DUCKWORTH: How do we not fall into that little whirlpool of terribleness?
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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: How can you convince someone that they’re wrong?
DUCKWORTH: I, for a long time, have hated saying the words, “I was wrong.”
Also: How can you ease the sting of rejection?
DUBNER: What is wrong with that mother-bleeper?!
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DUBNER: So, Angie, I recently read an article in Quartz by Olivia Goldhill. It was called, “To Tell Someone They’re Wrong, First Tell Them They’re Right.” And I thought of you, of course, since you’re always right, and I’m usually wrong. This article cited advice from Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher. He wrote: “When we wish to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter. For on that side, it is usually true, and we must admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides.” And so, Angie, Pascal argues that this would, essentially, pave the way for an admission of, at least, partial wrong-thinking. Now, to me, this sounds very sensible, theoretically effective. I want to know from you, has it been tried? Does it work? Is this the way we should all be operating?
DUCKWORTH: Well, before we get to Pascal and the modern science of this, you’ve read Dale Carnegie — you know that I’m a secret super fan of Dale Carnegie, right?
DUBNER: You’re not a secret super fan. You’re a super fan. There is nothing secret about that.
DUCKWORTH: I am a super fan. In How to Win Friends and Influence People — I remember he said this and I was like, “yes!” And that is: If you’re trying to convince somebody of your point of view, you first want to give your opponent the chance to fully describe their opinion. You want to get them to think that you’re really listening. I think actually listening could be just as good, if not better. But anyway, then the question is, are they right? And I just want to first, before we talk about scientific evidence, say that I’ve always had that intuition that you have to get the other person to feel relaxed and to feel like they like you before you get into any kind of discussion, because otherwise they’re just going to be angry, defensive and aggressive, right?
DUBNER: Fair enough, but let me slam on the brakes for one second, because what you’re describing, whether it’s from Carnegie, whether it’s from Pascal, whether it’s from Robert Cialdini here about the likability and the reciprocity ideas — all of that sounds, I think, to anybody who’d be listening to us speak today, reasonable, and logical, and perhaps successful. But isn’t it just manipulative?
DUCKWORTH: That’s the reason why I hesitated to come out as a super fan of Dale Carnegie. A lot of people, you know, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Like just the title, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
DUBNER: Yeah, and, “To tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them they’re right.” One could easily respond and say, “Wait a minute, how do you know they’re wrong? How do you know you’re right?” Shouldn’t that be the first step?
DUCKWORTH: It’s so manipulative! I mean, the whole Dale Carnegie shtick is a little distasteful. But I think there’s a way to read this in a much more idealistic way, which is to say, “Hey, I really actually want to have conversations that don’t end in us being more strongly convinced that the other person is wrong.” And so if you take that approach to it, it feels right to me. I honestly don’t think there’s been a lot of rigorous research to directly test this. Like, if you’re in an argument and then you randomly assign people to either do as Pascal says, which is to fully allow the other person to elaborate their point of view, to affirm the parts of that point of view that you think are right; and then — paragraph break — “Hey, here’s some new evidence.” I can’t think of a single random assignment experiment that specifically did all of that. So, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, but I don’t think there’s been a direct test of the Pascal approach.
DUBNER: There is research about the illusion of explanatory depth by Steve Sloman. I learned about this in an episode we did on Freakonomics Radio a few years ago. We called the episode “How to Change Your Mind.” I expressly did that because I am not personally comfortable telling people —
DUCKWORTH: You do not want to write a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People. You want to write a book like, How To Be A Good Friend and Be Influenced.
DUBNER: Well, okay, maybe not that benign. But we did call this episode “How to Change Your Mind,” because the very notion of how to change the other person’s mind to me presumes an arrogance that I don’t wish to own. I’m not saying I don’t own it on some dimension, but I don’t wish to own it.
DUCKWORTH: You wish to disown it.
