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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: Look at me! I’m a paragon of integrity.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: what ever happened to our ability to compromise? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t need to debate with you about whether the world is round or flat.

DUBNER: We know it’s flat.

Also: what is the difference between not being wrong and being right? 

DUBNER: I think I can be obnoxious in my desire to be right.

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, I would submit that most people have a strong sense of right and wrong. Wouldn’t you agree?

Angela DUCKWORTH: I would absolutely agree. Moral right and wrong, right? 

DUBNER: Yeah. But even if you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, you know it. Even that’s not a moral thing. As individuals and society, I would argue we really value that distinction between right and wrong. But — I’ve got a but. 


DUBNER: It strikes me that this sense — which is essentially, as you say, a moral judgment — that it’s infiltrated every realm of our lives and that it’s risen to a sort of fundamentalism, not just in moral or religious issues, but in politics and intellectual matters. So that if I think I’m right about something and you’re wrong, there’s a lot of friction, and I might think of you as an enemy, or at least a rival. I may sever ties with you. 

Now, another choice would be to compromise, to say, “Look, I think you’re wrong, I think I’m right, but let’s meet in the middle.” It seems to me like the art of compromise has really been lost. So, forget about even admitting that you’re wrong. I’m just talking about having the ability to budge a little bit. The most obvious examples are in politics right now, but I see evidence of it everywhere. So, do you have any advice on how anyone, let’s say me, can be better at compromise? 

DUCKWORTH: So, you think that the inability to compromise is on the rise. Or, I guess, I would say, the ability to compromise is on the wane. Is that right, that this is a recent phenomenon? That righteous indignation is something that we are experiencing more of than our forbearers? 

DUBNER: I would say: A) I don’t really know, and B) it would be really hard to measure. But I will say then, C) — or maybe B2) — I would say that I have certainly experienced, in my lifetime, a lot of people, institutions, and environments where compromise was a norm, where now it seems like it is not a norm. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, whether or not it’s been on the rise, I think we can agree, as it were, it’s difficult. And whether it’s more difficult now, or more rare, to have compromises between political views, or really anything else, maybe is actually beside the point, because I think the question is, what is a compromise? And what happens psychologically when we give a little ground to someone else? So, it’s a really interesting question. Somebody who was a bit of a mentor to me in my graduate school years was a psychologist named Chris Peterson. And he, unfortunately, passed away about a decade ago. Chris was somebody who was a champion for underdogs, and he wanted to study followership instead of leadership. He really felt like people’s egos were getting in the way. And that it’s really important that we figure out how to come to common ground with other people and not feel like it’s immoral to give in a little bit to another person’s perspective. 

DUBNER: So, that sounds like a complicated formula to arrive at something that, I guess, as a younger person, I used to think it was pretty simple, which is to say, “We may not agree on X, but let’s do Y together.” So, that’s one version. The other version is to say, “Let’s decide that we’re going to give each other a little bit.” Once you start to put it into the realm of ego protection though, I can see how this is such a hard problem. It’s very fashionable to blame everything on social media, which I don’t think is quite fair, but one thing that social media does is increase the incentives for each of us to curate our public reputation. Everyone is a public figure to some degree. You’re always wanting to put forward the version that you want to be seen. And so protecting that against slings and arrows becomes part of your job. And that leads us to never want to give a little bit of ground, to never say, “Oh, you know what, I was wrong on that.” 

DUCKWORTH: It’s interesting, because it seems that our reputation would be burnished by consistency. Like, “I said it. I used to say it. I’m going to say it. Look at me! I’m a paragon of integrity.” And there is such a hesitation to go back on things that we said before. But really, I think it is the virtuous path. I mean, if you can’t say that you were wrong, maybe you could say, “You have a point that I hadn’t thought of.” But I think you’re right — maybe today, in the era of social media — it doesn’t seem like the kind of environment where people are invited to admit mistakes. 

