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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: “This is a terrible idea.”

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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: Does reverse psychology really work?

DUCKWORTH: “You’re not the boss of me.” 

Also: How does knowing about your family’s history affect who you are?

DUBNER: I was cousins with everybody. Name a Jew. We’re cousins. 

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DUBNER: Angela, you’re a psychologist, I understand. 

DUCKWORTH: I am. 

DUBNER: I’ve always wondered what it’s like when a concept from your discipline goes mainstream, and how well, or poorly, it may be understood by all of us. I can imagine it’s gratifying in a way, but also frustrating. So, I have a question along those lines. Maybe one of the most widely known tools of your trade, which many of us talk about, and think about, and maybe participate in — what’s known as reverse psychology. So, my question is simply this: Is it real? Does it work? Is reverse psychology a thing? 

DUCKWORTH: I will say this: This term — “reverse psychology” — is not a term that psychologists actually use. But I think it’s come to mean: when you want X; and in some way, shape, or form, pushing for not-X; and then, you get X, actually. What I thought of immediately, though, when you brought up this topic of reverse psychology was a term that is used a lot by psychologists. That’s called “reactance theory.” Have you heard of reactance? 

DUBNER: Yeah. Bob Cialdini has written at length about reactance, and it’s a concept that really, really resonated with me. But I’d rather you explain it than me. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, Jack Brehm was a psychologist who — it was 1960s — had this theory of psychological reactance. And, basically, the idea was that individuals have a need for autonomy, a need to do things their way. And the feeling of encroachment upon that — the feeling that your rights were being violated and that your autonomy was being constrained — would produce an oppositional response. This was very obvious to psychologists who were running these lab experiments. They were trying to get people in the lab to do certain things. And the more you tried to get people to do some straightforward thing that you didn’t even think twice about, the less they would want to do it. And to this day, graduate students, for example, who are being trained to become psychological scientists, are trained very early to think about the unintended consequences of telling people what to do. And reactance, I think, has really held up as a theory. People don’t like to be bossed around. 

DUBNER: My memory of an example of this is from 30 Rock. Did you ever watch 30 Rock

DUCKWORTH: I have watched almost all of 30 Rock

DUBNER: So, there was one episode when Tracy Jordan — who’s played by Tracy Morgan — is told that: now that he’s a, sort of, in-trouble movie star being downgraded to TV, that there are certain things he can and can’t do. And Jack Donaghy — who’s played by Alec Baldwin — he tells him that, “Look, we understand. You’re a movie star. You live your life. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to clean up all your messes. The one thing you really can’t do, just because these days it seems off-limits, is dog fighting.” So, Tracy immediately goes to set up his own dog-fighting ring, which I guess is an example of reactance. He doesn’t want the possibility of that thing taken away from him. So, Jack Donaghy gets frustrated, of course, that he’s done the opposite. So he says, “What if I told you that the one thing you cannot do is go to therapy?” And that leads Tracy Jordan to go to therapy. So, that’s what I think of when I think of really black belt-level reverse psychology. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, if it’s in the script, I think it’s going to work really well. The reason why we have this reactance response is: we are inferring from the situation that you’re trying to control us, and that you have established a hierarchical dominance over us. Like, “You’re not the boss of me.” But, in general, I’ve taken this lesson from Brehm: which is that, choice is good. And when I teach classes, for example, Stephen, I’m always looking for ways to allow for choice. So, instead of saying, “Hey, you have to do this assignment,” I can say, “Hey, this assignment has two versions. You can do A, or you can do B. And, frankly, I don’t care which.” And I think all those, kind of, micro-autonomy moments serve to not only diminish reactance, but just, in general, people do like exercising choice. Every time I do it, it works great. 

DUBNER: Now, in that scenario, is it true that you really don’t care which they do? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. For example, in the upcoming semester, I decided there should be a book-club element to my class. So, in the beginning of the course, you choose a book that you’re going to read. And then, as we learn about the psychology of motivation, etc., you can draw in examples that you’re reading about in this memoir or novel. And I could assign a book. But I decided to assign a small number of books as your choice. Or, if you can get a quorum, you can pick another book. And I think, like, why not? 