DUBNER: So, according to Steve Sloman, there’s a big gap between what you know and what you think you know. That gap is called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” And Sloman said that people fail to distinguish what they know from what others know. So, in this study, he asked participants to rate how confident they were in their level of knowledge about a political topic, let’s say, climate change, or maybe it was gun control, whatever. And then he would ask participants to explain the topic, and their confidence level in their position, which was measured before and after the explanation task, would drop significantly after they saw how little they knew. I think an earlier version of this experiment, that I like even more because it shows the point without us getting caught up in who’s right or wrong, it would ask people to explain — like, if I say to you, “Angie, do you know how a zipper works?” You’d say, “Well, duh, of course! I use a zipper probably every day of my life.” “Do you know how a pen works?” “Duh, I write with a pen every day.” “Do you know how a sink works?” “Of course. I get water every day.” And then I’d say, “Okay, can you explain to me how a sink actually works?” And most of us, unless we are plumbers or plumber-adjacent, really can’t explain how a sink works. And by understanding that we can’t explain in detail the actual workings of that relatively simple physical thing, begin to gain a little humility about what might be a bigger presumption. And that I found to be a fascinating way to assess our own shortcomings and how to deal with other people when we think that their position is, quote, “wrong.”
DUCKWORTH: It should lead to humility. But in these arguments that I’m imagining that Pascal or Dale Carnegie were thinking about, like, “Should we have unemployment benefits extended or not during the pandemic?” I think there are people who are very happy to elaborate their position and why the other side is stupid — and it doesn’t seem to lead to humility. What you were just describing, I think, is different from Pascal. Pascal was saying. “Hey, if you’re having an argument with somebody who believes diametrically the opposite, first just concede ground. First, really hear them out, and maybe point out the parts of their argument that you feel are rational. I think that’s different. I’m not saying that yours isn’t also possibly valuable, but I think that in the research that you were talking about, like, “Oh, how does the sink work? Oh, I guess I realized I didn’t know how [a] sink works” — there’s a lot less ego involved. I think when you already have a position on abortion, or on welfare benefits, it’s a lot of emotion and ideology built into that kind of question, as opposed to these factual questions that nobody feels as embarrassed about. You know, one of the things that Pascal says is that, on the side of the argument that your opponent is, there is clearly some truth. And if we go right to our side, then not only do we have now a more defensive opponent, we’ve basically cut ourselves off from a lot of information.
DUBNER: Can you share an example from your own life where you were sure that you were right about something and found out that you were, quote, “wrong”?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, this is a really dorky answer, but there was this preregistration that I had to do — in other words, it’s a document where you say, “This is what I’m going to study. This is how I’m going to study it. And, this is how I’m going to run the statistics.” I had this line about how I was going to do the statistical model, and I was really sure that I was right. And then my collaborator said I was wrong, and I didn’t feel at all wrong. It took a few days and a lot of conversations for me to come around to that. And then I just admitted, I was — like, “Oh, I’m an idiot. Like, of course.”
DUBNER: So, did that admission cost you anything?
DUCKWORTH: Well, one thing that I have discovered is this: I, for a long time, have hated saying the words, “I was wrong.” I still hate saying the words “I was wrong,” but I hate them a little less. And I wonder if the reason I hate it less is some version of exposure therapy. I have forced myself to say, without qualification, “I was wrong.” And it has gotten easier — not easy, but it’s gotten easier.
DUBNER: And what do you think are the ramifications of saying that more often? Do you think you benefit from it? Even if indirectly, by making the other people that you work with think, “Oh, Angie will admit on that rare occasion when she was wrong, and therefore, that makes her an even more valuable collaborator?”
DUCKWORTH: I think it is true of birds that when you are really high-status —
DUBNER: Birds are so wrong all the time, I have to say. Every bird I know, they’re just spouting crap. And they don’t know how a sink works. They don’t know how a pen works.
DUCKWORTH: They don’t, and they’re always saying they do. So annoying. So, I believe that there’s a study — but somebody told it to me in a bar, like, 25 years ago, and I have to find this study — that high-status birds, like really high-status —
DUBNER: When you say a high-status bird — is, like, a blue jay higher status than a sparrow?