DUBNER: There’s also the possibility that people have totally legitimate differences of opinion, different interpretations, different desires. That’s really what I mean. It’s not so much about being right or wrong. It’s about understanding that people may feel very differently about something than you. And if you decide to dig in your feet and maintain your own preferences as the right way, both of you are never going to get anywhere except into a fight. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s interesting, though, Stephen, is that when you really believe something — like, so, for me, I take my coffee with half-and-half and sugar. The fact that you, what? Drink it black? Is that right? 

DUBNER: I don’t. I, too, enjoy some half-and-half. But not sugar. But, you’re so wrong for putting sugar in. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s just inconceivable to me. If you ever have milk that’s any percent that you don’t usually drink, it’s “Oh my gosh! How do people even drink skim milk? It’s gross.”

DUBNER: “What a moron.” 

DUCKWORTH: So, I think that this extends far beyond moral judgments, but really almost anything where you have to take another person’s perspective. Did you like that movie? Is this a good song? It’s very, very hard for us to extract ourselves from our own egocentric perspective. 

DUBNER: Let’s put this back in the realm where it does, what seems to me is, the most damage, which is the realm of politics. I don’t think there are many people who could argue right now that we’re living in an age of political utopia where all sides are coming together to compromise and to come up with solutions to problems that make the greater good a little bit better. So, what if, let’s say, the United States Congress of 2021 decided to hold a bipartisan, bicameral session on the art of compromise. And, let’s say, they wanted to bring in the esteemed Professor Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, founded, for God’s sake, by Benjamin Franklin

DUCKWORTH: That’s true. I’ve got that going for me. 

DUBNER: What would you tell these esteemed gentlewomen and gentlemen about the art of compromise? 

DUCKWORTH: I would say that you should bring Lee Ross, one of my favorite psychologists. He’s at Stanford University, and he is famous for these particular findings during his long career. One of them I know you’ve heard of — the fundamental attribution error. 

DUBNER: Love the fundamental attribution error. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a good one! That comes from this famous research, where in experimental settings, you can show that people can attribute the cause of a behavior to the wrong source. So somebody gets something right in a quiz and you think, “Oh, it’s because they’re really smart.” But actually, there was some situational reason, like they were the ones who made up the quiz, or they had some advantage. 

And he wrote recently this article that I have read maybe 10 times. The article is called, “From the Fundamental Attribution Error to the Truly Fundamental Attribution Error and Beyond.” He says that, really, the problem that we all have is something called naive realism. Whatever it is that I think is morally right, or true, or good — sugar in my coffee, voting Democrat, I really like Bridgerton — it’s just so hard for us to imagine that that’s not just ground truth. I feel that way. I’m kind of like, “Who did you vote for?!” You don’t comprehend. And I think that’s really profound. We could at least appreciate, or understand, why it is that these differences in political views can be so hard to bridge. So, I think that all of our congressional representatives and senators should know about that. 

DUBNER: Would you say that compromise is an unalloyed virtue? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that the ability to take another person’s perspective is an unalloyed virtue. I think that’s different. It’s not like if someone’s asking you to do something unethical and you want to take the high road, that the best thing is to do a little bit of the bad thing. But at least being able to take the perspective of the other person before you come to some judgment, that seems to be an unalloyed good. Would you agree with that? 

DUBNER: Yeah. I mean, as much as I’m asking a question about, and proposing the notion that, more compromise would be better, I certainly don’t mean to imply that all compromise is good, because compromise in the wrong direction can be simply wrong. Albert Einstein once said, allegedly, “Beware of rotten compromises.” You’re offered something that looks like it’s maybe beneficial, maybe even morally acceptable, but we have to sort these things out. And I think in politics, we see both sides feel like any compromise would be a rotten compromise. 

I would argue that many compromises could inflate the public good, could do more for more people. But then, in history there have been plenty of what we now think of as terrible compromises. Think about the Missouri Compromise. It extended slavery. It led to the Dred Scott decision, which a lot of historians considered the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision in history. You could argue the Missouri Compromise is the reason one shouldn’t compromise, at least when the topic is one of great moral significance, or even great economic or political significance. 

