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MAUGHAN: Oxford is so excited that you have compared them to McDonald’s right now.

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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 the show: does it matter if you believe in free will?

DUCKWORTH: I’m quite sure that the thinking on this perennial question will be improved not a whit by my applying my brain to it.

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, I have a large question for you. But I’m just going to say that it’s probably not the question we should be talking about.

MAUGHAN: That’s like when someone starts and says, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you,” and you’re like, “well then maybe you shouldn’t be telling me.”

DUCKWORTH: This is a question I probably shouldn’t be asking you, but I kind of want to talk about it. Does free will exist? And here’s the real question: Does it even matter that we think about this question?

MAUGHAN: I think this is fascinating because my oldest brother —.

DUCKWORTH: Is this the perfect one?

MAUGHAN: Well, they’re all pretty perfect. Dave is the one who I think, like, just, life always works out and he’s the one maybe I refer to that way. Peter is the smartest of my siblings and the most thoughtful.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. This is like a children’s book from China. Go on.

MAUGHAN: By thoughtful I mean he, like, goes through these questions and he has spent, I think a lot of his adult life thinking about does: free will exist?

DUCKWORTH: I think everybody thinks about this. Like, when you’re a junior in high school and you have to write a paper for English language arts and you decide to take on the topic of free will.

MAUGHAN: I’m going to admit I hadn’t until I got into adulthood and he was reading a book called Free Will by Sam Harris — which he gave me — which claims that free will does not exist, that it is a necessary illusion that helps you kind of process your life, and —.

DUCKWORTH: Did you read the book?

MAUGHAN: I did read the book, and I’ll just say this: I hate the — this will not be a shock to you. I hate the concept that free will might not exist. And Sam Harris, actually, if you listen to any of his podcasts or anything, he says: if this is going to be hard for you to think about, the idea that free will doesn’t exist, just don’t even engage here. It’s not worth it to you.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Like, “Separate from whether it’s true, if this isn’t working for you, go ahead and off ramp right now from the conversation.” And by the way, Sam Harris, who is — I want to call him a psychologist, but I, I know he’s not a professor, and I don’t even know if he has a Ph.D. in psychology. But, um —.

MAUGHAN: So, Sam Harris, he’s not a psychologist, but he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from U.C.L.A. He’s described as “an American philosopher, neuroscientist, author, and podcast host” on Wikipedia.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, right. Look, I don’t know Sam Harris, but I was introduced to his thinking by a postdoc that I had named Brian Galla, who’s now a professor. And, at that time, Brian was — I feel like he was transitioning from being a total hippie to being, like, you know, a nerdy academic. And so he kind of came from like, you know, I’ve got a lot of tattoos, and I meditate all day, and, like, I’m really thinking about things outside the box — and I think he’s still doing that, but he’s, like, wearing button-down shirts and has a more conventional life. And in that time that he was in my lab, I won’t say all the time, but a lot of the time he was talking about Sam Harris and this perspective that free will doesn’t exist. And it wasn’t the first time I had heard about it. It wasn’t just because, you know, when I was a teenager, I thought I would solve the free will problem. It’s often the case that free will and whether it exists or not just bubbles up in conversation among people who study human behavior. So, I’m not surprised that this, I guess, neuroscientist by training feels like it’s a central concern for him. Have you ever heard of Robert Sapolsky?

MAUGHAN: I have. I’ve not read his stuff on this topic, but I’ve definitely heard of him.

