DUBNER: I think I’m about to ask a truly stupid question.
DUCKWORTH: There are actually stupid questions.
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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: comparing yourself with others can be emotionally damaging, so how can we stop doing it?
DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that interesting that when I clicked on my Amazon ranking I immediately went to his amazon ranking?
Also: how can we stop confusing correlation with causation.
DUBNER: If he hadn’t been blind in his left eye, he never would have become a scientist.
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Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela Duckworth.
Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: I’ve not read deeply on the following topic. I’m guessing you have. But what I have read suggests that it is a bad idea to constantly compare yourself to other people. So, assuming that is bad — tell me if I’m wrong — but assuming that is bad, how can I stop?
DUCKWORTH: I think it is often bad to compare yourself to other people. And maybe I would go so far as to say usually bad. But it’s basic human instinct. And that means, we should ask ourselves first, why do we do that? Because anytime we instinctively do something, there’s usually a function behind it.
DUBNER: Okay. Why do we do that, seriously?
DUCKWORTH: You know who doesn’t do it? Children. Children are very egocentric all the way up to the beginning of adolescence, when they become the opposite. When you enter adolescence, all you want to do is compare yourself to other people — how tall you are, how good-looking you are, how popular you are, how smart you are. The raging desire for social comparison is at its peak during adolescence.
It doesn’t leave us entirely in adulthood. We look to the left. We look to the right. We ask, where do we stand relative to our peers? That’s valuable information. Because guess what? Human beings are social animals. And social animals exist in a hierarchy. And the reason why we do social comparisons is because it is valuable information.
DUBNER: So, let me ask you this then. What are the costs of that social comparison?
DUCKWORTH: So, let’s imagine that when I compare myself to you, Stephen, on, say, my writing ability, or my ability to read a scientific article and understand it, either I’m better than you or you’re better than me. Because it’s rare, actually, that we think, “I’m exactly the same as this other person,” right? So, now, what happens when I think that you’re better than me? Well, not surprisingly, that makes me feel bad. It can have a motivating effect, “Oh, I need to work harder,” but it can make you sad. It can make you insecure.
DUBNER: It could even lead you to quit, right? I mean, that’s, to me, one of the biggest potential costs of comparison is like, “Oh, I’m worse than those other people” — at whatever it is. It could be professional, could be a hobby. It could be social. And say, “Therefore, I am going to withdraw from the arena.”
DUCKWORTH: Gary Becker the Nobel laureate economist, he apparently had a roommate in college who was very good at math. And young Gary thought, “I thought I was good at math. But then I met my roommate and I realized it wasn’t so good.” Well, it turns out that his roommate went on to win something like the Fields Prize. I mean, be careful who you compare yourself to, right?
So, you can quit, as you put it. Because he did. He shifted out of math into economics, where he still used math, but less of it. And who knows, maybe that was a good decision, ultimately. I mean, he did win the Nobel Prize. But you’re right. It can discourage you. I think the upward comparison is what people worry about with social media. You go on Instagram and it’s always sunset, and the wind is always blowing just so, and everyone looks amazing. I was scrolling through my daughter’s feed and I was like, “Who are these beautiful people?” And so, that is the dark side of upward social comparison.
DUBNER: On the other hand, you’ve mentioned in the past, you used to think, what would Carol Dweck do, right? The psychologist. Your idol. So, obviously, there is a potential upside there of comparison. But, I read a piece recently written by a guy about what he called “competitive parenting.” He thought he was a pretty good parent, and that he provided for his kids well, not just materially, but inspirationally, and just being with them, and so on. And then he said he got in this circle where the other parents just seemed better on every dimension. And even though he had felt really confident and seemed to be a very grounded person, he could not help comparing himself.
And it ended up making him feel worse about everything he was doing and not improving because of feeling worse, right? A downward spiral. So, I like that example because I think many people can relate. You see something that makes you think, “Oh, wow, I’m really falling short.” Now, again, it can have an upside, but many downsides, too. So, how do you aspire without comparison potentially to your detriment?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. How do you extract the information value, which is positive? I mean, information is rarely bad just on its own, right? It’s always better to know more. How can you do that without some negative motivational effect? And, okay, I’m going to just go out there and give you this completely speculative theory of why anxiety and depression are so high, not just like in the days of the pandemic, but historically, just if you look over the past decades, at least by some counts, people are less happy, right? Even though, in many circumstances, people are more prosperous.
