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Episode Transcript

Angela DUCKWORTH: I have bad habits, too. Like interrupting people and eating off of other people’s plates.  

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

Stephen DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Is it wrong to “plagiarize” someone else’s personality?

DUBNER: Somebody wrote to me to say, “I heard you ask this question, and you stole it from those guys.” And I was like, “First of all—”

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DUBNER: Angela, we recently discussed, on this show, your email signature.

DUCKWORTH: Mm-hmm.

DUBNER: Which I admired so much that I started using it myself. So, at the end of every email I now send — from my work email address, at least — the signature reads, “My work hours may not be your work hours. Reply if you want, when you want.” So, I wrote to you, and I asked whether you wanted me to attribute this signature to you, because I did steal it.

DUCKWORTH: Like a citation. “Duckworth, 2022.”

DUBNER: And you wrote back to say, “No. No need to attribute,” and that you were flattered that I was using it, which made me happy. But then you also said that you and your colleague Katy Milkman have, in fact, studied — and totally believe in and practice — what you call “personality plagiarism.” 

DUCKWORTH: Right.

DUBNER: I was very taken with this notion of personality plagiarism. I want to know much, much more. So, what is it, exactly? How far should I take it? And, if I start stealing the best parts of someone else’s personality, do I stop being myself? And, should I care?

DUCKWORTH: I want to give you the origin story, but I want to begin by saying that, when we published our paper on this — the lead author was a graduate student named Katie Mehr — we called it something else. We called it “copy/paste prompts.”

DUBNER: You know, I saw that, and I was a little bit disappointed, I have to tell you.

DUCKWORTH: Because you liked “personality plagiarism”?

DUBNER: It’s not only alliterative, but it’s evocative! Now, “copy/paste prompts”— And I read your paper, and I’ll be honest with you: You didn’t really even define it that well, or early, at least.

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m sure we didn’t. And so this is good feedback, although, I guess it’s too late, because it’s already published.

DUBNER: A little too late.

DUCKWORTH: I will say that I argued vigorously for “personality plagiarism.”

DUBNER: Let the record show not only that Angela was right, but that she lost the vote.

DUCKWORTH: I’m always arguing for alliteration. I think the idea, though, is very simple. You see somebody. You like their email signature. You like the way they begin meetings. You admire the way that they arrange the roast chicken at a dinner. I mean, anything that somebody else does where you think, “Huh, that’s pretty good, and it’s better than what I do.” Why not do it yourself? Why not copy and paste into your life what other people are doing in their lives? Why not plagiarize someone else’s personality if there are features of that personality that you like more? So, that’s the basic idea.

DUBNER: I mean, what you’re describing now, I think anyone can relate to that as adults. But we should say, this is what babies and children do. This is how you learn to be a human, yes?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. In fact, so much of learning throughout the lifespan, but maybe most obviously in childhood, is mimicry. You see somebody do something, and then you do it, and it’s a whole lot more efficient than somebody telling you how to do it in words.

DUBNER: Right.

DUCKWORTH: And I remember thinking this when, as a graduate student in psychology, you have to learn this thing called APA format. Now, you’re a journalist. Do you know what APA format is?

DUBNER: I do remember it, but more from academia than journalism. It was the footnoting, bibliography style, and stuff like that. How to cite references. I mean, that one component of it.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. And that’s the component that most people are familiar with. It’s the American Psychological Association formatting rules. And there’s this manual where you can read all the rules: If it’s a one-author paper, do it like this. If it’s a newspaper article, do it like this. So, you can read all these rules, and you can think, “Okay, if it’s a two-author paper, then you put a comma here,” or you can look up a PDF of a paper that’s already in APA format, and it’s so much easier just to see the example, and then to copy it. So, that’s the intuition behind this kind of learning through mimicry, learning through imitation. You could read Julia Child’s cookbook. Like: “And next, truss the chicken.” Or you could watch Julia Child truss a chicken, and it’s so much easier to imitate Julia Child than to read what she says, and then do it.