DUCKWORTH: He’s a very famous Stanford professor, and he studies animal behavior. And animals, of course, include humans. And he most recently wrote a book — he’s quite prolific — called Determined; A Science of Life without Free Will. And, essentially this argument — to, of course, oversimplify — is that if you take every argument you can think of for free will — and by the way, they’ve all been thought of. This is one reason why I think Mike Maughan and Angela Duckworth ought not decide on the issue because, you know, many smarter people than us have thought of all the arguments for and against. But Sapolsky’s argument is that if you write down on a piece of paper every possible argument — you’re like, what about quantum mechanics, right? Like, what about conscious — like, what about the time that you decided to do A and not B? He thinks that he can essentially undercut every single one. And that’s what he does in this very long book. And I think that conclusion, right, that, like, essentially if you back into any decision — like, why did that kid shoplift the Twinkies in the convenience store on a Saturday night? Well, let’s think about what happened to that kid that day, the day before. Let’s think about their genes and, you know, we can all agree that we’re not responsible for our genes. And we can all agree that we’re not responsible for all the life events that happened to, for example, our parents that may have also influenced how they raised us, I mean —.

MAUGHAN: Right. You could go on, and on, and on. I mean, Harris does the same thing. He goes through, at the beginning of his book, this terrible murder that happened —.

DUCKWORTH: True story, right?

MAUGHAN: Yes. And he says, “None of us would ever admit that we would do that.” But then he says: put yourself in the background. You were born with their genes, raised as they were raised. You were in this situation with the brain capacity that they had, da da da. Who’s to say you wouldn’t have acted the exact same way in that exact same moment?

DUCKWORTH: I want to bring up a side chat — and by the way, I mean that literally. There’s apparently this app called Sidechat that Amanda, my older daughter, showed me on her phone. I was like, “What’s that?” And I’m sure I’m getting this wrong, and I’m sure I’m sounding like an incredibly old person, but it’s, like, this huge group text thread for, like, all the undergraduates at Harvard. So, she told me that recently a question arose in this Sidechat conversation among Harvard students about whether you would or would not have owned a slave had you been born in an earlier time — like, born in the Antebellum South or something, right? And different perspectives were raised, and then, as you might imagine, lots of emotions and many strong opinions. But I’ll tell you how I would answer that honestly, which is, first of all, who knows? But second of all, I’m sure there will be people who’ll be outraged by this, but like, just out of humility, I have to admit that if I were raised in a different time and different culture — whatever it means to be “I,” right, because, of course, if you were born then you wouldn’t be “yourself.” But, how could I say definitively, as one student did, apparently, I would never, ever have owned a slave. I’m like, really? You’re not going to be influenced by the zeitgeist of your time, the incredibly strong social norms, values that you don’t even question when you’re born into a certain culture? So, all this sort of, like, is a kind of Sapolskyian, Sam Harrisian — you know, gosh, I wonder if free will doesn’t exist. So, I think there’s a reason why these arguments are made, but here’s the really provocative thing that if I were on Sidechat, I would have typed in, just to stir the pot. “I think we’re asking the wrong question.” I was for, like, a hot minute a philosophy major, believe it or not.

MAUGHAN: You were also a cheerleader. Let’s just say it all.

DUCKWORTH: I was. I know, if we’re going to get deep and real. I’m a little bit more embarrassed about the cheerleading than the philosophy. Although the philosophy, I’m a little bit embarrassed because I quit philosophy in maybe not the most dignified way. Basically, I went to Oxford on this fellowship where, like, you could do whatever you wanted. And I had come to the conclusion that, well, if you’re going to go to Oxford, studying philosophy is kind of like going to McDonald’s and having a Big Mac. Whether you should be at McDonald’s, I don’t know. But, like, don’t order the salmon, right? Like, you’re at Oxford. Like, they have this famous major. You’ve heard of P.P.E., right? Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

MAUGHAN: Of course. I will just say this: Oxford is so excited that you have compared them to McDonald’s right now. This is their new marketing —.

DUCKWORTH: Over a thousand years of history summed up in one perfect analogy.

MAUGHAN: “The Big Mac of Oxford,” amazing.

