DUCKWORTH: “Hey, it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game. It can be win-win.”
DUBNER: And then someone came up with win-win-win, at which point I started saying, “Okay, just how much winning can we all stand?”
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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: Do you have a scarcity mindset, or an abundance mindset?
DUBNER: There’s a lot to untangle here.
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DUBNER: Angela, a listener named Matthew writes in to say: “I remember reading about the terms scarcity mindset versus abundance mindset. It seems like an interesting way of framing how people react differently. However, it looks like those terms do not originate out of psychology research. Has any work been done to verify these concepts?” So Angela, let’s start with where these terms did originate.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, let’s talk about what I know first, but then you can tell me that you know something better and different. I think of scarcity, and I immediately think of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. These are two eminent — I guess you would call them behavioral economists. Do you think that’s the right label for Sendhil and Eldar?
DUBNER: I mean, if we’re talking about what their Ph.D.’s are in, I think Eldar is an economist, and I think Sendhil is not.
DUCKWORTH: Nobody ever knows what Sendhil is.
DUBNER: He’s some kind of hyphenate? He’s kind of in everything. He’s kind of Superman.
DUCKWORTH: He is hard to define. And actually, I don’t know if anybody actually gets a degree in behavioral economics. Maybe you do now, but certainly for a long time, there wasn’t such a thing. You were just an economist who happened to be interested in the psychological dimensions of human behavior that are not easily accounted for in pure cost-benefit calculus. But anyway, I think of Eldar and Sendhil’s research. I think the first splashy paper came out in Science about 10 years ago and it was called “Some Consequences of Having Too Little.” And of course, the first author, who — at the time, I don’t know whether Anuj was a student or not, but Anuj Shah is the first author on that paper. That’s what I’m thinking of when I think of scarcity. Is that what you know or is there something that precedes it?
DUBNER: I would’ve given a very similar answer because Sendhil and Eldar published a book called Scarcity not that long ago. I didn’t read the book. I feel like I should have. I know a fair amount about it.
DUCKWORTH: I think they published that book soon after their landmark paper came out.
DUBNER: But actually, the terms “scarcity mindset” versus “abundance mindset” came from a source that surprised me a little bit, and then I felt silly about being surprised. It actually came from an extraordinarily popular book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, who was an interesting guy who I didn’t really know very much about. And this book seemed like it had been in the air for a long time. But anyway, Covey says that a scarcity mentality refers to people who see life as a finite pie. In other words, it becomes a zero-sum game, right? If you have something, I can’t have it. He writes that people with a scarcity mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit, whereas someone with an abundance mentality has the idea that there’s plenty out there for everyone. The rising tide lifts all boats. Let’s not just give me a bigger piece of the pie; let’s make the pie bigger. That kind of idea. And that this results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision-making, and it opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity. So Covey was really making an argument about how to be a — as he would put it — a more effective person, especially in the commercial or business realm. I had no idea that those terms came from Covey, because scarcity and abundance were something that I came across a lot years ago when I was writing a book about what I call the psychology of money, so I was talking to psychologists and economists and others, and plainly, money is this thing that if that’s the chief resource that you’re thinking about as being either scarce or abundant, people do have radically different views of scarcity and abundance. And I think the book that Sendhil and Eldar wrote called Scarcity is a little bit different in that they’re talking about, often, actual scarcity. In other words, it’s not a scarcity mindset.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was just going to say, that does not sound like the kind of scarcity that Sendhil and Eldar and Anuj were studying.
DUBNER: Exactly. So there was a really nice piece, an N.P.R. interview of Sendhil by Shankar Vedantam, who makes a podcast called Hidden Brain. I think this was a piece he made for Morning Edition or something else at N.P.R. I’m just going to read you a little chunk. This is Shankar Vedantam talking. He says: “When you’re hungry, it’s hard to think of anything other than food. When you’re desperately poor, you constantly worry about making ends meet. Scarcity produces a kind of tunnel vision, and it explains why, when we’re in a hole, we often lose sight of long-term priorities and dig ourselves even deeper. The psychological effects of scarcity can be seen in many areas of life. Among lonely people who lack companionship, even among the very busy who lack time.” So he’s making the argument that scarcity — real scarcity, not a scarcity mindset — can impose an even additional burden because it forces you to spend a lot of your attention and resources on just getting enough. That is really, really, really different, I think, from what Matthew is writing in about the scarcity mindset versus the abundance mindset, which I think does go back to Stephen Covey saying, “Hey, if you want to get ahead in life, you can either be a scarcity person, which I think is really a bad idea — means you’re not going to share credit, not going to share resources — or you can be an abundance person, which means that you think there’s plenty out there for everyone.” So I think these are really two different things we’re talking about. And I think what Matthew is writing is to ask: What does psychology have to say about this sort of getting-ahead framework that’s posed by Stephen Covey of setting off scarcity versus abundance?
