DUBNER: The average elementary school student would have knifed the teacher.
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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: What is the difference between a person who savors and someone who devours?
DUBNER: This makes me even more suspicious of the marshmallow theory, because —
DUCKWORTH: Because you’re thinking I am a one-marshmallow girl, obviously.
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DUBNER: Angela, I have a question for which there is certainly no right answer.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my favorite kind of question.
DUBNER: The question is as follows: When you get something new and/or valuable, or just desirable, are you personally more inclined to treasure it, and save it for special occasions, and maybe try to preserve it, keep it as new as possible — or are you so in love with a thing that you just want to use it as much as possible right away? And then, depending on which answer you give, I want to know what that answer might say about a given person.
DUCKWORTH: I am a complete use-it-right-away person.
DUBNER: I knew it. I think there are many ways in which you and I are alike, or alike-ish.
DUBNER: And this is one where I suspected that we were quite not-alike.
DUCKWORTH: You are a saver?
DUBNER: A “saver” is a very generous word — a protector, a preserver.
DUCKWORTH: A consumption-delayer.
DUBNER: Yeah. I don’t know whether this comes from growing up in a family where resources were fairly limited, but also growing up in a family where both parents were Depression-era parents, and that creates a whole fear of scarcity.
DUBNER: But I also like things to be kept in good shape. Like, I want them to appear and feel fresh and new. I think it’s an enduring fear of original sin, in a way.
DUCKWORTH: What? You’re going to go back to Adam and Eve?
DUBNER: Well, when you learn about original sin — as a young Catholic boy, which I was before I became a Jewish man — literally, we were taught, “The reason we’re here in church today is because Adam ate the apple.” Which, by the way, wasn’t an apple. Do we all know that?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
DUBNER: Yeah. There was no apple.
DUCKWORTH: Was that fake news?
DUBNER: I would say it was fake news. If you look at “Genesis” — here’s a bit in English. “When the woman,” that’s Eve, “saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” As for the type of fruit, it’s just described as “fruit of the tree.” So, these days, in modern Hebrew, the word for apple is “tapuach,” but in biblical times “tapuach” was just a word for generic fruit. And I’m pretty sure that apples were not native to the land of Eden.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, so you’re putting two and two together, and you’re saying: In conclusion, probably not an apple.
DUBNER: Well, I’m reading the people who put two and two together.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, okay.
DUBNER: But whatever the fruit was, the idea is that had that original sin not been committed, then we would have all been brought into the world perfect and in paradise, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, that’s a weird concept to learn, I think, as a child — which is to say that you are born with a mark. You’re kind of born broken. And, speaking of “apple,” the last time I bought an iPhone, which was maybe three years ago, I dropped it the day I bought it. Cracked the screen.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, this is making me so sad.
DUBNER: But, you know — well, this is a whole other conversation — but: Why would you design a device that is obviously one of the most desirable devices in the world, and make it so easy to break out of the box that you have to buy this aftermarket protector?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know.
DUBNER: It’d be like buying a car and saying, “Put your seatbelts in when you get home,” okay? In any case, I have learned to live with that crack for a few years now. And for me, it’s a bit of an exercise in trying to live with imperfect or broken things, because I know that is not my nature. And I have been pretty successful, I have to say.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I have so much to unpack here, but the first thing I want to unpack is: Why are we in the garden of Eden? Like, what’s the connection between Adam and Eve and original sin and consuming?
DUBNER: My thinking is that when you learn and embrace, as a child, the concept of original sin — this notion that damage is inherent to the human condition and that your purpose, then, is to correct that damage or address it through penitence or good deeds, et cetera, et cetera — it does give you the impression that if only you could flip the script or go back in time and take the thing that was perfect and not mess it up, then you’d be better off.
DUCKWORTH: Mmm. I see. Yeah. I think it’s possible that if you grow up and you think, like, “Don’t screw things up that are perfect,” and also, maybe, “When in doubt, don’t consume,” maybe there’s also that there?
DUBNER: Oh, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: That makes some sense.
DUBNER: I love how kind you are, even in the deepest of your skepticism. Do you know who Moe Berg was, by any chance?
