Angela DUCKWORTH: Don’t even finish the sentence.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
Stephen DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What can you do to make boring tasks less tedious?
DUBNER: I quit. I’m not going to pay taxes this year.
Also: are people overreacting about the risk that COVID presents to kids?
DUCKWORTH: Left, right, center — children everywhere.
DUBNER: How do they get here?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know.
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DUBNER: Angela, I realized something about myself recently. It’s fairly troubling, and I’d like to run it past you and see if you can fix me, because you’re good at that.
DUCKWORTH: No problem.
DUBNER: I am often in a rush to get things done, and it’s not a good feeling. It means that whatever I’m doing won’t be done as well as it maybe ought to be done. But what I’ve realized is that I only rush through things that bore me.
DUCKWORTH: Like what?
DUBNER: It could be a task like paperwork or bill-paying. But it’s not just really prima facie boring stuff; it could be a meeting — or even a conversation with a loved one or friend — that could bore me. I could be driving somewhere. So, there are potential downsides to rushing in all those circumstances. With the paperwork, I might make a mistake. With a meeting or a conversation, I might irritate people. If I’m rushing while I’m driving, I could get in a wreck. And I commonly have people tell me how rushed I seem, and that I should just slow the heck down. But I was thinking about this because when there’s something that I’m really engaged with, I’m not in a rush at all. I luxuriate in the process. So, if I’m writing something that I really care about, zero rush. So, my question, finally, is this: assuming that I can’t simply eliminate from my life all the things that bore me, which would be optimal —
DUCKWORTH: Much as you try.
DUBNER: What’s a better way to deal with that? Is there any way to get un-bored with boring tasks?
DUCKWORTH: I think there is a way to get less bored with boring tasks.
DUBNER: I’ll take that.
DUCKWORTH: But let’s get there by understanding the psychology of boredom. And if I wanted to put a positive spin on it, let’s understand the psychology of interest. Roughly speaking, they’re opposites. So, when you’re bored, you’re uninterested in what you’re doing.
DUBNER: I have to say I am not bored right now. I am interested.
DUCKWORTH: I actually find the topic of boredom, and especially the topic of interest, the most inherently interesting, non-boring thing there is. We’ve all experienced this pernicious emotion, boredom. If you graph emotions on these two axes that are typically used to understand all emotions: there’s energy and there’s positivity. Like, joy — it’s high energy and it’s super positive. And then if you talk about being terrified, that could be high energy but really negative. And boredom is low energy and negative.
DUBNER: It’s way off in the corner by itself. Poor little boredom.
DUCKWORTH: So, what is going on when we’re in that emotional state? And why are we not in interest, which is an emotional state that is high energy and positive? I think the best research on this is being done by a professor at University of Florida named Erin Westgate, who is a young psychologist. She’s written compellingly about a theory of boredom that says that we experience this emotion, like we experience any emotion, for a functional reason. It’s supposed to signal us to go do something else.
DUBNER: So, when there’s something that’s boring me and I’m rushing, I should just stop and say, “I quit. I’m not going to pay taxes this year,” right? That’s what you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, probably the smartest thing is just get somebody else to read your taxes. That’s why God made tax accountants. And someone else to read your contracts. That’s why God made lawyers. But the boredom itself — there’s two things that are wrong when you’re bored. One is that the difficulty level could be off. So, either you’re doing something that’s just too easy or too hard. Imagine you’re playing one of those video games before we had all these algorithms to put you exactly in the sweet spot of difficulty. Like, you’re just on one of those early screens on “Space Invaders,” and you’re just like, “Oh my God, I can get through the first 20 screens and not make any mistakes.” So, that’s boring. But it’s also really boring when you’re playing a game or — I always think about this when I remember what it was like to be in physics class. I got bored because it was too hard. It’s like, “Let me explain the wave quantum theory of light, da-da-da-da-da-da.” And I was like, “What?!” The second criterion for what happens when we are triggered to feel boredom is that you’re not learning. The difficulty level may be okay, but the task itself is not relevant to any of your goals.