DUBNER: Okay, fair enough. But the paper that you wrote with your colleagues — Katie Mehr, Amanda Geiser, and Katy Milkman — the full title is “Copy-Paste Prompts: A New Nudge to Promote Goal Achievement.” So, can you back up and walk us through this? What’s the goal that you’re trying to get people to achieve? What’s the actual experiment?

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Yeah. And I will say that we also considered this “copy/paste nudge” — or “personality plagiarism” — to be a strategy that people could apply to literally any form of goal achievement, which motivated our title. The first study that we write about in the published article is on exercise — something that Americans typically want to do more of and find ultimately good for them, but in the moment, for a lot of people, there’s a lot of dread and loathing, or inertia, anyway. In this study, if you’re assigned to the treatment condition, you — as an adult, who were recruited to the study after saying you would like to exercise more, and you report how much exercise you had done in the prior week — you’re given this prompt, quote: “In this study, we want to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that someone you know uses as motivation to exercise. Over the next two days, we’d like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out. If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies.” And that’s essentially the whole nudge. You just look around, and you try to notice whether somebody’s doing something clever to get themselves to work out more, and then you’re supposed to copy/paste that technique — or plagiarize that technique — for your own benefit.

DUBNER: Now, we should say there’s a control condition, but then there’s also something called a “quasi-yoked” control condition. Is that worth getting into, or no?

DUCKWORTH: Well, the basic idea is, like, in any research experiment, you have to have a control condition to compare to. That’s the whole genius of the scientific method. So, in the “quasi-controls” — kind of means, like, “sort of,” — “quasi,” like, “sort-of control” — I’ll read you what the prompt was. “In this study, we’re hoping to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that motivates people to exercise. Over the next two days, we’d like you to get ready to learn a new strategy to motivate you to exercise.” And essentially, we took that list of tips that people in the treatment condition generated, and we gave them to the participants in the quasi-control.

DUBNER: In other words, I didn’t have to go up to strangers or other people I might know and ask them, “Hey, how do you get yourself to come to the gym so often? How do you get yourself to go so strenuously for so long?” Right?

DUCKWORTH: That’s exactly right. So therefore, you have, in some ways, the same kind of information as the treatment. So, we can isolate: What’s the effect of you hunting down this information from somebody in your own life? And I think that’s actually useful to say, because the kinds of things that you might copy/paste — like, you know, you liked my email signature, but if you had just Googled, “What’s a really respectful way to send your emails?” it would have come up, because I copy/pasted it from someone else. It’s fundamentally a social form of learning. So yeah, you can get this stuff by looking it up on the internet, but this is really learning through imitation of people that we know — even if it’s just an acquaintance at the gym.

DUBNER: Now, getting back to the motivation in the paper that you wrote about, did it work? Does copy/paste prompting actually encourage people to exercise more?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. We found statistically significant benefits of the copy/paste prompts. We don’t know enough about why it works, but one suggestion from our research is that: When you copy out of somebody else’s life, you are more committed, yourself, to using it. You have a sense of agency and ownership, and you’re like, “I’ve decided to do this.” There’s also some social interaction that happened, that you are then going to be more motivated. There’s research, for example, that shows that when you declare your goal socially — like, if people post on Facebook that they’re going to do something — that’s more likely— So, maybe there’s an element of social interaction, or you maybe mentioned to your friend, like, “Oh, I’m going to do that now.” And so, that reinforces things.

DUBNER: Just as an aside, I have to say: I was really interested to see that one of the exercise nudges incorporates something that Katy Milkman has written about, which I thought was really clever — what she calls “temptation bundling.” So, for instance, there was one nudge in this study that, for every hour that you exercise, you allow yourself 15 minutes on social media. Was that a typical kind of nudge, here? Can you give a few more examples of the types of things that I am copy/pasting from other people?