DUCKWORTH: Just to make things clear as mud, but I know it’s going to sound confusing — if you read the paper that I was just talking about, Shah, Mullainathan, Shafir, 2012, “Some Consequences of Having Too Little” — I’m going to read you the end of the first paragraph. “Resource scarcity creates its own mindset, changing how people look at problems and make decisions.” So just so that people aren’t hopelessly confused, in this paper, these economists do talk about scarcity as a mindset. They literally talk about “scarcity mindset.” So I do think it’s worth distinguishing between what Stephen Covey was talking about — about kind of having an outlook in life that everything is a zero-sum game and therefore I have to hoard the attention and the resources.
DUBNER: Yeah, I think that is a hair worth splitting, and let me split it even a little bit more then. Mullainathan’s research looks at scarcity in the sense of a lack of basic resources as opposed to Stephen Covey’s version of the scarcity mindset, which emphasizes the idea of a zero-sum game. If you’re starving and you need food, you might see abundance around you but still not be able to get it, which is different than feeling like you’re competing with a coworker for one slot for a promotion. Plainly, they’re related. Maybe much more than first cousins, maybe siblings. But I think what Covey is talking about is: If you believe that the pie can only be so large —.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to rebrand that without permission. I’m going to rebrand that the zero-sum game mindset. How’s that?
DUBNER: There you go. You know, maybe this would help clarify. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that we’ve been referring to, this is a book that Stephen Covey first published in 1989. It was kind of a self-help-y business book. It was revised many times. Covey became extraordinarily renowned for it. Here are the habits for people who haven’t read it: One: “Be proactive. Focus on what you can control and influence instead of what you can’t.” Two: “Begin with the end in mind. Define clear measures of success and plan to achieve them.” Three: “Put first things first. Prioritize and achieve your most important goals instead of constantly reacting to urgencies.” Four: “Think win-win. Collaborate more effectively by building high-trust relationships.”
DUCKWORTH: I think, by the way, that’s the one that relates to this, right? Like, win-win. It’s not win-lose. If it’s a zero-sum game, then if I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. But if it’s not, then we can both win. Win-win.
DUBNER: Exactly. I think you’re right to point that one out. That reminds me of one of the most interesting people I’ve spoken with for Freakonomics Radio over the past bunch of years was Satya Nadella, who’s the C.E.O. of Microsoft. And you might think, “Whoa, what is a C.E.O. of a tech company like Microsoft like? What kind of thinker are they going to be? Aren’t they going to think about computer science and about efficiencies of scale and a big company?”
DUCKWORTH: Not if you’re Satya Nadella.
DUBNER: He is so smart and, I think, admirable. And one thing that so impressed me — he wrote a book that, I mean, to be honest, wasn’t a great book. Most books by C.E.O.s aren’t great books, but —.
DUCKWORTH: I know this book. It was, like, Fresh: Restart?
DUBNER: That sounds about right. Maybe.
DUCKWORTH: It was something like Hit Reset or something.
DUBNER: There you go. That sounds about right. So Microsoft was a phenomenally successful company for a whole bunch of years before he came. I mean, he’d been at the company for a long time, but before he was C.E.O., you could definitely imagine that they were on a downward trend. They’d had only two C.E.O.s before: founder Bill Gates, or co-founder, and then Steve Ballmer, who was in some ways a great C.E.O., but also more of a typical C.E.O., and some of the moves he made didn’t work out. Here is one thing that Satya Nadella did that was very different that plays very much into this Stephen-Covey-slash-Sendhil- Mullainathan idea of scarcity. He looked around at all the relationships that Microsoft had had or not had over the previous couple decades. Microsoft was a behemoth, extraordinarily successful in certain realms, unsuccessful in other realms where they had rivals. And they were always trying to compete with the rivals in those realms where they weren’t successful. They would rarely form partnerships or collaborate with these rivals because, “We’re Microsoft, damn it. And we are the big dog here.” And so when a Google comes along, or an Apple comes along, or an Adobe gets bigger and bigger, they do their stuff. And rather than us try to find a way to collaborate with them, “No. We are our own company. We’re just going to buy a rival company and make it bigger than them.” Well, that usually failed. And so what Satya Nadella did is he said, rather than operate in a sort of scarcity mindset, you might call this —.
DUCKWORTH: Or a zero-sum game mindset, for example, if you’re trying to brand.
DUBNER: Exactly. Whereas, Google has X dollars or X share of stuff, wouldn’t I rather have 5 percent of that market than 0 percent? And if the way to do that is by collaborating rather than competing, could I change my corporate culture in such a way that sees collaboration or the abundance mindset as a benefit, as a positive, rather than a weakness? And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Microsoft today it’s worth like five times more than it was when Nadella took over roughly a decade ago. Depending on the month of the year, it’s a $2 trillion company. And I’d like to think that the adoption of this, what we’re calling now, the abundance mindset is responsible at least in part for that.
DUCKWORTH: Or the non-zero-sum game mindset. Again, only just to not confuse it with the more recent research of these behavioral economists. But I think this outlook of, “Hey, it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game. It can be win-win” — and by the way, “win-win” I do think can be attributed to Stephen Covey. That was an expression that didn’t exist, I think, before —.
DUBNER: I don’t know.
DUCKWORTH: I think he created it.