DUCKWORTH: So, I start off in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and the way P.P.E. works is: you get to choose two of the three letters. This is my dim recollection, because I dropped out of it, but I think I chose something plus philosophy. I can’t even remember which the other one is, maybe politics. Either way, I remember being in these one-on-ones, because, like, that’s how Oxford works. You quite literally sit around with a glass of sherry and a tutor — like, your professor. And we were talking about free will, among other things. And I remember having these conversations and being told to go home and read Descartes — you know, read the great thinkers on this eternal question. And I remember, at one point, being assigned a long paper on, you know, is there free will? Or, you know, how do we know we exist? Or something like that. And I remember thinking that I, no way, was going to come up with the answer to this question. I was like, “I’m quite sure that the thinking on this perennial question will be improved not a whit by my applying my brain to it.” So, I think in a way, it’s a great question. But I think the question to me — maybe this explains why I dropped out of that, switched to neuroscience, and eventually got into psychology — I was like, “The better question is: What does it mean to believe in free will? Like, is it good for us to raise our children to believe in free will, whether or not that’s a fact or a lie?”

MAUGHAN: I like that question more. I still — obviously, you know me, you know that I believe I have the ability to make choices. But my sister-in-law would say to you, this: she would say, “I do not believe in free will, but I act as though it exists. And I treat others as if it does not.” Meaning, she wants to act as though she can make choices, but she will treat others as though they don’t have free will, and therefore she has more compassion, or understanding, or at least benefit of the doubt — saying they can’t control how they act.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, since you have more than one sister-in-law, and since I don’t want to refer to her consistently as —.

MAUGHAN: Amanda.


MAUGHAN: Is that going to confuse you?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what?

MAUGHAN: Her name is Amanda.

DUCKWORTH: You have a sister-in-law named Amanda?

MAUGHAN: Married to Peter. But here’s what I want to say — and to your point of, like, does it matter? I actually think, like, for example, with giving others the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just tell you a story about my grandmother, who I love.

DUCKWORTH: I love Mike’s grandmother stories.

MAUGHAN: She was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. And her family would vacation in this little teeny town on Maui called Hana.

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t it funny to think about somebody in Hawaii vacationing in Hawaii? Okay, go on, sorry. This is not the point of the story.

MAUGHAN: And to get to Hana is this really crazy road called the Road to Hana, the Hana Highway, and it, I think, has 57 one-way bridges. It’s really teeny. It’s incredibly beautiful and picturesque, but there is literally no passing. Just, I mean, you can barely fit two cars on there.

DUCKWORTH: I think you’ve described my greatest nightmare. Keep going.

MAUGHAN: And one time, she, and my sister, and one other were in a car going to the home in Hana and were stuck behind an incredibly slow car. The other individual in the car was getting increasingly frustrated because they’re not moving and it’s already a really long drive. And my grandmother says, “Well, maybe the person in front of us has cancer, and this is the last time they’ll take this drive, and they just want to enjoy every bit of the scenery.” She just tried to always give people the benefit of the doubt. That’s one —.

DUCKWORTH: Did she really say that?

MAUGHAN: A hundred percent she really said that.

DUCKWORTH: That sounds like something my mother would say.

MAUGHAN: And so, it’s not giving up on the idea of free will, but it is giving the benefit of the doubt. And I think both of those can maybe have the same sort of impact in terms of our ability to treat others with more compassion without falling into what I’m going to call the “vortex” of the free-will debate.

DUCKWORTH: The vortex that I narrowly escaped when I switched majors at Oxford.