DUBNER: Is that about choice? Or is that about giving agency to the student and making them feel empowered by that? 

DUCKWORTH: I think they’re very overlapping. There’s different ways that people can have agency, but the need to feel that you are not on someone’s leash, that you are not in somebody else’s harness —  this is one of the core motivational needs that every psychological theory of motivation recognizes. I’m thinking of the marshmallow test — the delay-of-gratification task that Walter Mischel invented to see how self-controlled kids were. There were these experiments that Walter was doing after he established that it is very difficult to delay gratification — to wait for two marshmallows later, versus having one right away. He then wanted to know, what little tricks and strategies do young children — about four years old — what do they do to enable themselves to wait longer? And, in these experiments, he wanted to randomly assign kids to do one of these strategies or not. Let’s take the example that he wanted children to think of the marshmallow as something inedible. Like, in your mind’s eye, could it be a fluffy white cloud? Which, of course, you can’t eat a cloud, so maybe you should be able to wait longer. And so, in this experiment, if you were not Walter Mischel — if you were a lesser psychologist — you might design a protocol where you usher the four-year-old in, you sit them at the table, and then you say, “Here are the marshmallows. Now you should think of them as clouds.” And what Walter did was something very subtle and very important. What he said to these children is, “If you want to, when you want to, you can think of these marshmallows like fluffy white clouds.” And I’ll never forget that language. And I literally used it with my own children, because I learned about it when I was in graduate school, and my kids were young. Like: “If you want to — when you want to — you should —.” And then just fill in the blank, you know? So, I think that was a way of preserving that autonomy while also, essentially, issuing an order. 

DUBNER: That’s so interesting. Are there any instances where, if not reverse psychology, but this sort of mental manipulation was used to fight Covid? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I remember early on in the pandemic — and I can’t even believe I can use that expression, but there was this op-ed by a psychologist I respect a lot named Dan Willingham. And he said, you know what’s going on with these people who refuse to wear masks, and refuse to socially distance, and refuse to follow the other basic guidelines from authority figures like Anthony Fauci — what’s really going on is that their need for autonomy is being squashed. They feel like their individual decision-making is being threatened by these decisions that are coming from on-high. And I read that. And I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.” And then, as the pandemic progressed, I have come to believe: absolutely. People who don’t want to get vaccinated, who don’t want to adhere to other standard guidelines now, like mask-wearing and so forth, I think there is, basically, reactance going on. And you can ask the question, “Should we have mandates about vaccines, and masks, and so forth, or should we not?” I would say that, on one hand, the first theorists who talked about reactance said that completely stripping autonomy can be the worst form of reactance incitation. On the other hand, there’s other research suggesting that once you say, “Look, categorically, you have no choice. It doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s just a rule.” There is other research suggesting that puts things in some kind of mental account, where people are like, “Oh, okay, I guess I won’t think about it. I’ll just do it.” I am inclined, at this point the pandemic, to actually go with mandates, and go with, “Hey, you know what? This isn’t a debate anymore. It’s just a law.” That’s partly because all these efforts to persuade people, they aren’t really working very well, at least with some portion of the population. 

DUBNER: Right, but I wonder if we’re conflating a couple of things here, which is: the need for autonomy with preferences. So, there’s a spectrum of reasons why a given person may not want to take a Covid-19 vaccine, right? Now, you may disagree with the entire spectrum of explanations, but there is a spectrum, including, you know, there was a particularly low rate of take-up among African-Americans, and it’s been argued pretty convincingly by a lot of people that one reason is that African-Americans have been grotesquely exploited by the American medical community for centuries. So, I’m not sure the psychological phenomenon can necessarily explain all the pushback there. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s fair. I don’t think “need for autonomy” explains every person who doesn’t want to get a vaccine, although it has an element of autonomy to it. Because it’s a little bit of, like, “I want to come to my own decision and not submit.” 

DUBNER: Well, I guess “autonomy” would be one way to put it. But another would be distrust. I think that’s a different emotion. When I hear you talk about the appetite for autonomy, or when I read about reactance theory, it often sounds as though the person exercising that is being a little bit childish. Like, “No, no, no. I don’t want to put on the seatbelt, because you’re telling me to put it on.”

