DUBNER: I think I’m having a breakthrough, Dr. Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: I’m charging you for this.
* * *
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 break free from irritability?
DUCKWORTH: “Let’s not spend all this time together.”
Also: Is impatience actually a positive trait?
DUBNER: Yes, people need to be interrupting more.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question for you based on my recent experience, personally. How do you know whether the world is irritating or whether you’re irritable?
DUBNER: Oh, it’s you. The world is never irritating.
DUCKWORTH: I was just wondering. I’m glad to know that it’s me.
DUBNER: Can you tell us what the personal experience was that got you so irritable?
DUCKWORTH: This winter has been especially snowy, icy, and just, you know —in my family, we call them “wet, yuck days.” But, I guess, we should amend that by saying “icy, snowy, yuck days.” And there were days where I took maybe 500 steps. And then, maybe as a consequence of that, didn’t sleep well. And I found myself to be, as we would say in my family, kind of cranky-pottomus.
DUBNER: I’m glad you’ve brought your problem to me today.
DUCKWORTH: The psychiatrist is in. You could be like Lucy from Peanuts.
DUBNER: I’m a lot like Lucy. And I do like that you are admitting, along with the rest of us, that you do become irritable now and then. It seems like it’s worth defining irritability. To me, the word “irritable” connotes a latent state of emotion or dormant, maybe. “Irritable” hasn’t yet crossed over into “irritated,” and therefore turning into anger, or something else. So, when you’re irritable, does that manifest itself in some kind of anger, cross speech, bad mood, etc.?
DUCKWORTH: For me, when I say I was irritable, it means I was very easily triggered to being irritated. And then, worse than irritated, just mad.
DUBNER: I have seen it defined in psych literature as excessive reactivity to negative emotional stimuli — which sounds like exactly what you have, and that it also has an affective component, anger, and a behavioral component, aggression. Does that sync up with your experience of irritability?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I have an affective dimension of this, which is like, I’m in a bad mood, a negative emotional state, but then there is a behavioral component too, which is the things I say and do as a consequence of feeling that way.
DUBNER: Well, let’s drill down and continue to try to solve your little issue here. From what I’ve read and experienced, Dr. Duckworth, I would say that there are plainly external and internal causes, or drivers, of irritability. Which I would loosely categorize as, let’s say, environmental and then psychological. Would you agree with that?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Things that are situational, like, things that are happening to me, and then, things that are about me, which could be psychological. They can also be physiological, right? Like, I’m hungry. Or, you know, I’m tired.
DUBNER: Yep. I will say this, however. In my experience, at least, what I often initially consider an external or environmental factor, once I examine it, I find that it was, in fact, driven by a shortcoming on my own behalf that I’d rather not acknowledge. So, let’s say I prepare to interview somebody kind of important. And I prepare for many, many hours, and we do the interview and it’s just not very good. It’s not very interesting. It’s not very revealing. It’s very natural for me to be irritable, or maybe even irritated, after that. And it’s easy to blame the person.
DUCKWORTH: That’s probably where you first go, right? Like, why aren’t you better?
DUBNER: But then the more I think about it, I think, maybe I should have prepared in a better, or different way, and that’s perhaps a cause of the poor outcome, and that’s why I’m frustrated or irritable — because I could have done more, didn’t, and therefore looked to strike out at the external driver.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re irritated at another person and their shortcoming, and then you realize that, really, you ought to be irritated at yourself and your own shortcoming.
DUBNER: Is that allowed — to be irritated by yourself?
DUCKWORTH: I was raised by a mother who said, when people are angry, it’s usually because they are angry at themselves. In other words, some part of you knew that it was really partly your fault, and that actually is probably why it was so irritating —you knew that it wasn’t wholly this other person’s fault. Now, whether that’s true, and whether that’s true for your case, I don’t know, but I do think that, in general, if you want to divide up the causes of irritation and irritability into two clean categories: stuff that happens outside of you (other people, the world, the weather), stuff that happens inside of you (your blood sugar level, your own preparation) — very often, I start by thinking about how other people are irritating — the world is irritating. And then, if I’m a grown-up enough, realizing that 90 percent of it was really about the internal causes.