So, one potential explanation is that because of technology, we can make social comparisons that were so hard to make before, because you didn’t meet that many people. One of my daughters played piano when she was a little girl. And I imagine that for centuries, in villages everywhere, kids would start some musical instrument. And you compare yourself to the other kids, but maybe there are 10 kids in your little town who play piano.
Now when you play anything — piano, soccer, literally, anything — with the click of a button, you can compare yourself to the world. And guess what? Compared to the world, you’re not that great. And I’m just wondering — okay, this is total speculation — whether one of the challenges that humanity faces is that we’re all in a big pond right now. We’re in the infinite pond. So, it’s almost impossible to be the big fish in the infinite pond. And that has kind of eroded a sense of, “there’s a place for me. I have worth. There’s something in the world I can contribute.”
DUBNER: When you were writing Grit, you were interacting with a lot of high achievers, right? Pete Carroll and Jamie Dimon come to mind.
DUCKWORTH: My objects of study.
DUBNER: Yeah. These people who had — through grit and talent and etc. — had kind of reached the top of some kind of mountain. Now, granted, Pete Carroll is a football coach. You, as far as I know, have never expressed a great desire to be a football coach. Jamie Dimon, a banker— you, as far as I know, have never expressed a great desire to be a banker.
DUCKWORTH: Or to even have a lot of money.
DUBNER: True. In fact, you do seem to do things to actively sabotage your chances of acquiring a lot of money — one of many things I admire about you. But anyway, even though those weren’t your domains, did you feel yourself comparing yourself to them just in terms of their accomplishment level? And if so, how did that affect you?
DUCKWORTH: I did not compare myself in ways that were demotivating, that’s for sure. When I was talking to Jamie Dimon, I was very nervous. He was one of my first interviews. He had time, and he kept extending the time, and I kept wanting to end the interview because I was so nervous. And finally, I had to ask, after an hour, “Hey, why do you have so much time? Are you not running J.P. Morgan Chase?”
And then, he explained to me that about half of his day, he had cleared for really just thinking. And I was thinking to myself, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t have time to go to the bathroom.” So, I made a social comparison. How does Jamie Dimon have all this time? What am I doing wrong? But the thing is, and maybe this is one of my superpowers, it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself that he is so much more efficient. It just makes me think, like, “What a good idea. O.M.G., I’m also going to think about how to make my schedule more free.”
DUBNER: So, how do we all become a bit more like you in extracting useful information without punishing ourselves? Or, again, without comparing ourselves per se, especially when it’s someone who’s in a different domain?
DUCKWORTH: I think having some self-awareness — noticing, being mindful of, “Oh, you know, I compared myself to my sister just now.” And then withholding judgment. You have to retard that a little bit so that you can say, “I notice I was just comparing my book sales to Stephen Dubner’s. Isn’t that interesting that when I clicked on my Amazon ranking, I immediately went to his Amazon ranking?” That’s hypothetical, by the way. And then noticing whether I am feeling jealous, or insecure, or what. If you can notice that you’re making social comparisons, and if you can notice whether that is having a motivational effect on you, then you’re more than halfway there.
DUBNER: I think I’m about to ask a truly stupid question.
DUCKWORTH: There are actually stupid questions.
DUBNER: But, we are talking about essentially a social behavior. Is there any evidence to suggest that there is a genetic component to it? In other words, when you talk about you not being judgmental, when you talk about having that self-awareness, do you think you developed them? Do you think you were born with them? And for someone who feels that they don’t have those traits, how learnable are they?
DUCKWORTH: You know, almost everything, if not truly everything, has some inheritable component, and then, a lot that’s environmental. And, as a psychologist, I choose to work on the things that are not genetic, because I know how to do something about them. I think, in terms of experiences that I may have had that tilt me in the direction of, “Jamie Dimon has got a really clear schedule, mmm, I wonder how I can get one like that,” as opposed to, “I quit.” I think that a lot of it has to do with early experiences where I had a social comparison and maybe somebody encouraged me to learn from that other person, as opposed to feel demotivated. And then I was rewarded for it, right?