DUCKWORTH: No, no, no — within the species. So, like, you versus the other birds of the same feather, as it were. So, it’s been told to me, in a bar, that there’s research showing that when the very high-status birds get into a conflict with a lower-status bird, they will actually sometimes back down — that they don’t have to go into the fight to prove themselves. And I think about that when I see TED Talks, because you see all these high-status people being vulnerable and talking about their failures. And I feel like it’s something that, yes, we should all do. But easy for you to say, you were already the C.E.O. of a corporation for 20 years, which is why you’re giving a TED Talk. So, I think that I am now a high-status enough bird to be able to say, “Whoa, I didn’t realize that I got the statistical model wrong.” But I’m not sure it’s advice that I can glibly give to my first-year graduate students. You know, “Go around all the time saying ‘I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong.’” That’s the privilege of a high-status bird, but not yet your privilege. All that said, when you think of all the pluses and minuses, it’s got to be better to admit when we’re wrong, see the other side of an opinion or an issue. Net, intellectual humility is a good thing.
DUBNER: I’m curious if there’s evidence to back that up. Do we know anything about how people feel after they change their mind, after they’ve admitted they were wrong? I’m curious if we actually know whether there is a benefit to that.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. And I’m not saying that the scientific research on how we feel when we do change our minds doesn’t exist. So much of the evidence is about how in one experiment after another, people fail to change their minds. Lee Ross died relatively recently — one of the greatest social psychologists ever. And one of the last papers that he wrote was about his lifetime of work. Basically, what he said, looking back at the arc of all of his research, is that what he learned is that human beings have the illusion of objectivity. Whatever we believe, we really believe is not only our opinion, but is fact. Like, if I’m in a room and I feel hot, then I think the room is hot. It never occurs to me that I subjectively feel hot.
DUBNER: Is that true? My wife and I are always asking each other, “Is it warm in here? Or is it me?”
DUCKWORTH: Maybe you’re the rare exception. But I think a lot of people — and maybe room temperature is one thing, but, you know, on political issues, or you witness an accident and you see things in a certain way — your perspective isn’t, “Oh, I subjectively thought that.” You just think it’s true. And I think that that is why the preponderance of studies are not about how it feels when you admit being wrong, but just showing that people have a difficult time admitting that they’re wrong in the first place.
DUBNER: What do you think are the limits to what Pascal recommends? For example, do you think you can use this method with conspiracy theorists? Or do you think there are certain beliefs that are just too wacky to find common ground by explaining what’s right and what’s wrong?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s take something which is not an abstract example. Let’s take the pandemic.
DUBNER: What pandemic? That’s just a big government effort to take over all our lives and to crater our economy.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. What am I supposed to do to convince you, Mr. Skeptic, to get vaccinated? Let’s take that as a very urgent behavioral science challenge. And I’ve been on innumerable committees from innumerable government agencies and other organizations —
DUBNER: Wait. Wait. Wait. Really, innumerable? Well. I have a grammar thing. I have a lot of grammar things, but one of them is the absolutely wrong use of the word “countless.” A lot of times people use the word countless for things that are truly countable. So, when you say innumerable—
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah. Okay, you know what? I was wrong.
DUBNER: Is it a lot?
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s like three. But I can’t count above two, so there you go. But, Stephen, I was wrong.
DUBNER: All right. You feel better?