DUBNER: Let’s interrogate that notion a little bit more — the environmental, what you attribute as the world being irritating. When I get irritable, it’s usually about not having sufficient control over my environment. So, if I want to be in a quiet place, and there’s noise I can’t control, that’s potentially irritating. If I’m cooped up, or claustrophobic, or if I feel I can’t change the environment somehow that I really would like to, that’s irritating. It’s why I’m so happy not to be traveling, thanks to the pandemic. Every minute I am not in the back seat of an Uber, or on an airplane, or in a hotel room, the happier I am, because that makes me irritable. I also think that we get irritable when you want someone to behave in a certain way, and they can’t, or won’t. I have observed that my irritability has dropped a lot in the last several years. And that drop in irritability does coincide with the aging of my children, which makes sense. I think a lot of parents feel that one of their primary duties when their children are younger is to, in some way, control their children’s behavior. Whether that is a good form of parenting or not is a discussion for another day, but it can be incredibly frustrating.
DUCKWORTH: You’re trying to exert your will over their will. It could be benevolent, but you are trying to get things to go a certain way.
DUBNER: Yeah. It could be as micro as, you shouldn’t be standing on that table and shouting and throwing macaroni and cheese in the restaurant, to, you shouldn’t be wasting your time doing X, Y, and Z when you could be doing A, B, and C instead. So, I am curious — your irritability, since we’re talking about your irritability, presumably, and not mine, although I’ve been talking about mine quite a bit, which means, I gather, that I’m a little bit more irritable than I would have thought. But since we’re talking about yours, have you noticed that your irritability has increased or decreased in recent years as your children have gotten a little bit older?
DUCKWORTH: Gosh. I just love her so much, but when my older daughter Amanda and I are at home together, it is, like, a case study in irritability, in irritation, in anger. We just butt heads over everything. So, for example, we have white counters in our kitchen, and why this child can’t, like, wipe up the coffee that spills onto the white counter — which would take two seconds! And why there has to be, like, a trail of half-used napkins, and dirty laundry, and other junk. We end up fighting a lot when she’s home. Now, good fortune for her and for her mom, me, she is at college, and she is not at home. And we were both saying to each other just the other day, isn’t it wonderful that our conversation isn’t all about conflict —about these probably trivial things that we shouldn’t be arguing about. So, yeah, my irritability has gone down since Amanda’s gone to school.
DUBNER: Now, what’s the solution to that? Because presumably, you do want to see your daughter again someday, before the end of your life, right? Can you find a way to be together and to be less irritable?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I know that a lot of us would think, “Oh, there’s got to be a shift in our mindset or the way that we think about things.” But honestly, I think, if you discover that physically being together with another person is going to lead both of you to be irritable and irritated, then there’s no shame in saying, “Hey, let’s not spend all this time together.” I know that sounds like the wrong answer, but, for example, when my daughter said, “I think I’m going to try to do this position this summer in Cleveland.” I said, “That sounds like a fantastic idea. I hope you FaceTime me often.”
DUBNER: Here’s your suitcase.
DUCKWORTH: 100 percent. Scientists might call this “situation modification.” It’s one of the most powerful emotion regulation techniques there are — not to change your mindset, or the way you process it. It is just to actually change the situation.
DUBNER: Before we get into the potential solutions to irritability, can you perhaps tell me a story in which you successfully dialed down your irritability?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I did have the insight, probably by the end of the month of February, where I was thinking,“Wow. Did the world get suddenly more irritating in February? Or is it me — is it some internal cause?” So, I had that insight. It was a little late, but I did have it.
DUBNER: It’s okay. Self-reflection is good.
