is complex, because even though parenting is hard and it creates a lot of negative emotion, it also can be the source of greatest satisfaction at the same time and, by the way, positive emotions. It’s complicated.
DUBNER: It is complicated. Although, there’s also parallels to anything that’s difficult in life, right? If you accomplish something that was very, very, very challenging or difficult, that’s what satisfaction really is. It’s not about winning at something that’s easy. It’s not about winning the rigged game.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, you could argue that there’s nothing harder than parenting, and some would argue there’s nothing more gratifying. It’s not necessarily the same thing as enjoyable.
DUBNER: What does the data say on marriage and people’s lifetime either satisfaction or happiness about that? It must be a complicated thing to untangle, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: Both children and marriage, it’s pretty hard to randomly assign people to an experimental condition. I think that is why both of those literatures are fraught, and I don’t think the conclusions are necessarily clear or consensual. But with marriage, there’s some correlational data suggesting that maybe people who are married are on average, a little happier. But the problem is, like, why? And that doesn’t mean marriage makes you happy. Maybe being happier makes you more inclined to get married. It’s not simple, because every possible causal story and just a countless numbers of third variables, as they’re called, have to be at play. I will say this though, if the story on parenting, and also on marriage, is complex and we’re not sure there’s a straightforward like, “Yep, it makes you happy or it doesn’t.” I will say, with purpose it’s a lot clearer.
DUBNER: Makes you miserable, having purpose. Doesn’t it?
DUCKWORTH: No, no, Stephen. It is a pretty amazingly positive, again, correlation — because you can’t really assign people to have purposeful lives either. But the correlation between feeling like you have what Frankl might say — well, he called his therapeutic philosophy “logotherapy,” logo meaning “meaning.” But people who tend to feel like they have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are much happier. And that’s not at all contested.
DUBNER: That makes a lot of sense. I will say, on the marriage front: you’re married to Jason. I’m married to Ellen, and you and I, we’re both happy as crap. That’s an n of two. I think that proves it. Science wins!
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Plus one for science! But anyway, I don’t think the question that Colin is asking here is exactly the same question, though, as happiness.
DUBNER: I think that’s a good point. So, right, if we were to go back to Colin’s original question, I would say to Colin, and to you, that if the question is what is the most significant, or powerful, choice in your life you can make, I do think that we have ignored one obvious correct answer here, which is, the single most significant or powerful choice any of us will ever make is: when to end your podcast episode.
DUCKWORTH: And the answer is right now.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen tells Angela about a 2005 New York Times piece that he co-authored with Steve Levitt about canine-DNA sampling as a possible solution to the city’s dog-poop problems — a dream that actually manifested through the wonders of modern technology (not in Philadelphia, unfortunately, but in other areas around the globe). As Stephen suggested, Petah Tikva, Israel did experiment with a dog-DNA pilot program. In fact, the initiative not only helped to identify people who did not pick up their dog’s poop, but also rewarded owners who deposited the feces in appropriate receptacles with free bags of dog food. The program inspired the city of Jerusalem to launch a similar project years later. Municipalities aren’t the only places experimenting with these initiatives, the idea has also launched a new commercial industry. According to their website, PooPrints — a company founded in 2008 in Knoxville, Tennessee — offers DNA profiling of dog feces to over 5,000 communities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Later, Stephen and Angela wonder why Philadelphia seems to lack the necessary garbage receptacles. In fact, litter is so prevalent that the moniker “Philthadelphia” is sometimes used by locals. This wasn’t always the case. Philadelphia resident Ben Franklin is credited with originating the public trash-collection systems in the United States, but today, Philadelphia is often criticized as the only major American city without a street-cleaning program. The city’s Streets Department was actually interested in removing public trash cans in an effort to attract less garbage — that is, until a 2018 study conducted by the city along with the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Swarthmore College concluded that providing more trash cans to the public does, in fact, reduce litter on the streets. Unfortunately, this finding did not result in substantial change outside of a public-private partnership that did provide a limited number of garbage receptacles to community organizations and businesses. It looks like it’s up to poop angels — or trash angels in general — for the time being.
That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. Lyric Bowdish is our intern. 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 also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Did they start calling you the Poopworths? Like,“Those are the poop people. There they go. Good job.”
