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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Turns out that everything I’ve been doing is totally wrong.

*      *      *

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 do you escape the destructive allure of a drama triangle? 

DUBNER: Refrain from the following: blaming, criticizing, accusing, lecturing, scolding, monitoring, threatening, preaching, obsessing, overreacting or underreacting.

Also: do awards actually improve performance? 

DUCKWORTH: I feel appreciated. I don’t know who the runner up is, but, you know, too bad for you.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, I recently came across something called the Drama Triangle, also known as the Karpman Triangle, since it was created by the psychiatrist Stephen Karpman. Can you explain the Karpman triangle and why it’s worth knowing about? 

DUCKWORTH: I find it more useful to refer to as the Drama Triangle, because it is dramatic. And this is how I know about it, Stephen: it’s not because I’m a psychologist, but because I run a little nonprofit called Character Lab, as you know. And when I was a green leader, I, even in a small team, had this phenomenon where one person would not like another person. And then, how do you make a triangle? Who’s the third point? The third point was me. So, disgruntled employee number one would come to me and say, “Hey, I don’t really like employee number two.” Then, I would say something that I thought was comforting to disgruntled employee number one. But then, employee number two, an hour later, comes into your office annoyed about employee number one. This can go around and around, and emotions heighten. I didn’t know about this term “drama triangle” until I consulted a management coach. 

DUBNER: And you realized that you were in the middle of one. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, I call up this leadership coach named Dustin Peterson and he says, “Oh, classic drama triangle.” He had a little drawing of it. He was like, “Look, here’s you. Here’s employee number one. Here’s employee number two.” And what you never get is all three people talking at the same time. And you certainly never get any resolution. 

DUBNER: I also see that the three points are assigned to particular roles, which are usually called the persecutor, the rescuer and the victim. 

DUCKWORTH: Alright. Let’s start with the first person, who is the victim. The victim is being annoyed by the second person, who is their persecutor. So, let’s say that you’re the victim, Stephen. 

DUBNER: Always. 

DUCKWORTH: Always the victim. And somebody else — I’ll just say, Rebecca — Rebecca is persecuting you. Rebecca is annoying you, cutting you off in conversation, ignoring your emails. So, you’re the victim. She’s a persecutor. 

DUBNER: Can I just say, for the record, everything you’re saying is 100 percent true.

DUCKWORTH: And I’m glad it’s finally coming out on the air. 

DUBNER: Cause, you know, she’s got this whole “holier than thou” fact-checking thing going on. Where like, “Stephen said this wrong, and Stephen said that wrong.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes! So, now you need a third person, and that’s me, because you, who are the victim, get to complain to someone who gets put in the role of the rescuer. So, the victim runs to the rescuer and starts complaining about the persecutor. What typically happens is, I just kind of comfort you, and just agree with you, and I stoke your flames of indignation. Another day, though, maybe Rebecca’s the victim and you’re the persecutor. Roles can switch around. I think the whole point of drama triangles is there’s always a victim, there’s always a persecutor. And that creates the need for a rescuer, because the victim is looking for comfort, and they don’t want to go and talk to the persecutor. Because why would they do that? They’re annoyed at that person. So, they seek out a third person to comfort them. And then the cycle just perpetuates because of the conflict. The source of the disagreement, or the miscommunication, is never resolved, because the persecutor and the victim never really actually talk. 