So, maybe what I’m arguing is that, on a more individual level, before you even get to examining the ramifications of this decision, I wish that we could all be a little bit better at hearing the other argument, understanding which elements of that argument have value, which elements of that argument we may disagree with for legitimate, or for less legitimate reasons, and then countering with a survey of our own position that allows the other party to hear all those same elements. That’s all I’m asking for. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s exactly the right prescription.

DUBNER: Thank you. 

DUCKWORTH: Though, we seem to be very, very far away from that at the moment. I wonder, if it’s so clear to you and to me, why it doesn’t come to pass. And honestly, I don’t have a great reason other than retreating back to Lee Ross’s observation that the reason why he thinks this is such a profound insight about human nature is because it feels real to me. I don’t need to debate with you about whether the world is round or flat. 

DUBNER: We know it’s flat. So, you often talk about modeling as an important way to change behavior, whether it’s a parent and a child, teacher and a student, whatever. Do you see any good contemporary public models for compromise? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I was recently reading a little essay by another psychologist, Sam Maglio who’s a psychologist at University of Toronto and the Rotman School of Management. And I know this little essay because he wrote it for Character Lab, and he talked about intellectual humility in the context of politics. And he mentions Biden, and he talks about the importance of admitting mistakes.

Earlier in our now president’s career, he advocated harsh penalties for crack-cocaine possession, and he now believes that it was a “big mistake.” And what Sam points out is that, this highly-visible public figure — a role model, that has the eyes of many upon him — is doing what he should do, which is to admit mistakes and to, in a way, contradict his past self. And by that, maybe more of us will be able to admit mistakes, admit that the other person has a point that you hadn’t thought of, take another person’s perspective. 

DUBNER: So, Angie, in the spirit of compromise, I propose, on the coffee-drinking front, that either you have your coffee tomorrow morning without sugar or I put sugar in mine. Which will it be? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, you’re not proposing that we just put a quarter teaspoon of sugar in both of our coffees. 

DUBNER: No, you’re right. Theoretically, you could decrease a little bit and I could increase a little bit. We could trade off. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but we’re beyond that. We’ve learned something from Lee Ross and from Sam Maglio. I think that tomorrow morning, I can wake up and have my coffee with half-and-half and no sugar. I just want to learn the way that Stephen Dubner experiences it. So tomorrow morning, Stephen, I’m going to have my coffee with half-and-half and no sugar. And tomorrow morning, you are going to have your coffee with half-and-half, and, just so you get this right, a teaspoon of sugar, which I know is a lot. 

DUBNER: So, you made it sound as though you were heroically perspective-taking while I was getting to enjoy my coffee as I like it, but in fact, no, I have to add this horrible, metabolism-busting sugar to my coffee.

DUCKWORTH: It’s terrible for you, really. 

DUBNER: See, this is exactly what’s going on in Washington on a slightly larger basis all day, every day. Okay, I am willing to put sugar in my coffee tomorrow, one teaspoon for one day. You are willing to take sugar out of your coffee tomorrow, one teaspoon for one day. I expect to get a text from you tomorrow morning after your coffee. My fear, Angela, is that you’ll taste the coffee without the sugar. It’ll be so disgusting, you won’t be able to drink it. Because you can’t drink your coffee, you’ll be exhausted. You’ll fall back asleep. I’ll never hear from you again. That’s my fear. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if you don’t get a text from me, you’ll know what happened.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why it’s so challenging to come up with good, original ideas. 

DUBNER: Our “education system,” as we like to call it — which kind of indicates the problem.

DUCKWORTH: The education factory. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I was reading Charlie Munger‘s famous speech on 24 mental mistakes the other day. You’ve heard of it, right? It’s pretty famous. 

DUBNER: I’ve heard of it. I’ve read some of it. And I know who Charlie Munger is, but I’m sure you’ll tell the rest of us. 