DUBNER: That resonates a lot. For instance, if I’m driving, I’m not going to say driving is too easy or too hard, but, “What am I doing here? A machine could do this better than I.” If it were, however, a driving test, or task, or engagement where I’m having to figure out new systems, new methods, then it becomes more intrinsically interesting and I would be less bored. So yes, I like your two criteria —
DUCKWORTH: Erin Westgate’s criteria, just to be fair. But I realize that probably it’s better to say that it’s either too easy, or too hard, or it’s not goal-relevant. Learning is one goal that we have, but there could be other goals. Say, for example, just take a hypothetical, that you have to put this bottle cap on top of this dowel, and it’s just the right difficulty — it’s not too easy, it’s not too hard. And every time you do that I give you a million dollars. You might not be learning a lot, but —
DUBNER: I’m not bored.
DUCKWORTH: You’re not bored! So, I think that the two criteria, then, for something to be interesting is that the level of challenge is just right and it’s relevant to your current active goals.
DUBNER: And pays a million dollars. Okay, wait. I’m starting to have an idea. For all the things that bore me — driving, doing taxes, having conversations with people that I don’t find so interesting — are you willing and able to just pay me a million dollars anytime I have to do one of those? Because that would solve it all.
DUCKWORTH: You know what’s funny about this hypothetical, is there is a very strong “payment, incentives, external rewards — bad” camp of psychology. And this is the camp in psychology that probably does the most research on interest and on what’s called “intrinsic motivation.” So, I think what I would say about getting paid a million dollars for every bottle cap that you can balance on the end of a wooden dowel, I would say, “Trust me, that person’s not bored while they’re doing that, for as long as you can keep up the payments.”
DUBNER: But after a hundred million dollars, you’re like, “Ugh, do I really need to balance another bottle cap on a dowel?”
DUCKWORTH: You can keep somebody pretty interested for a long time, but I think what the intrinsic-motivation psychologists would say is that the best kind of motivation is not when it has an external reward, but actually when the activity itself is enjoyable. And there is some suggestion of — I say suggestion because I don’t think this is rock-solid evidence — that when we do something as a means to an end, it is less fun than when we frame it as an end in itself. So, I don’t want to use the million-dollars-a-minute example as the platonic ideal of being interested. I just want to say, though, that goal relevance — you know, “Is this what I want to achieve to reach the goals that I personally care about right now?” — if the answer is yes, and the difficulty level is right, you are super engaged.
DUBNER: What about drugs? Whenever I have to do something that will bore me, should I just get super high on drugs? And I ask this because I remember once I was talking to a friend who does architecture and interior design. So, she would renovate these apartments in New York City, and she came to this one apartment one day and she said, “Oh, I can tell the guys who hung the shades were really high today.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, they’re high every day, but they were really high today, because they’re super crooked.” And I said, “Wait, what do you mean they’re high every day? She said, “Oh yeah, like, 80 percent of the people who come and do this certain kind of finish work, they’re high. It’s just too repetitive and boring, and if you’re not high, then you get miserable.” And I was really taken aback by that, because the work that I do, I don’t think I can do it if I were not fairly alert or “un-high,” whatever the opposite of high is — low. But it did make me realize that there are definitely different sorts of tasks that allow for different mental states for completion. So, the next time I have to, let’s say, do my taxes —
DUCKWORTH: I thought you were going to go with a caffeination route. I did not expect marijuana there, only because many people, including me, will regulate their attention level using caffeine. Like, “Oh, I’m getting really tired and bored. I’ll have a shot of espresso.”
DUBNER: So, wait, you’re not recommending I get high to do my taxes next year?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m going to just go out on a limb there. That said, a very prominent psychologist whom I will not name, no matter how much you pay me.
DUBNER: Because he or she is a stoner, you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: Pretty much. And I’m not even going to reveal the gender.
DUBNER: Just say the name real quiet. It’s only us talking.
