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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. This is the time of year we like to play for you some of the other shows we’ve been making for the Freakonomics Radio Network. Today, an episode of No Stupid Questions, with Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan. We started this show a few years ago, with me as Angela’s co-host, but when it came time to replace myself — well, I think you’ll agree that Mike has done brilliantly. Mike is an executive with Qualtrics and does a variety of other interesting things; Angela, in case you don’t know, is a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Grit. I hereby predict you will love this episode of No Stupid Questions and that you will immediately follow the show on your podcast app. So, don’t make a liar out of me. As always, thanks for listening.

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DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that was basically psychology a hundred years ago. She was like, “I went to this restaurant, and let me tell you what happened.”

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

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

Today, on a special episode of the show: Do you need closure in order to move on?

MAUGHAN: When a lottery gets to over $1 billion, I call a friend in another state and Venmo him some money.

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have an email from Shreya Bhargava, and it is something I have long wanted to talk about.

MAUGHAN: Let’s go!

DUCKWORTH: “Hi, Mike and Angela. I recently read about the Zeigarnik effect and wanted to ask: Is it true that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks? And could this be extrapolated to human relationships? Do relationships that have no closure stick around in our heads more than the ones we’ve been able to resolve and amicably close?”

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, yes!

DUCKWORTH: Your knee-jerk reaction is, “Yes, when you have closure, it’s totally different. It —” what? Leaves your head? Is that your intuition?

MAUGHAN: Yeah and just in general, I love closure. I appreciate closure. Even the “Irish exit” drives me insane.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what’s the “Irish exit”?

MAUGHAN: It’s when someone just leaves and doesn’t say goodbye. They just slip out of a party.

DUCKWORTH: Why is it called the Irish ex — do Irish people do that?

MAUGHAN: I actually have no idea.  

DUCKWORTH: You look around, and you’re like, “Where’s the Irish friend I had?”

MAUGHAN: Maybe it’s a terrible thing to say now. I actually don’t know.

DUCKWORTH: It could be. It could be wildly inappropriate. I’ve done it before, though. I mean, haven’t you done that by the way? Like, you go to a wedding reception, and you think strategically, “I’m going to be super-visible.” Like, you’re in the line of sight of the bride, and the groom, and the bride’s family, and the groom’s family. But then, you know, in this moment where everybody’s distracted, they’re throwing the bouquet, or something — like, I’ve totally snuck out. Have you not done that?

MAUGHAN: No, I agree with you 100 percent, and I’ve also done that. I’m thinking about a wedding I went to this summer, and the minute everyone was distracted, and I’d made face time with enough people — beelined to the car and then it was weeks later that the groom was like, “Wait, were you there for the dancing?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I think so. Yeah, it was great!”

DUCKWORTH: That might be your first confession to me of fibbing, ever. Now I have to re-evaluate everything. We’re going to have to get closure on this, or it’s going to keep bothering me. But until then, I might be thinking about it. And that is actually the Zeigarnik effect, right? So, this email from Shreya asks, “Is the Zeigarnik effect real?” And I guess I should tell you what it is. I don’t know that you’ve heard about it, but —

MAUGHAN: I have not.

DUCKWORTH: So, the Zeigarnik effect is attributed to Bluma Zeigarnik. She was a psychologist, and she was a student nearly a century ago. She studied with Kurt Lewin. He was a great psychologist himself. Zeigarnik says that she was in a restaurant and she observed that the waiter could keep in their head just, like, a ridiculous number of orders, and drinks, and who’s getting what, and have they been served? So, she’s just marveling at this, and she’s like, “How is it that you can keep all these things in your head?” But then, she’s even more astonished because — and this is a little bit like myth now. She did write about it, but I think it’s been maybe embroidered, as myths are.  

MAUGHAN: We mythologize all things that are cool.