DUBNER: He was a professional baseball player. Super smart. He got a law degree at Columbia in a couple of years by doing his work during the off-season of baseball. And then he became a spy for the U.S. during World War II for the O.S.S., the precursor of the C.I.A. Anyway, one of his obsessions was newspapers. He read many papers every day, in several languages, often reading in a baseball dugout. But if someone else opened any of those newspapers first, just to take a look, he couldn’t read it. It was spoiled to him.
DUCKWORTH: What? It sounds like a little O.C.P.D. — obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
DUBNER: But can I tell you? I identify with Moe Berg in that regard. And you don’t, I assume.
DUCKWORTH: What? No. Not at all.
DUBNER: There is this sort of “spoiled” versus “unspoiled”. What about this: what about plastic slipcovers on furniture? What’s your position on that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, having grown up with many, many relatives and neighbors who, like, the whole house was laminated— I mean, maybe that’s why I don’t like to preserve things. I thought it was so dumb. I was like, “What?” In fact, a friend who shall remain nameless — but you know who you are — I remember going to their house. And this is a contemporary of mine. This isn’t even, like, an auntie or an uncle, or, like, an old neighbor down the street. This is, like, a friend. Everything is slipcovered. The remote control is wrapped in Saran Wrap. And I was like, “Really?”
DUBNER: Now, does this person have any characteristics that you would connect to that preservation appetite?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, they’re Asian. A lot of my relatives — I’m not saying that only Asians, you know, Saran-Wrap their remote controls. Many, many cultures also have these practices.
DUBNER: I can vouch for that, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: And maybe they’re frugal. Maybe there’s a sort of, like: you don’t have a lot, and you really want to preserve it. But have you ever sat on a couch in the summer with your thighs— You know that suction sound when you get up and your thighs are all, like, red and splotchy because you’ve been adhered to the plastic slipcovers? I have to say, I don’t think it’s a good look.
DUBNER: I remember the first time I sat on one when I was little, and I slid a little bit, and I thought it was awesome. Because, you know, mostly couches, you just settle in, and this was like a little bit of a ride.
DUBNER: But let me ask you: Look, this is not about me and my weird, protective, preservationist, collection tendencies. What this is about is— Well, first of all, you are the “consumer.” You want to consume it immediately. What do you, and what does your field of psychology, have to say about this notion: anticipation of the consumption of something and delaying the consumption of something.
DUCKWORTH: Well, as you know, Stephen, there’s a lot of research over the last, say, 60 years on delay of gratification.
DUCKWORTH: Interestingly, though, this research is all about delaying gratification when the “right choice,” as it were, is to delay gratification. This plays out in the famous marshmallow task, where 4-year-old children are given the following choice: two marshmallows later, or one marshmallow now. In fact, this experiment requires that you ask the child which they would really prefer. And they only keep going with the experiment if the child says, “I would really prefer to have two later.”
DUBNER: Now, pardon the interruption. If you don’t mind, I just have to ask you this. The importance of the marshmallow study, or studies, is that a delayed gratification was shown to be correlated, at least, with better outcomes in life. And the lesson that I have always taken away from that is: Children who are able to delay gratification for a bigger payout later will apply that same tendency to a lot of things, like education, and savings, and taking care of your body — being willing to invest in exercise, let’s say, to pay off for the better health later — and so on. And so, if that finding is true, you are — what? An anomaly, to some degree? Because you have told us that you are the consume-it-right-away person. Would you have eaten the single marshmallow, or would you have waited for the two later?
DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s exactly my point, Stephen. In the marshmallow task, it’s super clear that you really, really, really, unambiguously want to delay. And the question is: How many seconds can this 4-year-old wait? So, it’s not one of those like, “Oh, some people prefer to have their dessert after dinner. And some people prefer to have it before dinner.” It’s different from that. I do think, though— There’s another concept from psychological science called “anticipatory utility.”
DUCKWORTH: It’s actually more from economics.
DUBNER: It makes me think of Bentham.
DUBNER: I mean, I think of Bentham when we think about “utility” generally, because utility is a great concept, and economists have their way of looking at it. I think psychologists look at it a bit differently, though, yes?