DUCKWORTH: I’m not going to even whisper it to you.
DUBNER: Nobody else is listening.
DUCKWORTH: Now I feel like I’m in a horror movie. This is getting scary.
DUBNER: Is it Danny Kahneman?
DUCKWORTH: I’m not going to tell you who the psychologist was!
DUBNER: Is it Adam Grant?
DUCKWORTH: It’s definitely not Adam Grant. But this prominent, highly published psychologist. When I asked the psychologist, “How are you so productive? How have you had so many brilliant ideas over such a long time?” Swore up and down it was from getting high every day.
DUBNER: And that didn’t make you take one tiny step back and say, “Hey, maybe I should be getting high all the time?”
DUCKWORTH: No. I really did not see my entire potential revealed. I stuck to caffeine. So you can use drugs. There’s also mindfulness, as a practice, to essentially have more understanding of your attention. To me, what victory is that you notice when you’re bored. Like, I teach this class to teenagers on Thursday nights, and one of them asked me about getting bored in class. And I said, “I think the golden opportunity you have when you’re bored is to notice that you’re bored and to get a little bit curious about the fact you’re bored. Like, ‘Oh, I wonder why I’m bored. I wonder if this is too easy or maybe it’s too hard, or maybe it’s completely irrelevant to anything I care about.’ and then you might ask, ‘Hey, I wonder whether maybe there is a way that it could be connected to something I do care about.'” And there’s this research by Chris Hulleman — he’s a psychologist at University of Virginia — and he calls it the “making connections exercise,” where you write down all the things that you’re doing in school — so, he’s done this mostly with students in middle school or high school. And you’re like, “Oh, I’m learning about pronouns,” or whatever, “I’m learning about Boyle’s law.” And then, you have to make a list of all things you actually care about. Like, “I care about skateboarding. I care about music,” and then, you have to draw lines. And it is shown to reveal to you connections that weren’t at first obvious and to increase interest, and engagement, and performance. I don’t know if this is going to work for taxes, and proofreading, and legal contracts, or things that you have reflected on and have decided, “Nope, totally don’t want to do it.” But I do think the first step of noticing and then deciding what to do is the generic advice I would give.
DUBNER: There’s one more, I guess, state of being that, I wonder if it’s worth exploring, which is the notion of flow. The flow state sounds like a good place to be, especially for things that aren’t naturally enticing and engaging. So, if that’s the case, how can I trick myself into getting into some kind of flow state for things that bore me?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s begin with what the flow state is, because not everyone knows the work of Mike Csikszentmihalyi, who actually passed away just recently. And he coined the term to describe the psychological state of complete absorption. I mean, maximal interest. So interested are you in what you’re doing that you don’t even notice the passage of time. Csikszentmihalyi called it the optimal state of being. I don’t know that Csikszentmihalyi would say that you could take doing your taxes, or something else you find to be tedious, that you could turn that into the exact opposite. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi found that the flow state is extremely rare. Some people have never experienced it at all. And the people who do experience the flow state often will tell you that it comes unbidden and unpredictably, and that maybe in their life they’ve only had a half dozen occasions of true, pure flow.
DUBNER: Is the notion, however, if one can experience the flow state, that one can capture the feeling, and maybe the steps that led up to it, and then replicate it and experience it more often?
DUCKWORTH: I do think that people who have experienced flow are always chasing it, like a beautiful stranger that you’re always looking for in a crowd or something. I experience the flow state, occasionally, when I’m doing a talk — when I’m doing public speaking. I guess the only other time that I would experience a flow state is writing, but usually I don’t experience the flow state in either of those activities. What about you?
DUBNER: I do think back to the first book I wrote — on which I was actually a ghost writer. It had been a long and very — I don’t want to say it “difficult” collaboration, but it was difficult. I’ll just, I’ll just say it.
DUCKWORTH: Anytime anyone says, “I don’t want to say that it was difficult,” they just want to say that it was difficult.
