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DUBNER: I can do open heart surgery. Come on, I’ve seen it three times.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Can you actually fake it ‘till you make it?

DUBNER: So, I’m a 9-year-old kid. Yeah, I can drive.

Also: why do placebos make us feel better?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I know you fell down and you’re bleeding profusely, but I have a teaspoon of sugar for you.

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, I read about a psychological trick of sorts. And I’m wondering if it has any validity. Are you willing to hear me out and pass judgment? 

Angela DUCKWORTH: Of course, I am. Go ahead. 

DUBNER: So, the purpose of this trick is to get yourself out of a depressive or bad mood. And this comes from Quora. I’ll read the entry. It was written by a mental-health counselor named Aaron Dutil. I hope I’m pronouncing it right. D-U-T-I-L. And he says this came from a client of his. So, I’m quoting Aaron Dutil talking about his client. 

“When he woke up in the morning, if he felt the symptoms of depression, he would pretend that he was an actor in a movie. After he would shower, he would stare into his bathroom mirror and shout out loud to himself, ‘Action.’ He would then act as if he was a non-depressed movie character… Many times, people will allow the symptoms to keep them from functioning in their daily lives, making the symptoms even worse. A vicious cycle soon occurs. Sometimes if you act as if long enough, you become that role, for good or bad.” So, Angela, I’m curious, is this a real thing in your discipline, psychology, “as if” thinking? And if so, is it reliably successful?

DUCKWORTH: Well, the short answer is yes, it’s a thing. It often works to pretend that you’re in a certain mood or you’re acting in a certain social role. There’s one study about pretending to be an extrovert — being assertive, talkative, the first to raise your hand. In that study — it was done by Will Fleeson, a personality psychologist — the people who were told, “Act like an extrovert,” actually ended up enjoying one of the benefits of extroversion, which is they were happier, at least for the short time of the experiment. We don’t know about any long-term effects. 

DUBNER: So, if I were to ask you to extrapolate from that experiment and any other literature you know, do you think that it’s essentially repeatable? In other words, can you live your life as if? 

DUCKWORTH: The evidence that comes to bear on this question is something called behavioral activation therapy. And it’s really actually what the Quora post was. Imagine what a non-depressed person would do. And you’re like, “Well, I’m depressed and I want to stay in bed all day, and do nothing, and not see anyone, and not even eat. Well, what would a non-depressed person do? Well, they’d probably get up, go for a run, drink a smoothie, and call three friends, right?” And then you just do it. This idea of actually changing the behavior in order to change the mood state of the person is a pretty reliable therapeutic technique. 

DUBNER: So, that makes sense. And it coincides with what I’ve read about cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapies. 

DUCKWORTH: But that doesn’t mean it works for everyone, and it’s 100 percent, and it lasts forever. Lots of other things influence how you’re going to feel other than just behaving a certain way. Let’s at least unpack why it might work a little bit for some people, sometimes. 

DUBNER: So, does it work for some people sometimes because it actually triggers a broader change? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t know that it’s known, but I’m going to speculate a little bit, if that’s okay. One possible explanation for why acting as if you were extroverted or happy might “work,” at least briefly, is because we infer a lot about what we’re feeling from actually observing ourselves. You literally are almost watching yourself. And, “Oh, I must be scared. My palms are sweaty. My breath is short. My thoughts are racing. I must be having a panic attack.” And so, if you are drawing conclusions from your own behavior, then, acting as if, you could sort of trick yourself. 

That’s not the only reason, though. Let’s say that a depressed person would imagine that a non-depressed person would get out of bed as opposed to stay in, would actually go for a workout instead of not, and call friends instead of remaining socially isolated. What happens then when you actually force yourself to do these things that you don’t really want to do, but you act as if you wanted to do, is that those behaviors then tend to have effects that are real. Your friends start talking to you. You’re more energized because you went for a run. You feel better because you had breakfast. So, I think that there are multiple reasons why acting as if you were happy might work. One of them is that those behaviors themselves have a causal downstream benefit. 

DUBNER: Can you give an example of you using as if thinking in your professional or personal life? 

DUCKWORTH: I actually can. Here’s a true story. When I was on tenure track, I was, probably like most professors, periodically concerned that I wouldn’t keep my job, particularly in my first year, which wasn’t going so well. Not a lot of publications were materializing. I felt a little bit lost in the direction that I was going to take my work. And I do remember calling our common friend, Anders Ericsson, who passed away as we discussed on a recent episode. 