DUCKWORTH: “You’re not the boss of me.” 

DUBNER: And so I think it’s important to untangle, whenever we can, the spectrum of preferences, or the spectrum of motivations, that may lead to a kind of behavior, because if you want to, quote, “correct,” or “change,” or “amend” that behavior, it’s important to know what’s actually driving it, as opposed to an assumption that it might be this feel for autonomy. 

DUCKWORTH: I agree. It’s not just the need for autonomy, but I do think that makes a complex situation even more complex. 

DUBNER: So, let me ask you this: When I first asked you this question about whether this thing that we, laypeople, call “reverse psychology” is real, you pretty abruptly said, “No, it’s not real.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s not a jargon term that psychologists use. 

DUBNER: Well, it sounds like it’s also not a strategy that you endorse. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s a little broad. Sometimes people would say, like, “Oh, if you really want to go out with someone, then you should play hard-to-get.” That’s kind of reverse psychology. But then I would say, “That’s not really reactance.” That’s more like using the Cialdini principle of scarcity. You want to be something that they can’t have. So, I just think that, in lay terms, we use this term anytime we do something which is kind of counterintuitive. But, hey, I have nothing against the non-jargon broad terms that people use. 

DUBNER: Well, it’s not so much a matter of what one might call it. What I really want to ask is: Do you bristle a little bit at the phrase because it implies manipulation? And, as a psychologist — especially as what you call a “positive psychologist” — you are all about using the science to, basically, encourage prosocial behavior and not merely manipulative, selfish behavior. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I have not been above using some version of, I guess, “reverse psychology” with my own children. Like, if there was a way that I could get them to not ignore the vegetables on their plate or beat each other to a pulp during some game. There was a lot of hand-to-hand combat that I was trying to minimize in their earlier years. And I was not above using every trick in the psychological book. 

DUBNER: Your two daughters are — you’re saying they’re physically, kind of, scrapping with each other, yes?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. They did that a lot. 

DUBNER: And what ages are we talking about, now? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m thinking, like, five and six. They’re about a year apart. 

DUBNER: All right. So, what if you said to them, “Look, you guys like to fight a lot. Let me help you out. I’ve made for you these gloves that have, fitted really, really sharp knife blades. So now, when you punch your sister, you could actually kill her, which seems to be what you want.” What would that do? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, that’s an interesting thought experiment, Stephen. I’m not sure it would be an ethical experiment to run with my own children, or anyone else’s. But I would say this — I’m going to venture a guess: If they had any kind of reflective presence of mind, they’re like, “Do I really want to kill my sister? Is it really a good idea?” Then it might work. Plus one for reverse psychology. But in the heat of the moment, when you’re really, really pissed off at your sister who just took your princess dress, then I don’t want to give that little girl blades. I’m not going to take that risk. 

DUBNER: That makes a lot of sense. So, let me ask you about another, sort of, cousin or sibling of what I think of as reverse psychology. This is just lowering expectations, but maybe with a little manipulative twist. I learned this from Steve Levitt, my good friend and collaborator, who you know. Levitt is really smart. He’s also an unusual thinker. So, he does have a lot of ideas [that] are, in retrospect, terrible ideas. Because his brain just generates a lot of really unusual— 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, he’s creative.

DUBNER: Right. But even when he has an idea that I would argue he’s pretty sure he knows is a good idea, he’ll say, “Well, this is probably a terrible idea,” or he’ll say, “You know, I haven’t really thought much about this, but what do you think of this?” And, to me, that lowering of the expectations is a really interesting and, I find, effective, strategy. I’m curious what you think of that. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, first of all, I now am going to be careful the next time Levitt says, like, “Oh, this is a terrible idea.” But I do think, in general, the more universal principle here is that you should always assume that human beings are trying to figure things out — like, what’s really going on here? In this particular example, you’re setting up the expectations so you can exceed them. It’s the same thing when the airline pilot is like, “We’re 14 minutes early.” Yeah. That’s because they make all the flight times longer so that everyone’s pleasantly surprised when you actually land earlier, or on time. So, I like this idea of setting people up for being surprised in a positive way. I was thinking also of the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. Do you remember the scene where Lex Luthor is in his den or whatever, and then Superman comes in. This is where Lex is trying to poison him with the kryptonite. So, what Lex does is, he has it in a safe, which he is kind of protecting with his body. And then Superman — who, of course, isn’t that bright, but has got other positive qualities — is like, “Get out of the way, Luthor!” And then, Luthor says, “No! Don’t open that!” So, look, whatever we’re doing — whether it’s trying to manipulate a superhero, or get somebody to think your idea is actually great, or eat your broccoli — just always assume that the other person is trying to figure things out. And maybe — how can I use that to be effective? I think that’s the advice. 