DUBNER: We got out the other side alive and unbloodied for the most part, but it was difficult work. But the last chapter, when I sat down to write it, I really felt as if I had a hand on my back, gently just pushing me along. And for about 90 minutes or two hours, I was in a state that I would just have to describe as flow. It felt like it was just pouring out of me. And I was a little bit aware of the fact that this was an unusual or heightened state — enough so to be concerned that when I would go back and read it, it would be gibberish, and terrible, and written as if I were intoxicated somehow.
DUCKWORTH: On marijuana.
DUBNER: But, as it turns out, it was good. And I thought about it a lot, because I wanted to chase it. I wanted to capture it, and replicate it, and bottle it, and have it every time I sat down to write. And when I went back to think about how I got to that stage, I think it was really the result of just working really hard for a long time and putting yourself into a position to bring that final chapter of a book to the finish line. So, I don’t think there was any secret sauce or magic. That’s probably a good lesson for me and probably for anyone, which is, you know, all those cliches — “The harder you work, the luckier you get. The more you prepare, the more likely you are to do well when the time actually comes.”
DUCKWORTH: It’s a feeling of complete control, right? It’s a very otherworldly thing. It’s like “the force” or something, like you’re Luke Skywalker.
DUBNER: There is one possible solution to the problem I described that we haven’t touched on yet. Another approach would be, “Okay, this task is boring. It’s just going to be boring.” And I can try to manipulate my feeling about it a bit, but that might be hard. And at the very least, what I could do is try to consciously slow down and give the task a different kind of attention and a different kind of respect. In other words, it’s still a thing that needs to be done, and I’m the person that needs to do it. And therefore, what I need to do is force myself to not rush. So, do you have any advice for that, please?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t like the word “force.” Anytime anyone says, “I guess I could just force myself,” I’m like, “Don’t even finish the sentence. Ain’t going to work. Don’t try.” So, I think rather than force, let’s do an Ellen Langer trick, which is this kind of mindfulness that she advocates for, which is noticing what’s different. She did this random assignment study of symphony orchestras trying to become one with the music, and in the moment, it’s very hard when you have played “Beethoven’s Fifth” how many times? And the experiment says, “This time, really try to notice what’s different about this audience. What are you thinking about today that would make this different?” So, like, “Here’s a script that I have to edit, and I know that it’s not the most interesting thing I have to do, but I wonder what’s different about this script.”
DUBNER: I like that. It reminds me of something you taught me long, long ago. I think this came from your work on grit — which is the notion of substituting nuance for novelty. If I want to get deeper on something, it’s not a new pursuit, but there is a nuance that I haven’t explored yet. So, if I were playing in that orchestra, and you know, I’ve played the “Fifth” a million times, maybe I take a little bit of a different approach, and it sounds like [trumpet noises]. Is that what you’re suggesting? That’ll spice things up, and I won’t be bored, at least?
DUCKWORTH: Research would suggest that not only would you be less bored, neither will the people who are listening to you.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how Americans deal with high-risk decisions.
DUBNER: Whenever there’s a van with no windows, and someone’s dangling candy out of it, get in the van.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a question from an Andy Klapper.
DUBNER: Andy! I went to high school with Andy Klapper. No. I didn’t.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let me say, I really resonated with it, because I’ve asked a version of it, myself. So, Andy and I would like you to hold forth. Are you ready?
DUCKWORTH: Andy writes, “I have a specific question, but it fits into a broader narrative. What is the risk of COVID for a vaccinated 50-year-old man versus an unvaccinated 10-year-old? I ask because people are freaking out about kids and COVID, and I’m still not sure that the risks are that bad for kids. Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask when required, but given what Americans fear — AR-15s and mass shootings, children being kidnapped and turned into sex workers, et cetera — and what Americans don’t fear: driving to work and bathtubs — relative to those other risks.
DUBNER: Driving to work in bathtubs?
DUCKWORTH: Driving to work — space — and bathtubs. I guess, those are two things that could imperil your life.