MAUGHAN: And switched the question.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, I, I love that story and what Amanda — your Amanda — what Amanda said about, like, how you live your life, I think this way of treating others with compassion, which is, I think, actually one of the major motivations for Professor Robert Sapolsky to write this book was he felt like the conviction that there is free will and this narrative that people are in charge of their choices — which he doesn’t think is true, right? — he thinks that it leads to a lack of compassion. And his, like, ultimate goal with this book, I think, was that if people understood how brain chemistry worked, and how trauma influenced brain chemistry and, you know, if they really understood DNA and how it expresses itself and — he’s written other books, as I mentioned, I haven’t read all of them. I think I wouldn’t write anything myself if all I did was sit around and read Sapolsky books, because he’s so prolific. But he really does have this sweeping historical view as an academic — like, whenever he talks about anything, he always wants to go back to, like, the very beginning and evolution, et cetera. If you really take that perspective, he’s like, then when somebody cuts you off or just goes painfully slow and is driving you nuts because it’s going to take you twice as much time to get where you’re going, that when you focus on that person’s own agency, their own free choices, then it blinds you to other things that might be an account for what’s making you so mad. I mean, that’s something that’s been tested actually. It’s not just speculation and grandmother stories. There is research on this very question. It was a huge study. It’s like, over 65,000 people in 46 countries were asked about their free will beliefs. And what they found in this research is that the extent to which you personally believe in free will is correlated with being more intolerant of failures of ethics. And it’s also correlated with being in favor of severe criminal punishment as a policy. And I guess that’s kind of what Robert Sapolsky is worried about. He’s worried that if you embrace free will, you’re not going to do what Amanda does. You’re not going to say, “Yeah, but you know what? For other people, I’m going to be thinking about how they lack free will,” right?

MAUGHAN: Right. I do think, obviously, if we believe people are responsible for their actions, there has to be consequence. You know, one of the great Henry Emerson Fosdick lines is, “You pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other. You choose the beginning of a path, you choose the place that it leads to.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I love that. Wait, who’s that? Is that, like, a country songwriter or is that, like, an American president?

MAUGHAN: He was an American pastor. And so, my grandfather quoted that incessantly my whole life. “He who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other. He who chooses the beginning of a path chooses the place it leads to.” And I, in my youthful exuberance, always thought, “What if it’s a really long stick? Then you don’t have to pick up the other end.” Anyway, the point is that you have to want the consequences of what you want. And we do things that we don’t want to do all the time because they’re going to take us to a place or outcome that is different. I think we can believe that and still believe in compassion. But to your question, I really like the idea of: why does it matter? And whether there’s free will or not, what impact does that have on our lives? You know, I have a really good friend who told me once that he tried for a long time to determine whether there was a God or not.

DUCKWORTH: Just personally.

MAUGHAN: Yeah personally, just for him. And he said, “I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t know.” So he said, “I just decided to live the best life I could and leave it up to whatever happens in the end.” And I think I feel the same way about free will. Whether it exists or not, I kind of don’t care. But there are benefits, I think, to believing that it exists, but also taking into account the context. And that’s what I think we’re talking about here. You know, people are born with different genes, in different surroundings, with different parents, with different educational opportunities. And we have to take all that into account when we think about actions. But I think there’s benefit to believing that we have the opportunity to affect the outcome of our lives.

DUCKWORTH: Mike, here’s what I’d like. We would love to know what listeners to No Stupid Questions, think about free will. Do you feel you have control over your own actions, your own decisions? Do you feel like those actions have an effect in the world? Tell us what you think. Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email us at Maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like No Stupid Questions and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: What if you do have free will, but feel like your actions still don’t matter.

DUCKWORTH: I did everything. I wrote the memo that you wanted, you know, I showed up five minutes early, da da da,” and then, there’s no return.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about free will.

DUCKWORTH: Mike, so, um, I know you don’t like taking quizzes. So, you don’t have to answer, but if you want to, you could. And it’s so short, like really —.

MAUGHAN: I’ll answer. Let’s go.

DUCKWORTH: Well, in this paper that I just mentioned — it wasn’t published that long ago, so let’s call it a relatively recent survey of tens of thousands of people around the world — they used just two questions to measure your belief in free will. So, here’s the first one: “To what extent do you have freedom of choice and control over your life? One, not at all. Ten, a great deal.” Give me your number.


DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go with, um — yeah, I’m going to go with eight. And then the second one is: “To what extent do you believe people’s fates are self determined? One, everything in life is determined by fate. Ten, people shape their fate themselves.” And this time, let me go first because I’m worried about just conforming to Mike Maughan. Um, you know, eight, actually.