And he did give me great advice, which is to think of the person I wanted to be with complete specificity. I named Carol Dweck, the great Stanford psychologist who gave the world the idea of growth mindset. And I acted as if I were her. I was like, “What would Carol Dweck do?” She would not be discouraged. She would probably think in a programmatic way about her work.

DUBNER: And can you point to any specific changes you made as a result of that thinking? Did you actually do things differently? Did you approach an idea differently? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think Carol Dweck is really good at doing what she wants to do and not angst-ing unnecessarily about things that she doesn’t want to do, which is a real time-killer, especially for a people-pleaser, like me, who feels compelled to read every email and send a personalized response. And I remember once I was at dinner with Carol, and she had a glass of wine, and I apologetically said, “Oh, you know, I’m trying to learn how to drink wine. It’s been a lifelong failing of mine.” And she just looked at me and said, “Why do you care? I don’t care if you have a glass of wine. Do what you want to do.” 

DUBNER: I thought you were going to say that she told you that you’d just hold the glass up, and put it to your lips, and tip it up, and it’s actually very similar to drinking other things that you’ve drunk before.

DUCKWORTH: It’s really pretty straight-forward.

DUBNER: But let me ask you this. When you’re thinking about your inability to be Dweck-ian in that phase of your life, how much of that is a product of the fact that you’re not at a point in your career yet where you can afford to be Dweck-ian? In other words, when you’re younger, you feel you have to kind of entertain every possibility. You can’t say no to people, maybe who are more senior than you, because you’re curating your reputation. In other words, maybe you shouldn’t have been acting as if you were someone like that at that time. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I am sure there are things that she can do, that I ought not do, because I’m not yet where she is, right? But let me give you this as a rebuttal, Stephen. Have you ever heard of Lev Vygotsky


DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, Lev, he was, like, the Freud of Russia. One of his enduring contributions was that, as somebody who was fascinated by children, he studied their pretend play. And Vygotsky thought that what children do is pretend to be, as he put it, “One head taller than they are.” So, if you’re four, you can pretend that you are older than four, right? 

And I actually think that’s good advice for all of us, because maybe there are some things that Carol Dweck is in a position to do that I can’t do and are inappropriate for me to try to do. But in so many ways, that’s what growth is, right? I say to my graduate students, if you’re a first-year student, pretend that you’re a fourth-year student. If you’re a fourth-year student, pretend that you’re a postdoc. If you’re a postdoc, pretend that you’re a professor. 

DUBNER: But couldn’t that just tip quite easily into delusion?

DUCKWORTH: “I can pretend that I rule the universe and have magical powers?”

DUBNER: Well, okay. You don’t have to go that extreme. Let’s just take the case of your childhood example. So, I’m a nine-year-old kid. “Yeah, I can drive.” And I find the keys, and I take off. Or I’m a first-year medical resident. “I can do open-heart surgery. Come on, I’ve seen it three times.”

DUCKWORTH: Maybe that’s why kids do it in play. There’s something very safe about play; let’s pretend as if. And you’re right that, obviously, you don’t want to pretend to have a competence that you don’t yet have if that’s going to harm someone. 

DUBNER: And obviously every domain is different, right? I mean, the domain of academia — having ideas, right? There’s not that much harm in daring yourself to have an idea that’s complicated or bigger than you think you’re entitled to, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Writing an arrogant paragraph is unlikely to do lasting harm. 

DUBNER: There’s no heavy machinery. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Limbs won’t be lost. I would say that unless you think that your “as if” thinking is going to get someone else into trouble, it’s good advice. But there’s another caveat, by the way, that I think is worth bringing up. All these examples that we’re giving — the depressed person who pretends that they’re not depressed, somebody who wants to be bubbly, pretending like they’re an extrovert — if you choose autonomously to do that, I think it can be beneficial. If someone else is making you do that, or you are feeling pressured — 

DUBNER: It’s exhausting.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. 

DUBNER: And I could also just see that it could lead you to dismiss the underlying causes of the problem. Let’s say that someone’s in an abusive relationship, and I wake up and I say, “I’m going to act as if my significant other is not emotionally terrorizing me. I’m going to act as if when they say things that feel hostile, it’s not a threat to me.”

DUCKWORTH: Or you could act as if they didn’t even say anything at all. Complete denial. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, again, I don’t mean to dismiss the value of “as if” thinking because it’s very, very attractive to me. It seems like a hack that is well worth everybody knowing how to do. I’m just really curious if it might be more of a Band-Aid that would lead us to dismiss underlying problems. 