DUCKWORTH: Charlie Munger is like the sidekick for Warren Buffett. He is a world-famous investor and self-made billionaire who, for reasons I can’t quite figure out, seems to be remarkably perceptive and witty when it comes to describing human nature.  

DUBNER: Yeah. And he’s even older than Warren Buffett.  

DUCKWORTH: Do you know how old he is?  

DUBNER: I think Charlie Munger is 98. 

DUCKWORTH: Holy shmoly. Really? That’s a lot of years!

DUBNER: If I have this right, Charlie Munger grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, which is where Warren Buffett grew up. And I think that Charlie Munger used to work at Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s grocery store.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, that’s so Omaha.  

DUBNER: That’s So Raven.

DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t know Charlie Munger, but gosh, I should hurry up and introduce myself. The guy’s 98! So, you haven’t heard the speech, but you’ve heard of the speech.  

DUBNER: I know that Charlie Munger is very enthusiastic about collecting, analyzing, and pointing out cognitive biases. Basically, he’s a super fan of psychology, from what I can see, who then applies his understanding of those biases to investing. 

DUCKWORTH: And then makes a lot of money! So, when somebody like Charlie Munger gives a speech at a place like Harvard about the 24 major reasons that human beings misjudge, you kind of want to read what he has to say. And I did. And I can give you a couple examples from his talk, if that helps. 

DUBNER: Please.  

DUCKWORTH: So, the first mental mistake that Charlie Munger talks about is under-recognizing the power of incentives.  

DUBNER: We would never do that. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you’re hanging out with all those economists. So, I would assume that years with Levitt would help you avoid this. But I think what Charlie Munger wants to say is when people aren’t doing what we want them to do, that you should ask yourself — what were the incentives, the rewards and punishments of the situation? So that’s one. There’s also denial. He thinks that, sometimes, we make mental mistakes because we don’t want to reckon with an uncomfortable truth. And let me just give you one other example. He talks about the bias of misconstruing correlation for causation. You might see two things happen together, and you think that X causes Y, but really they just co-located in time. 

DUBNER: Like if you’re the mayor of a city whose baseball team won the World Series, and you had a parade for them, and you didn’t know better, you could think, “Oh, why don’t I just throw another parade, and they’ll win the World Series again.” Those are correlational — not very causal.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. So, he’s got this list, and it goes on and on. And I was like “This is brilliant. It’s so interesting. He’s not even a trained psychologist.” Marty Seligman, colleague now, former Ph.D. adviser, psychologist — I sent him the speech when I read it, because my mind was blown. And Marty was like, “Meh.” He was really unimpressed. He was like, “Not being wrong isn’t the same as being right.” So, I just was wondering, first, what are your reactions to this list of 24 mistakes? And also, whether you spend most of your time trying not to be wrong, or trying to be right, or, I guess, something else?  

DUBNER: I did look at the whole list, and it felt a little bit like looking at a greatest-hits collection of a band that doesn’t play anymore. There were several in there that were kind of chestnut-y. But to be fair, some of these chestnuts are still in psych textbooks, even though maybe they shouldn’t be — like the bystander-apathy effect that’s built around the story of Kitty Genovese, which turns out to be much more complicated and less pronounced than than most people think of it as. 

I also — this is totally tangential. It’s really interesting to me how beloved Munger, and to an even greater degree Warren Buffett, are, even though, on paper, being investors in a whole lot of old-guard oil and gas, transportation industries that most environmentalists and climate activists hate — but somehow they have escaped that wrath entirely. And I think part of it is because they have this “aw shucks” grandfatherly way of presenting interesting information that people just really enjoy. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s true. A lot of us have heard about Warren Buffet favoring McDonald’s as his restaurant of choice. And when he makes money, he allows himself to get a hash brown in the drive-thru in the morning. But, if not, he just gets the Egg McMuffin without it. I don’t know, maybe they’ve just got a really great P.R. firm. But, I have to say, I fell under the spell of Charlie Munger when I was reading this. 