DUBNER: And then someone came up with win-win-win, at which point I started saying, “Okay, just how much winning can we all stand?”
DUCKWORTH: I do think this kind of — “if you think positively and creatively, how could things just be a lot better?” I do think that’s really different from what research we’re, I hope, going to talk about now, this research by Sendhil and Eldar and Anuj. Because it’s not the same thing. The first line of their paper in Science — this is extremely influential, like, highly cited. It’s so influential that you could argue that it sparked, like, a decade of research by lots and lots of other people, but the first sentence in this paper entitled “Some Consequences of Having Too Little” is: “The poor often behave in ways that reinforce poverty.” And let me read on. “For instance, low-income individuals often play lotteries, fail to enroll in assistance programs, save too little, and borrow too much.” And then the authors — Anuj, Sendhil, and Eldar — go on to say that you might explain this based on the circumstances of these poor people. You might actually have an alternative, which is you’re going to blame them for their own personalities, their own dispositions. “But we’re going to” — and I quote — “But we suggest a more general view. Resource scarcity creates its own mindset, changing how people look at problems and make decisions.” So you can tell from this first paragraph of this seminal paper that they’re not really talking about, like, “Do you see life as a zero-sum game or not?” As good advice as that is.
DUBNER: So there’s a lot to untangle here. When you talk about low-income people often compound their low-income-ness by making choices that contribute to a furthering of that pattern, that’s basically what they’re saying. And there are many examples. Lottery is one that you mentioned, like, low-income people play the lottery at much greater proportion than higher-income. So, there are people who say, “Well, there you go. Poor people are poor because they make bad decisions.” And what this line of research is saying, if I’m understanding correctly, is that poor people are poor for any number of reasons. And then it’s easy for poverty itself, for scarcity itself, if we want to call it that, to essentially compound on itself. And that’s the riddle. That’s the puzzle that we should be addressing. Is that about right?
DUCKWORTH: I think so. I think it would be easiest to actually explain some of the research that they did, because this is not an op-ed. It’s actually a summary of a series of laboratory experiments that these economists did to basically create a fake world where they could randomly assign people to be rich or poor and experimentally figure out, like, what the heck is going on with decision-making that is different for those who are rich and poor? And I think the nice feature of randomly assigning people in the lab to play a game, and to either have a lot of resources, so you get randomly assigned to be rich, or have a lot fewer resources, so you get randomly assigned to be poor — I mean, there’s two nice features, right? First, you’re doing something that you just can’t do in the real world, which is randomly assign people to be rich or poor. I mean, maybe you could argue you could do it through, like, cash transfers, but it’s pretty hard to do that in a kind of repeated, like, “Oh, now let’s do it again. Let’s try this other permutation.” And the other thing you can do in these laboratory studies is you can administer executive function tasks and so forth. You can ask the question: “What’s going on in this person’s brain, for example, when they are making decisions?” Can we get a little more information going in this story that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were just observing people in the actual world? Because what they’re able to do is recreate some of the behaviors that we see in the world that they describe in the first paragraph of their article here. They took a lot of games that a lot of us know and are familiar, like Wheel of Fortune, Angry Birds, Family Feud. And they said, these are all games where you have to do something that requires decision-making. It requires some cognitive bandwidth. They’re not just games of chance. And they created a new version where your turns are either numerous, because you’re assigned to be rich, or not numerous, like, the chances that you have to guess words or to guess letters. And you can also borrow. So they wanted to basically ask the question, if you’re poor, will you borrow more? And will you borrow suboptimally to, again, kind of mimic the real world where you see that people who are low-income tend to get into unhealthy levels of debt? I mean, that’s the thing that makes this a micro-version of the real world. You can borrow, like, “I want more turns now, even though I’m going to have to pay back with interest later.”
DUBNER: And the idea is to measure how good or bad a decision is when you’re under different stressors. Is that the idea?
DUCKWORTH: Well, one reason why you want to measure this is you want to see whether, if you randomly assign people to be poor in these games, do they accumulate more debt than people who are randomly assigned to be rich? And also, do they accumulate suboptimal levels of debt? Like, can you basically see that if they hadn’t borrowed, they would’ve been better off? And that’s exactly what they find, by the way, when you randomly assign people to be poor in these games. So they start out with fewer points or fewer tries and then they can borrow — like, they basically accumulate more and more debt as the game goes on, and they accumulate suboptimal levels of debt. So you can run versions of the experiment where they’re not allowed to borrow, and you can see there they would’ve done better if they hadn’t borrowed. So what they’ve done is create a microcosm of society, except they get to choose who’s rich or poor. So you can control for everything else that’s going on. It’s just isolating the fact that you have fewer resources. And when you walk into the lab, they give you fewer resources, so you can’t even blame the person for starting the game that way. And just to underscore that finding, they can show that you can take people who have nothing wrong with them, nothing wrong with their decision-making faculties, assign them to have fewer resources in a game, and show that they’ll accumulate more debt than rich people, that they will accumulate debt that compromises their performance, so it’s suboptimal. And the reason I think they want to use this terminology — like mindset, which again, I think it can be confusing because other people use this word differently — to me, the key insight is that there seems to be a shift in attention. When you are assigned to be in the poor condition and you have fewer resources, where your attention is going — this goes right back to the interview that you were mentioning, Stephen — your attention is going to these urgent problems that are right in front of you, and you’re not making decisions that are good for you in the long term. Whatever you want to call it, that focus of attention on the urgent, I do think it’s the landmark finding And immediately, you can change the way somebody’s brain is functioning just by putting them into a situation where they have scarce resources.