DUCKWORTH: When you ask people, like, “Hey, what are things that you’ve learned from other people who want to exercise more?” they do name things that scientists have independently studied, like temptation bundling. They also said things that have been studied that I would call “situation modification.” People said, “I put my sneakers by the door to make it a little easier.” One person said, “Oh, I learned from my friend to sleep in my workout clothes,” which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Isn’t that incredibly uncomfortable? Maybe because I have problems sleeping, I was like, “No, I don’t want to do that.” They say things like, “Just make sure that you like your exercise.” That’s also been studied by Ayelet Fishbach at University of Chicago. So, when you hear some of these strategies, you think, “Oh, I would never want to do that.” Other strategies you’re like, “Wow, that sounds great.” I think there’s something else going on in this personality plagiarism approach that’s helpful, which is that we tend to hang out with people who are like us.

DUBNER: Right.

DUCKWORTH: In romantic relationships, this often called “assortative mating.” Like, if you’re high in conscientiousness, they’re also high in conscientiousness, or if they’re really into fitness, you’re into fitness. I think this is a benefit here, because the people that you’re going to be friends with are like you. Therefore, their own strategies and tactics ought to be, on average, more beneficial for you than tactics picked at random.

DUBNER: Although, when I think about you and me, for instance — and you just said some strategies I might want to copy, whereas others sound terrible — your email signature, I loved. I copied it. But then, I think of the fact that you say that you swim an hour a day. Like, no chance.

DUCKWORTH: Not every day, but I used to swim an hour a day.

DUBNER: I’ll swim for five minutes if it’s really hot out, but that’s the extent of my swim appetite. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I appreciate very much your email signature. So yeah, you and I may have a fair amount in common, but one must be free to pick the items of the menu that really resonate for me. And just because we are engaged in the same activity — you and I make a show together; other people may go to the gym together — obviously, it doesn’t mean that Person A is going to want to do everything that Person B is doing.

DUCKWORTH: This is the great thing about curating. You get to decide, and you only plagiarize the things that you like. Like, I have bad habits too, like: interrupting people and eating off of other people’s plates.

DUBNER: Also, very closely linked, I think.

DUCKWORTH: I know it makes me sound like an incredibly impulsive person. In fact, Katy Milkman — who, of course, is the co-conspirator in this whole research study — I’m always eating off her plate, and she hates it. She’s like, “Why don’t you just order your own food?” I’m like, “Why would I want to do that? your food is right here!” So, let me actually get to the origin story. It goes back to when Katy and I first started to work together. We used to walk to campus. We lived in a pretty similar part of Center City, and we would meet, and then we would walk the rest of the way. And when we were walking together, we would, first of all, just observe each other doing certain things. I was like, “Oh, you know, I’m going to put my AirPods away.” And she’s like, “Why do you wear AirPods?” And I was like, “Well, that annoying sound of the wired microphone, like, hitting your jacket over and over again, that’s why I wear AirPods.” And so she took that into consideration and decided not to copy/paste that into her life. She’s a wired-headset gal. But then, there would be other things. Like, I would be approaching her, and I’d be finishing a conversation, and then I would meet her. She would notice that I would have a conversation that’s just ending a lot. And she was like, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “Oh, I almost always have a scheduled call for times that I’m walking — even if it’s five minutes to meet you — because that’s really efficient. She liked that one, and she actually started doing it herself. She ended up taking phone calls for a lot of the walks that she had — of course, the ones that were not with me.

DUBNER: Although, you could walk side-by-side and have separate conversations with two other people. Yeah?

DUCKWORTH: We have done that, too, by the way. So, we copy/paste each other all the time. I mean, once Katy came over, and we had literally 15 minutes to write an entire grant proposal, and I thought that was silly. You cannot write an entire grant proposal in 15 minutes. But Katy comes over, and she has a document open, and it’s her last grant proposal. She never really starts from scratch. She always starts from something, and it’s so much more efficient. And we took her last grant proposal and then we made all these edits to it. And, sure enough, we had a draft of an entire grant proposal in 15 minutes. So, I’ve copy/pasted innumerable things from Katy Milkman’s life. And it’s given me a sort of broader understanding of how to live a successful life. Like, Stephen, I teach an undergraduate class, and before I give any assignment, I make the TAs in my class — the teaching assistants — do the assignment so that my students have 10 models of what the assignment looks like. Now, you could say, like, “Why are you coddling these Ivy league students?” But I would just say I’m facilitating learning. That’s just how human beings learn, and why should I ask them to, like, blindly try to figure out what Angela Duckworth, their professor, wants? Why don’t I just show them 10 examples of what I want, and then have them go and try to do the 11th example, which is their assignment? There’s also something, though, that I have been wondering about. Have you ever heard of Frank Keil at Yale University?