So, I think a lot of our behavior comes from this cycle of, well, how did you react, and then how did it turn out for you? And if you want to train yourself to make fewer comparisons, or make comparisons and learn from them and not get demotivated by them, you’re going to have to set yourself up for some small wins. You can think of some comparison that you might make, and then try extracting all the information, like squeezing juice from a lemon. And then if you can get yourself to do that and be rewarded by it, “Terrific, I learned a new hack,” then maybe that’ll set you down that path.
DUBNER: Looking back, do you think there’s anything that your parents, or the rest your family, did to encourage that lack of comparison? It wasn’t as though you were in a family that didn’t aspire to achievement, too.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and my dad was always making comparisons between his children and our cousins, who he thought were a level higher than we were in every way.
DUBNER: Yes. So, it sounds like you were set up to be the opposite of how you actually are.
DUCKWORTH: No, no. My dad did that. But I will tell you, I had another parent, my mom. Thank God. My mom would meet anyone. If they were a ruler of the universe, my mom would meet them and she’d be like, “Hi, are you hungry? Can I make you something to eat?” So, I think maybe I copied my mom’s style of social comparison, which is that when she met people, she just didn’t think too hard about how their greatness made her any less.
DUBNER: There’s also downward social comparison, right? Let’s just say, I’m not very smart but I care about it. Should I just hang out with dumb people? Is that a good idea?
DUCKWORTH: So, downward social comparison, I mean, schadenfreude, the idea of taking pleasure in somebody else’s misery, is kind of a form of downward social comparison. When we look down on other people and that, at least temporarily, boosts our self-esteem, I don’t think it’s a great strategy, in part because it requires you to look down on other people.
DUBNER: Yeah. But let’s take an example. We talk about me playing golf on this show a lot for some reason. I guess, because I like it.
DUCKWORTH: Because you’re obsessed with golf.
DUBNER: Yeah, I guess that is the reason. But anyway, let’s just say that I’m a mediocre golfer, and when I play with better golfers, I do even worse than I would normally do, because I feel less confident. And I enjoy it less, because I’m getting beat. So, doesn’t it make sense to just find people who are worse? But wouldn’t that apply to0 many domains in life?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I guess the question is, which do you care about, feeling better or getting better? And I have this research — it hasn’t been published yet, but I’m really interested in it. So, we showed kids a picture of a ladder. And we were like, “Here’s society. And the families that have everything, the money and the best jobs, they’re at the top, and the families who have none of that, they’re at the bottom. Where would you put yourself on this ladder?”
And then, we actually had their objective socioeconomic status based on whether they qualified for free lunch at school and the zip code that they lived in. And what we found is that kids who thought of themselves higher on this ladder-scale of socioeconomic status than they really were objectively — so they were overestimating their socioeconomic status — they were happier, but they didn’t do as well in school. So, I wonder whether you want to feel better, or whether you want to get better.
DUBNER: That is a really interesting way to frame it. I also feel I should mention some evidence I recall from some economics literature, where comparisons were really great, where they led to better outcomes. And this is the work of the economist Emily Oster, who’s now at Brown. And she and others looked at women, in particular, in some parts of India, in very low-income economies where women and girls were really considered low-status. And one thing she looked at was what happened when those women got T.V. in the home.
And when women who were considered very low-status would see these soap operas, and dramas, and comedies of a different sort of lifestyle where women were treated better, the result was, for them, they began to experience less domestic violence, perhaps because they saw that what they were experiencing wasn’t the norm. They invested more in their daughters’ health and education. So, that’s a case where I thought upward comparison could have a really beneficial effect.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, this is why it’s impossible to make these generalizations. In those examples, there is information that’s really genuine and new. And it’s inspiring. I think the question is: how do we get the information and the motivation out of social comparison, as opposed to the information with demotivation unintended?