DUBNER: So there’s this snowball effect, which is when you’re dealt a bad hand, there are a number of cards within that hand that will lead to further bad cards, essentially.
DUCKWORTH: That’s the vicious cycle that would logically ensue. You know, now you’ve got fewer resources and more stress and less time, and you’re making even worse decisions with each round of life.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Angela and Stephen talk about what these two mindsets look like outside the lab.
DUBNER: “Don’t think about that scarcity mindset, and like, ‘there’s just one pie and I want to get my small piece.’ Think about making the pie bigger.” Of course that sounds good, but what are the downsides to that?
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about scarcity and abundance.
DUBNER: Let me circle back to Matthew’s question. He’s asking about scarcity mindset versus abundant mindset, which we’ll call the Covey construct. And then he says: “I understand that didn’t come out of psychological research or economic research. Has any work been done to verify these concepts?” So considering that these two uses of scarcity that we’re discussing are quite different, I’m curious to know how you’d answer Matthew’s question now. Would you say that the academic research that they’ve done has done anything to verify what we’re calling the scarcity versus abundance mindset? Or is it possible that either A, you don’t know or care enough about the Covey argument, or B, it could be that there’s just not enough similarity to really say that these concepts have been, quote, “verified” by academic research.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s start with this paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so P.N.A.S., last year, or maybe it was the year before. And it’s called “Empirical Audit and Review and an Assessment of Evidentiary Value in Research on the Psychological Consequences of Scarcity.” That’s a mouthful, but the two words I think that are the most important in that title are “empirical audit.” And here’s what it is. You go back and you select a few key findings from this literature. So you look and you dig up papers like the one I read to you from, but also its follow-up papers, like, all the papers that other scientists have written on this topic. And then you take new scientists and you ask them to replicate those studies. So that’s what an empirical audit is. It’s saying, “Okay, now that we have dozens of studies on this thing that originally was discovered in 2012, I’m going to find some of those studies. I’m not going to replicate all of them, but I’m going to replicate a sample of them, and I’m going to see whether it holds up to scrutiny.” This is a new way of seeing whether science is true. And I can tell you what the punchline is for the scarcity research, which is that if you look in particular at the studies where the game is having to do with making some kind of financial decision, then the finding does replicate. So if it has to do with money, that sort of thing. I read that paper and I believed more, not less, in the original findings.
DUBNER: One thing that really catches my ear as you’re describing the Mullainathan et al. research is about attention and how more of it is required — or more cognitive load, you might call it, is required — when you’re under scarcity because you’re trying to solve a huge set of problems. I mean, when economists talk about scarcity, that’s the problem with scarcity. Things get more expensive. When it’s a product, when it’s a good or service, and it’s more scarce, it costs you more. But also in the mindset mode, it can take your attention. So let me pivot back to the other scarcity, the scarcity mentality versus the abundance mentality, that Matthew — yeah, the Covey. And this is tricky, cause we’re really ping-ponging and pinballing between really two different ideas under the same word, although I do think there is some commonality. And let me propose that at least one commonality, is when you talk about attention. Let me read from a little bit of Covey He writes: “Often people with a scarcity mentality harbor secret hopes that others might suffer misfortune. Not terrible misfortune, but acceptable misfortune that would keep them, quote, ‘in their place.’ They’re always comparing, always competing. They give their energies to possessing things or other people in order to increase their sense of worth. On the other hand, the abundance mentality flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there’s plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision-making. ” So you see these are two really, really different things we’re talking about, and yet —.
DUCKWORTH: There’s a connection.
DUBNER: There is a connection. And one place that in my mind they connect — and this might seem a radical leap, maybe not — is I think about this difference, the scarcity-versus-abundance mindset, but also I think about the problems of scarcity generally, especially when they are problems of real scarcity. So the Mullainathan scarcity versus the Covey scarcity — when your resources are really constrained, it does — you know, I think back to my mom. Our family had very little money, and my mom was really smart and sharp and hardworking and all these things. But once in a while she would do something that drove me crazy. For instance, she would drive an extra 20 minutes to save a penny a gallon on gas. And I would say to myself — because I wouldn’t say this to my mom, because I was too respectful — I would say: “What the hell. Are we going to spend 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back to save, whatever, a couple dimes? What could we be doing with that time? Could we, like, make something or grow something or whatever?”
DUCKWORTH: “What’s the opportunity cost, Mom?”