DUBNER: I have not.

DUCKWORTH: He is so amazing. He studies young children, and he studies wonder, and curiosity, and learning. He has this study that he did where he actually took some toy that he found. It’s, like, a Crayola crayon engraver — apparently, one of the Crayola products that did not make the big time. Have you ever heard of the, uh, Crayola crayon engraver product?

DUBNER: I have heard of neither Frank Keil, nor the Crayola crayon engraver product. I apologize.

DUCKWORTH: Well, so much in store for you, Stephen.

DUBNER: Can’t wait.

DUCKWORTH: So, Frank was looking for a toy that was such a market failure that other children would never have played with it. So, Crayola, for a time, manufactured this contraption where, like, you stick your crayon in — I’m imagining Burnt Sienna, the best possible Crayola crayon color — and you have this little gizmo where, basically, you can engrave letters into the side of it. Like, you could engrave “Angela,” or, like, you can engrave “Stephen.” I guess, personalize your crayon.

DUBNER: This is an anti-theft measure then?

DUCKWORTH: Also, here’s the other thing: It was incredibly hard to use without the instructions. And what he did was, he wanted to see whether kids could figure out how to use this toy. But, in particular, he wanted to know whether they could understand that they needed to ask somebody else how to use it. And, basically, what he found is that, when you try to use this toy on your own, it’s damn near impossible. But when you watch somebody else use it — even, like, once or twice — you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” These children really needed a lot of scaffolding — or they needed a model — to show them how to use this toy. But also, a lot of these kids — I think the majority of these children — didn’t think they needed that assistance. So, what this study tells me is: We learn through imitation, but we don’t always recognize that we need to learn through imitation. So, we often think we can do it on our own, or by some other means. But having a model is surprisingly effective.

DUBNER: Here’s what’s curious to me about what you just said. You write in the paper that “copy/paste prompts may increase perceived autonomy.” And I was thinking, how can that possibly be true? I’ve literally just copied somebody. I’ve literally taken their idea or method for doing something and made it my own. And now I feel like I have more autonomy? How do you reconcile those two?

DUCKWORTH: So, autonomy is the feeling like you decided that you’re the boss of you, Stephen. You decided what to eat for breakfast, when to have this conversation, when to end this conversation. That’s what autonomy is. And all human beings have a need for autonomy. Now, this doesn’t mean that what you’ve decided to do had to come from your own life. If you say, “I’ve decided to change my email signature to Angela’s email signature,” you can still be 10 out of 10 on feelings of autonomy. And I think the contrast that we were looking at is: When people try to improve their lives, oftentimes other people give us advice unbidden. Like, “Hey, Stephen, looks like you’re having trouble working out. Let me give you some advice on how I work out.”

DUBNER: “Let me show you how to engrave your initials into that crayon that you’re carrying around for the past 40 years.”

DUCKWORTH: And I think this happens all the time in public health. They’re like, “Let’s tell people they need to eat more fruits and vegetables.” None of that actually helps you with feelings of autonomy, because you didn’t decide that you wanted that advice or information. So, this nudge that we wrote was designed to not diminish feelings of autonomy, which undermine motivation to do anything different. And that’s why, very gently, we were like, “Over the next two days, we’d like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out — if you want.” Right? That’s autonomy language. “If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies.”

DUBNER: What kind of effect does this have on the person being copied?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t know that we can say definitively based on this study. Separate research, though, on people who feel flattered — you know, there’s this famous adage that imitation is the highest form of flattery. I’m going to attribute that to Mark Twain, because I don’t know who really to attribute that to. Do you know who said that, by the way?