MAUGHAN: See, I wrote it down first so I wouldn’t be influenced. I said five.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting, because you don’t think people can control their own fate?

MAUGHAN: I was going for: on average. I think that I was born into a family, into a situation, where, like, given my background, my circumstance, I would give myself an eight. But given what I was imagining the average in the world, I would give it a five. There are a lot of places in the world with less opportunity. I know incredibly smart, talented, capable people who live in different circumstances and because of that maybe don’t have the same ultimate opportunity to decide their quote-unquote “fate,” just because the optionality is much more limited by their circumstance.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. I think you have, in a really beautiful way, raised a question that I only recently have thought with any seriousness about, and it’s the possibility that there are actually two kinds of free will. One kind of free will is: can I control myself? You know, if I get up and go work out or not? Do I cuss out the driver who’s driving incredibly slow in front of me , on this one-way road or not? Do I, like, eat another bag of Doritos or not? That’s one kind of free will. Let’s call it “free will one” — my control over my own behavior. And it’s been long debated. There’s a whole other debate about whether if I do eat the Doritos, what will happen? If I do get up and go to the gym, what will happen? If I do yell at the driver in front of me, what will happen? That’s a second kind of free will, that’s the question of: if I do something, will it actually have any effect in the world? I think we often just think of it in totality, but I think there are these two steps. And my own Ph.D. advisor, as you know, Marty Seligman, had these very famous experiments when he was just a very young — I mean, I think he was like 24 or something. And it was back in the day, because Marty’s not a spring chicken. And these, you know, very old now psychology studies had conditions in which animals — dogs and rats, sometimes other animals — were trying to learn a pattern. Like, when the light goes on, peck here and you can get some food. Or sometimes if I do this, you know, I get shocked. If I don’t do this, I don’t get shocked. And what Marty noticed is that in the conditions where animals did not have control in the second sense — you can press this button. There’s no question that you can press this button in your cage —.

MAUGHAN: So I have the free will to press, but I have no control over the outcome.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, there’s this one famous — I’ll give you a visual image, if you can handle this as somebody who I’m sure likes dogs. So, there’s a dog, and it’s in a cage, and it’s in a harness, so it can’t move much. The floor of the cage is wired for electric shock.

MAUGHAN: I feel like this would never be approved today, right?

DUCKWORTH: We don’t do these experiments today, I don’t think. I don’t know, actually, but they’re certainly not as popular. And I should hasten to say that the electric shock is terrifying, but it’s not at all injurious or fatal. So, in this cage, there’s a panel — essentially, like, this flat button that’s just in front of the dog’s nose and the harness is just loose enough so that if you really strain forward, you as the dog can push the panel with your nose. And it’s exactly as you said, Mike — there’s no question about whether you can push the panel or not. So, it’s not the first kind of free will. It’s not like, “Can I control my behavior?” The question is: once I press this button, what happens? Is there any free will of the second sense? Do my actions have any effect on the world? And what Marty came to discover was the theory of “learned helplessness,” which is that in the circumstance where you’re doing everything you can — and, in fact, you’re doing everything that you will. You know, I want to press this button, I’m going to press it again — and the occasional but unpredictable shock would just come up through the bottom of the cage, and you’re freaking out, and you try to press the button, and like nothing works — what he discovered is that what those dogs showed or demonstrated were sort of, like, all of the symptoms of depression. Like, not getting up to eat or drink. And, in fact, when put in another cage without a harness, and in this case, the dog had a larger cage and there was a barrier in between — but a barrier that was, like, not flush from ceiling to the floor of the cage. So, if you’re a dog, you can move from one half of the cage to the other — in this case, dogs who previously experienced this helplessness induction, two out of three dogs just kind of like lay down and sit there and they just get shocked. They don’t even try to move. And this was, I think, the first real insight to what’s going on in clinical depression, the idea that you infer that you cannot do anything — well you can do things, but there’s nothing you can do that will change —.