DUCKWORTH: We do, so maybe this is a bit of a screen-written ending. But after the waiter serves everyone’s food — and serves it correctly — what happens is they finish eating, this large group that Bluma Zeigarnik’s part of, and one person — you know, legend has it — goes back to retrieve an item that they left behind. And this guest spots the waiter, and asks for help, and thinks that, “Oh, this waiter who can obviously remember everything” would remember where they were sitting, etc. And the waiter looks at this dinner guest and seemingly has no idea who they even are, much less where they sat and whether they had left something behind. And so, the waiter had kind of erased the hard drive of memory once the task was finished. So, the Zeigarnik effect refers to keeping in our minds unfinished tasks. And when we have closure — when something is checked off or resolved — then that thing exiting our mind. That’s the myth.

MAUGHAN: Here’s a really interesting corollary, and this is maybe why I believe it, because: I went to school. Tell me if I’m way off on this — I mean, how often did you cram before a test, you have all this information in your head — or maybe not even cramming, but you study, you study, you get ready, and then you take the test, and then it’s all gone? I have the “closure” of having finished the class or taken the test, and it just flows into the ether. 

DUCKWORTH: I had not thought about that, Mike, but I think that would be an excellent demonstration of the Zeigarnik effect. For me, what is salient is being a professor. Sometimes I will put up a slide in my class, and it will be, verbatim, the main point of the last class — sort of like: “A goal is defined as ‘blank,’” right? And I think to myself, well, class was only a week ago. I spent three hours in every possible way demonstrating these definitions. My students love me. They love this class. They have readings to do on this subject. And I am sometimes astonished at the sub-100 percent accuracy of these easy-to-me questions. But one could argue that if you are just like, “Oh, great, that class is over.” Or, “I’ve taken that quiz, I don’t need to know that anymore” — I mean, the Zeigarnik effect is, narrowly speaking, about unfinished tasks, but you could also just say, like, you know, someone tells you a passcode or a phone number, and you’re mentally rehearsing it in your head, “724, 724, 724, 724.” And then you type in “724,” and then you have no idea afterwards.

MAUGHAN: And sometimes I can’t even hold on long enough until I need to.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I know. But, okay, so, Bluma Zeigarnik lived a century ago, and she had these observations, but let’s just say that Bluma Zeigarnik was not running a lot of randomized controlled experiments.

MAUGHAN: She was going to restaurants.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that was basically psychology a hundred years ago. She was like, “I went to this restaurant, and let me tell you what happened.” So, more recently, two social psychologists, E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister — they had the idea of doing an experiment to see whether Bluma Zeigarnik was right, and whether it was really true that unfulfilled goals persist in our minds until they are fulfilled, and then they exit. I’ll just give you an example of one of the studies they did to show that there really is a Zeigarnik effect. They said, the thing is that when you’re doing something, and you have to keep it in your head — like, “724, 724, 724,” it’s an unfinished task — it eats up cognitive bandwidth. And it gives you, by the way, an idea of why the brain doesn’t actually remember “724” after it doesn’t need to, because you want that cognitive bandwidth to do something else. We only keep in our minds active what we need to. And so, they just ran these clever experiments where, for example, they gave people something to read that they needed to focus on, like a passage from a novel. And if you had had a task assigned to you that you had not yet completed, that you knew you were going to have to do afterwards, you were more likely to mind-wander and to understand less of what you’re reading. I mean, the analogy would be: if I go to a meeting and I know that there was this one thing that I wanted to email before I went to the meeting, but I ran out of time. What they found in this experiment — is that you’re a little distracted the whole time you’re doing this intermediary task by the task that you have not yet finished, but you know you have to.

MAUGHAN: But is that not everything in life? I mean, how often —

DUCKWORTH: Do you finish everything that you need to do? 

MAUGHAN: Yeah! I mean, I keep a pad of paper by my bed, and as I’m going to bed, the lights are off, I’ve already fallen asleep, and I wake back up, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh. Didn’t do this!” Close my eyes, wake back up. “Didn’t do this!” 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so you write things down on the pad before you go to sleep?