DUCKWORTH: You know, psychologists don’t use the term “utility” nearly as much. Although, the gap between psychology and economics is getting smaller and smaller.
DUBNER: Shrinking every day, before our eyes.
DUCKWORTH: You know, half the time I hang out with economists and half the time I hang out with psychologists. I am not the cause of the shrinking of the gap. I am just a symptom of the shrinking of the gap. But “utility,” of course, in economics is not super well-defined, really. Roughly, you could say it’s happiness, right? It’s often kind of just defined as “that which an individual agent, or an individual, is trying to maximize.” And we can understand a decision that an individual makes as one which we assume — under classical economic theory — to be maximizing their utility. So, minimizing their costs and maximizing their benefits. Now, what “anticipatory utility” is, is a much newer concept. Because, like you said, the idea of utility goes all the way back to Bentham, if not earlier.
DUBNER: Or to the Garden of Eden, perhaps.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think it’s in the Old Testament, but maybe it was implied. George Loewenstein is a behavioral economist. And he wrote this paper in the ’80s about anticipatory utility. The novel idea was that we don’t only want to think about your utility from what you’re consuming at the moment, but also the anticipation of consuming something in the future can provide utility today. It’s like the future version of savoring.
DUBNER: It’s like the vacation I haven’t had yet, which is going to be amazing. And then, once I’m actually there, with my family, it’s like, “Oof, I can’t wait till the next vacation.”
DUCKWORTH: And maybe it’s terrible, but maybe it’s just good. But the point is that you can kind of get a little bit of present utility out of what you expect to happen in the future. So, you could say I’m not very good at anticipatory utility. If I had to rack my brain for any time in which I did experience anticipatory utility, it wasn’t even my own volition. So, in — I think it was fifth grade — I went to Woodcrest Elementary School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and we had a spelling test every week. And to incentivize us, the prize was that if you got a perfect score, then you would get a slice of pizza at Vito’s Pizza. And maybe it was, like, you had to get a month of perfect scores. Whatever it was, I remember walking up to my teacher’s desk and saying, “Hey, I’m cashing in. I want my Vito’s Pizza.” And I remember my teacher would say to me, like, each week, “Not this week, next week.”
DUBNER: What the heck?
DUCKWORTH: So, the whole year. And I was thinking, like, “Is this compound interest? Do I get five pizza pies?”
DUCKWORTH: But it turns out that at the end of the year — you know, the weather is warm, we’re just about to get out for summer — this teacher made good and took us to Vito’s Pizza, and we got exactly one slice. But I did remember thinking that it was a pretty good trick, because I had anticipatory utility for the fall, the winter, and the spring.
DUBNER: Okay, first of all, I don’t think it’s a good trick. The average elementary school student would have knifed the teacher.
DUCKWORTH: Would be suing.
DUBNER: Yeah, absolutely.
DUCKWORTH: I wasn’t very litigious. Or violent.
DUBNER: Didn’t Roland Fryer do work like this about 10, 12 years ago, where they were trying to incentivize students basically to do better with different kinds of payout? Some were maybe small amounts of cash.
DUCKWORTH: Cell phone minutes.
DUBNER: Exactly. And didn’t they find that unless the accomplishment and the reward were fairly closely tied in time, that most people just didn’t improve at all?
DUCKWORTH: So, this is research by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie. They’ve done lots of experiments on trying to understand whether and how incentives could improve academic performance. And the finding of the study that you’re referring to is that you can incentivize, as they put it, “the inputs,” but you can’t incentivize “the outputs.” In other words: Say, for example, you want a kid to do better in school. If you say, “Hey, at the end of the year, if you get A’s, I’ll give you $500,” that ends up being not very effective. But if you incentivize behaviors all along the way, like, “Today, if you read this book, I’ll give you a dollar.” It’s like, “Great.” “Now, today, if you pay attention in class, I’ll give you another dollar,” that is more effective, relatively. The question is: Is it that you can’t incentivize young people with delayed rewards? This goes back to the delay of gratification. And the reason, by the way, that delay of gratification is hard for everyone, not just 4-year-olds, is that there is something about a reward being removed in time that kind of bleaches its power. It’s sort of like, “Oh, I get a piece of pizza today? Yay!” “Oh, I get a piece of pizza in a week? Eh.” So, that could be that you can’t incentivize outputs because they’re delayed in time.