MAUGHAN: It’s not going to make a difference.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that will make a difference. So, that’s free will one and free will two. And I do think when people talk about free will, they’re probably just talking about everything, but I do think those are important distinctions. And I think your answer to these questions, Mike, suggests to me that you believe a lot in your ability — not complete, right? Because you didn’t say 10. But you said, like, there’s a lot of agency that we have over our own actions — what we say, what we decide to do with our 24 hours. But you gave a five out of 10 on sort of, like, what those actions will do. You know, What happens when I press the button?

MAUGHAN: Well, so, I’m obviously familiar with Marty’s work on learned helplessness, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. For the first time, though, as you’re talking about it, I started thinking about the workplace. I think that learned helplessness shows up there often when you have, for example, a really toxic boss, or you have a bad culture in the workplace. So, for example, for any innovation to happen, you have to be able to take some risks. You want them to be calculated risks. You don’t want to be crazy, but that means it has to be okay to fail. Because if everything succeeds then you’re not trying enough, you’re not experimenting, you’re not A/B testing, whatever that is.

DUCKWORTH: Because that’s what a risk is. A risk is a bet where you can lose.

MAUGHAN: For sure. I mean, I look early in my career at Qualtrics. I took us down several paths that completely failed. But that was okay, because I took us down several paths that were incredibly successful. But it was a culture where it was okay to take risks, where it was okay to fail, so long as it was a very calculated, thoughtful reason. And we were just trying things. But I think there are a lot of people — and I had, you know, a different situation, a different time in my life as well, where you have this toxicity to the workplace, or a culture that doesn’t reward effort, and I think people stop trying in that environment. They stop trying to be their best.

DUCKWORTH: So that’s like free will two, right? That’s like, “I did everything. I wrote the memo that you wanted, you know, I showed up five minutes early, da da da,” and then, there’s no return.

MAUGHAN: And I wish I had just had an older me to go grab a younger me by the lapels and slam me against the wall a little bit and say, “Hey, your choice isn’t to just experience learned helplessness in free will two, but use free will one to leave. Find a new job, find a new situation. Just get out of there.” I think sometimes when you feel like you’re so trapped in free will two, you forget that you can use free will one to just completely choose a new situation.

DUCKWORTH: Right. You know, if I think about why I gave such high numbers for those things, I not only think that we can control our behavior. We can control, sometimes, our situation. Sometimes we don’t think to do it. We’re like, do you have to be dating that person? Do you really need to be in that job? Do you really need to live in Utah? Like, I think you could ask yourself, on a scale of one to 10, how much do I believe I can control my own behavior and my own choices? I think a very high number, maybe not 10 — but I think a very high number is adaptive. Otherwise, you know, why would you get up out of bed? And there’s tons of research, rafts of research, an avalanche of research that affirm that — that you can live a better life if you focus on what you can control in your own sphere of influence. I think having a lower number — as you do, Mike, actually — on sort of that second kind of free will, like, if I do all these things, how much control do I have over what college I’m going to get into? Whether I do or don’t get the promotion. Like, whether that person will say yes when I ask them out, like the connection between my actions and then what happens — I think it shouldn’t be zero. You don’t want to be the dog who’s like, “Oh, I can’t do anything.” And by the way, Marty found that one out of three dogs, no matter what they had done to them, they kept trying. I mean, these were, like, the optimist dogs, as Marty would later call them.

MAUGHAN: Well, let me clarify really fast. I didn’t believe eight to be free will one and five to be free will two for me. I was going for on average. If you’re asking me my belief and my ability on free will one and free will two, I would score those both very high, for me.

DUCKWORTH: For you, because you feel like you’re privileged.

MAUGHAN: I do. I feel like I’m in a position and situation where I actually can have an impact there. So I, I would answer both of those pretty high for myself, just given the environment and situation —.

DUCKWORTH: Right. I do think you’re recognizing the invisible burdens that other people carry. And I know you’ve thought about this —.

MAUGHAN: Did you know I have a painting in my home called “Invisible Burden”?