DUBNER: Because I did once drive to work in a bathtub, and it is to be feared.
DUCKWORTH: But anyway, given what Americans fear and what they don’t fear, Andy asks, “In my mind, risk is both relative and situational. My risk of getting COVID in a crowded, indoor club is considerably higher than a suburban grocery store off-peak. And where I should wear a mask is dependent on that situational risk. Might be more risky to drive your child to school than it is that they’ll be kidnapped by a stranger. I only mention the kidnapping because of a meme I saw today on Facebook about not putting a child’s name on their backpack for fear that it would give a kidnapper a critical advantage.
DUBNER: Ah, Facebook.
DUCKWORTH: “I really wonder how bad Americans, in general, are at assessing risk, especially their own risk.”
DUBNER: There is so much to talk about here, Andy. Let’s start with the COVID risks, and then get onto the broader risks. In terms of COVID and kids, we are now starting to get some pretty good data on this. I’m looking here at a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And this came out in early November, which we should say is right before the very widespread availability of vaccines for children. As of early November, over six-and-a-half million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. So, six-and-a-half million in a country of about 330 or 40 million. Furthermore, since the pandemic began, children represented only 16.7 percent of total cases, but as of early November, children were 24 percent of reported cases.
DUCKWORTH: They’re going up.
DUBNER: The available data indicate that COVID-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children. In fact, in the states that have reported, between 0 percent and 0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases have resulted in death.
DUCKWORTH: So, basically, let me get this right. Children, who make up, what: 20, or so, percent of the U.S. population?
DUBNER: Sounds about right. There are a lot of them.
DUCKWORTH: There’s so many of them! Left, right, center — children everywhere.
DUBNER: How do they get here?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know.
DUBNER: Where do they come from?
DUCKWORTH: That’s another conversation.
DUBNER: Because I haven’t seen a stork in forever, and yet the children keep coming.
DUCKWORTH: That’s an interesting question. But the point is that they’re getting infected with this virus at about the base rate for the population. So, they don’t seem to be markedly more or less vulnerable to the virus, but healthy little stinkers that they are, they’re not going into hospital.
DUBNER: So, Andy is right to ask if we are perhaps over-worrying about children contracting COVID, because a lot of kids have got COVID and very, very, very few children have died or presumably suffered from it. That said, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. We talked about risk versus uncertainty in one of the very first episodes. And bottom line is: risk is something that can be measured — and therefore responded to in a fairly rational way — whereas uncertainty could present a risk from zero to 99, but we don’t know. So, I think that when you’ve got something risky that is uncertain, it can make people a little bit irrational. He writes, “The risk of getting COVID in a crowded, indoor club is considerably higher than a suburban grocery store off-peak,” and therefore he concludes that, “where I should wear a mask is dependent on that risk.” I mean, I think that is directionally correct, but you also have to consider the cost. You know, how costly is it to wear a mask in a suburban grocery store? We’d say not very. And then, what is the potential downside? And this is where, I think, it gets to why it’s such an American dilemma, because the risk is often an externality. You could be carrying the virus and give it to someone else that you don’t know, and that person then bears the cost of that. And I would say that as bad as humans are at assessing risk, generally, we’re also really, really bad at acknowledging negative externalities. My pollution, my noise, et cetera — if I’m not directly affected by it, I tend to think it’s invisible. Whereas, in fact, there are people on the receiving end who think it’s not invisible at all.
DUCKWORTH: Which isn’t a uniquely American thing. I remember seeing this poster a lot: “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.” And thinking, “I like that poster, but also I do wonder how much it works.” I love the altruism, but I think people are especially motivated when my mask protects me, your mask protects you.
DUBNER: One difference, I think, between Americans and others, is that a lot of our risk assessment is driven by the media we consume. And American media is really, really, really good at hyping risk. Back in our first Freakonomics book, we did write a bit about how most people are pretty terrible at assessing risk. And one example we used is: let’s say that you have a child, and the neighbor has a child, and you send your child to play at your neighbor’s house. Which should you be more scared of: if your neighbor has a swimming pool or a gun in their home? Now, this is a hard measurement, because, first of all, there are a lot more guns in America than there are swimming pools.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, really?