MAUGHAN: Right. So then, in the morning I’ll remember to do them, but when have you gone to a meeting and total just — 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait, wait, wait! I want to go back to the pad. I think that’s doing two things. One is, when we write things down, it’s just externalizing memory. So, you’re not going to forget the five things that you were supposed to do, that you didn’t do, that you need to do in the morning. Great. But the other thing is, you’re keeping those things out of the buffer of your head. So, you’re allowing yourself, for example, I assume, to just go to sleep and not be, “724, 724.” And that’s what Masicampo and Baumeister found. In a way, it’s like the antidote to this kind of preoccupation we have with unfinished tasks. Because you’re right, Mike, this happens all the time. But also, all the time, we make plans. And what they found in these experiments is that if the volunteer in the experiment who was being subject to the Zeigarnik effect, if they had an opportunity to write about a thing that they were supposed to do — basically write down a plan — then they didn’t suffer from the Zeigarnik effect. So, the idea that you have of keeping that pad of paper and a pen at your bedside — and I keep, as you know, this one-dollar notebook, you know, those cheap composition notebooks. I have this system where on the right side of those pages, I take my notes, they’re always dated, I can go back to my lab notebooks from my very first year of graduate school because I have them all. But on the left side of these pages, which are often blank, if I’m in a meeting or doing something, I’m in a main task, but in my head — you know, you ever have those little thought bubbles and you’re like, “Oh, I forgot to buy milk.” Right? Like, “Oh, I have to email that person.” 

MAUGHAN: I have maybe 4,000 of them a day, and it’s very distracting.

DUCKWORTH: So, I have all these plans, and as soon as I write them down, they’re out of my head. I don’t have to remember “724, 724,” because the next time I open my notebook — it’s just there for you.

MAUGHAN: So, part of it is this externalization of memory, and that allows us the quote-unquote “closure of that task,” whether it be done or not, so that we can then focus on what’s right in front of us.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think that the way to think about it is: your brain is doing what it needs to do. It’s prioritizing. And the brain is relieved of the responsibility of keeping something in its working memory, the kind of active memory of the brain. Because you know that you’ve written it down, you know you’ve made a plan, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. This is, some would argue, one of the great leaps forward for human civilization. When we have writing, it’s a way of externalizing all the things that you don’t have to keep in your working memory, and frankly, even in your long-term memory, because you can go look it up. But this general idea is, yes, you can free up the brain to do things that it more urgently needs to do, because you have externalized. 

Still to come on this special episode of No Stupid Questions: Angela and Mike discuss how the Zeigarnik effect comes up in our relationships with other people.

DUCKWORTH: A little bit of mystery, Mike Maughan. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. 

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Now, back to Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan’s conversation about closure and the Zeigarnik effect, on No Stupid Questions.

DUCKWORTH: So Mike, when it comes to the Zeigarnik effect, I think, in a way, the more interesting thing is what happens emotionally. And my favorite thinkers on this are Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert. And they are psychologists who have this idea that we all have psychological immune systems.


DUCKWORTH: I know, right? 

MAUGHAN: Meaning something that keeps me healthy psychologically?

DUCKWORTH: Yes! Just like the body regulates its temperature, and its blood pressure, and its metabolism, we also regulate the processing of emotion.

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, yes! But sometimes we’re so — well, I should not speak — “I” am so bad at that.

DUCKWORTH: You? I think you are so even-keeled.

MAUGHAN: But I think all of us have moments where we get thrown off base. The times when I think I’m least regulated-emotionally, maybe, are the times when I have so much to do and am feeling immense time pressure, and I just need people to be efficient and do their job and do it well, and I don’t have a ton of time to explain, or walk through, or be patient, and those are the moments when I have the greatest regret, because maybe I’ve acted inappropriately because I’m so under time pressure and other pressures. 

DUCKWORTH: So, in such a stressful situation, in one word, what would you describe your mood or your emotion as?