DUCKWORTH: Very often the downside is that you’re not solving the fundamental problem to the extent the fundamental problem can be solved. Could this hack work for you? I think the answer is yes, it might work for you. But it’s very hard to make general recommendations. 

DUBNER: How about one specific recommendation then, which is a low-risk, “as if” thinking that you would suggest anyone try? 

DUCKWORTH: I think you could pretend as if you were nice. 

DUBNER: This is so directed at me, isn’t it? 

DUCKWORTH: No, Stephen, you are about as nice as —

DUBNER: As I’m going to get. 

DUCKWORTH: As a podcast host could be. But most of us could be nicer. Don’t you think you could be nicer? 

DUBNER: You know, honestly, I love the suggestion. I truly do. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Because you can make a Kantian, “I rule that all people pretend that they are five percent nicer.”

DUBNER: I’m going to try out the as if style of thinking right now. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. What are you going to do? 

DUBNER: I’m going to act as if this conversation is over and see if it actually stops.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: What does the placebo effect say about our perception of reality?

DUCKWORTH: We’ve just got to settle this for once and for all. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, let me go out on a limb here and say that you seem to have healthy skepticism about most things. Would you agree with that? 

DUBNER: As long as you modify it with “healthy,” then I’ll embrace your skepticism charge. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you experience the placebo effect?

DUBNER: Are you saying it’s more skeptical to believe in the placebo effect or to not believe in the placebo effect? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, probably you experience it early in life. 

DUBNER: I remember my mother directly teaching me. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. Literally said the words “placebo effect”?

DUBNER: Yeah. She said something to the effect of, “I can give you the medicine or I can give you — “, it was literally a spoonful of sugar. We were a fairly rough and tumble family. A lot of bones were broken in this family. And I was the youngest of many. So, she’d been through a lot, and she’d been trained as a nurse. I think I probably banged something, and I was bleeding, but not even needing stitches and certainly nothing broken. And she was like, “Well, I could give you this, or I could give you a spoonful of sugar. And your mind will think it’s medicine, and you’ll be fine.” 

DUCKWORTH: Really? What did you choose? 

DUBNER: I took the sugar, because we weren’t allowed to have much sugar in our house. 

DUCKWORTH: This is sounding like Little House on the Prairie. “And we got an orange for Christmas — just one.” 

DUBNER: We kind of like that — actually, a lot like that. We had very little refined sugar available to us, but there was sugar kept for baking purposes. 

DUCKWORTH: And for the administration post-injury. 

DUBNER: Exactly. No, but I remember my mom telling me, ”Your mind is a powerful thing, and if it thinks that it’s getting something that’s going to make you feel better, or happier, or whatever, you will feel better or happier.” So, I guess in answer to your question, do I believe in the placebo effect? I do, especially when it gets you a teaspoon of sugar. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, what happened after you got the teaspoon? Because, by the way, usually, in fact, always, you’re supposed to administer the placebo without telling the patient. 

DUBNER: Of course. Yeah. I think by the time we got to the end of the conversation about the sugar, I was feeling pretty good. But I do care a lot about the actual placebo effect, which, I guess, most people think of as happening in the medical realm, but I think of happening in the social realm as well. So, maybe we should define it. I do know there’s a pain researcher named Jeffrey Mogil who says the placebo effect is “the most interesting phenomenon in all of science. It is at the precise interface of biology and psychology.” 

DUCKWORTH: The mind-body connection. 

DUBNER: Yeah. It’s not just about pain relief. It’s not just about medical treatment. It’s about how many of our outcomes are driven by the decisions we make and how we can use some form of the placebo effect to either trick ourselves or nudge ourselves. The notion of “as if” behavior, I think of that as a sort of placebo effect. I’m going to take a test right now and I’m going to act as if I’m really well-prepared even though I’m maybe only 90 percent prepared. 

Will that help me do better? Possibly it will, because I’ll have a feeling of confidence that will allow some sort of flow, some sort of recall, and so on. So, I guess the short answer is, even though everything I’ve read indicates that the placebo effect has some mixed results in the medical literature, it does seem to really work sometimes, but not in all cases, not for all time durations. I believe the idea is extremely powerful, because we’re very suggestible. 

DUCKWORTH: I agree. The placebo effect is fascinating to me because it’s like magic. Right? You give people a blue pill and it has nothing in it, really. And it has effects on their immune function, on what they do —

DUBNER: It sounds nuts, right? If you didn’t know human beings, you’d say there’s no way that can happen. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. And I know it doesn’t always work, but it works so often. And the effects are not small. They’re whopping. If you just take the positive findings, you have to ask yourself —

DUBNER: You have to ask why.