DUCKWORTH: I feel okay. I think I’m doing it. I’m breathing. How about this? Do you like this better? Literally countless — Yeah that’s good. So, asking the question, how do we get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated? And one of the suggestions that came — because I’m often on these threads with our common friend Bob Cialdini — is that you want to give the person whom you’re trying to convince a way of saving face. And it’s very, very related to this Pascal advice, because what Pascal says is that people feel maybe not good, but better about realizing that there’s something they left out, than that they were just wrong. Like, “Oh, did you know that there’s this other piece of evidence?” — and then they can change their mind in a way that saves face. For example, early on in the pandemic, when we were trying to convince people to wear masks, Bob said you have to give them this self-talk: “I couldn’t have known. I couldn’t have known that it’s the right thing to wear a mask. Now, with new evidence that masks protect the other person —” whatever it is! And I’m sure that’s beneficial. But I honestly don’t have a great answer to how do we help the unconvinced at this point. In our recent studies, incentives are not working very well, for example, lotteries and so forth. So I really am at somewhat of a loss as to how you’re going to convince the unconvinced at this point. And one of the great lessons of Persuasion when it comes to this modern challenge that we have with the pandemic is that, it’s got to be a multipronged offense. I think what Pascal is advising here is generally true for all segments, which is that nobody wants to feel like an idiot. So, whatever you’re going to do, and however you are going to approach that other person’s point of view, let’s just assume that they don’t like feeling like they’re stupid.
DUBNER: You say that lotteries have not been very effective in the effort to get people vaccinated. But I think that the lottery that would be effective hasn’t been tried yet, which is to say: a really, really, really, really big payout — like, let’s say it’s a 10-billion-dollar national lottery. And let’s say there are 10 winners — they each get one billion dollars. But here’s the twist. Everyone, every single person living in America, gets auto-enrolled in the lottery. Then names are drawn. But you can only claim your winning if you’ve been vaccinated. How do you think that would work?
DUCKWORTH: So it’s a regret lottery? We literally just ran a regret lottery in Philadelphia. Now, we didn’t have a billion dollars, but we said, “If you exist, you’re in the lottery. And when we draw your name, you’re either going to be able to claim your prize or you’re going to have regret that you didn’t get this prize.” And we have pretty good statistical evidence that that did not work. By the way, we wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t think it was going to work. We thought it would! But one of the things that Pascal, I think, would nod his dead, French, 17th-century head to is that one way to get to, “I was wrong” and be okay with it is to change the game here. The game is not to be right, but maybe the game is to be the most intellectually humble and open-minded person. And then suddenly “I was wrong” takes on a completely different color.
DUBNER: I’m disappointed to hear that the regret lottery didn’t work. Yeah, we regret that it did not work. And I’m disappointed for two reasons: one is, as a human, I wish it were more effective. But the other is, I had just written out a check to you for a billion dollars, and I was going to send it. And now you tell me it’s not going to work. So, Angie, you know, forget — Sound of paper tearing. There it goes.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why some people are particularly sensitive to rejections and others don’t seem to process them at all.
DUCKWORTH: You might be like, “No, I can’t go out on a Friday night.”
DUBNER: Okay, see you Friday.
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DUBNER: Angela, there’s a listener question from one Raymond Chen, who writes to say, “Rejection is a part of life.” I agree. Examples include a breakup in a relationship, termination from a job, a paper or book rejected by a publisher. Oof. Yeah. That’s tough. No matter how many times you have experienced rejection, it never feels good. The prevailing advice says we should do nothing and move on. But the sting lingers, sometimes for life. How can we acclimate ourselves to weather rejections without feeling like we got hit by a Mack truck? And when we find ourselves having to reject others, how can we do it in a way that lessens the blow for people receiving it? So, Angela, I think these are great questions. First, let’s tackle the “not being hurt too much” when you are the rejectee, not the rejecter.
DUCKWORTH: I think that at the heart of rejection is that you as a person are being rejected, not that your work is being rejected. So, if you submit a paper to a journal, or you pitch a new idea for a startup and it’s rejected, it’s not that you think that your project is being criticized, it’s that you’re being criticized.
DUBNER: But you are being criticized, because you’re the one who created the thing. This is an argument for why acting, or any kind of performing, is so, so difficult, since the performer is the product also. When you’re an actor auditioning or a singer auditioning, and when you don’t get it, then it is not your skill, or your craft, that’s being rejected. It is you. But if you write a book chapter or a paper, it’s still you.