DUBNER: It’s so interesting, because if you extend this discussion into the political realm, this does make me think about some policy questions. I heard, recently, someone talking about the U.S. — especially the Federal Reserve — efforts to address inflation. And the argument was: “Everything that the macroeconomists are able to do to address inflation, that’s a long-term solution, and people are hurting in the short run.” Because, yes, it may be true that, let’s say, your primary goal is to drive down the price of gasoline, and groceries, and maybe even housing by X percent. And that’s going to be hard to do in the short term. You just start to say, “Well, you know, it’s not going to do it in the short term, so let’s abandon the long-term thinking.” And that, I think, is what we often do in policymaking in this country. When you look at healthcare, education, economic stuff — Washington, I feel, has gotten cynical to the point where this hoarding-versus-using question is unfortunately much more relevant than I wish it were.
DUCKWORTH: I think we can mine the delay-of-gratification research, here, for some useful, prescriptive insights. So, in the marshmallow task — which we’ve already established is not exactly the same thing as anticipatory utility, because you’re just waiting for two things instead of one — nevertheless, I think if you ask the question, “Who are the children who are able to delay gratification? And what makes them different from the children who are going to gobble one marshmallow right away?” And I want to say that there are debates about this — all the way up into right now and ongoing — about whether the marshmallow task really measures the ability to delay gratification, or is it just an index of socioeconomic status, or how much chaos is going on?
DUBNER: Or marshmallow appetite, generally.
DUCKWORTH: No. They’ve actually ruled that out.
DUBNER: Because everybody loves marshmallows?
DUCKWORTH: Well, no. The way you do this task, actually, is that you give a selection of treats to kids. And so, you have them pick their favorite treat.
DUBNER: I see.
DUCKWORTH: And actually, when I did this — because I worked with Walter Mischel, and I replicated this experiment — fun fact, marshmallows were not the most popular. It was Oreos. But I digress. The research that has been done over the last couple of decades is that, interestingly, the trick to delaying gratification is to bring the gratification forward in time. Say, Stephen, I decide to eat an apple and go for a run — both things that I’ve done today. You could say, “Well, are you doing it because in 20 years, it’s going to be slightly more likely that you will be living a healthy and long life?” Like, am I basically doing something because of delay of gratification. Or have I found ways to enjoy crispy apples and even enjoy my run? Have I brought gratification forward in time? And the answer is that I think most people, including me — and including those children, actually, in the experiment that we were describing — find ways to either have anticipatory utility, or for eating and exercise, sometimes it’s, like, part of your identity, and that’s immediately rewarding. We might find ways to enjoy exercise because we listen to a great podcast, or Zumba, or something that you really like. So, I think that, from a policy perspective, we’re not wrong to want to think about policies that are good for all of us in the long-term future, but if you want people to save for retirement, if you want people to eat healthy, if you want embargoes to work, they have to actually not only work because of something that’s going to happen in the future. We do need to bridge time. And all people, not just 4-year-olds, need to experience some utility today for them to really be motivated to do something.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela break down the psychology of binge-watching.
DUCKWORTH: Like all cycles where you get some utility, and then it’s over, you need your fix again. You go and you watch the next episode of “Game of Thrones.”
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about anticipatory utility and delay of gratification, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the topic. We asked listeners to send us voice memos about their experiences as “users” or “preservers.” Here’s what you said:
Jimmy ROGUES: Hi, Stephen and Angela, this is Jimmy. While I have mellowed a lot with age, as a young man, I was a hardcore preserver — like, to the point where it got in my way. I think it’s because I relish the anticipation so much of something and feared being let down after enjoying it. So, for example, I worked four-hour shifts in a call center, and we could take our 15-minute break pretty much whenever we wanted. Well, the idea of the break was so sweet to me that I would push it back and push it back to the point where a lot of times I just didn’t even take it at all. But anyway, I love NSQ, and I listen to it now the day it drops. So, I’ve grown.