DUBNER: Oh yeah.
DUCKWORTH: By a lot?
DUBNER: Well, keep in mind, one person can easily own more than one gun. Not many people have more than one swimming pool. But there are estimates that there are between maybe three and 500 million guns in America.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God.
DUBNER: So, roughly one for every person and then some. Whereas, I don’t have a swimming pool. I live in Manhattan. Do you have a swimming pool?
DUCKWORTH: I do not have a swimming pool. Zero percent of Americans, apparently, have swimming pools — in a sample from two people.
DUBNER: Exactly. But the risk of a child tragically dying in a swimming pool accident is substantially higher than a child dying in an accidental shooting. Now, think about it though: if a child were to die tragically in an accidental shooting at the neighbor’s house, it would make the news, typically.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. and then, millions of people hear about it.
DUBNER: If a child were to die, just as tragically, in a backyard swimming pool, typically it doesn’t make the news. So, our fear, or our assessment of risk, is shaped very strongly by how much information we get about those things. So, I don’t blame Andy for thinking that a lot of people spend a lot of time fearing the wrong things. He mentions kidnapping. I’ve written in the past about how much we, generally, fear strangers. And this is a theme that goes back deep into our philosophical and religious past — the fear of the stranger because they are different. But if you look at just a little bit of evidence on when bad things happen, who does it happen among? It’s very sobering. I’ll read you some data from the U.S. Department of Justice: “In the U.S., the ratio of murder victims who knew their assailants to victims killed by strangers is about three to one.”
DUCKWORTH: So, 75 percent of murders are somebody you know.
DUBNER: Similarly, 64 percent of women who are raped know their attackers. Sixty-one percent of female victims of aggravated assault know their attackers. Now, if you look at child abduction, as Andy said, there’s a Facebook story going around about: don’t put your kid’s name on the backpack, because someone can say, “Hey Trevor, come here, get in my van.” But if you look at the data on abductions, the vast, vast, vast majority of them are what are called “family abductions.”
DUCKWORTH: Like, a divorce and one of the parents makes off with the kids. Something like that?
DUBNER: Or maybe a kid will be persuaded to, quote, “run away” to stay with the uncle, or aunt, or grandparent, but a very, very small share of abductions are what are called “stereotypical kidnappings,” which is defined as “a non-family abduction where the child is detained overnight or transported a certain distance.” But again, that one gets on the news, the others don’t. And so, our brains turn these relatively very rare events into what seemed like normative events.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe the answer there though is that instead of being more guard down with strangers —
DUBNER: You should fear the people in your home.
DUCKWORTH: I guess so, right? What is the conclusion we’re supposed to draw? Because you say to me, “Angie, we probably should be less cautious than we are about our children talking to strangers.” But I want to ask you, Stephen, is that what you did? Did you tell your kids, “Go and accept ice cream cones from just anybody on the playground.”
DUBNER: “Whenever there’s a van with no windows, and someone’s dangling candy out of it, get in the van.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, get the candy first, then get in the van. Close the door behind you.
DUBNER: I mean, you’re dealing with low-probability, but very, very, very, very high-impact events.
DUCKWORTH: Black swans.
DUBNER: So, of course, it makes sense to be cautious and to be sensible, but you could argue there’s a great cost to over-fearing everything, to over-assessing risk in many elements of your life, as well. That’s, I think, the point. So, I empathize with Andy’s feeling that people are wacky when it comes to risk assessment. But, you know, I think that fear of COVID and the risks of COVID present an opportunity for all of us to assess how we think about risk and uncertainty, because it is a fact that we tend to be more scared of these high-profile, rare events, like a terrorist activity, or a mass shooting, or a kidnapping, than we are of things that are actually much more dangerous. But also, I think there’s an issue of control. When there’s something that’s out of your control, it seems riskier. Look at the risk between flying in an airplane and riding in a car. Most people think of the airplane as the dangerous thing. The fact is, if you look at commercial airplane crashes and deaths associated with them, especially in the U.S. in the last even 20 years, it’s very, very rare. Cars, meanwhile — we have a steady death march of somewhere between, usually, 30 and 40,000 people, in the U.S. alone, dying in car crashes every year. Now, granted, a lot more people are in cars every day, then in airplanes.