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Sabido effect, but Sabido was a television producer, I think, in Mexico, who had the idea that you would have soap operas with storylines that were very much like you’re describing. They’re supposed to give information through social comparison. But the key is confidence. Can you make available social comparison information and either keep or even elevate the individual’s confidence who is doing the comparing, as opposed to the confidence deflating?
DUBNER: How do you do that?
DUCKWORTH: So, I don’t know for sure. But I think we react by how everybody else is reacting. So, one thing that happened in Mexico, apparently, was that there was a storyline where it was a rags-to-riches story. And I think it was actually for women who Sabido wanted to make sure that they felt some sort of economic empowerment — that they could have an occupation, they could earn income. And the protagonist in the soap opera learned to sew, and then somehow ended up finding her fortune and her happiness. And sales of sewing machines were through the roof.
And it was a good example of how you have social comparison. In this case, it ends up becoming inspiring as opposed to demotivating. But I think part of the reason why it all worked is that everybody was watching these soap operas. You look to your left, and you look to your right — that’s another kind of social comparison. And then, you’re just doing what your neighbors are doing, which is you’re going out and buying a sewing machine and learning how to sew. So, I don’t have a complete answer. But I think part of this is, we’re not only making social comparisons all the time, but we’re even looking at how other people are interpreting that same social comparison data. And we are likely to do something else that human beings do, which is follow the social norm.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela attempt to untangle the behaviral phenomenon of narrative fallacy?
DUCKWORTH: This triangle’s a good triangle and this square’s a bad square. The good triangle’s trying to beat up the bad square.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I know we both like to read. When you’re reading, say, a biography, somebody else’s account of a life that’s passed, do you think while you’re reading it, “Do I believe what this biographer says?” Like, they’re making all of these causal statements about this event happening and then that causing this later event. Or do you just get swept up in the narrative and you believe everything that the biographer tells you?
DUBNER: Well, that was a pretty loaded question the way you asked it, which is, “Do I actually believe this?”
DUCKWORTH: Do you actually believe that, Stephen?
DUBNER: So, it’s funny you ask that question, because it’s something that I think about a lot and that bothers me quite a bit is faulty causal reasoning. Although, I don’t usually think about it in the context of reading a biography. So, I am curious to know, are you reading a biography and deciding whether or not to believe it as it happens? Are you trying to figure out whether Churchill really did what he was supposed to have done?
DUCKWORTH: Here’s why I thought about it. I have actually picked up more than a few biographies that everybody else was reading. And I couldn’t read them past the first chapter. Because they keep saying, “Oh, and then, you know, he had this accident when he was six, and that’s why— ” And I’m like, how do you know?
DUBNER: If he hadn’t been blinded in his left eye, he never would have become a scientist.
DUCKWORTH: Right. So, I’m not saying that it’s impossible. It just seems like there’s a lot of confidence that these biographers have. And actually, let me extend this to memoirs, too, right? Because when we write our own story, we often tell a causal tale of X led to Y, and Y led to Z. But honestly, that’s a made-up story. We don’t really know.
DUBNER: I think about this all the time for my work because a lot of the stuff that we’ve written in Freakonomics deals with this directly — correlation that doesn’t rise to causation. But it is funny when you ask it in the context of a life story, whether it’s a memoir or a biography. The first book that I wrote, I think we’ve talked about this a little bit in the past on this show, is about my parents, both of whom were first-generation Brooklyn Jews who each, before they met each other, converted to Catholicism.
And I was a product of that marriage, and I was the eighth and last of their children. So, by the time I was born, they’d been Catholic for a long, long, long time. And their Jewish history and heritage were buried and unknown to me. And so, the book that I began in my 20s was to ask this exact question of why. Why had they converted? And I was so naive at the time. I somehow thought that there was A, only one answer, B, that the answer would be right, and C, that somehow the answer would be the same for each of them.
DUCKWORTH: For your mom and your dad.
DUBNER: Yeah. And in a way, the writing of that book, and the interviewing, and the research, was a great series of lessons for me as a writer and journalist later, because I realized a very central fact of life, which is multifactorial outcomes. It’s really hard in life, whether you’re talking about the lives of your own parents, or something like the causes and consequences of racism, any kind of social issue, when you’re talking about economics and psychology for that matter. It’s almost never one thing plainly.