DUBNER: So, it’s interesting, the drama triangle name was coined by the psychiatrist Stephen Karpman, I mentioned, back in the 1960s. But it turns out that he, in addition to being a psychiatrist, also was interested in acting and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild. And, and he, apparently, chose the phrase “drama triangle” versus “conflict triangle,” in part because he liked the idea of using a dramatic reckoning to think about conflict. But also, if you think about it, in just about every fairy tale, just about every Disney movie ever, maybe just about every movie ever, this triangle exists there. In fact, his first published paper on this theory was an article called “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis.” So, it’s maybe putting the plot and the machinations of these classic stories onto the rest of us. But then, the moment I read about that, I thought, “Oh, is this kind of behavior learned behavior, or do people have innate tendencies toward these roles?” And if these behaviors are learned, then do we, maybe, all become a little more prone to getting caught in drama triangles if we watch a lot of movies, or read fairy tales, or just read fiction, period?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think we have drama triangle neurons or that there is a polymorphism that genetically explains drama triangles. I also don’t even know that we need to watch Cinderella — or some fairy tale where there’s a victim, and a persecutor, and a rescuer — to start to infer that there could be these dynamics. We don’t need a lot of tutoring to have the following scenario just happen and unfold in a kind of almost inevitable way. So, you’ve got a colleague, and you’re in a meeting, and you suggest option A. They argue stridently, spitting on the table for option B — I guess that would not be a great COVID behavior. But anyway, they’re spitting mad, and you leave the meeting and you just think, “What an a-hole. I can’t believe they talked to me like that.” Now, where do you go with all that negative emotion? You could, actually, whip out your diary and start doing some expressive writing. You could wait until your therapy session on Thursday. You could talk to your spouse. I think what often happens is, you go into your next meeting with somebody else in your company and you complain about this episode. And what do people spontaneously do? They’re like, “Oh, my God, did he say that?” The next person becomes your rescuer. 

DUBNER: So, you’ve just turned someone neutral into a rescuer. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and actually that happens a lot. But this neither has to be a genetic behavior, nor a learned behavior. It’s just something that happens in social dynamics. Any time you have two people — one’s pissed at the other — but they don’t have an incentive to have an open argument about it. Like, you don’t go back into the persecutor’s office and say, “You know what, I want to talk about that meeting, and I want to talk about the language you used.” It’s just so much easier to go and ask a third person to sympathize with you. 

DUBNER: I have a small procedural question to ask you. You said it’s quite possible that this is neither a genetic nor a learned behavior. So, what do you call something like that? 

DUCKWORTH: My colleagues in psychology would want me to call every behavior both a genetic and learned behavior, insofar as psychology has yet to identify a behavior — you know: praying, interrupting people in meetings, whatever it is — that is not both influenced, in some way, by your genes and also by your experience. So, they would rather me not have anything in the completely genetic or the completely learned. And they would actually just have this huge fat column that encompasses both. 

DUBNER: Well, there’s at least a third option, though, which is environmental, or what economists might call “incentives.” Right? If you’re in an environment in which the incentives push you toward becoming one of these three roles, then it’s quite possible that you’ll end up there, yeah?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And I’m sure that if somebody did a twin study, even in an environment where there were the incentives to have drama triangles or the incentives not to have drama triangles, there would be, probably, some genetic disposition to be more influenced by those incentives or less influenced. And that’s why the column really is everything. But I do think the emphasis should be here on the dynamics. And, you know, when I went to go talk to my coach about what to do about this, he didn’t really want to know about these individuals. His pattern recognition said: this is a dynamic that happens in every organization I’ve ever worked in. 

DUBNER: So, when I was reading about the drama triangle, I did not think that much about the work environment. And maybe that’s because I work alone now. 

DUCKWORTH: You’d have to have a drama triangle with just yourself. 

DUBNER: But when I read about it, I definitely thought more about the family. And I believe that in my family system now, I — as an adult, as a parent, as a husband — that I often try to play, or maybe am encouraged, or enticed, or incentivized to play the rescuer. At least I don’t think I’m the persecutor that much. I’m sure I am sometimes. But I think I’m not very good at being the rescuer. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s your rescue schtick? 

DUBNER: Over the years, I’ve evolved a few strategies. One is to be the last person who speaks when there’s a conflict — let everybody blow their steam and then say, “Well, you know, we could try this,” or so on. And that seems to fail. If I try to intervene earlier, it’s usually with a direct suggestion that pisses off someone even more than they already were. And the reason I found this so interesting, reading about it, is because it turns out that everything I’ve been doing is totally wrong. I’m reading here from a piece called “Breaking Out of the Drama Triangle” by Sharie Stines. So, I’m thinking, “Okay. This is going to be really helpful. This is going to tell me exactly how to not get trapped in this triangle.” There are all these steps. “Realize that you are repeating a pattern,” she writes. Okay. That makes sense. “Under any circumstance, do not become defensive.” That makes sense. But then, step five, “Refrain from the following: blaming, criticizing, accusing, lecturing, scolding, monitoring, threatening, preaching, obsessing, overreacting or underreacting.” So, don’t overreact. Don’t underreact. 