DUCKWORTH: Anyway, I took that little tidbit of insight into my own irritability, and I said, “Well, why would it be that I was irritable — if it’s not just the world, if the world didn’t suddenly shift in February?” And then, I realized maybe not taking more than 500 steps a day, not sleeping well — maybe these two factors are a big reason that I’m irritable. So, I got on my exercise bike for a little longer than I would have otherwise. And I tried to sleep better, with mixed success. But, for me, it was not only those adjustments, it was just realizing that I was irritable that actually helped things a lot. I was like, “Oh, it’s not everyone else’s fault. It’s probably me.” And in addition to the changes in lifestyle, just the self-awareness actually helped a little bit.
DUBNER: It’s interesting. I’m looking here at a list of things to do if you’re irritable. It’s a list compiled by the psychotherapist Amy Morin.
DUCKWORTH: Did you Google that just for me?
DUBNER: I did, because I don’t want my friend to be irritable. And what this says to do —it sounds like you’ve done quite a few of them in this assessment of your crappy February.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So tell me what they are.
DUBNER: She advises that you: one, acknowledge your irritability. Don’t deny it. You did that.
DUCKWORTH: Check. Preferably on a podcast to many, many people.
DUBNER: Two, determine if there’s a clear source — a drop in blood sugar, or your family, or the lack of sleep, the lack of physical activity. Number three, take a few deep breaths. Number four, take a break from whatever you’re doing, which is, I think, great advice — unless you’re driving a racecar.
DUCKWORTH: What does that mean? Take a vacation? What do you mean “take a break”?
DUBNER: From the task — from whatever you’re doing at the moment that is making you irritable. But again, if you’re driving a racecar at 200 miles an hour and you get irritated at the people around you, you don’t want to take a break. So, that’s not always going to work. Number five, get a healthy dose of physical activity.
DUCKWORTH: Plus one for me!
DUBNER: Number six, reframe your negative thoughts. Stick to the facts rather than your judgments and emotions surrounding those facts. I like this one. That is acknowledging the internal versus the external causes. And it sounds like you did that pretty well, wouldn’t you say?
DUCKWORTH: I think so. I mean, in retrospect more than in the moment, but I was able to understand it wasn’t necessarily that the world is irritating. I was making judgments and bringing my own interpretation, and that’s what led me to be irritated.
DUBNER: And finally, number seven, get professional help. She would say that, she’s a psychotherapist. But I feel like you did get professional help, because I am a professional podcaster. Have you ever tried what’s called “affect labeling” to fight your irritability?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. This is Matt Lieberman’s idea. So, if I’m feeling irritated, to say out loud, “I feel irritated.”
DUBNER: You put a name on the thing that’s irritating you.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The major finding is that this very, very, very helpfully boosts emotion regulation. So, if I’m trying to feel less angry, to say “I feel angry” actually helps me down-regulate the anger. So, why it works, Lieberman himself, and his colleagues who have done this research, they have not definitively mapped out all of the mechanisms, but there are a few.
DUBNER: I know one I like best. Can we say it at the same time to see if we pick the mechanism we both like best?
DUCKWORTH: Okay. How about we say—.
DUBNER: Count of three?
DUCKWORTH & DUBNER: One, two three.
DUCKWORTH: Psychological distancing.
DUBNER: Reduction of uncertainty.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Nope. Not the same one.
DUBNER: Psychological distancing, you said?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, basically, when you put things into words, words are symbolic, they’re abstractions, and, psychological distancing is being psychologically removed in a way that usually is associated with being less emotional. The seminal research that Lieberman did is on negative emotions. So, if I have more remove from my emotions — like, now that I’ve said “anger,” now it’s a word, I can step away from it. I can look at it from a third-person perspective. I should feel less anger.
DUBNER: I think I like my mechanism for exactly the same reason as you like yours.
DUCKWORTH: I was talking while you —what did you pick?
DUBNER: Mine was “reduction of uncertainty.” Once you name the thing, you’re no longer wondering or worrying about what it is that’s making you irritable. And I do find that — certainly in the economic literature, but also in the psychological literature, as well — humans don’t like uncertainty. We perform pretty poorly under uncertainty. So, even if you’re attributing your irritability to an incorrect cause, I would argue if you can eliminate some uncertainty, at least you might be in a little bit better position to move forward out of your irritability. Let me ask you, Dr. Duckworth, while you’re still on the couch here.