DUBNER: It’s just curious to me. We often talk on this show about how we all like to build stories about ourselves and about other people. And I think the story that we’ve told about them has always been, “Oh, they’re so lovable, and they’re really good at making billions of dollars off of these old-school industries that many people feel very conflicted about. But it’s okay because he drives an old car and eats at McDonald’s.” Anyway, that was tangential. 

So you want to know, do I spend more time trying to be right versus trying not to be wrong? Based on this preamble, I would say obfuscating is how I spend most of my time. But I think that’s a really interesting question, that if I think about it, I would have to say I really like to be right. In fact, I think I can be annoying and obnoxious in my desire to be right. That said, in order to get there, I have to convince myself that I’m not wrong. The way that I’ve tried to approach my work, and I guess life, is, you think of all the ways in which you could be wrong, and then you try to think of all the things that you haven’t even thought of that could also make you wrong. And then, you try to build up your argument for why you’re right. Does that make sense? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Marty in his email back to me, when I excitedly sent him the link to this speech, said that works of creativity and other important accomplishments of human beings are not really from not getting things wrong at all. So, he was saying, for example, that when you have a good theory in psychology, it’s not that the theory is good because it’s not wrong. 

DUBNER: It’s additive. It makes people think about a new element. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. But then, I was thinking to myself, well, maybe this is just a two-stage thing. First, you have to have a creative idea or proposition. Or, I guess, if you’re Charlie Munger, it has to, I don’t know, occur to you that maybe you should buy Geico or something. And the second move is to torture it to death and make sure that you didn’t fall prey to 24, or more, biases.  

DUBNER: I think that’s a really, really good point. When you’re talking about the difference between not making a mistake and actually being good, not making a mistake is no guarantee that it’s actually going to produce something that’s wonderful. But these are components. 

DUCKWORTH: How did you get the idea of Freakonomics

DUBNER: So, Freakonomics came about in a kind of haphazard way. I was writing a book about the psychology of money. So, I was hanging out with a bunch of people like you, or Colin Camerer and Richard Thaler, and I was really transfixed by the way that decision-making around money is weird, and that people who are rational all the time would often be irrational when it came to money. And then, I was asked to go write a profile of Steve Levitt, this economist at Chicago, for The New York Times Magazine, because Levitt had just won a very prestigious award in American economics. 

And I actually — I was so stupid. I turned down the assignment three times, because I was in the middle of this book, and finally, I was going to be in Chicago for something else. And so I looked up Levitt’s papers and started to read them all, and they were so interesting and creative. And honestly, he is the kind of economist that I was trying to be as a writer — which is not just do what everybody else is doing, don’t really care too much if something is going to work, if something fascinates you, do it. Anyway, I wrote about him, and then people responded strongly to the article that I wrote about his ideas. And so it was proposed that we write a book together, and we did.  

DUCKWORTH: So, that’s the origin story of Freakonomics, which is not, “Oh, Freakonomics is so great because it’s not wrong.” It was something creative, and new, and useful. Then, I want to know what the origin story of Steven Levitt’s ideas are as an economist. Where do you think he gets these brilliant ideas to study abortion or sumo wrestlers? Where do they come from?  

DUBNER: Often his ideas are really simple, and very often they come from observations in which what’s accepted as conventional wisdom may be wrong. So, I’ll give an example. This is not research of Levitt. This is research done by another economist, formerly of the University of Chicago, Toby Moskowitz, who co-wrote a book called Scorecasting, which was about sports statistics and conventional wisdoms. 

I’ll give you one example that I think is a really good example if you’re trying to think about the difference between being right not being enough, not being wrong not being enough, but being creative and explaining something to our satisfaction is really what’s needed. So, this is about the notion of home-field advantage. In all sports, home teams win more often than the visiting team. There’s quite a variance in different sports. I think soccer is the one with the greatest home-field advantage. I believe that baseball is the one with the lowest. 