DUBNER: “What’s the opportunity cost?” When I think of scarcity mindset, I think that is how it can be self-reinforcing. Now, to be fair, my mother had a scarcity mindset with good reason. There was a lot of scarcity, and she grew up during the Depression, as did my father and my wife’s parents. And they all had this thing about thrift and saving and reusing and stuff, which I admire. I do see a parallel with how we think about the future now — how there are really two big, different tribes, which we could roughly label optimists and pessimists. And usually they’re called “techno optimists” and “techno pessimists.” So I think of techno optimists or people like Bill Gates, or this guy Peter Diamandis, who sponsors the XPrize. He actually wrote a book called Abundance. And they argue that technology especially will just keep solving problems and keep making things better. So they’re kind of in favor of the abundance argument. And then there are people, like, I think of Kate Raworth, who’s I believe a British economist who wrote a book called Doughnut Economics. And her argument is that we need to really rein in the reach of our civilization and our economy, because it’s just gotten too large, too aggressive, and there are too many negative externalities. Or I even think about an economist, Daron Acemoglu, who’s at M.I.T., who is sort of a techno optimist in a way, but I think the longer he’s been writing about the effect of technology on labor and on humanity, I think he becomes more and more skeptical about it. He’s got a forthcoming book called Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity. And I think he’s starting to subscribe, at least in part, to this idea that the abundance mindset as popularized by Covey, as it intrigues people like Matthew who wrote us this email — it sounds great. It’s basically saying: “No, no, no, no. Don’t think about that scarcity mindset, and like, ‘there’s just one pie and I want to get my small piece.’ Think about making the pie bigger.” Of course that sounds good, but what are the downsides to that? And the downsides to that are you can get really carried away with things. You can get really carried away in the belief that all you have to do is just keep pumping more and more and more resources into this shared-prosperity idea, and everything’s going to be great. Whereas in fact, what we’re starting to see is that not everything is always going to be great. Not only is there a lot of inequality in that outcome, but there are a lot of negative externalities like pollution and fraud. You know, I think — if you want to think about the abundance mentality, I think about Sam Bankman-Fried and F.T.X. That was abundance, but that was kind of, as it turns out, manufactured abundance, which is going to leave a lot of people in a scarce mentality more than they might wish.
DUCKWORTH: I like the expansion and I like the nuance, but I feel like there’s lots of ideas going into the stew of abundance. Let me suggest a particular theory in psychology that might help pull, I think, the most relevant threads together. And I think it might make you think how the Stephen Covey idea of an abundance mindset might relate to what’s going on in these laboratory experiment games when you’re randomly assigned to be rich. And the theory I’m thinking of — we’ve talked a little bit about before, Stephen — it’s called broaden-and-build. And this is the theory that Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist I admire a lot, that she came up with for why, evolutionarily speaking, functionally speaking, why we have happiness. Like, why did human beings evolve to have positive emotions, joy, laughter, satisfaction, gratitude, and so forth?
DUBNER: Yeah, what’s the point of all that stuff?
DUCKWORTH: You know, it’s a funny thing to ask because now the science of happiness has been somewhat popularized, but not that long ago — maybe three, four decades — it was a heretical idea that you would study happy emotions or positive emotions, and nobody was really paying attention to them. What people studied were fear, anxiety, sadness, anger. And there, the evolutionary story was clear. It’s like, “Oh yeah, if you don’t have fear, you’re not going to live very long. And actually, if you don’t have anger, you’re not going to live very long either.” They’re all these things that enable you to survive because of their negativity or the sort of signal that you’re getting from these negative emotions. Barbara Fredrickson and other scientists, they come along and they say, “Well, there’s got to be a reason why we have joy and gratitude and awe and so forth.” And her theory called broaden-and-build is this: If you are an organism like a human being, like you or me, and things are going wrong, well, that’s where the negative emotions really help you. And that’s where you defend yourself. You know, fight, flight, freeze, whatever. But what do you do as an organism in times of plenty? What is the optimal thing for an organism to do when they’re safe and there is enough to eat? And what Barbara Fredrickson said is that you broaden and you build. You broaden your repertoire of things that you can do in the future, and you build your resources, including your relationships for the future. So basically that’s the time to read a book that you wouldn’t have had time to read, to, like, make time for relationships and so forth. One could argue that, despite some of the recent current events that might make you feel kind of pessimistic about, you know, where humanity is —.
DUBNER: About everything.
DUCKWORTH: About everything. Right. But historically speaking, it is a time of plenty. There’s much more safety and abundance than there was, I don’t know, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, certainly 10,000 years ago. So we’re in an era where broaden-and-build is exactly what we should be doing. And just to bring it all the way back to Stephen Covey versus Sendhil Mullainathan or these two sort of different ways of using the term “abundance mindset” — I think what you could say is that when your objective circumstances are such that there is enough, that’s real abundance. There’s enough to eat, there’s enough time, there’s enough safety. I think that would lead you both to have what Stephen Covey says is a habit of highly effective people, a kind of outlook that says: “I’m going to share the credit. I’m going to look for creative ways that we can work together.” That would also lead you to do what the rich people do in these games that are being studied by behavioral economists, which is, like, you’re playing the game, you don’t over-borrow, you make good decisions. So I think in a way it’s not an either-or. Like, “Oh, it’s either your mindset or it’s your objective circumstances.”