John HAWKINS GORDON: This is John from sunny Portland, Oregon, calling to represent “Team One Marshmallow Now” — gimme, gimme, gimme! This story comes from when I was in third grade at Catholic school, and one of our more sadistic teachers gave us Blow Pops one afternoon and announced that we had to head over to the chapel. And we couldn’t touch them. We had to keep them at our hip the entire time. And it took me about 20 minutes to realize that if I craned down, I could lick the lollipop and adhere to the letter of the law — if not the spirit of it. I guess my teacher wasn’t so much for technicalities, because she took my lollipop right there, in front of everybody, with maximum shame. Anyway, my whole life, I’ve definitely struggled with all sorts of things that require future planning and things like that. But I will say: therapy, and drugs, and especially going to school for psychology has been really insightful for how my brain works. Anyway, just a shout out for the intellectual route of self-knowledge. Thanks!
Weronika ADAMCZAK: I think I’m the kind of person who devours things. When I buy anything, I want to test it straight away. And I think it comes from the fact that my grandma — whenever we get her something for her birthday or for Christmas, she would always put it at the end of her wardrobe. And it always made me wonder, “Why is she doing this? Why is she putting this off?” And, you know, also thinking somewhere at the back of my head that she doesn’t have a long life to live and should be using all these things. And that also makes me realize that we can all die the next day. And why would we save things for later if — if we can just use it and enjoy it while we have them?
That was, respectively: Jimmy Lepone, John Hawkins Gordon, and Weronika Adamczak. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the psychology of delaying consumption versus using things immediately.
DUBNER: I think an obvious step back to take here in this conversation is: When we talk about acquiring something and then using it or not using it, the whole question, of course, revolves around what the thing is, and how much you need it, and maybe even how many of them there are. I think about this with shoes. Like, I don’t know about you — I can only wear one pair of shoes at one time. And I think most people, right?
DUCKWORTH: Fair assumption.
DUBNER: Limited number of feet. And yet, I do know that most Americans own a lot of shoes.
DUCKWORTH: I thought you were going to say “most women.” Then I was going to cancel you.
DUBNER: Here’s a survey. The average American man owns how many pairs, would you guess?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh. I used to ask this in my stats class, because then I could show them distributions. Um, I think I’ll say 11.
DUBNER: Oh, you are good! 12.
DUCKWORTH: See, this is because I’ve collected data on this from, like, 10 stats classes over 10 years.
DUBNER: All right then, American woman?
DUCKWORTH: Women — I’m going to go with, like, 25 or something.
DUBNER: That’s really good. Yeah. From this one survey — I’m not saying this is perfect science — the average American woman owns a whopping 27 pairs. So anyway, the purchase of a pair of shoes, we could put under the general category of material and materialism, right? Those are physical things that we acquire. Then we decide how and how much we’re going to use them. I believe that your late friend and colleague, Mike Csíkszentmihályi — he distinguished between these two types of materialism: one that he called “terminal materialism,” which is wanting something for its own sake, or maybe to make other people think that we’re interesting, or important, or something like that. But then, a totally different type: what he called “instrumental materialism.” And that’s the case when the object is “a bridge to another person or another feeling.” And when I read that, I thought, “Oh gosh, yeah, that’s my kind of materialism.” Like, I don’t care so much about stuff — except for the stuff that I really need, or need to use in a utilitarian fashion.
DUCKWORTH: It’s not an end itself.
DUBNER: Yeah. And I have to say, when it comes to gift-giving, if you can give a gift that has that connection for someone. So, my wife Ellen — she’s given me a couple of gifts that are just so good, because they’re thoughtful. But also, what they do is, as Csíkszentmihályi said, they form a bridge to another person or another feeling. I’d spent a little time speaking with the artist Ai Weiwei.
DUCKWORTH: I love Ai Weiwei’s work.