DUCKWORTH: There could be reasons extraneous to being an individual that that person doesn’t like. But I agree with you that this is what it feels like. I think that’s actually why rejection is such a terrible emotion to feel, because we feel like we, as people, are being excluded somehow from society, even.
DUBNER: I don’t mean to keep picking the same scab, but you’re going to. But I’m still not convinced that — let’s say again, let’s say it’s an academic paper.
DUCKWORTH: I just got rejected, by the way. This is good.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. Let’s talk about that. What was the journal and why were you rejected?
DUCKWORTH: It was Motivation Science.
DUBNER: A bunch of losers over there. It’s a crap journal.
DUCKWORTH: Really like the journal, for the record, and submitted a study where we had a survey of teenagers about how they prepared for the SAT, and then we had their SAT scores, because it was done in partnership with College Board, and we also had how much time these teenagers said they studied. And we said, “Hey, look, teenagers have all kinds of strategies to get themselves to practice for the SAT. And if you use any of these strategies, it’s better than just relying on willpower. And the more strategies you use, the better you do, in terms of practice time and your actual SAT performance.” So, we thought it was a wonderful study. In fact, there’s a set of studies — we replicated it. But there were three reviewers and an editor, and we got rejected.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about how you felt when you received that rejection. Do you factor into the rejection decision the fact that every journal gets way more articles than it can publish? If there’s only room in that journal for, let’s say, three articles in the upcoming quarterly volume, and you know they’re getting 50, do you use that math in your favor to say, “Well, this was a pretty good paper, but they couldn’t publish everything.”
DUCKWORTH: That’s what I mean, Stephen, about thinking about all the factors that determine your rejection and not just, “Wow, they must not like me.” Like, 47 out of 50 papers rejected — that’s not about you as an individual being pushed out of the group.
DUBNER: What did you tell yourself about that rejection? Did you say, “Maybe the paper wasn’t as good as we thought it was”?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I think this says something about my probably unhealthy level of confidence, that I am always surprised that I get rejected. Like, if I write to a celebrity like Lin-Manuel Miranda and he doesn’t immediately write me back, I’m always surprised.
DUBNER: What is wrong with that mother-bleeper?!
DUCKWORTH: I’m still waiting for that reply, Lin. Just saying. I love you. But I will say this, I’m not rejection-sensitive, Stephen. Geraldine Downey at Columbia — and other researchers, including Walter Mischel — they have documented this idea that some of us have the disposition to expect, readily perceive, and then really react intensely to being rejected. And that’s what rejection sensitivity is — this disposition to be almost biased toward being rejected.
DUBNER: How much variance is there among humankind? I’m guessing there’s quite a lot. And, I’m curious, what kind of people are those who are rejection-insensitive, like you? Because here would be my theory: You, Angela Duckworth, are a fairly accomplished human. So, prima facie, one could determine that you haven’t been rejected all that much.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, you’re saying that this is, like, a logical response to your experience? Quite possibly. Well, I will say that there are a lot of people that I know who are very high in rejection sensitivity, and they are extremely high-status. This idea of anxiously expecting other people to reject you is something that varies considerably, and it does so among people at all strata of society. But we do have pretty decent scientific research on the sequence of what happens cognitively and behaviorally and emotionally when people are rejection-sensitive. One of the pernicious cycles that rejection-sensitive people fall into is you’re quick to take a slight, quick to take offense — like, “Oh, that person meant to cut me off, tried to shortchange me when he gave me my money back.” And then you act in the way that you would if that were really true, which is that you’re a little hostile, you’re a little aggressive, you push back. And then you have precipitated the very rejection that you think may have happened in the first place. So, when there is an ambiguous situation and you are rejection-sensitive, you can make a self-fulfilling prophecy that other people are out to get you or out to reject you. And that’s something where you can say, “Oh, okay. Well, if that’s true, how do we not fall into that little whirlpool of terribleness?”
DUBNER: I am curious to know if you have any particular advice for how to get your mind to think in that way. I may be wrong in this, but I believe the Stoics — or some of the Stoics, at least — argued that there is no such thing as rejection.