DUCKWORTH: But even accounting for that?
DUBNER: Look at it this way: if the average airline pilot flew their plane the way the average driver drives their car, there would be a lot more plane crashes, I hate to say.
DUCKWORTH: Or like a Philadelphian drives their car, right? Then, there, there’d be no planes left. I was talking to Barb Mellers, who is, as you know, a behavioral scientist, and she’s at my university. We took a walk recently, and she was talking about how there’s a component of risk assessment that is calculating. It is cognitive. It’s like a math problem. And that’s how economists have tended to study risk perception and risky decision-making. But, she points out — and I know this insight also has precedent — some other folks who have studied risk, including George Loewenstein, Elke Weber, and others, they talk about the emotional side of risk-taking and this idea of risk as a feeling state. You know, even though the economists focus on the probabilities and, like, what does someone prefer given the math, it seems like decision-making, very often, is actually driven much more by the emotion. And when you say the swimming pool, versus the gun, versus all of these scenarios, I mean, they do have different levels of emotional color to them. And I do think that might be warping our decision-making under risk.
DUBNER: There is a fellow named Peter Sandman who, at the time we wrote about him, was a risk-communications consultant. I think he mostly worked with firms and other institutions that had problems and were trying to tamp down the problem. Like, if you run a grocery or a hamburger chain and your meat is found to have E. Coli, he needs to figure out how scared are consumers, and what to do about it. And he made the argument that risk — in the public perception of it — that risk equals hazard plus outrage, but that outrage and hazard aren’t equally weighted in this equation. He said that when hazard is high but outrage is low, that people under-react. So, you could say heart disease. The hazard is really high. People don’t get mad at their hearts for betraying them. And so, they tend to not have the lifestyle, and diet, and exercise that they perhaps should. But when hazard is low and outrage is high — like, a mass shooting, or a terrorist attack, or a child kidnapping, they tend to overreact. So, that goes to your point about how emotion drives the way we receive it.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe outrage is really driven by surprise. Like, whether you’re expecting this to happen or not expecting it to happen. But I think the reason why we have all this emotion around risk is that we don’t want to die. There’s a machinery that we’ve inherited through evolution to make us fear risk.
DUBNER: And yet, interestingly, a lot of what Andy was talking about is, in fact, about lessening our behavior against COVID and feeling like it’s not that dangerous, it’s not that big a risk that we’ll die.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think the problem here is you don’t know whether you’re on the under-confident or the overconfident side. And who has the time, by the way to, you know —.
DUCKWORTH: “No Time To Die,” by the way, excellent film. Love Daniel Craig so super much. Who has the time, really, to poor over information? I mean, I do, thankfully, have friends who do this for seemingly a half-time job. They’re like, “Oh, do you know what the rates are like in Miami now?” I was like, “No.” But I have a completely different solution to all of this. And it’s not very American. I think we need governments and institutions to sit in rooms, make the calculations, figure out the trade-offs, read the Academy of Pediatrics reports, and then tell us with much more clarity than is generally done in the United States, what to do. I just want them to tell me what to do.
DUBNER: What do you fear most, Angie? Or, let me rephrase: Can you cite a fear that you have that, in the cold light of day, you think might be irrational?
DUCKWORTH: I got goosebumps when you said, “the risk of dying in a plane crash.” I was like [shudders].