DUBNER: He’s a really smart, thoughtful, deeply variegated and interesting artist and human. She knew I came away from that encounter just being really, deeply interested in the way he thinks about the world. He had done this one big project where he had porcelain makers in this town in China that was known for making porcelain for many, many, many, many years — he commissioned them to make these little porcelain sunflower seeds that look like real sunflower seeds. And they must have made — it might’ve been in the millions. At least in the many, many, many thousands. And there was an exhibit. I want to say it was at the Tate in London. But it was basically this massive sandbox full of these sunflower seeds that was meant to represent a bunch of different things, including the porcelain industry in China. So anyway, Ellen went online. They were very, very hard to buy, these little seeds, but there were some stray ones that got out somehow.
DUBNER: I hope they weren’t stolen — although I do know, at the museum, that people would routinely take some and put them in their pocket — but I’d like to think that the ones that she got hold of were legitimately produced and legitimately for sale.
DUCKWORTH: Not on the black market.
DUBNER: She bought me, maybe, 50 of them.
DUBNER: And then she also got a little Chinese-made bowl that was found from maybe 100 or 120 years ago in a famous-ish shipwreck. It was a ship that I want to say was called the Tek Sing. And so the gift was this little beautiful bowl with these beautiful little sunflower seeds, and it just sits on my desk. And I have to tell you: Every time I sit down at my desk, I spend all this time in reverie, just connecting to that history and the feeling.
DUCKWORTH: And the thoughtfulness of your wife.
DUBNER You know, I realize maybe one reason I brought this question to you today is because, for some strange reason, it fascinates me. Not just the preserving of material things, but also collecting — the instinct to collect, I’ve always been interested in.
DUCKWORTH: Which is terminal materialism, I think, in the Csíkszentmihályi classification, right? Having things for their own sake. I’ve never understood people collecting things. Are you a collector? Do you have more than a bowl of sunflower seeds on your desk?
DUBNER: There are not a lot of things that I truly collect now. I did as a kid. I collected stamps as a kid, quite aggressively. But I sold my stamp collection after my freshman year of college to buy Christmas presents for my siblings.
DUBNER: Honestly, I’ve regretted it ever since.
DUCKWORTH: I want to know how much you got for your stamp collection.
DUBNER: $120. I mean, this was a long time ago.
DUCKWORTH: How much did you buy those stamps for?
DUBNER: So, here’s the thing. This is why I would argue it was more instrumental materialism than terminal. Because, you know, I was the youngest in a big family, and we had a lot of, just, older people around — family friends, and then my siblings, and so on. And somehow I became the end of this funnel into which people would throw their stamps. I grew up in a very rural area of upstate New York, and there were people there — especially older people — from all over. There were neighbors from Hungary, and Germany, and people with ties to Britain. And whenever they would get stamps from people back in their home countries, they would deliver them to me. And I should say, therefore, my stamp collection was not extremely high-quality because, first of all, most of my stamps were not mint. They were postmarked.
DUCKWORTH: And licked.
DUBNER: But yeah. The impulse was so, so, so strong. And now, I guess I mostly collect podcast episodes. How about you?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh. Is there a word for the opposite of a hoarder?
DUBNER: I think that would be a “purger.”
DUCKWORTH: I would be a purger. Like, I don’t have anything— I don’t hold onto books. I’m not a collector. I don’t know if this is related to not feeling a lot of anticipatory utility, but I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of “stuff.”
DUBNER: Now, what about binging?
DUCKWORTH: You mean, like, binging food? Or binging television shows?
DUBNER: Both. Like, let’s say you get a bounty. What about— Did you do Halloween when you were a kid?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, of course. I trick-or-treated. I would come back with my pillowcase — which, of course, many children learn is a very sturdy container for Halloween candy. And then I pretty much would be through the entire thing by end of November. I remember that my sister, in particular, was very good at saving. We also got allowance from my parents, and there was a 7-Eleven not too far from where we lived. And so we would get to spend our dollar at the 7-Eleven. And my sister would think really hard about what you wanted, and typically would come away having bought nothing.
DUBNER: She’s going to become a doctor!
DUCKWORTH: She did. And I always spent my money. I was not a saver.
DUBNER: This makes me even more suspicious of the marshmallow theory, because—
DUCKWORTH: Because you’re thinking I am a one-marshmallow girl, obviously.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know that I would’ve been a two-marshmallow girl. I can’t say, but I will also say that, maybe, Stephen, we can brand this as being “mindful.” Maybe you could just say, “Wow, that Angela Duckworth, she sure does live in the present.”