DUCKWORTH: You’re the doctor, remember? I’m the patient.
DUBNER: You know, I’m told over and over again that even psychotherapists and psychiatrists need to have their own mental-health counseling. Let me ask you this one last question about irritability. It strikes me that irritability can be incredibly costly. If you look at the things that people do when they strike out in anger — could be physical or verbal violence, it can strain relationships, it makes us less productive, it makes us unhappy, irritability does. So, I can’t really think of many upsides to being irritable —unless you’re an oyster who’s trying to make a pearl. I believe that’s how that happens. But depending on how you define the word “irritable,” you could say that if you’re not irritated, then you’re not paying attention. So, can you entertain some potential upsides of irritability?
DUCKWORTH: I think you can convincingly make the case that all emotions, including irritability, and anger, and sadness, and anxiety, and things that we don’t enjoy feeling — that all emotions have a function, and they are the product of years and years, and years, and years of evolution. And then, the question would be, what function does irritability play? And if we think that irritability is just, like, the junior varsity version of anger, then it’s the interpretation that your rights have been violated, that you’re being offended, that you’re being the victim of somebody’s malintent. If you can’t sense when that is happening, and you can’t have the emotional and behavioral response to that, which is to defend yourself and to argue back, then you’re going to get taken advantage of. For example, in contemporary times, a lot of people would say being irritated and angry about issues of social justice, about issues of structural change —that’s a good thing. And painful as it is, unpleasant as it is, if we don’t have those affective and behavioral responses, then things are never going to get better.
DUBNER: Dr. Duckworth, I’m afraid our time is just about up today.
DUCKWORTH: How irritating.
DUBNER: Would you say that speaking about your own irritability for these past 15 minutes or so has generally been a positive, negative, or neutral event for you?
DUCKWORTH: I think speaking about this — labeling my irritability —has been a positive experience. Not only does it help me have some remove from the irritability at hand, it is helping me figure out ways to be less irritable in the future. So, not only processing my February and understanding it better, but also making some changes and thinking about things in different ways in order to make there be less irritability for the future months and years.
DUBNER: What do you think would happen if next February — which you already know is going to be bad because it’s icy out, and dark, et cetera — you have Amanda come home. Do you think they might cancel each other out?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I just think that would be the perfect storm. I wouldn’t be irritable. I’d be angry. No. Let’s not do that.
DUBNER: Or you might make a whole pearl necklace. You never know.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: When is it okay to interrupt someone?
DUCKWORTH: You get the gist of what they’re saying, but they keep talking, like, why are their lips still moving?
* * *
DUBNER: Angela, there’s something I need to get better at, and I don’t know how, and I’m hoping you can help me.
DUCKWORTH: Of course. What is it, Stephen?
DUBNER: The thing is impatience. It’s not only that I don’t like waiting in line for anything, I often don’t even like waiting for someone to finish their sentence. So, I’ll be having a conversation with someone, and my mind is saying, “Yeah, yeah, I get it already. Can we move to the next point?” And I’m not sure that all impatience is bad. If you look through history, you can see there are a lot of innovations that were the result of someone being very impatient with the status quo, but my personal style of impatience, I think, is mostly negative. It frustrates me. I’m guessing it really frustrates the people I do it to, whether it’s friends, family, especially my colleagues. I do a lot of interrupting. So, Dr. Duckworth, can you fix me?
DUCKWORTH: First, I will say this: my mother is a saint, and if you ask my mother — who is actually named Teresa, so, I guess that makes her Mother Teresa, but really, she’s my Mother Teresa — if you asked her what is her greatest character flaw, she would say impatience. And I know that, because I asked her that exact question.
DUBNER: That’s such a nice question for a child to ask their grown parent. “What would you say is your greatest character flaw?”