DUBNER: And I think as simple as that sounds, I think many people have a very hard time doing it. And where it might translate over to the Covey version of abundance; it doesn’t cost you any more to be kind and generous to someone than it does to be mean and cruel and selfish. And yet so many people make that decision every day to be cruel and mean and selfish, and to act as if everything is zero-sum. So when it comes to really changing your mindset and then your behavior, let’s say in a work setting. I don’t know what Matthew was writing in about — scarcity versus abundance — I’d love to hear from listeners about this notion, especially the Covey version. I think it’s a little bit easier maybe to find yourself as an example within that. I’m curious to know if you have an example where a scarcity mindset has led to a bad outcome for you, specifically you personally. So if you have a story like that, send it to us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Use your smartphone to make a voice memo. Just do it in a quiet place, get your mouth nice and close to the phone, and send it along to us, and maybe that will appear on a future show. You know, Angela, all this talk about abundance and scarcity has reminded me — and I totally forgot about this, but maybe this is why I was so attracted to Matthew’s question in the first place, even though I did not know where those phrases came from until looking them up. But I have a list deep in my computer that I share with no one — although I actually have shared it with a couple people once in a while, if they ask really nicely — of favorite interview questions. These are questions that I’ve been compiling from all different sources over many, many years of interview questions that I think are really good. The nature of that list has changed a little bit over the past 15 or so years as I’ve done a lot more within economics and other social sciences, because that requires, often, a different set of questions.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Specialized questions.
DUBNER: Yeah, more specialized. But there’s one question I have, and I wish I knew who it came from. It’s a very particular one, but it’s an excellent question in the right circumstance, and it goes like this: In a given system — whatever system we’re talking about at the moment, maybe it’s education, health care, blah, blah, blah, politics, whatever — in the given system that you, kind person that I’m interviewing, are an expert in, what is abundant and what is scarce? And I find that that is one of the most clarifying questions because often the answer they’ll give is really surprising, and it has nothing to do with resources. It has to do with a lack of execution or the wrong mindset. That’s what it has to do with.
DUCKWORTH: So not objective resources, but the way people are thinking about them.
DUBNER: Exactly right. And so I realize now, you’ve explained to me why that’s a good question, but it’s not for the reason that I always thought it was a good question.
DUCKWORTH: I’m now interested in this list of questions that you have. I hope you get to share the other ones. Actually, maybe I’ll ask nicely. I think people do tend to do a lot of either-or thinking. I know it’s, like, a joke now that I’m always “both-and,” but it really is true. Like, your objective circumstances matter. And how you think about them matters. They’re causally related. That’s what the research is showing. That’s why these lab experiments are so fascinating. They are showing the causal link between objective circumstances and the mindset you use to interpret them. And then that affects your behavior. If you asked me, like, what’s abundant and what’s scarce in the world of human decision-making and in what I see as how people interpret things. To me, what is scarce, Stephen, is an understanding of the both-and — that what’s scarce is the ability to hold in your mind the complex reality that people’s objective circumstances influence how they make meaning out of them, which in turn influences their behavior.
DUBNER: So good. This was an unusual conversation with us in part because, by the nature of the question from Matthew, we were actually talking about two different things.
DUCKWORTH: This was, like, advanced. I was like, this is hard.
DUBNER: And I would say that in our effort to see if or how those two different things might relate to each other, I feel like we went in different directions than we might normally have with a question like this. And for that, I am very grateful. So I feel a certain lack of scarcity in my heart right now and a certain abundance. So Matthew, good question. Thank you.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you, Matthew.
DUBNER: So Angela, before we go today, there is some news to be imparted.
DUCKWORTH: Well, why don’t you start imparting, Stephen.
DUBNER: So the news is that I am leaving this show, No Stupid Questions, this blast of a conversation that I’ve had with you.
DUCKWORTH: Three years. Three years we’ve been doing this I think.
DUBNER: Three years, and —.
DUCKWORTH: Is that right? By the way? Is it three years? I think it’s three years.
DUBNER: You know, if I recall correctly, we began piloting in the fall and or winter of 2019.
DUBNER: We put out a pilot episode in the Freakonomics Radio feed around Christmas of 2019, and we were raring to go and then there was a thing called, what was it? Oh, Covid.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Don’t speak it. It might summon it.
DUBNER: And I think we ended up launching for real in May of 2020. Hey, wait, it’s May of 2023. Three years!
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah.
DUBNER: Took me a long time to work out the math that you worked out kind of instantly. So anyway, the good news is that Angela Duckworth is going to continue doing No Stupid Questions with someone. And now you are just starting to have these conversations with some wonderful people that you and I both know.
DUCKWORTH: So Stephen, I think before I speak excitedly about upcoming —.
DUBNER: You’re so ready to get rid of me is what you’re saying before you speak excitedly.
DUCKWORTH: No perish the thought. No, but, to be clear, you’re not leaving Freakonomics, either the podcast or the empire.
DUBNER: That is true.
DUCKWORTH: You’re not abdicating the throne.