DUBNER: That is a really nice rebranding.
DUCKWORTH: That’s just marketing.
DUBNER: Now, what about a T.V. show? You discover a T.V. show you love. You watch the first one or two episodes. You love, love, love it. There are six seasons. How long do those six seasons last you?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not as extreme as some people who I think watch, like, an entire season in a night. In fact, for me, I think the most I’ve ever watched of, like, “Game of Thrones” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was two episodes in a row. I kind of came late to the “Game of Thrones” cultural phenomenon, and I consumed it every night — only one, but every night, so I guess that’s a kind of binging? Like, a kind of measured binging?
DUBNER: Although, compared to the average, let’s say, Netflix binger, I think you’re on the low scale. I’m looking at a piece from John Koblin in The New York Times in 2016. He writes about an analysis of how Netflix customers are binging, and what types of shows are binged faster. It turns out that the genres that are most often really binged — and I mean really fast — this would be where a user would finish a season of a show in about four days, and watch about two-and-a-half hours each day. Those genres were horror, thrillers, and sci-fi.
DUCKWORTH: I think that makes sense. Especially horror and thrillers.
DUBNER: Because why, do you say?
DUCKWORTH: Well, suspense. You want to know what happens next.
DUBNER: That’s an interesting argument.
DUCKWORTH: You could argue that binge-watching is the antithesis of anticipatory utility, right? You’re not husbanding your consumption for later. You’re just going for it. And you can see, on one hand, that you’re squandering anticipatory utility. But the reason I think people binge watch things, is first of all, suspense. And, second of all, that Netflix serves you up the next thing without you even moving a muscle. And then, finally, because, like all cycles where you kind of get some utility, or some enjoyment, and then it’s over, this is actually also what, perhaps, leads to addiction. You need your fix again. You go and you watch the next episode of “Game of Thrones.” And I do think that the powers that be that decided to release seasons — not once a week like they were when we were growing up — you didn’t have to regulate your own consumption, because you would watch it over eight weeks with the rest of America.
DUCKWORTH: I do think they’re capitalizing on this human desire to just keep upping the fix.
DUBNER If you want to be depressed about our ability to succumb to that, I think of a book from maybe 30 years ago by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death, which wasn’t about binge watching, because it didn’t exist, but it was about an engagement with media or entertainment. But the point is, if watching T.V. is not the most intellectually, and physiologically, and socially stimulating thing that one can do — which we could probably agree on — and if it becomes easier, and easier, and easier to do more of this thing, then that’s probably not so good. But it may also be that we’re in the early days, and people kind of feel a reaction to it or against it and start to adapt.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’ll say this: I’m a little worried about these statistics — about the number of hours that your typical American is spending passively consuming quote-unquote “media” on screens — it could be TikTok videos; it could be social media. I do think it’s like that philosophy problem — like, what would happen if people were plugged into pleasure machines? It’s one of those things that people thought about before there really were pleasure machines that you could plug yourself into. And when I flip through, you know, there’s a T.V. show on about home improvement. There’s another one on where you can roast your own chicken. And then you could watch somebody taking an adventure in Bora Bora. Also, just how vicarious it is. Like, most people who watch those shows are not going to improve their own house. They’re not going to make their own roast chicken. They’re certainly not going to go to Bora Bora. So, I don’t want to sound reactionary, but I kind of feel like, “Oh my gosh, spending hours, and hours, and hours a day watching other people live life? That’s not so great.”
DUBNER: Okay. Tangent. Roasting chicken. Can I tell you what I did this week for the first time ever?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, of course I want to know. I’m very interested in roast chickens.
DUBNER: I discovered, after living in our current apartment for about six years, that the oven that we own came with a rotisserie attachment.
DUCKWORTH: That rotates the chicken inside? Like at the supermarket?
DUBNER: Oh yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what?
DUBNER: It is a contraption that comes in pieces, and that’s why I never noticed it. I was cleaning out a drawer, and I found all these — it looks like a torture machine that’s unassembled. Which is essentially what it is for the chicken, at least.