DUCKWORTH: It’s a great conversation starter. Try that at your next Zoom dinner. So, I’ve asked my mom about this, and I said,“What does this mean?” And she said, “You know, one of the reasons why I married your dad, flawed as he was, is that he was very quick. And I find myself to be really impatient, especially with other people when they are not as quick.” And I have a little bit of that, too. So, my guess is, in the example that you — well you said waiting in line —.
DUBNER: I definitely won’t wait in a line.
DUCKWORTH: Just, no lines.
DUBNER: Yeah. I’m not a patient person when there are things that require waiting. Now that said, when there’s work that requires what other people might think of as —[AD^Perseverance.] yeah. So, maybe that’s not quite patience, but yeah, I revel in that challenge, even when things are hard because I know the satisfaction is great, the payoff is good.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I think that’s a useful distinction, between patience and perseverance. And I would agree, you have lots of perseverance, but maybe you don’t have a lot of patience. Why do you think it is that the instances in which the requirement is to essentially do nothing but let time pass —because that’s what’s killing you, right?
DUBNER: Even hearing that sentence hurts.
DUCKWORTH: Just gave you hives. So, why do you think that is so corrosive to you? Why is that so hard?
DUBNER: I feel a little bit lost when there’s not forward motion happening.
DUCKWORTH: Is it because you feel like there’s inefficiency in the kind of patience that we’re talking about where you’re not doing anything? You don’t want to wait in line, because there’s got to be a more efficient way to pick up your gallon of milk or somewhere you don’t have to wait in line? And when you’re in conversation with someone and you get the gist of what they’re saying, but they keep talking, like, why are their lips still moving? It’s because there’s a more efficient way to get to the same goal. I think that’s what it is. Am I right?
DUBNER: I think I’m having a breakthrough, Dr. Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: I’m charging you for this.
DUBNER: So, there’s an incident, and then a pattern, that I’m connecting in my brain — both from childhood. And maybe this leads us to some kind of fruitful answer. So, the incident was, I was 5 or 6 years old maybe. And my task for that evening was to set the table for dinner — which might have been my task every night, actually, because I wasn’t capable of doing that much at five or six. And when you do the same task over and over again, you do look for improvements, and economies of scale, and so on. And so, I’d figured out that if I routed myself in the proper manner, I could pick up all 10 plates, or whatever — seven, eight — there were a crap load of kids, two parents, and maybe a friend. So, I could pick up all 10 plates, and then pick up the napkins and put them on top of the plates, and then pick up the silverware to hold the napkins down so that I could walk fast and not have the napkins blow away, and even have room to pick up the salt and pepper shakers and put those on top, too. What I remember was that my mother complimented me. She looked over and said, “Stevie, you are so efficient.”
DUCKWORTH: The highest compliment.
DUBNER: And that was great praise coming from my mom, because my mom was very, very efficient. So, that’s the incident. But here’s the pattern. In my family at home, we were always in a big, big, big hurry to get everything done. And I’m not sure if that was a result of being —I was going to say “being unmonied.” It was all about just getting stuff done, and I wonder if maybe I’ve just embodied a lot of that impatience of like: move it, move it, move it, get things done, and I can’t stand when things are not moving at that pace anymore.
DUCKWORTH: So interesting. I don’t know that I want to go all that psychoanalytic on you, because I actually think that just wanting to be efficient and having an aversive reaction to what seems like unnecessary inefficiency —.
DUBNER: Are you about to give me permission for my impatience?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to bless this entirely, but like, isn’t it functional?
DUBNER: Come on! Bless it! Bless it!
DUCKWORTH: I have wondered why it is that Ben Franklin said —I don’t know if Ben Franklin said “patience is a virtue.”
DUBNER: Nobody said anything. Mark Twain said everything, or nobody said anything.
DUCKWORTH: So, Ben Franklin, who, of course, is the founder of my university, so we have Ben Franklin quotes chiseled into stone all over the place, said, “He that can have patience can have what he will.” Paraphrase that as “patience is a virtue.” Why do you think we laud the patient waiting around as inefficient things happen, when clearly it’s better to be impatient! He that has impatience can have even more.