DUCKWORTH: This is a tightrope. Jesus could do this, but most of us find this very challenging. 

DUBNER: “Instead,” she writes, “focus on being neutral.” So, it sounds really hard to disentangle yourself from the triangle. I don’t think that Sharie Stines’s advice — no offense to Sharie Stines — is going to work for me. So, do you have some advice that’s a little bit less Jesus-y? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think I’m just going to phrase it differently — because I think it’s the same advice, honestly — in a way that my leadership coach gave me. So, Dustin says to me, “What you really need to do to break the triangle is to get these people to talk to each other.” You know, disgruntled employee number one and disgruntled employee number two. It’s probably the last thing they want to do. But if they keep running to you — one becomes the victim, and the other one’s the persecutor, and now they switch roles — you’ll never get out of the triangle until there’s an open conversation. So, you do want to be neutral. You don’t want to be taking sides. But I do think you need to bring about a conversation where the conflict is resolved, but not through you. Here’s an example of somebody who did this well. So, in my family, when this plays out, my daughter and I — as you know, Amanda and I can get into some pretty heated arguments. And very often one or both of us turns to my husband. And we try to get him to team up with us and make us feel better. And he is always like Switzerland. 

DUBNER: So, I’m talking to the wrong Duckworth. I should be talking to Jason. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. He’ll also tell you that it sucks being Switzerland. One of the reasons why the triangle goes on forever is that I would be so much happier with Jason, in the moment, if he just took my side. 

DUBNER: Of course. 

DUCKWORTH: Instead, he’s neutral. But he is actually doing what the recommended approach is. By the way, obvious disclaimer on all this stuff: if there’s a transgression that is truly reportable, obviously you should go talk to somebody. But I think what we’re really talking about is the whining and complaining that can just make your sour relationships go even more sour. 

DUBNER: So, what does that mean to be neutral? What does he do or say, other than nothing? 

DUCKWORTH: I think a lot of it is what he doesn’t say. So, I’ll say, like, “Don’t you think I’m right?” And then he’ll say something deflective, like, “Well, I hear that what you’re saying is that you think that you’re right.” And he’ll do the same with her. I think we’re both frustrated, by the way. Maybe we could end the drama triangle by us both being annoyed at the rescuer for being such a terrible rescuer. But I want to tell you this, Stephen. I had this idea that came out of the drama triangle that I went to go talk to Danny Kanheman about. And I thought, “Okay, if this dynamic can spontaneously happen in this pernicious, never-ending, negative drama triangle, can you flip it on its head and create a perpetually-awesome, positive, everybody feels better and better triangle. Like, a positive psychology triangle?” 

DUBNER: And did he just say no?

DUCKWORTH: Well, here was my idea. I was like, “Danny, I have this great idea. What do you think? Next time I have an interpersonal reaction where I think, like, ‘Huh, that was nice’” — like, say, I watch you buy a turkey and cheese sandwich for somebody. And I think, “Wow, that Stephen Dubner is such a generous guy.” 

DUBNER: Does it have to be turkey and cheese? If I buy them tuna is that still generous, or no?

DUCKWORTH: Tuna is very polarizing. Right?

DUBNER: Of course. What was I thinking? 

DUCKWORTH: Everyone is either loving or hating — I don’t want to divide the country even further. 

DUBNER: That’s why I’m a bad rescuer. I had the opportunity to go turkey and cheese, I went tuna, I blew it. 

DUCKWORTH: We need to start you off with the Remedial Rescuer 101. 