DUBNER: Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and God said everything.

DUCKWORTH: And Winston Churchill. Don’t forget Winston Churchill.

DUBNER: Shakespeare had a couple also.

DUCKWORTH: So, anyway, there is separate research that shows that, like, at least when we feel flattered, we feel great. And then, to the extent people feel like being imitated is flattery, then, yeah, it should make you feel pretty good. I mean, I felt good when you emailed me. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who asked me if it was okay if they also used it. And I was like, “Yeah. Go ahead.” And, plus, I copied it from somebody else.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: What are the downsides to personality plagiarism?

DUCKWORTH: I tell them over and over again, “You cannot plagiarize. You cannot plagiarize.”

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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about personality plagiarism, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to let us know how copying others has worked for them. Here’s what you said.

Whitney MELLO: I am a person who hates carrying purses. And so I was always putting my ID and my debit and credit cards into my wallet when I went out drinking — and obviously, and subsequently, losing said cards. And my best friend got one of those iPhones with a wallet case on the back. And I watched it, and I wanted it, and I got one, and I have not lost an ID, or credit-, or debit card since then.

Dan RADLAUER: This is Dan Radlauer in Los Angeles, California. As a professional composer for media, I’m often asked to copy the feel, tempo, or emotion of an existing piece of music. While this can limit creativity, it also offers boundaries and direction for what musical effect is desired. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. So, what better way to learn about an art than by imitating or being inspired by what has succeeded before? Am I a copycat? In some ways, yes. But there’s always some of myself in even the most derivative work I produce.

Allison GROSSMAN: One of my first jobs out of college, one of my colleagues showed me that in her email inbox, she kept a folder of her “wins,” and in it, she would save nice things people said to her, or accomplishments, or things she was proud of. And so, when she had a bad day or wanted to quit, she could look at the folder and think about, “Okay, I’ve done something right.” I promptly copied and implemented it. And it’s something that has helped me on many a dark day.

That was, respectively: Whitney Mello, Dan Radlauer, and Allison Grossman. Thanks to them, and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about copy/paste prompts and Stephen’s theft of Angela’s email signature.

DUBNER: I have to say, people really noticed my new signature on my work email.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, really? Did you get feedback?

DUBNER: I got a lot of feedback. And a lot of it was, I think, from the people who knew me well — and again, this is only my work email, it’s not my personal email — I think they were a little of the opinion that, “Oh, have you been sending even more 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. emails out, and you’re just trying to bank some penance?”

DUCKWORTH: You want cover?

DUBNER: So, I don’t think it was seen as a totally altruistic endeavor. I think it was seen as a little bit of, you know, creating a space for my continued early-morning emailing. But let me ask you this: What about the downsides, or even pitfalls, of “copy/paste”? Because, you know, we know that social contagion can be real. Suicide is a classic example.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: Now, we’re getting into maybe what you call “copycat behavior” more broadly, rather than “personality plagiarism,” per se, but even with personality plagiarism, can you see downsides where you start to feel, perhaps, like you’re surrendering who you are? You know the famous thought experiment of Theseus’s ship?

DUCKWORTH: No. I don’t know it. Tell me.

DUBNER: Theseus sailed his ship home from Crete, and it was sitting in the port — maybe in Athens or somewhere — and the planks of the ship start to rot. And as each plank would rot, someone would replace it with a new plank. And eventually, all the original planks are gone, and all the planks were new. So, the question is: Is this still Theseus’s ship? Or is this an entirely new ship? If it’s a new one, when did it become a new one? What about me? If I’ve replaced 51 percent of my email signatures with Angela Duckworth’s email signatures, am I now somewhat less me and more her?