DUBNER: Well, let me ask for advice from a real-world situation. When our kids go off to college — this is something my wife does, that I really like: she writes a letter — a really thoughtful, heartfelt letter about the opportunity and the challenges and so on. And she spends a lot of time thinking beforehand about how the letter will be received. Which makes a lot of sense, because she puts a lot of effort into it, and she wants it to be taken seriously. So, if you’re Ellen, my wife, in this situation, would you say to your daughter, “Anya, I’ve written this letter with my feelings and a little bit of advice about how college is going to go, and I think it’s really important, and it would mean a lot to me if you read it.” Or would it be better to say, “You know, I wrote you this letter. It’s not a big deal. Just some thoughts I had. Here it is.” Which route do you think might be more effective on the median person? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that always prefacing advice with what our common friend Bob Cialdini suggested to me once: “Feel free to ignore this. Feel free to say no.” That is an extra little protective, anti-reactance layer that puts people at ease. And I think it’s good advice for all of us advice-givers. 

DUBNER: Angela, feel free to ignore this, but I think we should end this conversation now. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if you put it that way, I think that’s a great idea. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how learning about your family’s past can shape your future. 

DUCKWORTH: “Dude, tell me all the things I need to do to not get diabetes.” 

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a question from a Brian Mickelson. And it’s very brief. Are you ready for it?

DUBNER: I am so ready.

DUCKWORTH: So, his email starts. “Hello NSQ people.” Immediately, I loved Brian. And then, here’s the question: “To what extent does knowing your family history and/or genealogical information affect you? Thank you, Brian.”

DUBNER: The short answer, I would say, is “it depends,” right? I’m sure there are many people for whom their family history is neither of great interest nor importance. But for many others, and I would certainly include myself here, knowledge of the past has definitely shaped the present and the future in a variety of ways. If we’re thinking about this era of home DNA test kits, I would not be surprised if more and more people are joining the latter group, especially if there’s even a little bit of mystery lurking in their past.

DUCKWORTH: So, wait. Have you been genotyped? Have you mailed in a kit, and spit in a vial, and figured out who your real brothers and sisters are? 

DUBNER: I did do that quite a few years ago. I was asked to do it for this project that was run by Moment Magazine, a Jewish magazine that was taking 500 or something American Jews and wanting to see how related they actually were. And it turns out that, like, I was cousins with everybody. Name a Jew. We’re cousins. 

DUCKWORTH: Whoa, you really are a tribe. 

DUBNER: Yeah. We’re pretty tribal. 

DUCKWORTH: So, let’s take these two different ways that you could know your family history separately. One is your DNA, your genes, what comes back from 23andMe when you send your spit away. One of my favorite psychologists is Steve Heine. And he has coined this term “genetic essentialism.” Essentially it’s a bias that comes from essentialist thinking. He says that when people are told that genes are relevant for a certain behavior or a certain attitude — like, “Did you know that your tendency to vote Republican or Democrat is partly a function of your genes?” “Did you know whether you’re going to be overweight or not, or have ADHD or not, is partly influenced by your genes?” When that happens, immediately people make some mistakes cognitively. They think, “Oh, this is natural. If it’s natural, it’s fated.” Also, it’s zero or one. It’s going to happen in a very binary way. Like, I have genes that incline me to be fat. “Oh, I’m going to be fat.” And this error that we make can be really dangerous. As he points out, for example, with weight, when you tell people the truth — which is that your genetic heritage is going to incline you in one way or the other — they eat less carefully. They’re like, “Oh, well, then I’ll have two sundaes please.” So, I think this idea is very important, because as information is becoming more available about our own genes, I don’t think we should suppress that information, but I do worry that people are going to make mistakes in how it influences their own behavior. 