So I would say, I, like you, tend to get a little bit ticked off if I feel that the author is making those connections. Because what I want to say is, “Why don’t you tell us all the facts you know, and then, just as important, tell us all the facts you don’t know.” We need to understand that cause and effect really are separate. And sometimes we can draw really strong relationships, and sometimes we can’t. But if we can’t, let’s not pretend we can.
DUCKWORTH: Well, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to sell a lot of books. Just saying, you’re like, “I have this riveting new biography of Winston Churchill. It’s even longer than the ones that are already written, which are really long. And I’m just going to tell you everything that’s known. And by the way, I have an equal number of chapters for everything that’s not known.”
DUBNER: I guess that’s why I haven’t written my Churchill biography yet. But, yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m just making the argument for not overstepping a claim of causality when there’s correlation. Look, I’ll give a few examples. Imagine that you’d come down from Mars, and it’s raining, and everybody’s got an umbrella. And it stops raining, and people put away their umbrellas.
DUCKWORTH: Right. You don’t want to say, like, “Oh, the umbrellas caused the rain.” Yeah. When I teach my research methods class, I say, “Look, I’m going to give you the three possible causal relationships there are. And there isn’t a fourth one. It’s very simple. X causes Y, which is usually what leaps to mind. Oh I see X and then afterwards I see Y, so I’m like, “X causes Y.”
But there’s always two other possibilities. There’s Y causes X. We call that reverse-causality. So, you notice that people who are overweight are on diets. And then you think, “Oh, is the dieting causing being overweight?” — which is a complicated answer, because it could be, in part. But anyway, the point is that it’s not clear which is X, and which is Y necessarily, when you are looking at that pattern.
The third possibility is that there’s something else. There’s a third variable, we usually call it Z, that is correlated with X and is correlated with Y. So it creates a spurious correlation. All of these examples, by the way, Stephen, they’re all assuming you’re looking at a pattern of data. And I’ve been recently talking to Danny Kahneman, Nobel laureate economist, about causality.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, but Nobel prize in economics.
DUBNER: He won it in economics, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, because there’s no Nobel Prize in psychology, yet.
DUBNER: Says the psychologist who is pissed.
DUCKWORTH: But what these conversations have been teaching me, anyway, is that the human mind so spontaneously, and urgently, and immediately comes to causal conclusions. More than 50 years ago there were these psychology experiments where you take these geometric shapes, like a square and a triangle, and you move them around in front of where the research subject is viewing.
And just by moving them in certain ways, certain sequences, you can actually get the viewer to attribute causality. This triangle is a good triangle and this square is a bad square. And the good triangle is trying to beat up the bad square. If a circle is moving slightly ahead of a triangle, all of a sudden the viewer says, “The triangle is chasing the circle!” And then they even attribute motives.
DUBNER: What did the circle do to the triangle?
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Human imagination runs wild. And Paul Bloom at Yale has shown these kinds of movies much more recently to babies. And even before you’re a one-year-old, you are making these causal inferences. So, anyway, I think this evidence suggests that the causal machinery of the human mind is really evolved, and it comes online very quickly in human development. I say this because, Stephen, you’re talking about when you look at a data set and you don’t want to confuse correlation with causation. But in life, we do something even worse, which is that we just see one thing happen, not a data set.
DUBNER: And create a whole narrative fallacy out of that. So, I don’t disagree at all. And I know that Danny Kahneman wrote about what Nassim Taleb calls “the narrative fallacy.” And Danny wrote about that in Thinking Fast and Slow. He wrote these explanatory stories that people find compelling have the following things in common. They are simple, which I think we can all agree is attractive on some dimension. They are concrete, rather than abstract, because most of us don’t really like abstractions. They assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck, because we have a really hard time factoring in luck, or chance, or uncertainty, especially. And they focus on a few striking events that happen rather than on the countless events that failed to happen, which I think is another incredibly important thing.