MAUGHAN: Um, “deep frustration” is probably the emotion that explodes out.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so, let’s think of a time recently where you were stressed, and people around you were not doing what they needed to do, when they needed to do it, and you got frustrated. And then — I want to ask you, you’re not frustrated now, right? — so, tell me the story of what happens with that frustration.

MAUGHAN: So, I recently was going through an experience where I was supposed to meet with this person.

DUCKWORTH: This unnamed person.

MAUGHAN: And I needed an introduction to this person from somebody else. And it just never happened. And I talked to the person. I said, “Hey, will you set up the meeting?” Didn’t do it. “Hey, I need to have this meeting.” Didn’t do it. So, I’m growing increasingly frustrated. And I think I’m going to send them a text that’s kind of loaded and — “Darn it, just do your job” type of thing. And instead, I waited. And then, the next time I saw the individual, I said to them, “Hey, we’re supposed to be having this meeting. Can you help me understand: are you avoiding it because you don’t want me to meet with that person, or you feel threatened by my involvement there, or you don’t care? I just need to understand, why are you not doing this?” And I forced the conversation for them to then explain — because I think so often we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation, or we don’t want to tell them the real reason. So, we just avoid.

DUCKWORTH: So, did you get the explanation that you wanted?

MAUGHAN: I got the explanation. This person just said, “Hey, I don’t think it’s the right time. I’m working on this through them. I think that we’ll be better off if we do it this way.” Okay, maybe we disagree with strategy, or maybe I agree with that strategy, but regardless, I’d never been told that strategy, and none of us on our side had. So, we got some level of closure.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and then what happened to your emotion? Were you as frustrated before and after the explanation? Or did your frustration diminish, which is what Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert — you know, that’s their big theory: that emotions linger when there’s lack of closure, and emotions end when we do have explanations about what’s going on. What happened for you? 

MAUGHAN: I would say that my frustration with the lack of action diminished. And then, a new frustration grew, that either I did not present myself in such a way that this person felt they could be fully honest with me and frustration that they didn’t feel that. So, it was kind of a mutual, “Hey, if I’m not being the kind of person that you can talk to, then I need to fix that, or you need to give me feedback, or let’s figure that out, versus just avoidance.”  

DUCKWORTH: So, I’ll try to give an accounting for how emotion works, and when we continue to feel frustrated, when we stop feeling frustrated. I, by the way, want to say this applies to positive feelings, too. The idea is that our feelings linger — whether they’re positive feelings, like joy, or negative feelings, like frustration. They stop when we have a complete accounting for what happened. So the idea of you being frustrated with this colleague, according to this theory that once they explain to you why they didn’t want to have the meeting, at least a certain kind of frustration should have gone down, because you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” Now you could have a new frustration, but that new frustration is because now you don’t understand why you don’t have the sort of relationship where they wouldn’t have just told you in the first place. And when you get closure on that, the prediction is that you’ll, again, feel a diminishing of that frustration. So, our emotions go up and down with closure or lack thereof.

MAUGHAN: That makes perfect sense to me in negative emotions.

DUCKWORTH: This doesn’t make sense to you for positive emotions. 

MAUGHAN: For positive emotion — I mean, do I want closure on joy? I feel like I want that to keep going. And it’s like, “Oh, that was so beautiful! And now I have closure, and I no longer feel joy.” That seems terrible! 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! So, let me tell you about one of their studies, where they ask college students to read text messages from other students — in this case, they were students from the opposite sex who had evaluated them positively. Now, if you were uncertain about which student had actually written the message, then your positive mood lingers longer than when you do know. This reminds me — in high school, we used to have this Valentine’s Day fund-raiser every year, and you could send carnations to someone, right?

MAUGHAN: Yes! Okay, I was going to say, that’s what we did, too. It’s always carnations.

DUCKWORTH: It’s always carnations, because they’re so cheap. 

MAUGHAN: Dime a dozen, yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly! Maybe literally. So you could, of course, sign the note. Or you could choose not to.