DUBNER: I wonder if Ben Franklin, who, between you and me, wasn’t that bright a guy —.
DUCKWORTH: Between you and me, Ben Franklin wasn’t so bright?
DUBNER: I wonder if he maybe confused patience with perseverance. Maybe he hadn’t read Grit. Maybe he wasn’t really up on the psychological sciences. But “patience is a virtue,” I don’t know, maybe we accept it because it’s been listed as a virtue for so many years. Well, okay, let’s ask: what would you see as a psychologist as the benefits of patience?
DUCKWORTH: I think that there are circumstances under which there is no more efficient way, and also, you just create a lot of unproductive stress. I mean, how many times have you thought, like, “Aw, God darn it. I got into the wrong line! I should have been in that line,” and then it’s too late to switch. And you just make yourself unhappy.
DUBNER: So, you’re describing the consequences of impatience more than the benefits of patience.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, you’re not counting not feeling stressed. I think what you need is framing the situation where you don’t feel this internal, acidic, impatient, feeling that you experience so often. So, how can I reframe situations in a way that makes me less likely to feel this caustic impatience in myself, is that right?
DUBNER: Yeah. Let’s give it a specific environment. Let’s say we’re having an editorial meeting for Freakonomics Radio via Zoom. And there are twelve people on it. Now, interestingly, we don’t actually have editorial meetings for Freakonomics Radio on Zoom, because I’m too impatient.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to wait around for everyone to say their piece.
DUBNER: Yeah, and also, I hate to say this — there is a professional courtesy in every profession where you let people explain and talk for a while. This is the heart of my problem. After the first ten seconds, I really do want to say, “Yeah, I get it.” I get it, and it’s good, or I get it, and it’s bad, or I get it, and it won’t work, I get it, and it will work. But I don’t need to hear the three-minute version. Life is short. Death is long. I don’t mind being impatient to get done as much as I can, but I do know that it’s incredibly irritating to people. So, I want to do a little bit less.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I’m going to take that example on, and I’m going to not tell you how to be more patient. Because I think you’re right. You shouldn’t be more patient. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. I think, if you tell your editorial team in advance, or just in general, “Hey, you should know about me, that as soon as I get the gist of what you’re saying, I’m going to interrupt you. And I know it’s going to sound rude, but honestly, it’s because you’re so smart that you’re saying things that are so clear.”
DUBNER: Oh, I got to write this down. This is gold here.
DUCKWORTH: Right?I’m going to interrupt you, but don’t take it as an insult. Take it as a compliment.
DUBNER: Right. Reframe the reality.
DUCKWORTH: Reframe their reality. Not your reality.
DUBNER: This is Steve Jobs reality-distortion field stuff.
DUCKWORTH: Jedi mind trick. But look, it’s also sincere. Here’s my version of your editorial meeting. It is very frequently the case, when I am co-writing a paper, that it is clear to me what the right answer is, and then, oftentimes the student just keeps talking. And I always say to them, let’s not waste time agreeing. And I do cut them off, and I say, “I think I get your point and let’s move on.”
DUBNER: That’s such a gentle, nice, encouraging way of saying it.
DUCKWORTH: So, I think you can reframe how everybody else interprets the situation. And actually, there’s new research — I follow Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, and he was tweeting Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (P.N.A.S.) study on conversations. And here’s what he tweeted. “Conversations almost never end when everyone wants them to, rarely end when anyone wants them to, and a gap between what conversants want and what they get is about half the length of the conversation itself.”
DUBNER: I read a version of this, and I have to say, I felt so excited by it, because what it told me is that, yes, people need to be interrupting more.
DUCKWORTH: The scientists found that one of the reasons why conversations don’t end when they should is because there is pluralistic ignorance. There is: I thought you wanted to keep going, the other person thought I wanted to keep going, and then you just keep going. So, telling your team, “Look, here’s how to interpret my interruption. Don’t take it as an insult.” I think this is all good.