DUCKWORTH: It’s, like, your own mirage in your mind.
DUBNER: Well, not necessarily a mirage, but an interpretation. So, like, there’s the event itself, and then there’s the story we tell ourselves about what the event means. Epictetus told the story that so-and-so was carted off to prison. What happened? He was carted off to prison. But now, add to this: he’s had bad luck, or someone was out to get him. We’re adding our own observations onto that account and creating this story. So, if that’s the case, and if you feel there’s something to be said for reversing this dynamic, what would you say to Raymond, or to yourself, or to me, about ways to harness that way of thinking to — if nothing else, in the moment, when you’re really hurt — to feel different about the rejection?
DUCKWORTH: Just understanding that there is this storytelling that happens. You know, you ask somebody, “Hey, do you want to go out on Friday night?” And they don’t want to go out on Friday night. Immediately, you start making up stories: “They don’t really like me. They always thought I was kind of a jerk.” I think just knowing that you’re making up a story — you don’t know, you really don’t know.
DUBNER: So, would you suggest asking?
DUCKWORTH: You could ask. One of the through lines of social psychology — I’m thinking about Nick Epley at University of Chicago — we don’t know what other people are thinking. We don’t know what their true motivation is. We take guesses. We assume that those guesses are accurate. But we don’t know. And therefore, you should probably ask. Now, look, if somebody says, “Hey, I can’t go out on Friday night,” I cringe to think of you, like, immediately following up with, “Why? Why can’t you? Are you rejecting me? Do you not like me?” I mean, that’s bad. But, but done well, I think it could be straightforward — ask people what they really think.
DUBNER: So, the thing about Raymond’s question that was compelling to me is this notion that the pain of rejection will keep a lot of people from doing things that they’d otherwise like to attempt. But the possibility of the pain is so significant that they’re not even going to try.
DUCKWORTH: Trying to avoid rejection is going to, like, cut off a lot of life experience. And as somebody who’s extremely rejection-insensitive. I’m not sure that I, you know —
DUBNER: Can identify with this notion?
DUCKWORTH: I can’t necessarily identify with it. I will say this: If there is a self-fulfilling prophecy that you are a little biased to look for cues that people don’t like you, and then you’re going to be hostile, and then, guess what? They’re actually not going to like you. Why don’t you decide to be on a different self-fulfilling prophecy? Why don’t you start every conversation that you have today assuming that people like you and that they really want to spend time with you? And that would have, perhaps, the consequence that you would be affectionate and engaging in return. And then you have a different self-fulfilling prophecy. You know who taught me that? My mother taught me that. So, my mom, Saint Teresa, I watch her interact with humans that she’s never met before. And she just assumes that they will like her, and then they do. And so everyone’s happy. That’s, I think, the opposite of rejection-sensitivity.
DUBNER: Now, how does your mom handle rejection?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t even think my mom would register rejection. I really don’t. So, she’s a stoic. Well, a stoic might actually be very mindful of all of this going on. They might say, like, “Yes, I felt rejection, but that’s just my mind playing tricks on me.” My mom, you reject her and I think she would be like — Silly you. Or literally not registering it, Stephen. You might be like, “No, I can’t go out on a Friday night.”
DUBNER: Okay, see you Friday.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, look, my mom’s actually having a little art show at her nursing home. There’s a reception on Sunday. This is not a hypothetical. This really happened. And I looked at my very busy calendar and I said, “You know what? I can’t come to the reception on Sunday.” I mean, I have a lot of things to do on a Sunday, like work on papers that I didn’t write on Saturday. Okay, I know. My mom’s 86, I should schlep out to the nursing home and go to the reception. And by the way, I did eventually go to the art show, and I drank the iced tea, and I looked at the art, and it was lovely.
DUBNER: Phew, you almost lost me for a minute there.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. But look, I told my mom I couldn’t go, and you could consider that a rejection. What did my mom do? She was like, “Oh, okay. Well, it’s going to be up for a really long time, so don’t worry about it.” There wasn’t a microsecond that my mom felt rejected.