MAUGHAN: Or you could put, like, “an admirer” or whatever. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. You know, why is it so intriguing to have a secret admirer? It’s because you have lack of closure. And explanations bring an end to emotion. And I think you’re right, Mike, you might not want that. So —

MAUGHAN: No, that makes sense. When you phrase it that way, I get it. I also think — and maybe this is not at all the same thing — but part of playing the lottery, they always say, is not actually about winning the lottery, because the chances are so small. But it’s — when you buy the ticket, there’s this anticipatory effect where you think about all the fun things you could do, and it brings so much joy just thinking about, like, “Oh this would be amazing!” And then, it doesn’t happen, but nobody ever actually expects it to happen anyway.

DUCKWORTH: And that whole time when there’s lack of closure, you get to marinate in your low-probability fantasies about what you’re going to do when you win the lottery. 

MAUGHAN: Exactly! And it’s actually really, really fun.

DUCKWORTH: You have never played the lottery, Mike Maughan, have you? 

MAUGHAN: I live in Utah. It’s actually illegal here, but I —

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what? 

MAUGHAN: You can’t buy lottery tickets in Utah.

DUCKWORTH: You don’t have a lottery in Utah?

MAUGHAN: We do not, no.

DUCKWORTH: Can I just say that I need to move to Utah because lotteries — okay, this is a totally different topic, but I think lotteries exploit the general human inability to understand low-probability phenomena. They’re kind of evil, T.B.H.  

MAUGHAN: I actually agree and, obviously, all the data shows what you’re saying — is that they’re almost a regressive tax. So, all of the moral arguments, that I agree with, are why lotteries are bad. So, now I’m going to confess something that you’re going to hate. When a lottery gets to over $1 billion, I call a friend in another state and Venmo him some money.

DUCKWORTH: You do not! Seriously?

MAUGHAN: Only because — I feel like I’ve been caught right now, and I’m confessing. 

DUCKWORTH: Holy shamoley!

MAUGHAN: But only because I just think it’s fun to —

DUCKWORTH: It’s so darn fun. 

MAUGHAN: Have the opportunity to just fantasize for a little bit about everything you — I know I’m not going to win, but it’s almost like paying the $10 to go see a movie. I pay $10 to spend three days thinking about what I would do with the lottery winnings. And that’s really fun, and then I get closure that clearly it didn’t work. As you’re saying, the positive emotion goes away, but it was a really fun three days, and I’m okay with that. 

DUCKWORTH: And you don’t totally know you’re not going to win.

MAUGHAN: Well! But I’m pretty sure I’m not going to win.

DUCKWORTH: Pretty sure, right? Yeah, you’re no quantitative idiot, but you also know that the probability isn’t zero. So, I think, relatedly, one of my favorite studies that Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert ever did — they have this study where they approach students, undergraduates, who are studying in the library, and they give them an index card. And the index card has a dollar coin attached to it. So, it’s kind of cool and unusual. Now, there’s two conditions. In the uncertain condition, the card conveys this vague information about the source and purpose of the money. It’s signed by the “Smile Society” and just says, “We like to promote random acts of kindness.” But it’s sort of like, “What? I’m in the library. You just handed me a card?” That’s the “uncertain” condition. Then, there’s the “certain” condition. Students in the library, they get handed an index card, it’s got a dollar coin taped to it, except now, each of those elements of information are preceded with a very helpful question. Instead of just the “Smile Society,” which — you’re like, “What?” — it’s preceded with, “Who are we? The Smile Society.” And then, instead of just getting, “We like to promote random acts of kindness.” You get, “Why do we do this? We like to promote random acts of kindness.”  

MAUGHAN: And it asks a question for me to, maybe, anchor me in understanding or — okay, I see that.

DUCKWORTH: So, that’s the clever little experiment. So, I’m going to give you a little closure now, because you may have guessed what’s going to happen. 

MAUGHAN: Because I need closure! I’m a person who needs closure!