DUBNER: We should be talking about the deli meat triangle, not the drama triangle. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes! Exactly. We’ve got the wrong “D” here. Okay, but here’s my idea. So, I watch you being generous, right — turkey and cheese, tuna, you pick your sandwich. And then, usually what happens when I notice that somebody is really nice is I probably say nothing. I just go on about my day. But if I want to create a positive triangle, I would go tell a third person. I would run into Rebecca’s office, and I would say, “Rebecca, Stephen just bought this total stranger a turkey and cheese sandwich. I know it could have been tuna, but I’m still saying that was amazing.” Now, Rebecca might go to you and say, “I heard that you actually were really generous. And, by the way, it was Angela who mentioned it to me.” And Danny said it’ll never work. 

DUBNER: Because why? 

DUCKWORTH: He thought that when I ran into Rebecca’s office and told her how generous you were, that Rebecca, instead of thinking, like, “Wow, yay” — positive thoughts about it — she would immediately feel inferior to you. 

DUBNER: And then she’d tell you all the terrible things I’ve done in the past. But maybe you’re just being a little bit too ambitious in your reconfiguration of the drama triangle. Maybe, rather than try to create positive to the same degree that there’s negative, maybe we should just shoot for the no-drama triangle. Like, President Obama prided himself on being “No-Drama Obama,” in that, whenever there was a conflict to work out — usually a real, substantial policy conflict — he wanted to hear the sides, and then kind of mediate. And maybe this is the sort of neutrality that the advisors talk about, of just not giving in to the drama. Because, again, I think that even people like I — who don’t feel like I love drama — I think there is something extraordinarily enticing about drama, period.

DUCKWORTH: The sort of soap opera nature, right? 

DUBNER: Exactly. And I would not be surprised if many of us, if not nearly all of us, to some degree, encourage it, even if in subtle or subconscious ways, and even lead ourselves to join some kind of triangle. And then there are people who are almost professional rescuers or heroes. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, chronically. 

DUBNER: The whole idea of the savior complex. 

DUCKWORTH: The sympathetic ear that people probably start to know that that’s the person to go to if you want to complain about another person. Look, Stephen, I think you’re right, but I have been going out of my way when I do notice that somebody does something nice. And I do try to talk about people behind their back in positive ways. So, I think we should aim for better than Switzerland. 

DUBNER: Well, but maybe something in between. Like, maybe if you do see me buy somebody a turkey and cheese sandwich, rather than going into Rebecca’s office, or these days just calling or Zooming Rebecca, and saying, “Hey, Stephen did a really nice thing.” Maybe we should just start out with, “Hey, Rebecca, Stephen didn’t do anything terrible today.”

DUCKWORTH: You like that better than, “Hey, Stephen, I really like that you bought that sandwich-needing fellow a turkey and cheese sandwich?”

DUBNER: But then I’m going to say, “Yeah, Rebecca could have, but she didn’t.” Because I’m a drama queen, apparently — even though I think I’m not. And if, indeed, this has been going on since the beginning of time, which I find no reason to think that it hasn’t been, then, what you’re saying is that the drama triangle is probably a better manifestation of these natural impulses than some of the alternatives. Like, look at Cain and Abel. Theoretically, they could have gone to mom and dad and said, “Man, he’s being a pain in the neck and he won’t do his work.” But instead, boom, dead. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait! I think Cain did — wait, which is the bad one? 

DUBNER: Cain. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. 

DUBNER: Or Abel? 

DUCKWORTH: You’ve got a 50/50 chance. “Cain” sounds bad. 

DUBNER: You know how I remember this, honestly, is from the Bruce Springsteen song “Adam Raised a Cain.” So, I’m pretty sure Cain was the bad guy. 

DUCKWORTH: Alright. Let’s assume that Cain was the bad guy. Right? So, I guess, this would be Abel complaining to his dad. Right?

DUBNER: You’re saying that did happen? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it does. 

DUBNER: This sounds like something for Rebecca to fact-check. But that said, the fact remains that there are worse things than to create a drama triangle. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Killing your brother, for example. 

DUBNER: And in our modern version, the fact that Rebecca wouldn’t kill me because I bought a turkey sandwich for somebody is a good thing, and that if the worst that happens is that she talks about me badly because she’s jealous about what a nice guy I am, you know what? I’m going to live with that, Angela.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether bribes and prizes influence motivation.