When people talk about leadership, or entrepreneurship, or just their career goals, and they focus so much on the positive choices, the things to do, the acts to commit, as opposed to the decisions to not do something, which I think is really a failure because there’s opportunity costs. Every time you say no to something that might have been worth it, or it might not have, you’re gaining the opportunity to say yes to something else. So, it’s interesting. The narrative fallacy seems to comprise all the bad biases that we talk about together on this show.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, this is the thing about all this overdeveloped causal machinery that human beings seem to be carrying around. I have wondered why we do it, right? If it’s not accurate to think that X really did cause Y and we’re oversimplifying, why do you think we’re doing it?
DUBNER: Don’t you think this goes back to what we’ve talked about on this show before, which is how hard it is for people to deal with uncertainty? I mean, there’s so much evidence showing that most of us just don’t want it. We would rather conclude something wrong than be inconclusive.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I guess so. But we have this kind of strong desire for a coherent and simple narrative. And we don’t really enjoy dreaming up all the counterfactuals. It’s also, by the way, impossible to dream up all of them. I think one reason why we don’t do it is because it is really hugely cognitively taxing to try to think of a 17th way that this could be done. What about an 18th way?
DUBNER: Right. When will I have time to eat my sandwich if I have to think of all those?
DUCKWORTH: You’d be cranky.
DUBNER: I’ll starve to death.
DUCKWORTH: I know, obviously. That’s the narrative fallacy right there. No sandwich. But here, let me give you one more. I think there’s another reason. Often in human existence, we’re trying to convince somebody else of what happened and what will happen. And we are more effective rhetorically if we keep it simple, and we’re very confident, versus, “Well, I’m going to tell you about the life of Steve Jobs, and I’ve come up with at least 101 possibilities. But honestly, there are an infinite number of possibilities.”
And likewise, if I say, “Look, Stephen, I think what’s gonna happen in our partnership is, well, any one of the following. But I can’t really be sure.” It’s not very effective in the persuasion game to lay out all of the alternatives.
DUBNER: This conversation, this podcast, is a sort of safe space for multifactorial explanation. In fact, that could be a good bumper sticker. Don’t you think?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I like that.
DUBNER: I do find that the pandemic has been a fascinating exercise in causal thinking across society. Because there are so many different threads of uncertainty. How do I get it? How do I not get it? What happens if I do get it? Why are certain people more susceptible to death? Not everyone is as receptive to the virus per se. It’s not always as transmissible in similar circumstances. Treatments and outcomes may vary.
And in some ways, maybe it’s a silver lining. It’ll teach more of us to understand that an effect can be the result of multiple factors. It’s a pretty weak silver lining as far as silver linings go, because this pandemic is pretty terrible. But, it’s something.
DUCKWORTH: I think I’m paying attention to the people who are not thinking probabilistically or with a lot of intellectual humility about what’s going on and how nuanced this is. My attention is drawn to the individuals who have very, very clear, simple narratives that I don’t think are in agreement with the preponderance of scientific evidence.
DUBNER: Maybe it’s a Philly thing. Maybe you need to move to New York.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Where all the sophisticates are. But the training that I’ve had as a social scientist is to constantly ask, what am I missing? How did I oversimplify things? How could this be wrong? And I do hope that the American and global populace becomes a little more critical in their thinking. But I don’t know, Stephen. I see a lot of polarization, which is effectively very oversimplifying.
DUBNER: I don’t doubt a word of what you said to be true. But I also feel, again maybe I’m just optimistic, but there are lessons that are being taught every day that I believe people are open to. For instance, one of the greatest concerns of a lot of people is how terribly money pollutes electoral politics, right? With the baseline assumption being that the more money you have, the better chance you have to be elected.
And my Freakonomics coauthor, Steve Levitt, did this academic paper trying to tease out the actual effect of money on electoral outcomes. And he did this in a very clever way, by comparing candidates who ran against each other multiple times. His argument — I found it to be a very compelling argument — it turns out that money really doesn’t help candidates very much. It is true that the winning candidate usually has more money, but they didn’t win because they had more money. They had more money because they were an attractive candidate. And being an attractive candidate means you start to attract a whole lot more money as well.