DUCKWORTH: Yes, let me give it to you. So, Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert knew all about the Zeigarnik effect. In fact, that was one of the inspirations for their theory. And the prediction would be that when you do have this closure where you’re like, “Oh, I know why I got this dollar coin. And I know who these people are,” that the positive emotions would end sooner. And that’s exactly what they found. So, these students who were studying at the library and getting these cards, then they were approached by another experimenter a few minutes later, and they were asked to complete a survey, and those who had received the “certain” card — meaning the card with the questions that explained everything that was going on — were actually in a less positive mood than those who had received the uncertain card. So, you’re exactly right, Mike. You can use this to make your negative emotions go away sooner, and you can use this to make your positive emotions linger if you can find ways to forestall or delay closure.   

MAUGHAN: This is so interesting. I mean, there’s this Valentine’s book that we always read as kids called Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.

DUCKWORTH: Is this the Maughan family?

MAUGHAN: Yes, this is the Maughan family. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, gosh. I want to be part of this family. 

MAUGHAN: I’ll mail you this book. It’s an awesome book. But there’s this older gentleman — lives alone, never had a family — and he gets this big box of chocolates that says, “Somebody loves you.” And it talked about how before he ate the same crappy sandwich every day and ate alone at his job at a shoelace factory, and had no friends. 

DUCKWORTH: A shoelace factory!

MAUGHAN: I mean, they portray this as a very sad situation. But the point is, the guy’s life completely changes because, quote, “Somebody loves you.”

DUCKWORTH: But he doesn’t know who, right? 

MAUGHAN: Yeah, right! He’s like, “Maybe it was the person I buy the paper from. Maybe it was someone at work. Maybe it was the neighbors.” And he becomes so involved in his community, and he starts making brownies, and inviting people over, and all this. And then the postman comes back and says, “Mr. Hatch, I’m in a lot of trouble. I delivered this to the wrong house.”

DUCKWORTH: Wait, and then what happens?

MAUGHAN: Got to read the book. Just kidding, I’ll tell you. What basically happens is then the postman tells everyone in town, “Hey, I made this mistake.” And then it ends with this beautiful, like, “Everybody loves you, Mr. Hatch!” And they have this party. But the whole thing that changed his life in this very short, fictional children’s story was not knowing who, quote, “loved him,” and therefore, he went on this journey to find out, “Could it be any of these people?” And it opened up a whole new world to him of opportunity to build relationships and anticipation of positive things.

DUCKWORTH: A little bit of mystery, Mike Maughan. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. Look, I do want to give you some advice from John Gottman. John Gottman is the most famous couples-counseling-slash-how-to-have-a-good-relationship. So, what does Gottman say? I’m going to read to you from The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, and it’s about how couples can build a healthy, trusting relationship. And he says, “Negative events in couple relationships are inevitable. The way relationships fail is through something called the Zeigarnik effect. If a couple’s negative events are not fully processed” — that’s what he calls “attunement,” like getting to closure. If they’re not fully processed, “then they’re remembered and rehearsed repeatedly, turned over and over in each person’s mind.” And then he says that you find some way to get a kind of closure by attributing blame to the other person. It kind of spirals. And he says, “The potential role of the Zeigarnik effect is colossal. If we engage in attuned processing” — right, getting to closure — “of a negative emotional event or regrettable incident with our partner, we will only foggily remember it. The details will become hazy and the event insignificant. On the other hand, if we dismiss and avoid processing a negative emotional event, it will not disappear. It will fester, ready to be triggered again.” Gottman continues, “This is why attuning to a negative, regrettable incident is so incredibly important. Like the Viennese waiters in Zeigarnik’s cafe, if partners avoid processing the incident with attunement, the event and its negative emotion will lie inside each partner like an improvised explosive device, an I.E.D., ready to explode if inadvertently stepped on.”

MAUGHAN: Let me give you an “amen” and a “hallelujah.” Going back to a relationship I had, this is 15, 20 years ago, I don’t know, it’s a long time ago. Anyway, this person lived in New York. I lived in Arizona. They said, “If I move out to Arizona, can we date?” They moved out to Arizona — didn’t talk to her for a year.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, why?