DUCKWORTH: You have to ask why. And I think it is, if you’re tricked into thinking that this is an active allergy medication, or that you really did have surgery on your knee that was endoscopic. 

DUBNER: And there have been studies where there’s fake surgery even, right? Placebo surgery. 

DUCKWORTH: Literally, they’ll just do a little nick on your knee, and then it’s, like, fake surgery. And then people are like, “Wow, thank God I got my knee replaced. It’s like I’m a different person.” So, that is the initiation of an expectation of something that’s going to happen next. And I think the reason why the placebo effect works is that there is, of course, objective fact, but then there is our interpretation of objective fact. At any given time, in any moment, there are a number of different interpretations that we can have. And when we have an expectation in a certain direction because of the placebo effect, we choose selectively. 

For example, let’s take knee surgery. You wake up. You see these little nicks on your knee. You fully believe that you had knee surgery. The next day, you’re feeling a certain way. And you can interpret those signals of pain, or not pain, in a multitude of different ways. This placebo effect is just tilting you in one direction. If you’re like, “Oh, well, you know, today I feel a little bit better.” Then you’re like, “You know what? I’m going to go for that walk around the block.” And then you start a virtuous cycle of behavior. 

DUBNER: “I think I’m going to fly to California to visit my grandchildren.” And then you go through T.S.A. And they say, “Do you have any artificial limbs?” And you say, “Actually, I just had a knee replaced. Then you get in the machine. And they said, “No, you didn’t.” And then they arrest you. 

DUCKWORTH: And you can’t even walk out of line because, all of a sudden, your expectations are reversed. 

DUBNER: The reactions that you’re describing for why the placebo effect is effective are what? Is it confirmation bias? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you have certain expectations. You have a prediction of a hypothesis about what’s about to happen. 

DUBNER: And if the reality matches the expectation, the effect is stronger. 

DUCKWORTH: Correct. And that’s where confirmation bias comes in, because then you could selectively curate the evidence in your mind. You’re like, “Oh, that confirms my hypothesis,” and ignore disconfirming evidence. So, it starts with having an expectation. But then, yeah, these biases can affirm the expectation. 

And then, what happens, I think, is behavior. You do something which is congruent with this interpretation of what just happened. And when you can create a positive cycle of, “Oh, I guess I’m feeling better. I’m going to be a little more active, then — ”

DUBNER: That reinforces the belief. 


DUBNER: You mentioned earlier that it has actual physiological effect, or can have an effect on your immune system, and so on. How can that happen with a sugar pill? What is the mental process, or the cognitive process, that could trigger that reaction?

DUCKWORTH: So, I don’t know if it’s a Pavlovian thing. I think it’s more like you have some understanding of what’s happening that is like, “Oh, now something good’s going to happen. Now I’m going to get relief. Now I’m going to have a lot of energy.” So, you are interpreting your reality in a way that is tilted toward the positive. 

DUBNER: You know, this reminds me, there is a doctor who is now a famous doctor, but before he was famous, he was just a doctor who happened to be a heart surgeon. And he thought that there were a lot of traditions in Eastern medicine that would be really helpful and useful, but they just weren’t ingrained in the way medicine is practiced here. But he decided that he was just going to, for himself, set up what he called a complementary medicine practice. This was at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. And he would bring patients in and have them go through maybe some massage, maybe listening to music, maybe deep breathing, things that certainly then, 20, 30 years ago, were not in practice in the typical surgery suite, at least.

And he claimed that it had a huge effect, simply because it got the mind involved in a kind of positive chain reaction. “I’m feeling better about going into surgery. I’m feeling stronger. Coming out, I feel like I know how to relax, and so on.” And it was incredibly interesting for me to learn about this, because it showed me, A, how powerful the mind can be in relation to the body. And it showed me how typically, doctors and hospitals in the West, let’s call it, don’t consider the strength of that mind-body connection. The fact that what he was doing seemed radical was to me radical. And the doctor, just to close the circle, is a guy named Mehmet Oz, Dr. Oz, who went on to become, like, a T.V. doctor who a lot of people think of as something not quite like a real doctor. But in fact, he’s a heart surgeon. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, outside of the medical realm, I was at a sales event talking about my research, and there were a bunch of salespeople. And one of them, who was, like, a top producer in this very large corporation, gave me a book that he had published on his kind of philosophy of motivation. And I think it was called Bullshit. And I read it on the plane back. I mean, cover to cover. The point of it was that, in a way, the placebo effect, and motivating talks, and the things that we say to young people, or whatever, in a way, are “bullshit.” I mean, not in in a negative way, right?