DUBNER: Okay, having heard that story, I’m not sure you are the best person to ask the following question. And yet, I will ask it. And this was Raymond’s second question: How can we be better at rejecting?
DUCKWORTH: I think the point you’re trying to make is that you’re not rejecting the individual, you are rejecting the product of the individual. There are reasons that are not about you. And I think you have to actually make explicit and dramatic overtures to do that, because it’s the tendency for many people to take things personally.
DUBNER: And do you use a little peak-end theory in there? Do you offer a little bit of hope at the end?
DUCKWORTH: I, personally, like to have correspondence that has closure. Like, “Hey, I’m really busy right now. I’m so sorry that I don’t have time right now.” I think that is supposed to ease the rejection. And, you know, that’s always come back to bite me in the ass.
DUBNER: Because then they write six months later, say, “Okay!”
DUCKWORTH: Some people do. And then you feel even worse.
DUBNER: And how honest are you in your rejections?
DUCKWORTH: What do you mean, “how honest” am I?
DUBNER: Let’s say, you know, some young academic writes to you and they say, “Professor Duckworth, having read all your work, I think this idea that I have would be fantastic in a collaboration. It would obviously be great for me to have you attached. But I think would be great for you, too, because I think you’d really enjoy it and benefit from it.” And then you read it and you think the idea is just garbage. What do you say?
DUCKWORTH: I would not actually give explicit reasons for why I don’t want to collaborate with that person. I don’t know many cases in which it actually helps to tell the person why it is that you’re rejecting them in ways that make them feel bad.
DUBNER: But again, this goes back to this, I think, fiction that there’s a way to separate the work from the person. Because you wouldn’t be so worried about that if you didn’t know deep down that the work and the person are inextricably tied.
DUCKWORTH: No! It’s not that I think that the work and the person are inextricably tied. It’s just that I know people have egos. With their emotional being at risk, I just don’t want to do that. But I don’t necessarily think that means that in some metaphysical way you can’t separate the person and their work. Do you see what I’m saying?
DUBNER: I do. So, let’s say that I need to reject somebody tomorrow. What I’ve learned thus far is that I want to be a little bit direct, but not very direct.
DUCKWORTH: You want to be clear —
DUBNER: But not too clear. Kind, but not so kind as to have them think that I actually do want to do something together. A little bit honest, but not really. I basically want to say as little as possible while totally deleting them from my sphere of existence, but not have them feel, quote, “rejected.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, I’m going to say this a little differently. I think you want to be clear, period. I don’t think you get any points here for being unclear.
DUBNER: So, “I think your idea is not great.”
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t say you had to be clear about that. I just said you want to be clear about what you’re going to do. “I cannot do that. I cannot endorse your book.”
DUBNER: Okay, “I really appreciate your inquiry, but this is not a good fit for me.” How do you like that one?
DUCKWORTH: Sure. Or you could just say, with optimal clarity, “I really appreciate your email, but I cannot endorse your book at this time.”
DUBNER: Can I say, “Angela Duckworth says that I shouldn’t work with you”?
DUCKWORTH: “I’ve heard terrible things about you from Angela.” No, I’m not going to recommend that. Here’s something that actually works. So, Danny Kahneman gave me this advice. I asked Danny for advice about the many people who ask for endorsements of their books. And he said he has a rule, and the rule has two parts. One is that he has to read the work in its entirety.
DUBNER: Great rule. Right? “I would love to read your work, but my policy is I can’t endorse something unless I’ve read it.”
DUCKWORTH: In entirety. And you’re just thinking there as the asker — you’re like, “Well, now I’m asking for hours, and hours, and hours, and hours of work.” And then, the second part of the rule is this: I don’t endorse books unless I’ve had some direct role in the creation of the work. And right there, you’re like, “Wow. Okay. I’m ruled out on both counts.”