MAUGHAN: I don’t know, I’m just dumb. I don’t have a good reason. But the point is that we then did date, and this fight came up over and over a million —.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, the fight about, like, what happened?  

MAUGHAN: “But then you didn’t even call me for a year. And then you didn’t call me for a year.” So, like, I don’t know how to take Gottman’s advice on this, because I was like, “I don’t know what else to say. I was wrong. I’m sorry. You’re right.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, but it wasn’t a sufficient explanation then, for this anonymous person. 

MAUGHAN: Okay, see, this is what I guess we’re getting to. There was never closure. This is not why it didn’t work out, but it never ended. We never got closure. And I guess what you’re telling me is I am responsible, because I never gave sufficient explanation — probably because there wasn’t sufficient explanation, because I just didn’t. I don’t know.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe either you didn’t fully understand, or your explanation wasn’t a complete enough explanation for that person. When I was in French class in high school — and I’ll never forget it — my teacher, Dr. Rowland, said in French, of course, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Right? “To understand, is to forgive.” And I never forgot it, because it’s so true. To understand is to forgive. Not to understand is not to forgive, right? And if anything, I  think we can generalize, because this is true for positive emotions too, right? “Tout comprendre, c’est tout fini.” Which would — I mean, I hope this is correct in French but, “To understand is to have it finished,” you know, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad. And Mike, I wonder if we might ask our listeners if they have an experience of closure, or the lack of closure, and what it means to them. So, if you have such a story, Mike and I both would love you to record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone. Email us at, and you’ll get closure by listening to yourself on a future episode of the show. And Mike, let me also add that if you like this show and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is simply to tell a friend about No Stupid Questions. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app. 

MAUGHAN: They can also send it to someone who ghosted them and say, “Hey, listen to this. I need closure, because I can’t move on without it. So, why don’t you give that to me? Thank you very much.”   

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but you can send it from a random email address and sign it “the Smile Society.” And, you know, they’ll have no idea what’s going on. And then they’ll be ruminating about it forever and ever. But, let me get some closure on this conversation, Mike. We, I think, have given some closure to Shreya about her outstanding question. I guess, for me, you know, you started off by talking about the Irish exit from weddings and so forth. I guess I want to ask you, do you feel like this conversation has changed anything that you might do in the future, at a wedding or otherwise?

MAUGHAN: Well, as I mentioned, I love closure. I’m someone who I think generally needs closure or appreciates closure. I think, on the negative side, it motivates me to be kinder and make sure that my explanations are thorough and that we’re — you know, if some closure is needed, that we’re there. I think, actually, the most fun part of this conversation for me, though, is thinking about the joyful effects that can come from also maybe not giving closure on happy things. I think that’s a really beautiful thing about random acts of kindness maybe or just, like, the Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch-type idea — that there’s so much joy that you can create out of this as well.

DUCKWORTH: Do you know what my very favorite thing is about this conversation?

MAUGHAN: That you’re going to just pause there and end, and then we’ll have no closure.

DUCKWORTH: I’ll tell you next time.

MAUGHAN: No. Wait. Stop it! Stop it! No!

DUCKWORTH: Dot, dot, dot. 

Coming up after the break: a fact-check of today’s conversation.

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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, Mike and Angela wonder about the origin of the phrase “Irish exit” or “Irish goodbye,” and they wonder if it’s offensive. It’s certainly not a compliment. The expression is supposedly based on a stereotype of Irish people over-imbibing — the connotation being that they would be too intoxicated to say goodbye before leaving a social event. Another theory is that the phrase was inspired by the mass Irish emigration during the 19th-century potato famine. However, the idiom is primarily American. In Great Britain, rudely leaving without saying goodbye is referred to as “taking a French leave,” and in other parts of the world, it’s “leaving the English way” or the “Polish exit.” It seems that whichever country you’re in, there’s sure to be a xenophobic way to describe this particular behavior.