DUCKWORTH: I have other fears, but I really, really, really don’t want to die in a plane crash. I just feel like — if you remember the last time you took a rollercoaster ride, you know that feeling when you go over the top and then you drop? I super hate that feeling. And when I imagine dying in a plane crash, I’m like, “Oh my God.” You just have that feeling. And you’re probably peeing on yourself, and it’s just terrifying. And then probably at the end, it hurts a lot because, because, you know, you crash. So, anyway, you asked about my risk fears, and that would be a big one.
DUBNER: Now, the good news is: That’s a pretty sensible fear.
DUCKWORTH: Is it? You said it was very unlikely.
DUBNER: But you can see why it’s scary. It’s not like you’re scared of left-handed people.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I’m not scared of my husband and the other left-handed people.
DUBNER: Like I am. They’re the worst.
DUCKWORTH: Don’t trust them.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
In the first half of the show, Angela mentions a study by psychologist Ellen Langer where mindfulness techniques were taught to members of an orchestra. Angela references Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” in her description, but the experiment didn’t involve Beethoven at all. The study actually focused on three pieces: Brahms’s “Symphony No. 1,” “Polonaise” from the Opera “Christmas Eve” by Rimsky-Korsakov, and “March of the Toys” by Victor Herbert.
Later, Stephen and Angela discuss the relative danger that swimming pools and guns present to children. Stephen estimates that there are between 300 and 500 million guns in the United States. This is correct. There are an estimated 400 million firearms in circulation in this country, making it the most heavily armed society in the world. Stephen and Angela fail, however, to come up with an estimate for swimming pools. According to the CDC, there are about 7.4 million swimming pools and 5 million hot tubs in residential or commercial use across the country, so about 1 swimming pool for every 54 guns.
Finally, Angela jokes that if pilots drove airplanes like Philadelphians drive cars, there would be no airplanes left. It does appear that folks from Philadelphia aren’t the safest when it comes to driving. According to Allstate’s 2019 report on America’s best drivers, Philadelphia ranks 191 out of the 200 most densely-populated cities in America, with a relative collision likelihood 67 percent above the national average. However, that pales in comparison to drivers from Baltimore, Maryland — the city at the very bottom of the list. Their relative collision likelihood is a whopping 152 percent above the national average. So in summary, be careful around guns, swimming pools, and Baltimore drivers.
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. Eleanor Osborne is the engineer. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 think living is much better than being dead. I’m going out on a limb, but that’s what I’m saying.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go out on a limb and join you.
- Erin Westgate, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida.
- Chris Hulleman, professor of education, psychology, and public policy at the University of Virginia.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University.
- Kerri Walsh Jennings, Olympic volleyball and beach volleyball player.
- Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Barbra Mellers, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Elke Weber, professor of psychology at Princeton University.
- Peter Sandman, risk communication expert.
- “Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report,” by the American Academy of Pediatrics (2021).
- “Differences of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation,” by Kendra Cherry (Verywell Mind, 2020).
- “Why Boredom Is Interesting,” by Erin C. Westgate (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2019).
- “Making Connections: Replicating and Extending the Utility Value Intervention in the Classroom,” by Chris S. Hulleman, Jeff J. Kosovich, Kenneth E. Barron, and David B. Daniel (Journal of Educational Psychology, 2017).
- “Orchestral Performance and the Footprint of Mindfulness,” by Ellen Langer, Timothy Russel, and Noah Eisenkraft (Psychology of Music, 2009).
- “Positive Emotions,” by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Michael A. Cohn (Handbook of Emotions, 2008).
- “Risk as Feelings,” by George F. Loewenstein, Elke U. Weber, Christopher K. Hsee, and Ned Welch (Psychological Bulletin, 2001).
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990).
- No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (2021).
- “Am I Boring You? (Ep. 225 Rebroadcast),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “How to Think About Guns (Ep. 114),” by Freakonomics Radio (2013).
- “Risk = Hazard + Outrage: A Conversation with Risk Consultant Peter Sandman,” by the Freakonomics blog (2011).
- “The Cost of Fearing Strangers,” by the Freakonomics blog (2009).