DUCKWORTH: And how did it work? Was it amazing?
DUBNER: I have to say, the preparation and cleanup is not worth it. It’s definitely not worth it, other than for kicks, but it was a lot of kicks.
DUCKWORTH: Well, hopefully you didn’t have too much anticipatory disutility.
DUBNER: I did not — nor am I hoarding chickens to do this for.
DUCKWORTH: What a relief.
DUBNER: Although, you know what, I take it back. I did buy two more chickens, put them in the freezer. So, the next time that the urge to rotisserie strikes, I’m ready to go.
DUCKWORTH: Basically, instead of having one chicken today, you’re having two chickens tomorrow. Well done, Stephen. I’m very proud of you.
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, Stephen says that “tapuach” — the modern Hebrew word for “apple” — was just a generic term for “fruit” in biblical times. This is true. However, the word doesn’t appear anywhere in Genesis. Instead, the Hebrew word “peri” — another term for fruit — is used. Still, it’s not clear what exactly the word refers to. As Stephen suggests, apples would not have been available in the Garden of Eden. Leading archaeologists and biblical scholars believe that the garden’s description in Genesis reflects a location in Southern Mesopotamia — now Iraq. And the very first apple can be traced back to Kazakhstan, which is more than a thousand miles away.
Later, Stephen shares that his wife Ellen gave him a collection of porcelain sunflower seeds designed by artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. He says that the original installation included thousands, possibly millions, of seeds. In fact, in 2010, 100 million seeds were piled in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. Initially, visitors were able to play in the seed pit and certainly pocketed pieces of porcelain. However, it was soon discovered that interacting with the seeds created a dust that could be dangerous to inhale, and the installation was roped off. After the exhibit ended, many of the seeds were sold at a Sotheby’s auction. And it still appears possible to purchase them if you’re up for the challenge of sorting the originals from the replicas.
Finally, Angela describes the, quote, “philosophical problem” of being plugged into a pleasure machine. There are several canonical references that fit this description, but Angela was likely thinking of a thought experiment described by American philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In the book, humans have the choice to experience reality as it exists or to live forever in a pleasant simulation. Nozick posited that most people would choose not to plug in to the pleasure machine. He died in 2002 — five years before Netflix began its streaming services.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the surprising behavioral science behind food deserts.
DUBNER: You mean for that two-dollar burger I can get 600 calories? Give me two!
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. More bang for your buck!
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to know: what’s preventing you from eating healthier? Is it the cost? The time? The distance to the grocery store? Or is it just that unhealthy food seems to taste better? And what would need to happen for your habits to change? To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Healthy Eating.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute. Maybe we’ll include them on the show!
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, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I’m really into black turtlenecks that are very thin material. It’s sort of my inner Steve Jobs or something.
DUBNER: Or outer Steve Jobs, even.
- Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher.
- Moe Berg, professional baseball player and American WWII spy.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University.
- Will Dobbie, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
- Roland G. Fryer, Jr., professor of economics at Harvard University.
- George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
- Ai Weiwei, artist and activist.
- “‘Paradise Lost’: How The Apple Became The Forbidden Fruit,” by Nina Martyris (NPR, 2017).
- “Netflix Studied Your Binge-Watching Habit. That Didn’t Take Long,” by John Koblin (The New York Times, 2016).
- The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-Control and How to Master It, by Walter Mischel (2014).
- “For the Love of Stuff,” by Julie Beck (The Atlantic, 2014).
- “Information and Student Achievement: Evidence from a Cellular Phone Experiment,” by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. (Harvard University and NBER, 2013).
- “Is It Really Self-Control? Examining the Predictive Power of the Delay of Gratification Task,” by Angela L. Duckworth, Eli Tsukayama, and Teri A. Kirby (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013).
- “Financial Incentives And Student Achievement: Evidence From Randomized Trials,” by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2011).
- “TIME Style and Design Poll,” (2006).
- “Anticipation and the Valuation of Delayed Consumption,” by George Loewenstein (The Economic Journal, 1987).
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman (1985).
- “Where Does Creativity Come From (and Why Do Schools Kill It Off)?” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.
- Tek Sing Wreck.