DUCKWORTH: If you get on this bike and pedal it to the end of the street, I will give you two packs of watermelon Bubblicious bubblegum.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’m wondering about awards. 

DUBNER: Are you about to give me one? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m going to give you a question about awards, which is almost as good. 

DUBNER: No it’s not. It’s not. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s a question I always get all the time: Angela, what do you think about our trophy culture? Kids are getting too many awards, et cetera. And I know what the people who are asking me this question often want. They want me to tell them that not everyone should get a trophy. And it has more broadly raised the question of: are awards good? Many awards are supposed to motivate hard work and high performance. And I wonder what you think? 

DUBNER: Well, I began to notice this many, many years ago. I think before I had kids, even. And I used to call it “trophy inflation,” because it seemed like you didn’t have to do that much to get a trophy. And then, I remember reading this article by Stefan Fatsis. This was a piece in Slate about this notion of trophy inflation. And he wrote, “For many people, the participation trophy,” just, like, getting a trophy for showing up, “is a symbol of what’s wrong with America. The disappearance of toughness, discipline, et cetera, et cetera.” But then, he found an example from 1922, this was an Ohio high-school basketball tournament. And this article noted that, “Members of the victorious outfits will be given individual trophies.” So, everybody gets a trophy from the winning team. But also, “A participation trophy will also be given each athlete playing in the series.” So, that was literally 100 years ago. 

DUCKWORTH: So, it’s not a recent phenomenon. 

DUBNER: One of the examples he cited against the embrace of the participation trophy was a football player who I happen to like and know about, because he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is my team. He wrote, “Then- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison became the honorary spokesman for the anti-trophy crowd when he wrote on Instagram that he returned a couple of participation trophies received by his kids.” 

DUCKWORTH: That’s awesome. 

DUBNER: I will say this. James Harrison was known as one of the unsmilingest, toughest football players to have existed. But I once saw personal evidence of his kindness. So, my son and I are Pittsburgh Steeler fans. And when he was about 10 or 11 years old, we had a family friend, a friend of my son’s, whose dad, who was a friend of mine, died suddenly. And this poor kid was also a Steelers fan. And so, when we were going to Pittsburgh for a game that year, we asked if we could bring this friend along. And I had a friend who worked for the Steelers, and I told him about this circumstance, and he went out of his way to give us a couple special treats. And one of them was, we got to go to the hotel where the Steelers stay the night before the game and where they have their big team meal. And so, it was: the Steelers, and the Steelers coaches, and the three of us. And the players are eating the food that they’re supposed to eat from the hotel buffet. And in walks James Harrison, allegedly the meanest person in the history of football, holding a box of pizza. Apparently, he was like, “I don’t wanna eat the hotel food. I’m going to get pizza.” And I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know whether he’d been told or whether he intuited it. There were all these other players saying, “Give me a piece of pizza, give me a piece of your pizza.” And he didn’t even acknowledge them. He stopped at our table and opened the box and offered the pizza to the kids. It was an amazing moment. And this is the guy, though, who returned participation trophies for his kids. So, I think this says something about dividing sport — which is when you’re competing to win — and life — when you can be kind to anyone, anytime. 

DUCKWORTH: And I don’t think Harrison would have considered this inconsistency. I don’t think he would say there’s anything that is deeply the same about a participant trophy and a slice of pizza from your hero. Because, like, a slice of pizza from your hero is an act of kindness. It’s an act of community. I think the reason why so many people bristle at the participant trophy is, first of all, should we really be decorating people and celebrating just that they exist? Do they also need existence trophies? And also, it’s a devaluation of the actual trophy. If every kid gets a ribbon, then what does it mean to have the first-place ribbon? 