DUBNER: I mean, we hear these stories all the time. And they’re becoming more common now with home-DNA testing, especially for people who have been adopted and so on. If you find a biological parent who has a profile — let’s say it’s an I.Q. profile that’s really different from the family you were raised in — you do hear these stories about people who have a total reassessment of, “Oh, no wonder I always was ‘blank,’ whatever, different from—.”

DUCKWORTH: Right. Because this is who I really am. 

DUBNER: You can see how a reassessment of your biology can totally scramble your perception of whatever it is: your intelligence, your physical risk. There’s this really interesting research on Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s disease is I think around 50 percent hereditary. If you inherit Huntington’s disease, I think you usually die in your 50s, 60s. But there was a paper years ago — and this is about the trade-off of what you want to know and what you don’t want to know. So, Emily Oster, the economist, who’s now at Brown, working with a pair of neurologists, Ray Dorsey and Ira Shoulson — they were surveying people who were at risk for the disease. And they found that if you know you will get Huntington’s disease, and ultimately die from it relatively young, that you do make different choices about how much education you’re going to get, what kind of family formation. In another study, they found that a shockingly low percent of people who had a parent with Huntington’s wanted to get tested. Only something like 5 percent chose to know. I found that really interesting. I can see why you don’t want to have that genetic determinism enter your thought process. It’s a total balancing act.

DUCKWORTH: The most important part of Steve Heine’s research and theory on genetic essentialism is that when we think something’s genetic, we think it’s immutable. And that means there’s nothing we can do about it. And so, maybe you could argue that some of the people who say like, “Thanks, but no, thanks. I don’t want to actually know what my genotype is and my risk for developing X, Y, or Z is,” because they know that they’re going to then feel this lack of free will and this kind of like, “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter what I do to take care of my body and my mind, etc.” I think salvation lies in people getting much more educated about the complexity of genetics. And there’s a book out now. I really recommend it. The author Paige Harden, she is a behavioral geneticist. And what she tries to communicate in this book — it’s called The Genetic Lottery — is that we have to all get a little more sophisticated about our genes and how they play out, which is impossible to get from just, like, reading a couple of paragraphs on Wikipedia. If you care about good outcomes for society from an equity perspective, you kind of can’t ignore genetics. And you can’t have a misguided, simplistic understanding of genetics either. 

DUBNER: Let me share some data on what people are looking for, especially when they take the home-DNA testing kit. So, the two biggest firms are Ancestry and 23andMe. This is data from February 2019. As of that date, more than 26 million people had taken an at-home ancestry test. That same year, Pew conducted a survey of people who took those mail-in tests. When asked why they took it, 87 percent said they wanted to learn more about where their family came from. So, that’s like, “Do I really have an Italian grandparent?” 36 percent said they wanted to get information about their health or their family medical history. But check this out. Another 36 percent said they did it to connect with relatives they might have, but didn’t know about. Have you had any new relatives, like close relatives, show up in your orbit? 

DUCKWORTH: Emerge in my life?

DUBNER: Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know what I have sitting on my kitchen counter? 

DUBNER: A cousin.

DUCKWORTH: I actually have two unopened 23andMe kits. Actually, one of them is open, but neither of them have been mailed back, because when I opened it, I saw this rather enormous vial, which I was supposed to fill with saliva. And I was like, “What? I don’t have that much spit in me.”

DUBNER: You’re just not a drooly person. 

DUCKWORTH: No, but I am eventually going to get around to it. And if I had to ask myself, like, why did I order these 23andMe kits? My sister actually thought — well, first of all, they were on sale — neither of us, I think, were expecting to meet siblings that we didn’t know anything about. I would actually be curious about some of my own medical risk factors. I would have, I think, the opposite reaction as what Steve Heine finds with genetic essentialism. For example, if you told me that I have a tendency towards diabetes, I would be like, “Dude, tell me all the things I need to do to not get diabetes.” But also, I haven’t even mailed in my kit. 