Later, Angela tells the story of how psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that interrupted tasks are more remembered than completed ones. Angela adds that the restaurant anecdote is possibly more folklore than fact, and indeed, she’s correct. According to a 2018 biographical review of Zeigarnik’s life published in Neurosciences and History, it was actually Zeigarnik’s mentor, psychologist Kurt Lewin, who was inspired by the working memory of a waiter — not Zeigarnik herself. We should also note that while experimental methodology wasn’t practiced in the way that is expected of academics today, there was more to this research than just going to a restaurant and observing the waitstaff’s behavior. Zeigarnik and Lewin conducted an experiment involving 164 subjects who were asked to perform a series of tasks that were either interrupted or completed. It was in that study that the Zeigarnik effect was officially documented.

Finally, Mike and Angela reminisce about high-school Valentine’s Day fundraisers in which students could send one another flowers. They guess that carnations were commonly used for this tradition because of how cheap they are to buy in bulk. The reason may partially be financial — carnations are notoriously less expensive other popular Valentine’s flowers like roses or lilies. Although they’re not literally a dime a dozen, as Angela suggests. However, it’s also true that carnations have been used throughout history to represent love. In the Victorian era, a red carnation was given to express admiration; dark red conveyed an intense love or yearning; a striped carnation signified refusal; and yellow meant disappointment or distain.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear listener thoughts on some of our recent episodes of No Stupid Questions. Here’s what listener Logan Thompson-De Sa had to say after listening to episode 162, “How Can You Be Kinder to Yourself?

Logan THOMPSON-DE SA: I do think there’s a lot of benefit to having a conversation with your friends about the kind of things you say to yourself. I decided to ask one of my friends if she feels she’s very self-critical. You know, we had a really nice conversation about it, and towards the end I mentioned to her, like, I have the tendency to come home from work and think about something dumb that I said or a mistake that I made and say to myself like, “Oh, you f***ing moron.” And she looked at me and said, “I would punch somebody who said that to you.” Honestly, it made me tear up in the moment. But, since then I, uh — anytime I think to myself, “Oh, you f***ing moron,” I stop myself halfway through and I think about that conversation.

Here’s what listener Jason Adams had to say in response to episode 168, “Would You Be Happier If You Were More Creative?

Jason ADAMS: Hi, this is Jason. I enjoyed listening to your episode about happiness and creativity. Listening to it, I had so many feelings! I co-wrote the song “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” which appeared in the movie Eurotrip in 2004. And despite some success, this song has not made my fortune as a musician. I became a freelance software engineer myself to survive. This work can be dry and tedious. And sometimes you just cannot satisfy your creative urge with the work you do to subsist. I can say with some authority that creative work, like other work, has its ups and downs. It’s got its own tedium and agony. The great appeal of creative work, on the other hand, I think, is control and escapism. Creation offers the prospect, perhaps illusory, of controlling one’s reality. You can take refuge, however briefly, in a world of your own. 

And here’s what listener Judy Bates said after listening to episode 169, “Can We Disagree Better?

Judy BATES: I wanted to share that the best tool I ever learned in dealing with conflict with others was to start with the phrase: “Help me understand.” That phrase put the other person in the mindset of explaining to me versus fighting with me, and helped me to keep my mind more open to opposing viewpoints. This ultimately led to more collaborative relationships with my colleagues and better end results. Hope that helps!

Thanks so much to those listeners and to everyone who sent us their stories. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on closure. Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner again. I hope you enjoyed this special episode of No Stupid Questions. There are many more where this came from! Just search for No Stupid Questions in your podcast app.

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Freakonomics Radio and No Stupid Questions are both part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. Our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas. Lyric Bowditch is the show’s production associate. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Ryan Kelley, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our original music is composed by Luis Guerra. If you would like to read a transcript or check out the underlying research of this or any of our shows, that’s all at As always, thank you for listening.

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