DUBNER: That is the argument. And I think there’s strong evidence for the sake of that argument. I think it’s why top-tier competitive sports are still so incredibly attractive to billions of people. There is one winner, and everyone else is not a winner. So, the Euros, the European football soccer competition that recently ended with Italy beating England, England was the favorite team of a lot of people. And then, they came in second, and they lost in a penalty shootout. And it immediately devolved into a real cauldron of bitter, bitter disappointment, and racist accusations in that three of the England players who missed their penalty kicks happened to be black, and so it just turned into insensitive and racist accusations and then those who refuted them. But there seemed to be no glory there for England, or their supporters, in coming in second. And isn’t there some famous research about silver medalists at Olympics — that their life outcomes are worse than people who don’t win a medal at all, and even bronze medalists? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, this is a Tom Gilovich study — Tom Gilovich being this brilliant social psychologist at Cornell — where the question is: are the people who win the bronze actually happier than the people who win the silver? I mean, everyone agrees that the gold medalists are pretty happy. But the finding in his study is that the bronze medalists are really happy for an interesting psychological reason, which I think actually helps us understand all this award stuff, which is that everything is interpreted. Everything, really, at the end of the day, is symbolic. And the bronze medalist, their subjective meaning is, like, “Thank God I got on the podium.” Because they’re thinking about being fourth. Right? And the silver medalist, their subjective meaning is, like, “Wow, I could have been a gold medalist.” So, it’s all about your interpretation. And, I think, more broadly, when you have awards, that is extrinsic motivation. If you get a thousand dollars for winning a foot race, or you get ten bucks because you got an A in geometry, these are extrinsic rewards. It’s not inherent to geometry. It’s not inherent to running a race. And one side of the argument is that you are diminishing intrinsic motivation, because you’re crowding it out. It’s almost like there’s a pie, it’s a zero sum. And the bigger the wedge which is extrinsic motivation, the smaller the wedge that’s intrinsic. And this is most famously demonstrated in this study that happened decades ago with little kids. And they were all playing with new sets of markers. And in the intrinsic-motivation condition, they get to play with these markers, and then some time passes, and then they get to play with the markers again. In the extrinsic-motivation condition, they play with the markers, and then, I think a teacher or an adult experimenter comes in and is basically like, “Thank you for playing with the markers. Here’s a certificate — like, the Good Player Award.” And then, you get to play with markers again. And the finding is that you actually play less, because the extrinsic motivation has crowded out the intrinsic motivation. 

DUBNER: Can I just say, in terms of extrapolating that sort of experiment to the world at large and adults, and competition, and so on, doesn’t it seem like a fairly tiny version of the larger issue? 

DUCKWORTH: Because it’s only one type of situation?

DUBNER: Because it is one type of situation, and the stakes are so extraordinarily low, and they’re little kids. 

DUCKWORTH: So, there have been studies on grown-ups. It is true, not just in kindergarten, but at other points in life, that there are certain times in which extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can crowd each other out. But I think the most important thing to understand about when that happens is why it happens. The real reason, I think, is that in those certain circumstances where extrinsic motivators — trophies, performance, dollars — can crowd out intrinsic motivation is when you’re not really even certain of your motives in the first place. There’s some ambiguity about why you did something. Let’s take a kid who may have some desire to study, but had a lot of ambivalence, because studying is not that fun, and they don’t really like geometry. If you get an A in geometry and your dad and mom pay you ten bucks for it — if there’s some ambiguity in your own head about how much you actually like geometry and why you try hard in school, then, now, when you look at all the facts in the situation, the meaning that you then derive is, “Well, I must not be that motivated. I did it for the money.” Like, when my kids were little, I did actually bribe them to eat their vegetables. And I knew this whole literature on extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. So, I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I’m diminishing the intrinsic motivation to eat spinach, by giving them the promise of dessert, an extrinsic motivator.” And I thought to myself, “This is not a situation in which my daughter, Lucy, was like, ‘I wonder if I like spinach?’” It was unequivocal that she hated it. So, I justified to myself that a reward in that case would not crowd out intrinsic motivation, because there wasn’t this meaning-making. And she just knew she didn’t like it, but she did it because she had to. 