DUBNER: I will say, my family — we had a relative turn up who nobody knew about. Except one person did know. No. Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, who’s the relative?

DUBNER: Well, I’m not going to get into it here, but it was a close relative. 

DUCKWORTH: What?!

DUBNER: A close blood relative who had a child that no one knew about. 

DUCKWORTH: So interesting. It was a kind of classic secret pregnancy from long ago. This connection never would have happened without a combination of home DNA testing and social media, because you have to find people also. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes. That’s the other part of this picture. Being able to find people and then connecting. So, I do think that technology, in various forms, are maybe changing things a lot. But one thing that is not technology that we didn’t touch on in this conversation yet is knowing your family story. Does that affect you? 

DUBNER: So, my personal experience with the question that Brian is asking was fairly important to me, because — I think I’ve mentioned this on the show before — my parents were both first-generation American Jews whose families had come here from Eastern Europe, from what’s now Belarus, from what’s now Ukraine, and from Poland. But then my parents, during the second World War, they both converted to Roman Catholicism, before they met each other. Then they met and married like two needles in a haystack and proceeded to lead a very Catholic life and have this very Catholic family in which I grew up. 

DUCKWORTH: And then you became Jewish again. 

DUBNER: I did, as an adult. And the way I became Jewish was because I was, as a journalist, as a young writer, exploring biographies of my mother and father — separately and then together. My father died when I was a kid. So, that meant tracking down relatives who I didn’t know and trying to close that loop. There’d also been a big schism in the family, because his conversion was very controversial. My mother was alive for these years, but there was still a lot to know there. So, I began — as Brian Mickelson is asking in this email —  to learn a lot about family history and genealogical information. And that included, at one point, going to Poland to do research on my Jewish family to try to find marriage records, birth certificates, death certificates. The town where they had lived was one of the first cities that was taken over by the Nazis in September of ’39. This was Pultusk, Poland, which is north of Warsaw. I’d read, by that point, a lot about World War II, about the Holocaust, but seeing the place where it happened and staying in a hotel that used to be the Nazi headquarters — the Nazis used Jewish headstones from the cemetery to pave over the area outside their new local headquarters, and those stones were still the plaza there. And then, on top of it, I found very, very, very few records of my family’s existence there, because the records had mostly been destroyed and, of course, my family had all been destroyed. Experiencing that and then gaining the specific knowledge of my family history totally changed my sense of who I was, who I came from, and then, how you relate to the world. So, I think that what you learn about, not just your genes, not just your actual DNA, but also your family and how they lived, maybe how they died — for some people, I think is hugely important. And I’d say, for others, much less so. 

DUCKWORTH: I thought about this because my dad had this father, so my grandfather, whom I never met. He was this textile magnate in Shanghai, China, and fabulously wealthy and famously powerful. They used to literally call him “the chairman.” Like, they didn’t call him by his name, they just called him “the chairman.” He had this larger than life existence. And so many of our family stories, they revolved around this mythic figure. And for my dad, he always thought of himself as, like, “the chairman’s son,” who had to make good on his own father’s ambition and greatness. But I think that’s another way that family history influences us. And it can be a profound effect. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I’ve talked to friends who found out that just by learning more about a relative — you know, “my grandfather was a great artist,” or “my grandmother was this amazing baker,” whatever — then, they sort of take up that family tradition of a craft, and it makes them feel connected to the past and so on. I also just think that it’s a noble interest to want to learn more about your elders, whether they’re living or dead. I mean, the thing I learned when I wrote my first book about my family, my parents’ conversions, was that you should always interview people as soon as you learn about them, because most of these people were older. And they just started dying. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. That happens.