DUCKWORTH: I did not know that. Wait, what is it of if the burden is invis— is it a blank canvas?

MAUGHAN: I kid you not, I saw a small painting done by this artist named Brian Kershisnik, and I was so moved by it that I called him and I said, “Could I commission you to paint a large one?” And he said he didn’t do commissions, but he was so moved that I was so moved that he agreed. And he painted me four versions of this and said, “Pick whichever one you want and I’ll sell the other three.” And so it’s a man carr— I mean, it looks like he’s carrying this huge burden, but there’s nothing there.

DUCKWORTH: Oh! Oh my gosh, how did I not know this! So, you can tell he’s like bowed down under this enormous weight, but you can’t see it.

MAUGHAN: But there’s nothing there. And I love it, because there’s this old adage that I’ve heard forever: “Treat everyone you meet as if they’re carrying some massive burden and you’ll be right over 50 percent of the time.” I’m sure everyone’s said that to their own degree.

DUCKWORTH: You know what, it’s often attributed to Plato. And I actually asked a philosophy professor, I was like, “Did Plato ever say —” This is the, the version that I like best and I’ve memorized it. I don’t think it’s Plato, and neither does this philosophy professor, but: “Be kind to all you meet, for each carries their own heavy burden.” It’s beautiful.

MAUGHAN: I love it.

DUCKWORTH: And it has a lot to say about free will one and free will two, right? There’s these burdens on our back that people can’t see. And they probably influence both kinds of free will, honestly. They probably both constrain what we say and what we do and even how we feel, and they also constrain the extent to which any of our actions add up to anything. But maybe that painting is, like, picturing the person who’s still trying to lift up the burden, right? Like, it’s also, I think, an image of agency. You know, the person isn’t defeated.

MAUGHAN: Interesting. Yes. I mean they are, they’re still fighting. I literally chose the one I chose because the person looked most weighed down, but also was still fighting. And then there were two figures, a man and woman, who you could say are one’s parents or whomever, standing there, watching, not helping. And I never took that as, oh, there’s nobody there to help or they’re not willing, but that some burdens must be carried alone. Even if invisible — or maybe especially if invisible. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have support. That doesn’t mean you don’t have people there. But think about it. I mean, if you have a horrible disease that you’re fighting — no one can have cancer for you. That’s a burden — now it’s not necessarily invisible, but that’s a burden you have to carry alone, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have support around you. And that’s why I loved the imagery.

DUCKWORTH: Mike, I quit philosophy as a major, not only because I thought I wasn’t going to make a substantial contribution, but it occurred to me that debates about, say, “do we have free will?” could go on forever. I don’t think we should do that with this conversation. I’d like to bring us all the way back to your sister-in-law, Amanda, who said that when she thinks about herself, she likes to think about that she has free will, and when she thinks about others — then maybe this is like the invisible burden, right? Like, reminding ourselves that people don’t have control. I have to say that I’ve never heard a more useful way to think about free will, whether or not it exists. And I guess you’re saying Amanda doesn’t even truly believe, but she focuses her attention, at least, on what she wants to believe she has control over, and she focuses her attention on what other people cannot control. I think that is entirely the sum recommendation of what research — and maybe even commonsense — would say about, like, the most adaptive way to think about free will. What do you think? Are you like Amanda? Do you have an intentional double standard for yourself and for other people?

MAUGHAN: I like to say that on my best days, I do. I can’t claim that I’m always good at this. Leaving free will aside, because again, I’m never going to solve that — and frankly, don’t even know how much it matters. I want to believe that I can control my own destiny, that my choices matter, and — I’ll just rephrase it — in all other things, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the best that they can, even if it’s different than somebody else’s best.

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Angela references the social media app Sidechat. Her description of the platform makes it sound as if it’s solely for Harvard students — as Facebook was when it was first launched in 2004. However, anyone can login to the app, which allows users to post anonymously in different online communities. University-affiliated emails allow college students to view posts that are specifically visible within their school community.