DUBNER: Is there an argument to be made that extrinsic motivation is less a stand-alone bribe and more of a step toward habit formation? In other words, I see this prize or award — maybe it’s money, maybe it’s the possibility that I’ll get the employee of the month poster put up for me — even if the odds are not very strong, but just knowing that it’s out there might lead me to adjust my behavior in a positive way. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, my BFF and collaborator Katy Milkman has done studies of gym goers, and she incentivizes them using money to go to the gym, repeatedly, over something like an eight-week period. And then, she stops the incentives, and she finds that it doesn’t last forever. But there is a period of time in which they actually still have this habit momentum and they’re still going to the gym. So, if you want to help somebody develop a habit, a little bit of sweetening of the pot helps. But here’s another one. And this one I will never forget. I couldn’t ride a bike until I was, like, oh my gosh, some embarrassing age. 

DUBNER: 30? 

DUCKWORTH: 15 or something. 

DUBNER: That’s not so bad. 

DUCKWORTH: It felt embarrassing at the time. This is a digression, but I have to tell you, my dad was really cheap, and he wouldn’t let me buy a bike until I knew how to ride a bike. 

DUBNER: Woah, that’s a catch-22 right there, pops. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. But there was this toddler bike. I mean, it was tiny. And so, my dad said, “When you can ride that bike, then I’ll buy you a bike, but I’m not going to waste my money.” So, I was trying to learn on this bike that was really, really small. You watch these people do it in the circus. And the reason why we watch it in the circus is, it’s actually really hard. I tried for years, and with every passing year it got harder, because I got bigger. 

DUBNER: You were pretty gritty with the riding the toddler bike. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s where incentives come in. So, at some point, I think I was in middle school, so maybe I wasn’t quite 15, but I was, like, 13. My older sister Annette said, “If you get on this bike and pedal to the end of the street, I will give you two packs of watermelon Bubblicious bubblegum.” And I got on the bike, and I rode to the street, and she made good on the deal. And that is an example of an extrinsic incentive, a reward, that pushed me past a barrier. And, by the way, you cannot unlearn riding a bike. 

DUBNER: So, obviously the stakes were a little bit lower for you than some other people. But, if you think about it, how many scientists work a little bit harder every day because there’s a chance of a Nobel Prize? Shouldn’t we applaud that? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, a lot of these big awards come not just with the ribbon and the accolades, they come with cash. And you could wonder, is this terrible? Like, what do Nobel Prize winners do after they win a million dollars? Does their motivation go down? And I don’t think that’s the case. 

DUBNER: Well, the Nobel is weird, because you’re usually pretty old by the time you win a Nobel Prize. 

DUCKWORTH: So? What, old people don’t know how to spend money? 

DUBNER: No, but you’re kind of toward the end of your academic career typically. You’ve been working for a long time. You’re probably pretty financially sound. All the economists I know, at least, they’ve been teaching at a university for 40 years. 

DUCKWORTH: They’re not indigent. But still, the prediction of the crowd-out theory is that their motivation will go down a little bit. And it doesn’t. It’s not like, “Oh, gosh, I’m unmotivated now because you’ve crowded out my intrinsic motivation.”

DUBNER: There are those who argue that honors are a really effective way to encourage the right kind of behavior, whether it’s intellectual, or work, or so on. So, there’s a book by Jana Gallus and Bruno Frey. It’s called Honors Versus Money, The Economics Of Awards. Obviously there are awards in all these different parts of society: the state, arts and media, sports, religion, you get awards for volunteering, and so on, and so on. And they argue that there is pretty good empirical evidence, if you look at these arenas, that awards can raise performance in different situations, even if they’re purely symbolic. So, the notion that you would work harder for something, that you would study harder, that you would drive yourself more just for the possibility of a recognition, even if it’s something as simple as an employee of the month poster — I remember when I first started playing online backgammon, I was shocked that people would cheat so much just to increase their rankings online when they’re anonymous. So, I think there’s a lot to be said about the natural appetite for awards. On the other hand, we don’t want our motivation to be perverted by awards, even the possibility of them. So, you, who think so much about motivating ourselves intrinsically and maybe extrinsically, who think so much about grit, and determination, and so on, what’s the best way to navigate this weird age of trophy inflation? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you mentioned Jana Gallus. And one of the articles that she’s done came out in Management Science, which is a top journal. And it makes the point about why we shouldn’t reject out of hand what is probably part and parcel of human nature, which is the desire for public recognition. She worked with the German version of Wikipedia. So, as you probably know, Wikipedia is a crowdsourced model. It’s a kind of civic thing to do, to update Wikipedia pages and correct errors, and so forth. And the problem is retention of these people who are quote-unquote “editors.” They’re volunteers. And when you randomly assigned new editors to either get an award for their efforts or not get an award, you actually find that those who randomly are assigned to receive an award actually stay longer on Wikipedia. But the award was this nonfinancial thing. It was just a little picture of the national flower of Switzerland, the edelweiss, with a star. And it said, “We hereby present,” and then your name goes there, “with the award ‘edelweiss with star’ of the portal Switzerland for contributions to the German language Wikipedia.” And, I think, that need that we have to get little stars next to our name, to get little attaboys, it’s the drive that human beings have always had. And one could argue that it can be perverted, one could argue that we could screw it up, but I think if we reject the whole notion of awards, then we’re basically rejecting part of human nature. 