DUBNER: And so I became extremely vigilant about the minute I would learn about a new great aunt or whatever, to get there immediately. And I was sometimes successful, but a couple of times I wasn’t. One time I was unsuccessful, it was not my own blood family, but my wife’s family. They’d come to visit. Our kids were pretty little. So, my in-laws were sitting on the bench, putting their shoes on, getting ready to leave. And my father in law, we just started asking him some questions. He had a really interesting life, generally, in business and in the army. As part of that service, during World War II, he went to Japan for what turned out to be the end of the war, although it wasn’t obvious that it was going to end when he was on the way over. And he became part of the occupying force briefly and developed a real affinity for Japan and a real love for Japan. One of his grandchildren, a nephew of mine, he too then developed a great affinity for Japan, informed a huge amount by his grandfather’s love for it. So, these two people separated in age by, I don’t know, 70 years or something — they had all these wonderful experiences around Japan, around the food, the language, the art, etc., etc. And he decided — he was probably in his early 80s, or so, by now — to take one last trip to Japan with his grandson and a couple other members of the family. And so we were talking about all this on the bench that day as they were leaving our apartment. 

DUCKWORTH: Putting on their shoes. 

DUBNER: Yeah. And I was thinking, “When you come back, I’m going to sit down with a tape recorder, and we’re just going to talk. I’m going to ask you a thousand questions, and we’re going to get it all down so that future generations can know.” Well, the sad, sad, sad story, on that trip to Japan, he fell ill and ended up dying in Japan. So he never came back. It was a great sadness. I also felt, “Ugh, why had I not started that sooner? Why did I wait?” I’d known him 10 years by then. So, whether it’s to Brian Mickelson, or anybody else that’s asking about whether knowing your family history and/or geological information will affect you, you don’t know the way it may affect you, but I do think it’s a fairly noble, and selfless, and interesting pursuit to learn as much as you can. Because, if nothing else, we tend to be pretty self-focused, most of us, and not think so much about what our parents or grandparents were like as young people. And I think it’s a slightly enlarging pursuit to show that kind of curiosity.

DUCKWORTH: I was at my friend’s house for dinner and her son was being nagged — by my friend. “Call your grandfather. Call your grandfather. Call your grandfather.” Cause it was the grandfather’s, I think, like, 81st birthday.  And the little kid who’s this third grader was like, “Ugh, after this.” And then she said, “Call your grandfather and ask him what he was doing when he was your age.” 

DUBNER: Good question. 

DUCKWORTH: And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great question.” I mean, look, I think Brian’s question about family history and how it influences us — for good or for bad — is a great one. And there’s this thing about family history, which is: it’s always there. So, there’s this non-urgency. It’s like, “Oh, I could always call my grandfather and ask him. I could always figure out what the story was. Or I can always mail in my 23andMe kit.” But, you know, there is the moment that we’re in. And we don’t have infinite time. And I think, in many ways, with some sophistication and some reflection, knowing your story, it’s a good thing. And we shouldn’t procrastinate too much.

*      *      *

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

In the first half of the show, Stephen shares an example of psychological reactance from the NBC television series 30 Rock. And he refers to Alec Baldwin’s character, the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric, as Jack Donaghy DON-uh-hee. However, his character’s name is actually pronounced Donaghy Don-uh-gee.

Later, Stephen says that he participated in a project for Moment Magazine that looked at the DNA of about 500 Jewish Americans. However, the scale was actually much smaller than Stephen remembers. The piece involved just 15 people — all notable Americans of Jewish ancestry. Stephen was directly related to 11 of the project’s participants, including neuroscientist and actress Mayim Bialik, former co-host of All Things Considered Robert Siegel, and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. 

Finally, Stephen breaks down economist Emily Oster’s research on Huntington’s disease. He says Oster found that only about 5 percent of people who have a parent with Huntington’s chose to find out if they have the disease. In a 2008 study, Oster and her colleagues did find that only 8.3 percent of individuals who were at risk of Huntington’s pursued genetic testing. However, according to more recent findings from Georgetown Medical Center, that figure is slightly higher: about 10 to 15 percent.

That’s it for the fact-check.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich and Jacob Clemente. 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 also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: I know reactance theory. 

DUCKWORTH: Some of your best friends are reactance theory! 

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Sources

  • Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
  • Jack W. Brehm, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas.
  • Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
  • Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
  • Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
  • Steven Heine, professor of social and cultural psychology at the University of British Columbia.
  • Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University.
  • Earl Ray Dorsey, professor of neurology at the University of Rochester.
  • Ira Shoulson, professor of neurology at Georgetown University.
  • Kathryn Paige Harden, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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