DUBNER: And that doesn’t make you feel bad at all. It’s my fault for not having been involved with you before!
DUCKWORTH: Well, look, you understand that Danny is merely applying a rule to a case. You wouldn’t take that personally.
DUBNER: But the rules are written in such a way that almost no one can be eligible.
DUCKWORTH: So, I think what Danny is able to do is: first of all, he’s create[d] a fine-mesh sieve, and not a lot of things go through it in terms of taking up his time, which is good, because we want Danny Kahneman to be doing psychology and not book endorsements, and nobody’s offended.
DUBNER: How do you think Raymond will feel, having heard this advice from both the rejecter and the rejectee’s side? Do you think there’s been anything actually fruitful and useful here? Or does rejection remain this topic that, no matter how much marginal tinkering you do, is just going to be a difficult thing for everyone in life?
DUCKWORTH: Look, there are things that you can do to understand rejection — the vicious cycles of rejection, rejection-sensitivity, how we can reject people a little more kindly, a little more effectively. But rejection has a “sting” to it that I don’t think ever truly goes away. And that’s the reason why we need all this advice.
DUBNER: Can I make one final suggestion? Can I have you write to Raymond asking for something and let Raymond reject you? Just to kind of put one in the pocket — like, “There, I got to be the rejecter.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, you want me to get rejected more?
DUBNER: Because it doesn’t affect you very much. And in this case, Raymond would get to be the rejecter, and Raymond would get to reject Angela Duckworth. So, on behalf of all of us who get rejected more than you, thanks.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode 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, Angela mentions a study about high-status birds that she heard about in a bar 25 years ago. I wasn’t able to locate a study that matched her exact description, but according to University of Connecticut ornithology professor Margaret Rubega, research does show that birds display at one another — they puff up their feathers, hold out their wings, and make threatening motions. The dominant bird “wins” once the other bird backs down. An actual physical fight only ensues if neither bird is sure who would win, or if what they are arguing over is valuable enough to risk getting hurt.
Later, Stephen was uncertain about the accuracy of his recollection of the Stoic argument that there is no such thing as rejection. And he specifically references Epictetus, a second-century Greek philosopher. His memory was pretty spot on! Epicetus wrote in his book of ethical advice, Enchiridion (translated as the “Handbook”), quote — “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgement of things.” I should note that the text doesn’t specifically address the pain of rejection, but rather the emotional adjustment to feelings of suffering as a whole.
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, Eleanor Osborne, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich and Jacob Clemente. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. 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: Any word, the more you say it, sounds less sensical —or when you look at how they’re spelled.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And the more you do, you’re like, “There’s no way.”
DUBNER: Share? S-H-A-R-E. Shar? Sharé?
- Blaise Pascal, 17th-Century French philosopher.
- Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer on self-improvement and public speaking.
- Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at the Arizona State University.
- Steven Sloman, professor of psychology at Brown University.
- Lee Ross, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
- Geraldine Downey, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
- Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
- Epictetus, 1st- and 2nd-century Greek philosopher.
- Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- “From the Fundamental Attribution Error to the Truly Fundamental Attribution Error and Beyond: My Research Journey,” by Lee Ross (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018).
- “A Philosopher’s 350-Year-Old Trick to Get People to Change Their Minds is Now Backed Up by Psychologists,” by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz, 2016).
- Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, by Nicholas Epley (2014).
- “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding,” by Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman (Psychological Science, 2013).
- “The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth,” by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil (Cognitive Science, 2011).
- “Rejection Sensitivity and Executive Control: Joint Predictors of Borderline Personality Features,” by Özlem Ayduk, Vivian Zayas, Geraldine Downey, Amy Blum Cole, Yuichi Shoda, and Walter Mischel (Journal of Research in Personality, 2008).
- “Implications of Rejection Sensitivity for Intimate Relationships,” by Geraldine Downey and Scott Feldman (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996).
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini (1984).
- How to Win Friends & Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1936).
- “How to Change Your Mind (Ep. 379),” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).