But if you ask the average sports fan, or athlete, or broadcaster: what are the reasons? You get a whole bunch of explanations ranging from: athletes are more comfortable playing in their home surroundings; athletes are more comfortable sleeping in their own beds, eating their home food; the wear and tear of travel takes a lot out; etc. Toby Moskowitz looked into all these different factors that could possibly explain home-field advantage. And he found that none of them really had any explanatory power except for one. Do you want to guess what the one might be?  

DUCKWORTH: Is it that they’re not jet lagged? 

DUBNER: No, that’s a good and reasonable guess, but no. And, in fact, you could argue that, in some cases, being on the road is better for an athlete, because you don’t have to deal with the routines or hassles of home, including doing the dishes, coming up with tickets for friends and family who want to come to the game, etc. So, no, being on the road in and of itself is not a detriment. Any other guesses? 

DUCKWORTH: Is it the fans? 

DUBNER: So, what would be the mechanism by which the fans make the home team do better?

DUCKWORTH: “Defense! Defense!” Well, I thought that fans shouted things that are detrimental to the opposing team to distract them. 

DUBNER: Or, maybe alternately, encourage the home team to do better. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Is that it?

DUBNER: No. It’s related, though. The fans do seem to be a factor in that the one single driver of home-field advantage, as identified in this research, is referee bias, and it’s unconscious referee bias. So, as it turns out, most referees are professionals. They work really hard to not play favorites. 

DUCKWORTH: They are the, as it were, referees. 

DUBNER: But here’s the connection: all those noisy fans actually exert an unconscious bias on the behalf of the referees. And even if it’s one extra call per game in favor of the home team or against the away team — especially in a game like soccer where there’s such low scoring — one penalty kick, one goal disallowed, one offsides call can make a huge difference.  

DUCKWORTH: That is really fascinating. I wonder how the scientists came up with that. There had to be some original inspiration to think, “Maybe it’s the referees.” 

DUBNER: I wish I could tell you exactly the origin. There have been several scholars who’ve worked on this over the years. And there’s also interesting measurement questions. How can you prove that? So, there have been instances where games are played without fans, and where you can measure bias, and there’s going to be a whole lot of data forthcoming from the Covid pandemic. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah, the pandemic is going to enable you to test this, experimentally. So, the prediction is that there’s much less of a home team advantage.  

DUBNER: Yeah, there should be much less. But, I think the question of how one comes up with an idea like that is really at the heart of what you’re asking. Whether it’s Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett thinking about what are the factors that we might be overlooking? What’s something that we should be examining more intently than we are? What’s missing from our reckoning? And my favorite story about trying to find what’s missing — it’s a pretty famous story about the mathematician who worked trying to help U.S. fighter planes being shot down in Europe during World War II? Do you know this story? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think so. 

DUBNER: So, during the Second World War, the U.S. military was trying to figure out how to have fewer planes shot down. So, one thing they wanted to do was they wanted to put more armor on planes. The problem with putting more armor on planes: makes them heavy, more fuel, run out of fuel, etc. So, they wanted to optimize the armor. The military thought, when these planes are coming back, they have lots, and lots, and lots of holes around the fuselage, and then some holes around the engines, and a little bit around the cockpit. So, since they’re getting shot so much all over the fuselage, that’s probably where we should put the armor. 

And there was a mathematician named Abraham Wald who said, “I like your story, but I think you have it exactly backwards. I think the problem is you are seeing the planes that are returning with holes in their fuselage, which means that they actually don’t need the armor there, because they’re able to get back.” So, this story is told in many places. One is in a book by Jordan Ellenberg, who I believe is a mathematician himself. And his book is called How Not to Be Wrong. And as he writes, “The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is the planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back.” 

DUCKWORTH: It’s the missing data that you have to worry about. 

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. And that wasn’t just a burst of creative thinking. That was based on years and years and years of thinking about what evidence looks like when you can’t look it in the face. 

DUCKWORTH: I think about our kids and —.