DUCKWORTH: I think this comes back to autonomy. For example, when I use a labor-saving device, like, “Should I hack this steak with my hands? Or should I use a knife?” Well, the knife is a labor-saving device. Try the knife. But then the question is, like, “Yeah, but did I really cut the steak myself? Because I used a knife — I took the easy way out.” To me, the question is: Who made the decision? If you made the decision to end your emails the way I end my emails, then that, to me, is fully Stephen Dubner’s. If I make the decision to use a knife, or to copy something out of your life into mine, I think that’s still me.

DUBNER: But it’s interesting that you originally used the word “plagiarism,” because plagiarism obviously has a negative connotation. And, in both of our fields — academia and journalism — plagiarism is, like, the cardinal sin.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: If you copy and paste a phrase that’s more than, let’s say, three words and it’s not in quotes, that’s considered, essentially, plagiarism. I remember I came up with a list of what we called “FREAK-Quently Asked Questions” when we were just starting out Freakonomics Radio.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I get it. “Freak.”

DUBNER: And one of the questions that I think I came up with originally — although I’m sure I channeled it from a long, long, long list of things I’d read, and so on, was: Tell me something you once thought, or knew, to be true until you found out you were wrong. In other words: Essentially, tell me something you changed your mind about. Then later, there’s another podcast — made by people I know and like, actually. I believe they asked a very similar question. And then somebody wrote to me to say, “I heard you ask this question, and you stole it from those guys.” And I was like, “First of all—”

DUCKWORTH: “Buck-o.”

DUBNER: “Let’s do some time/date stamping, because I was pretty sure I was there ahead of time.”

DUCKWORTH: I can just imagine your reaction. The hair on the back of your neck is standing up, and you’re getting all lathered in the mouth.

DUBNER: I was getting a little lathered. So, there is maybe a fine line between “good” plagiarism and “bad” plagiarism, let’s call it. Because when you’re telling me, “Hey, Stephen, it’s okay. Take my email signature. Use it. Use whatever else you can of mine. If you want to yell at your kids about leaving coffee rings on the white counter, you can do that, too.” But, at a certain point, isn’t it a little creepy if I just start to do everything that you do?

DUCKWORTH: Well, the email signature is actually not even the best example to give people as a starter for personality plagiarism, because we know that plagiarism of words — like, I cannot take a paragraph out of Freakonomics, copy it and paste it into my next book, call it my own, and have it be anything other than plagiarism-plagiarism.

DUBNER: Right.

DUCKWORTH: So, the fact that you copy/pasted a signature, that’s, in a way, a confusing place to begin. I say to my students, you can plagiarize form, but not content. So, when I’m writing a paper with a student, I tell them over and over again, “You cannot plagiarize. You cannot plagiarize.” They, of course, need no retelling, because they know you’re not supposed to plagiarize. But I say: If you see another paper for the same journal, and they start with an inspiring quote, and they have a really short first paragraph, and then at the end of the first paragraph they say what their study’s about, you can open a document, start your own paper, start with an inspiring quote — a different quote — have a really short paragraph, and have the last sentence of that paragraph talk about what you’re going to do. That’s plagiarizing form, not content. I think — you tell me if you think otherwise — I think that’s fine. You can, like, look at Ernest Hemingway and be like, “Huh, short sentences. I can do that.” What’s wrong with that?

DUBNER: I would generally agree. Although every medium, or every idiom, is a little bit different. Like, I’ve always thought it was interesting that in writing, which I did study, it was thought to be kind of bad to copy form like that.

DUCKWORTH: Really.