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And as promised, here’s a sneak peak of our new show, Sudhir Breaks the Internet.
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My name is Sudhir Venkatesh. I’m a sociologist at Columbia University. I’ve spent most of my professional life studying the urban underworld — gangs, sex workers, gun runners — but, five years ago, my career took an unexpected detour into Silicon Valley. And what I found was pretty different.
FUKUYAMA: Technology will liberate us from all of these constraints and create a new kind of human being.
I went to work at Facebook after Mark Zuckerberg had read one of my books, and his team asked me to join the company. The chance to get behind the curtain was too good to pass up.
McGOWAN: It’s going to get a lot more eyeballs.
KATSAROS: Turning it off is not an option. We have to keep it going. And at what cost?
After working at Facebook, and then at Twitter, I’m now back at Columbia, and I’ve started a podcast, called Sudhir Breaks the Internet, to share what I learned about the tech world.
CONNER: When I was at Twitter, I definitely sounded the alarm many times — as did and do many employees.
ZUCKERMAN: Creating a community to serve two billion people is not a good idea.
As a sociologist, I’m always looking for opportunities to observe communities and listen to the people in them. How do people make sense of their own little world? How do they handle outsiders? And how do they deal with conflict?
KATSAROS: “Why would we need experts? We can become experts in anything we want.”
PLUMB: I felt like every time I met a 25-year old engineer, their head was going to explode.
There’s plenty of reporting about the tech industry and what people think it does well or does poorly, but there’s very little about “who,” “how,” and “why.” Why do things go wrong — or even, why do they go right? Who is building the tools and platforms we work with every day? How can these tech companies with seemingly infinite resources face so many challenges — and make so many mistakes? That’s where Sudhir Breaks the Internet comes in. Combining my firsthand experience with the rigor of social science, I’ll take you inside the companies and help you understand the industry overall — its people, its problems and its promises.
HARRIS: I told myself that we were making the world a better place.
MEARES: It’s very easy to say, “No more” But no more is not a solution.
KATSAROS: If this technology can help build democracy, it could very likely be the same technology that can erode a democracy.
Sudhir Breaks the Internet is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. You can subscribe now on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Pandora, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
GALEN: The Internet exists because of DARPA. You have built your fortunes on the backs of the American people. It would be nice if you pretended to fucking care.
- Kurt Lewin, founder of modern social psychology.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- Carey Morewedge, professor of marketing at Boston University.
- Nicholas Christakis, professor of social and natural science, internal medicine & biomedical engineering at Yale University.
- Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor.
- William Damon, professor of education at Stanford University.
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside.
- “I Love Thy Hood Aims to Solve Philly’s Litter Crisis with Bright Orange Trash Cans,” by Nichole Currie (WHYY PBS, 2020).
- “How to Fix Philly’s Trash Problem,” by Nicolas Esposito (The Philadelphia Citizen, 2020).
- “Don’t Waste Your Dog’s Poo – Compost It,” by Leigh Ackland (The Conversation, 2018).
- “Street Sweeping in Philly: A History of the City’s Efforts to Keep Itself Clean,” by Mónica Marie Zorrilla (Billy Penn, 2018).
- “Trash Receptacle Placement: Philadelphia Behavioral Science Research Protocol,” by the City of Philadelphia (2018).
- “How Football Helmets Fail to Protect Against Some of the Most Dangerous Hits in the Game,” by Loren Grush (The Verge, 2016).
- Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life, by Paul Dolan (Penguin, 2014).
- “The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How is Parenthood Associated with More or Less Well-Being?” by S. Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushlev, and Sonja Lyubomirsky (Psychological Bulletin, 2014).
- “Overwhelming Risk: Rethinking Flood Insurance in a World of Rising Seas,” by the Union of Concerned Scientists (2013).
- “Poop n’ Scoop Goes Hi-Tech,” by Asher Zeiger (The Times of Israel, 2012).
- New York’s Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt and Due Process, by Michael Brandow (Purdue University Press, 2008).
- “Dog-Waste Management,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (The New York Times, 2005).
- “Path Dependence, Lock-in, and History,” by S. J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis (Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 1995).
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946).
- “How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution (Ep. 306),” Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- PooPrints: The DNA Solution for Dog Waste