DUBNER: You mean your kids and my kids, separately. We haven’t had kids together. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s true. I meant our kids, separately, in their separate households. But I actually think about all young people. We all went through school, and so much of school is taking tests and not getting things wrong, but very little of it is having good, original ideas. It’s almost since it was too hard to make a test that asked for creative, original thinking, we just made tests where you could grade a kid on what they didn’t get right/what they got wrong. 

DUBNER: I am so deeply in agreement with you. And I hope so much that our “education system,” as we like to call it — which kind of indicates the problem.  

DUCKWORTH: The machine. 

DUBNER: Hearkens a little bit more to the assembly line.  

DUCKWORTH: The education factory. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I think this is something that a lot of young people, when they get out of school, they wake up for the first time and they realize, “Oh, wait a minute, I actually have to think of a solution or an idea.” And it’s not that people going through school aren’t asked to think of ideas. They have to come up with a thesis for a paper, and so on. But there is a creative instinct, or muscle maybe, that really does need to be developed.

As a writer, I’ve been doing this forever, and it’s still really hard. I have a sort of ad hoc set of criteria for the work that I do where I’m always challenging what’s worth doing. Is something interesting to pursue? Is it true? And especially, is it additive — not just piling on, not just agreeing, or on the other side, not just attacking something for the sake of attack? Is it expanding my understanding? Then, hopefully, it will expand the understanding of a reader or listener. That’s not about being right or wrong. It’s often about looking for the piece of something that you feel hasn’t really been examined yet and finding a way to explore that. Let me ask you this, finally. Do you feel that you are more motivated in your work by being right, not being wrong, or something different?  

DUCKWORTH: I am more motivated about being right about something than I am worried about being wrong about some detail. Of course, I don’t want to be wrong, but I think my contribution will more be about being right about something than about not making a mistake. Wouldn’t it be cool if, by trying to understand Charlie Munger’s speech about how not to be wrong, we discovered “How Not to Be Wrong” was either wrong, or at least incomplete. And that would lead me to some little bit of creativity.  

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

During the discussion about compromise, Stephen facetiously insists that the earth is flat. The roundness of the earth was empirically determined by the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, but the percentage of flat-earthers is still surprisingly high. According to a 2018 Scientific American analysis of YouGov survey data, between one and two percent of American adults believe that the earth is flat. While that percentage may seem tiny, it means that several million Americans believe this. A 2016 National Science Board survey also that found that 27 percent of Americans don’t accept heliocentrism, 48 percent don’t accept common ancestry of humans and non-human animals, and 61 percent don’t accept the big bang.

Later, Angela references the work of a University of Toronto psychologist who wrote a piece for Character Lab about President Biden and the importance of admitting mistakes. She refers to the psychologist as Sam Maglio, but his Italian surname is actually pronounced “Molly-o.” 

Finally, Stephen says that Charlie Munger is 98-years-old. Munger was born in January of 1924, which actually makes him 97-years-old — six years older than his longtime friend, Berkshire Hathaway C.E.O. and noted McDonald’s aficionado, Warren Buffett. Buffett, a man worth over $103 billion, shared in the H.B.O. Documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, that on his morning drive to the office, he’ll pick up one of three items: two sausage patties, a sausage-egg-and-cheese sandwich, or a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich. Angela was correct in saying that the billionaire chooses his breakfast based on how the stock market is doing and how, “prosperous” he’s feeling — an odd heuristic for many reasons, including the fact that he is a proud owner of a McDonald’s gold card, which allows him to eat for free at any of the franchises in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Buffet also reportedly eats McDonald’s chicken nuggets for lunch at least three times a week and, since childhood, about a quarter of his caloric intake has come from Coca-Cola.

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, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. 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 @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to 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, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: Why do you think people whistle when they’re happy? 

DUBNER: I think about that, because I am an unconscious or subconscious whistler, but I don’t do it just when I’m happy, I think.

DUCKWORTH: Do you do it when you’re nervous? Like in Bugs Bunny cartoons?

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