DUBNER: In fact, quite the opposite. So really what’s happened is that, you know, doing this show with you has been a blast. I absolutely loved it. I still love it, but you know, I am a serial quitter. You’ve known this about me. I have quit several things that I deeply love, and this is one of them. I was a musician. My first really career was playing music in a band. We got a record contract, moved to New York. We were on our way, and I thought, you know what, that is not the life I ultimately want. And I quit. And that was hard. Then I became a journalist. There was one place I wanted to get to. It was The New York Times. I thought, there’s no way I’m going to get there. And then I did. And I worked there for several years, four or five years. It was, on most dimensions, amazing. But I quit because I wanted to write books instead, so I left. Now both of those things were hard to quit because I love them and it’s hard to quit this too.
DUCKWORTH: It’s an opportunity cost love story.
DUBNER: It’s exactly right. But, so what’s happened is over the last year or so, I’ve really fallen back deeply in love with Freakonomics Radio. It’s a new era for us. We’ve got the best staff we’ve ever had, and I’ve been doing this 13 years now. No offense to previous teams, but our current team is really good and because the team is so good and we’ve been trying a lot of different things with Freakonomics Radio, more series, which I like a lot and it’s also reawakened my appetite to write an actual book. So I’m just starting to think about how that might work. And so in order to do that and to keep making Freakonomics Radio better, I need some time. I need some mental space. And I figured, you know, the other thing is No Stupid Questions has been like, a raging success. We have an unbelievably wonderful and pretty darn big audience. You are, in my mind, the cornerstone, and I think it’s in very, very good shape for a new co-host to come in and succeed.
DUCKWORTH: You know, Stephen, there is this poem that I looked up, “A Marriage is an Arch” —.
DUBNER: Like an Arch Deluxe?
DUCKWORTH: No, like, like an arch, like in a church?
DUBNER: Oh. Because I was thinking Arch Deluxe is a sandwich.
DUCKWORTH: You mean the McDonald’s sandwich? No, no. Not the golden arches.
DUBNER: I was just thinking that, you do have a pretty pro-sandwich philosophy.
DUCKWORTH: I do, and I’m actually like, surprisingly, pretty pro-McDonald’s sandwiches, which are delicious. I know they’re bad for you, but anyway, so the poem I’m thinking of is by John Ciardi.
DUBNER: I just looked it up. Can I say? The Poetry Foundation has the best website ever?
DUCKWORTH: It is! I don’t know if I donate yet —.
DUBNER: You know what? I’m taking a note. Send money to the poets.
DUCKWORTH: A hundred percent. I feel like I go to Poetry Foundation almost as much as any website than like Google Scholar. Right. So anyway, “Most Like an Arch This Marriage” is the name of the poem and the poem is beautiful. So I won’t try to read the whole thing but I like this part, “Most like an arch — two weaknesses that lean into a strength. Two fallings become firm. Two joined abeyances become a term naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.” So especially the first part of that stanza, because the second part of that stanza is harder to understand. I was like, right not two columns that are independent, but two weaknesses that lean into a strength. Anyway, I think there’s something very beautiful about these three years where we have, you know, leaned into this common space of a conversation. And I am sad, Stephen. I am both happy and sad. I am happy for you as I think, you know, and I’m sad that, you know, we have to say goodbye to this particular chapter. But I completely agree with your decision and I think it’s fair to share with the listeners what we’re thinking about for the future of No Stupid Questions.
DUBNER: Yes, please.
DUCKWORTH: So, my plan is to have conversations with friends and really interesting people that could end up being part of an arch maybe or maybe just having good conversations that stand as they do without the forever commitment of being a co-host. But one friend, Maria Konnikova, whom we both admire —.
DUBNER: Very much.
DUCKWORTH: She’s so great. She’s so great. She’s a psychologist. She’s a beautiful writer. She has achieved my kind of, you know, holy grail, which is writing for The New Yorker. Not only writing for The New Yorker, writing for The New Yorker on topics related to behavioral science, so that’s truly my dream. Another hero of mine, Sendhil Mullainathan, whose work we were just discussing, his work on scarcity, recently we had been talking kind of offline outside of No Stupid Questions about the universe-changing advent of this last generation of artificial intelligence. And I’m very excited because Sendhil is a great mind, but Sendhil now has dedicated that great mind singularly to A.I. He thinks it’s that much of a, you know, advance.
DUBNER: I can’t wait to hear those conversations. And I too, just for the record, admire and like Sendhil.
DUCKWORTH: Like we’ve maybe discussed before. Everybody’s in love with Sendhil. And then finally there’s Mike Maughan, who is not a Ph.D.
DUBNER: The wild card.
DUCKWORTH: I know. It is like a wild card.
DUBNER: He’s unknown to the greater world, but oh my goodness, should he not be unknown.
DUCKWORTH: But Mike Maughan is not a trained behavioral scientist. He’s not really a trained journalist.
DUBNER: No not at all.
DUCKWORTH: What is Mike Maughan? Who the hell is Mike Maughan?