Then, Angela says that students who study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics — or PPE — at Oxford University are required to pick two out of the three subjects of study. And the course isn’t limited to Oxford. The model has been adopted by universities throughout the United Kingdom and around the world. Students can currently taste a version of this “Big Mac” at places as wide-reaching as Yale, the University of Amsterdam, Peking University, and University of Cape Town.

Later, Angela tells the story of her experience at Oxford and describes the university’s tutorial system as “literally sitting around with a glass of sherry and a tutor.” I reached out to NSQ listener and Oxford University professor Yvonne Couch to confirm if this is the case. Yvonne wrote: “I definitely had friends during my masters who had port with their tutors in the afternoons whilst they did their tutorials, but their tutors were often the old and traditional type, I definitely never had booze during any of my tutorials and, as a tutor myself, I don’t ever drink with my students during teaching.” She added, “My next teaching session is at 8am so that would definitely be verging on the need for an intervention.”

Also, Mike says that the 64-mile long Hana Highway has 57 one-way bridges. It actually includes 59 bridges, the majority of which are single-lane.

Finally, Mike references the quote, “He who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other. He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to.” He attributes the quote to American pastor Henry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick, the founding minister of Riverside Church in New York City, was actually named Harry — not Henry.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on keeping secrets.

Anonymous: Hey, Angela and Mike. Thank you both so much for the episode. I feel that I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place of telling and not telling secrets. For background, I’m the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and I feel that there are certain expectations of me that, if I break them, it will destabilize my relationship with my family. I never found the guts to tell them that I’m queer and I have a boyfriend. I remember one time where my parents found the antidepressants I’m taking, and I had to lie to them that they’re just for my skin. And even though I’m very open to my friends and other people I’m close to, my family — which I think are supposed to be the closest people — are the ones I keep the most in the dark.

Betsy LASKOWSKI: Hi, I’m Mike and Angela. I am calling in from the Netherlands where I don’t have to keep secrets about who I am or who I love. I’m an out and proud English teacher, and my wife and I moved to Holland six years ago from Florida. Angela mentioned that one thing all secrets have in common is shame, and it just breaks my heart the direction that Florida laws are going at this point with the “don’t say gay bill,” because I did not want to be in the closet. And when the law forces you, when there’s a, I guess, a “mandated secrecy,” it manufactures shame. And that’s no way to live. I also broke my brother-in-law’s lawn mower when I borrowed it about 12 years ago, and that has been weighing on me quite heavily. So, whoo! That feels good to let go of. Thanks for the show. Love you guys.

Anonymous: Hi, Angela and Mike. I have an example of keeping a positive secret to share. I’m currently nine weeks pregnant with my second child, and due to a variety of reasons — including the risk involved in the first trimester and the inability of some of our loved ones to keep secrets — my husband and I are choosing not to share this secret with our family and friends until we reach the second trimester. Angela’s discussion of the latest research on the bright side of secrets, especially savoring the good news, resonated with me. When I think about this secret that we’re keeping, I actually feel my heart rate rise and I feel almost giddy, but when I think about it further, it’s not necessarily keeping the secret that it is energizing me, but the thought of sharing it with our family and friends. We get the opportunity to decide when, how, and with whom to share this secret. And by being thoughtful about how we share it, we can choose to make a cherished memory for our loved ones.

That was respectively: a listener who would like to remain anonymous, Betsy Laskowski, and another listener who would like to remain anonymous. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on free will — and whether our belief in it even matters. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Where’s the line between being a high achiever and an overachiever?

MAUGHAN: Over-working, over-achieving, overthinking, over-explaining, over-giving, over-committing, and over-accommodating.

DUCKWORTH: Wow. That’s a lot of “overs.”

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help on this episode from Julie Kanfer and research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening.

DUCKWORTH: I’m, like, holding a glass of sherry. My tutor, who looks like he stepped out of Harry Potter, like, is there with his tweed jacket with the elbows worn through. I mean, it was great!

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