DUBNER: So, what’s the line between bullshit and placebo? 

DUCKWORTH: He told this story in the book of an athlete — a sprinter — who’s really in a slump and not feeling confident about the season ahead and his long-term prospects. And the coach has the sprinter run around the track. And the coach knows that there’s all this under-confidence going on. And so, the kid completes the couple laps and comes back and is like, “What’s my time?” And the coach just lied, just subtracted a second or two. And then the story ends very positively for the coach and the sprinter. And, yeah, that is a kind of lying, right? Well, I don’t even know if it’s a kind of lying. It’s just lying. 

DUBNER: There is a study — I can’t remember the details — about physical training, which is basically having someone on a bike to test what is their maximum output. And it essentially concerns lying to them. And it turns out that they can surpass what they thought was their max. So, let’s say they think the max they can get to is 200. When they get to 200, you say, “Okay, you’re at 195. Keep going.” And it turns out they can get higher. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And I think that’s all tied up in the same thing, right, which is that when we experience reality, it doesn’t feel like a subjective interpretation of reality. It just feels like reality. But that is what it is. It’s a movie that we make up in our mind, and we layer onto anything that’s actually happening, our own interpretation. And I think what the placebo effect is doing is just tilting us in a certain direction, so that when we interpret what’s happening, we interpret in a certain way. 

DUBNER: So, Angela, let me ask you — this is a potentially disturbing question — what about the placebo effect vis-a-vis religion? You could argue, I guess, that if one has a belief in a deity, and acts in a certain way because of some idea of a down-the-road consequence or an interaction with said deity, that that changes your behavior. It’s very hard to prove the existence of said deity, but the belief in existence of said deity may have much more actual effect on my lifetime behavior than even a sugar pill would. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I don’t want to come to any conclusions about cosmology and who’s right and who’s wrong. 

DUBNER: I walked in today thinking we’ve got to come to some conclusions about cosmology. 

DUCKWORTH: We’ve just got to settle this for once and for all! I do think that there’s so much. I mean, there is no human realm of experience that is not this. And honestly, don’t you think a lot of parenting is this way, too? You have a kid who is like, “This school year is going to be terrible. I’m never gonna make any friends.” And you say with a lot of confidence in your voice — I do this also with graduate students. They have moments of self-doubt and wavering. And I’m not lying to them. I’m just giving them a firm conviction and a very clear picture of a future reality that I know is possible. I mean, that’s the thing. These are self-fulfilling prophecies. So, we’re not painting impossible pictures. 

DUBNER: Sure. Well, it reminds me of that line of B.S. you gave on the show a while back about when you’re delivering criticism to someone. 

DUCKWORTH: This is the wise feedback study by David Yeager

DUBNER: What do you say to people? 

DUCKWORTH: The line is, “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high standards, and I know you can achieve them.” And maybe you’ll say that, “I know you can achieve them” is a placebo, right? Is that what you’re thinking? 

DUBNER: Yes. And when I called it a line of B.S., I meant it half-admiringly because I believe in the power of the placebo. If you’re my professor, and I believe that you believe in me, then I’m going to believe in myself. And it may turn out not well. And then I may think, “Oh, boy, now I’m never going to trust what this person says again.” So, that’s the cost, right? But the benefit is potentially large. 

DUCKWORTH: And remember, the line is, “I know you can achieve them.” Not that you will achieve them. There are a lot of psychologists who think that this is most of psychotherapy — that you go to a therapist and the therapist says, “Look, I have been with maybe a thousand people who had a story that was almost the same as yours. Six months from now, you’re going to be in my office, and you’re not going to feel the way you do today.” Right? And that is a reality that the therapist knows can happen and maybe knows is likely to happen. 

And I think, for me, when I learned about this placebo effect in psychotherapy, in surgery, in pretty much every realm in which human beings are making judgements, it made me think that the way to optimize this, or use this in life, is to basically start off with a positive expectation. Human expectations matter a lot, and they do have a causal effect on our futures. You can choose to have expectations that tilt you in good directions. 

DUBNER: I like that advice. We once did, on Freakonomics Radio, an experiment. The episode was about generic products, mostly pharmaceuticals. There was a nice paper done which looked at the efficacy of generic drugs versus the brand-name and who was more likely to buy generics versus name brand. And it turned out that pharmacists were very, very likely to buy the generic, because they knew that it was the same thing. But then there was also a look at whether people think that the brand-name drug is more effective. And the answer was yes. So, we were trying to mirror that for our podcast without giving people drugs, because that’s hard to do on podcasts. 