DUBNER: The reason you and I know Mike Maughan separately, but we’ve come to know him. We’ve each come to know him well, Mike Maughan was instrumental in building a company whose product you use all the time called Qualtrics. They write survey software. They’re from Utah. They’ve been a phenomenally successful company, and Ryan Smith, who’s the C.E.O. of that firm —.
DUCKWORTH: Was, he’s the founder and now he’s the chairman or executive chairman, something like that.
DUBNER: So Ryan and or a Ryan-led consortium, I’m not sure, bought the Utah Jazz, the N.B.A. team. So Mike is involved in the administration of the Utah Jazz. Mike is also involved in a longstanding and I think quite successful cancer-fighting organization 5 For The Fight. Mike is also a citizen of the world. He’s traveled to a lot of places, and most of all, he is a lovely human, absolutely lovely, who’s also funny and smart, and you’re right, has never worked as an academic, as a journalist, but he’s got traits of both and we worked with him a lot as a live fact checker on a game show that we did with Freakonomics Radio for a couple years called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which is how I got to work with you a lot as well. And so people who hear the fact check segment at the end of this show, No Stupid Questions, that idea was stolen from the live game show we did. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know because there I really wanted literally a live fact checker because when there’s a bunch of people on stage saying stuff, it’s hard to know how real it is and Mike filled that role —.
DUCKWORTH: In real time.
DUBNER: In real time. So he’s a sharpie.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I love Mike, I have to say, and I love that he’s our wild card, and I don’t know what the long-term future holds, but I am very excited to have these conversations with Maria, with Sendhil and with Mike, and I hope the listeners enjoy them.
DUBNER: So Angela, I just want to thank you for being a fantastic partner, a fantastic teacher, and a fantastic friend, and hopefully you will still be my friend even though we’re not having this conversation every week. But I can’t wait to listen to the conversations you will be having, whether it’s with Maria or Sendhil or Mike. And in the meantime, I guess I’m off to maybe write a book and make a lot of Freakonomics Radio, but most important, I think, it’s time for a sandwich.
DUCKWORTH: To be continued, Stephen Dubner.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with help from our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. Early in the conversation, Stephen says he thinks Eldar Shafir has a Ph.D. in economics and Sendhil Mullainathan does not. In fact, Mullainathan does have a Ph.D. in economics and Shafir has a Ph.D. in cognitive science. Later, Stephen and Angela can’t remember the name of Satya Nadella’s book. Angela calls it “Fresh: Restart” or “Hit Reset.” It’s actually titled Hit Refresh. Finally, Angela says she thinks Stephen Covey created the phrase “win-win.” The phrase actually came from Mary Parker Follett, a management theorist and consultant for president Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s. That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Angela discusses how to perform under pressure, with special guest Maria Konnikova.
KONNIKOVA: When push comes to shove, under those bright lights, when the cameras are on you, when everyone can see your cards and there are millions of dollars on the line, they can execute.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research help from Rebecca Lee Douglas and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: As they used to say, scarcity is scarcity. Actually, nobody ever said that.
- Daron Acemoglu, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Steve Ballmer, former C.E.O. of Microsoft; owner of the Los Angeles Clippers N.B.A. team.
- Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and former C.E.O. of the failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX.
- John Ciardi, 20th-century American poet.
- Stephen Covey, author.
- Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation and executive founder of Singularity University.
- Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft.
- Maria Konnikova, author, contributing writer for The New Yorker, and professional poker player.
- Mike Maughan, office of the executive chairman at Qualtrics and co-founder of the 5 For The Fight Foundation.
- Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of computation and behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- Satya Nadella, chairman and C.E.O. of Microsoft.
- Kate Raworth, professor at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and professor of practice at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.
- Eldar Shafir, professor of behavioral science and public policy at Princeton University.
- Anuj Shah, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- Shankar Vedantam, host and creator of the Hidden Brain podcast.
- Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson (2023).
- “Empirical Audit and Review and an Assessment of Evidentiary Value in Research on the Psychological Consequences of Scarcity,” by Michael O’Donnell, Amelia S. Dev, Stephen Antonoplis, Stephen M. Baum, Arianna H. Benedetti, N. Derek Brown, et al. (PNAS, 2021).
- Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth (2017).
- Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, by Satya Nadella (2017).
- “How The ‘Scarcity Mindset’ Can Make Problems Worse,” by Shankar Vedantam (N.P.R. Morning Edition, 2017).
- Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (2013).
- “Some Consequences of Having Too Little,” by Anuj K. Shah, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir (Science, 2012).
- Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis (2012).
- “Subjective Relative Income and Lottery Ticket Purchases,” by Emily Haisley, Romel Mostafa, and George Loewenstein (Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2008).
- “The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” by Barbara L. Fredrickson (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Science, 2004).
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey (1989).
- “Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi (1958).
- Poetry Foundation.
- “Why Do We Get Angry?” by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Is Economic Growth the Wrong Goal? (Update),” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Explains How to Generate an Idea a Minute (Part 2),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “How to Make Your Own Luck,” by Freakonomics Radio (2020).
- “Extra: Satya Nadella Full Interview,” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.