DUBNER: So, I feel compelled to announce, here and now, the inaugural award for best podcast friend. May I have the envelope, please? 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. Is there drum roll? I’m giving myself my own drumroll. From the University of Pennsylvania — what if I said Katy Milkman right now? How much would your heart sink? 

DUCKWORTH: I would just start crying, I think. I’d probably go and complain to someone else.

DUBNER: From the University of Pennsylvania, the one and only Angela Duckworth. Congratulations! Tell us what you plan to do with your substantial winnings?

DUCKWORTH: What are my winnings, Stephen? 

DUBNER: Your award is a lifetime supply of watermelon Bubblicious gum, with a complement of dentist visits to accommodate any complications. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, as soon as I get out of my Invisalign, I’m into it. And, Stephen, it, really, actually, brings some color to my cheeks. I’m like, “This is amazing.” I feel appreciated. I don’t know who the runner up is, but, you know, too bad for you. Yeah. It works. It’s true! 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. 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 episode, Stephen and Angela discuss the polarizing nature of tuna fish sandwiches. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita consumption of canned tuna has dropped 42% in the three decades through 2016. This may be because consumers are worried about mercury poisoning, the harm done to dolphins, or the possibility that coworkers might wrinkle their nose at the smell. However, in 2018, a StarKist executive’s quote in a Wall Street Journal article went viral for his unsupported argument that the food itself is not polarizing, but rather sales have been dropping because millennials do not own can openers. Regardless of the reason, it does look like Stephen would be safer with turkey. According to a 2019 survey from data analytics firm YouGov, 75% of respondents said that they liked turkey sandwiches, compared with 64% who liked tuna. Grilled cheese ranked the highest with a 79% approval rate. 

Later, Stephen and Angela attempt to remember the details of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Stephen was correct — Cain murdered Abel, not the other way around. According to the book of Genesis, Cain became incensed after God acknowledged his brother’s offering of slaughtered sheep, but not his offering of fruit. Angela thought that Cain might have then complained to his father Adam, creating a drama triangle. But this is not the case. Cain did, however, vocalize his frustration to God before ultimately killing his brother. So, three people (or two people and one divine being) were involved in the conflict, and one could make the argument that this was one of humanity’s very first drama triangles.

Finally, Stephen tells Angela that I am a persecutor and he is my victim. For the record, the only time I play the persecutor is during recording sessions where, admittedly, both Stephen and Angela have taken to calling me the “taskmaster.” 

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger 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 nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: It’s hard for me to imagine you not being coordinated enough to ride a bike. Weren’t you a cheerleader in your youth? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I was a cheerleader. 

DUBNER: All that clapping and, like, Be, A, G, G, R, E, S, S, I, V, E, aggressive. Be, be, aggressive. 

DUCKWORTH: That was one of our cheers actually!

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Sources

  • Stephen Karpman, psychiatrist and creator of the drama triangle.
  • Dustin Peterson, leadership coach.
  • Sharie Stines, psychologist and recovery coach.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • James Harrison, former American football linebacker.
  • Tom Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of behavioral science at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Jana Gallus, professor of strategy and behavioral decision making at the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Bruno Frey, professor of economics at the University of Basel.

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