DUCKWORTH: Possible unethical. 

DUBNER: A little bit unethical. So, we did it instead with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We gathered together a large group of people who worked at W.N.Y.C. We had two sets of sandwiches, each on their own plate. So, there was a patterned plate and a plain plate. And we told the research subjects that one of the sandwiches was made with name-brand peanut butter, I think we mentioned Skippy or Jif, and with name-brand strawberry preserves, maybe Smucker’s, and the other was made with store-brand of both. And we put it on identical bread. And we asked them all to take the taste test. 

And in fact, they were all identical. We’d made all the sandwiches from the same peanut butter and the same jam, but some would say, “Well, there’s a lot more texture in this peanut butter. And so, I think that’s got to be the brand-name one.” And then they’d take a bite of the other sandwich and say, “Oh, yeah, there’s so much less texture in this one.” And in fact, they were exactly the same texture and the same peanut butter. And if I recall correctly, about 98 percent of people were very, very sure of their choice. So, do you consider yourself fairly susceptible to casual placebos? 

DUCKWORTH: If your mom said to me, “Oh, I know you fell down and you’re bleeding profusely, but I have a teaspoon of sugar for you.” Would it work on me? I think it would work enormously well on me.

DUBNER: Okay, so I’m reading a study here. It comes from a journal I hadn’t heard of, but it looks like a good study. And it said that there were a series of words that were done in an experiment to find which had the most salubrious effect on those who hear the word. For whatever reason, this word, and the rhythm, and the sounds of the word just makes people feel better, more than any other word. So, I’m going to try it on you. Are you ready?

DUCKWORTH: Hold on. I got to brace myself. Is this going to make me feel better? 

DUBNER: Yeah. A lot. Cucumber. Cucumber. Cucumber. Cucumber. 

DUCKWORTH: Cucumber. That’s not a word I would choose for this. I thought you said it was going to be a word that had soft edges. 

DUBNER: Is it working yet? Cucumber. Cucumber. Okay, let me try number two. Zucchini. Zucchini. Zucchini.

DUCKWORTH: Was this funded by the vegetable lobby? 

DUBNER: There actually was no list. There was no paper. There was no journal. And you’re not as susceptible to the easy, cheap placebos as I thought you would be though.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s questions. 

To introduce the concept of “as if” thinking, Stephen reads a Quora entry from a mental health counselor named Aaron Dutil, not “do-tull,” as Stephen pronounced. I reached out to Aaron to see if he could give us any additional insight about his patient who pretended to be a non-depressed person. Aaron couldn’t recall much about the post, which was from 2016. But he did want to credit another group that uses “as if” thinking just as much, if not more than, cognitive behavioral therapists: 12-step programs have been practicing “as if” thinking since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the late 1930s. Even when they may not feel they are improving, participants are encouraged to go through the steps of the program as if they are making progress with addiction.

Later on in the show, Angela tells the story of a young sprinter from the book Bullshit. The book is actually written by former N.F.L. player John W. Wright. The coach in the story is his father, Robert C. Wright, and the sprinter is Nigerian track and field star Charlton Ehizuelen. The story takes place at the 1974 N.C.A.A. Track and Field Championships. An hour before his triple-jump competition, Ehizuelen was feeling under the weather and considered dropping out of the contest. Wright encouraged Ehizuelen to run 100 meters as a test of his physical state and, as Angela recalled, he secretly gave him a head start by not quite starting the stop-watch on time. According to the book, this trick gave Ehizuelen the confidence to participate in the competition, and an hour later, he became the N.C.A.A. Champion in triple jump, with the second-longest jump in the world that year. 

Finally, if you’re interested in checking out the great Freakonomics Radio peanut butter and jelly experiment, you can listen to the full story in our archives — Ep. 178, “How to Save $1 Billion Without Even Trying.” Participants not only insisted that one sandwich had more texture than the other, some were also convinced that their name-brand pick tasted quote, “nuttier” and “more honest.” That’s it for the fact-check.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern, Emma Tyrrell, for her help with this episode. 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 our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela drop a reference to something that you’d like to learn a little more about, remember visit to check out all of the studies and references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: Do you think Cole Porter ever rhymed placebo with gazebo — and if not, why not?

DUCKWORTH: I hope so.

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