DUBNER: Like, Raymond Carver was a writer who wrote kind of Hemingway-ish — very short, direct sentences. And there were a lot of Raymond Carver fans and imitators when I was in graduate school. And that was considered to be, you know, a little bit tacky. On the other hand, in music, which I also did a lot, it was considered great form to cite or copy — literally, sample — music that you like. But that came with a weird history as well, because, you know, a big part of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll in particular was about white musicians copying Black musicians and getting famous and accolades for it. Some of this was cover music — like The Rolling Stones, who I loved — they played a lot of songs by Chuck Berry, and Slim Harpo, and Muddy Waters, and that was allowed within the idiom. They were literally doing, quote, “a cover song.” And in music, it’s generally pretty accepted, but the economics of it were bizarre, because Chuck Berry wrote all these amazing songs that The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, and many other people, copied. And he was theoretically supposed to get a few pennies per record that was made. Who knows if he ever got it? I think he didn’t even own his songwriting, but there’s plainly a lot of inequity there.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s a good warning. Not only should we not plagiarize content unless it’s with permission, and it’s with attribution, and it’s with compensation. That, in general, we shouldn’t be passing things off as not our own. You know, if you say, “Hey, Angela, where’d you get the idea of starting your paper with quotes?” I’ll say, like, “Oh, George Vaillant does that a lot.” You know, “I copied this out of Walter Mischel.” I’ll tell as many people as I can get to listen to me, that I think looking for inspiration has been the only way that I’ve done anything. And then, if you say, “Well, then nothing you do is original,” then I’ll say like: Okay. You know, the great choreographer Balanchine said that there were no new dance moves. There were only old dance moves that we forgot and then remember. And he was famous for taking inspiration from other choreographers.

DUBNER: As it has been said, although I have no idea by whom, “Borrow from the good, steal from the great.” And I stole my email signature from you. That makes you great. Thanks for letting me steal it, Angela.

DUCKWORTH: I think Mark Twain said that.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Angela discusses Yale psychologist Frank Keil’s experiment with a Crayola crayon engraver. The product is actually called a Crayola crayon “carver” — Angela will appreciate the alliteration.

Also, Stephen and Angela expressed their confusion about the origin of quite a few quotes in this episode. Angela thinks that Mark Twain may be responsible for the adage “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Stephen says that Irish poet Oscar Wilde is often credited with famous aphorisms — and in this case, he was spot on. Wilde is quoted as saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” However, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, a version of the idea originated with second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who in Meditations wrote, “You should consider that imitation is the most acceptable part of worship, and that the gods had much rather mankind should resemble than flatter them.”

Angela then says that ballet choreographer George Balanchine said, quote, “There are no new dance moves. There were only old dance moves that we forgot.” I can’t find evidence of Balanchine using this specific language. However, he is quoted as saying, “God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it — from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do.”

Later, Stephen wonders about the origin of “borrow from the good, steal from the great.” It is not, in fact, from Mark Twain, as Angela suggests. Many artists have written versions of the expression — including T.S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, William Faulker, and Pablo Picasso. However, the original author was apparently English writer and journalist W. H. Davenport Adams. In a 1892 publication of The Gentleman’s Magazine, he wrote, quote, “Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder if American rock and roll musician Chuck Berry was ever properly reimbursed for his songwriting. According to Berry’s 1987 memoir Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, he felt taken advantage of early on in his music career, but he quickly learned from that experience and became savvy about publishing arrangements. At the time of his death in 2017, his estate was worth an estimated $50 million.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Can adults have imaginary friends too?

DUCKWORTH: I remember when Princess Diana died, and there was such an outpouring of grief around the world. I was like, “Holy schmoley! What is going on with these people who are grieving like it were a brother or a sister?”

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear about how your relationship with a celebrity, a fictional character, or even a podcast host has affected your life. Maybe you feel particularly connected to Hamlet, or Oprah, or even the Spice Girls. How real does the relationship feel to you? And what do you get from it? To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “One-Sided Friendship.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. We had help this week from Anya 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: It’s called “copycat” behavior, but the weird thing is that, there are animals that do mimic — monkeys mimic, parrots mimic — but cats actually are, like, anti-mimic. So, the fact we call it “copycat” is weird.

DUCKWORTH: And either paradoxical, ironic, contradictory, or hypocritical — one of those things.

DUBNER: I think I had a cat named Paradoxical once. No, we had a cat named Doxology.

DUCKWORTH: Or you could have named it Schrodinger.

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Sources

  • Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.
  • Amanda Geiser, Ph.D. student at U.C. Berkeley.
  • Frank Keil, professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale University.
  • Katie Mehr, Ph.D. student in decision processes at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
  • George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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