If you can look at the actual effect of the money, you see it’s relatively very weak. Look at Mike Bloomberg. He spent about $900 million in the most recent presidential election. And all he got for it was American Samoa. That was it. That was the extent of the power of his money. So what does that do to the narrative fallacy of, “Oh, you can buy elections. Money wins elections.” If only for a handful of people, it points them in the other direction to actually inspect the evidence, I think that’s a lesson well worth learning, especially since Mike Bloomberg was the one who spent the $900 million to teach us a lesson. And I didn’t have to.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re $900 million richer, Stephen.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen references a 2009 study by economist Emily Oster on the effect of cable television on women’s status in rural areas of India. The study did find that the introduction of cable T.V. “improved the status of women: women reported… lower son-preference, more autonomy, and lower fertility.” Stephen also says that it led to a decrease in domestic violence. While it’s true that Oster and her colleagues found that women were less likely to find it acceptable for husbands to beat their wives, it’s not clear whether these reports of attitude changes represented actual changes in behavior.
Angela then references a similar pattern of empowerment in Mexico and a phenomenon called “the Sabido effect.” However, the show she described was a Peruvian telenovela called Simplemente Maria. It originally aired from 1969-1971, and its main character was a single mother trying to become a fashion designer. The show is credited with increasing interest in both sewing and adult literacy in Peru. Mexican producer, writer, and theorist Miguel Sabido was inspired by the success of Simplamente Maria to create Ven Conmigo, a soap opera that told the story of a group of adults in a literacy class. In 1975, when Ven Conmigo aired, enrollment in adult literacy classes across Mexico increased by 9-fold.
Finally, Stephen says that although former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $900 million on his presidential campaign, the money failed to win him the election. Bloomberg actually spent over $1 billion on his short-lived campaign. 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, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. 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 our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us Twitter @NSQ_Show. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela mention a person or a study that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we provide links to all the major references you heard here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: There’s an obvious word I can’t think of, sorry.
DUCKWORTH: Is it tuna fish ? You know, just a wild guess.
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Relevant References & Research
Question #1: How can you avoid the emotional pain of social comparisons?
- Angela mentions that Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker decided against majoring in math because his college roommate was much better at the subject. The roommate — John Milnor — went on to receive a Fields Medal in 1962.
- During their discussion about healthy comparison, Stephen mentions Angela’s professional admiration for psychologist Carol Dweck. Angela also discusses Dweck’s career on NSQ Ep. 8, “Wouldn’t It Be Better to Hear Your Eulogy Before You’re Dead?” and Ep. 12, “Does “As If” Thinking Really Work?”
- Stephen asks Angela if she ever compared herself to the high-achievers she interviewed for her book, Grit, like JPMorgan Chase C.E.O. Jamie Dimon and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. To hear more about Angela’s interactions with Pete Carroll, check out Ep. 6, “Is Incompetence a Form of Dishonesty?” and Ep. 7, “How Do You Handle Criticism?”
- Stephen shares a study by economist Emily Oster that concluded that the relatively low status of Indian women in certain rural communities was positively affected by the introduction of cable television.
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Question #2: Why are we so inclined to force causal narratives?
- Stephen discusses his experience researching his parents’ conversion from Judaism to Catholicism for his first book, Choosing My Religion. Stephen also describes the writing process for this book in Ep. 10, “Why Are Stories Stickier Than Statistics?”
- Angela explains the human urge to make causal connections goes far beyond data sets. In a 1944 experiment run by Smith College psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Anne Simmel, participants attributed causality and motives to random sequences of geometric shapes shown in a short film.
- Angela references the work of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom when explaining that causal inferences are present in children less than a year old. Bloom’s research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art.
- Stephen mentions Nassim Taleb’s concept of “narrative fallacy” — the idea that humans often mistakenly assign explanations and relationships to a series of facts. Psychologist Danny Kahneman writes about narrative fallacy in Thinking, Fast and Slow — a book the NSQ crew highly recommends to anyone who enjoys our show’s topics.
- Stephen recalls a previous discussion on dealing with uncertainty from NSQ Ep. 1, “Did Covid-19 Kill the Handshake?”
- Stephen brings up a paper by his Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt that found money had minimal impact on a candidate winning an election (although winning candidates usually have more money). Instead, the more compelling candidates tended to attract more money.