DUBNER: I have seen — an article recently, it was in the Jewish newspaper The Forward arguing that interrupting is a particularly Jewish trait, especially in conversation. Although, the minute this was written, people from every background chimed in and said, “Yeah, we interrupt each other too.” But here’s what I found interesting: this article also contained a phrase that I had never heard before, that I found to be absolutely delicious, and valuable, and which I plan to use every time I ever interrupt anyone from now on. It’s called “cooperative overlapping.” So, I’m overlapping with you, because I’m just trying to help this awesome conversation get even better, faster.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, “cooperative overlapping” as a euphemism for interrupting?
DUBNER: Yeah. Because you say something, and I’m so excited about the thing that you said. Dot, dot, dot.
DUCKWORTH: I think there are times, Stephen, when you want to interrupt, and it is productive, and it’s a collaborative way to accelerate the conversation. But I do think, Stephen, that there are occasions — let me give you another personal example of when I have felt battery-acid-like, corrosive, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I have to sit here!” So, I have been in social interactions —you know, you’re catching up with an old friend, or you’re talking to an acquaintance that you happen to see in the street.
DUBNER: I’m actually too impatient to have old friends. I just cash them out and get new ones.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, should this ever happen to you, should you ever actually have an acquaintance —.
DUBNER: It won’t, but okay. Go ahead.
DUCKWORTH: Or, like, I don’t know, the mailman.
DUBNER: Yeah. I like him. He doesn’t talk. Just brings the mail. He’s in and out.
DUCKWORTH: But look, there might be times where somebody else wants to talk more than you want to listen. And it’s not a professional situation. I think, in those cases, you do want to learn a way to reframe things so you can do the kind thing. When I experience this sort of, like, “oh my gosh, get me out of here” feeling, I think what would help me is if I understood that there really is no alternative. You just have to be there. Also, I think there are times where we interrupt and it is an unhelpful stopping of what somebody is going to say. Sometimes, we interrupt people, and we think we know what the gist is of their point, or what they’re going to say next, and we’re wrong. And I think when people say to you, “Wait, would you just let me finish?” they are probably not actually going down the path that you are expecting them to go down.
DUBNER: Or even if they are, I guess, one strategy for me would be to say, I’m gisting here, and there’s probably more than the gist, so hang around, take a breath, be patient, and wait for the rest of the point.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Yes. That’s a good frame. And how about this —I think you’ve actually experienced this. Have you ever been to a talk by a university of Ch—?
DUBNER: Nope. Oh sorry. I just did it.
DUCKWORTH: Would you just let me finish? So, have you ever been to a talk at University of Chicago in the economics department?
DUBNER: Oh, I love those. They’re so brutal.
DUCKWORTH: I gave my first talk there when I had just finished my Ph.D. I was a tender, insecure academic.
DUBNER: And worse — you’re a psychologist, no offense.
DUCKWORTH: And I’m a psychologist, not an economist. So, I had no idea what the norms were of economics, in general, and University of Chicago, in particular. I put up my PowerPoint slides, and there are seven hands up in the audience on the title slide. Seven objections to the goddamn title. Like, “Why did you use this word? Why do that?” They had some sense of what I was going to present, so they were asking about the methodology. And I was like, “Would you just let me get to the second slide?” So, there are reasons why I think people would be impatient with your impatience, if you will. And so, on many occasions, it’s probably the best thing to let the person finish their sentence.
DUBNER: Okay, but in the “have to break eggs to make an omelet” category, did you feel that that intense interruption helped you write, and present, and do research down the road that got more to the point quickly?
DUCKWORTH: I have to say that I have now had the privilege of attending many more talks at the University of Chicago in economics, and I feel like this norm of frequent interruptions is inefficient. If you would let this person get through their talk, then of course they will address your methodological objection. And it is more efficient for them to get there than for you to interrupt. And if you, selfishly, want to interrupt and ask your question on the title slide, odds are that’s not the most efficient way for information to be transmitted.
DUBNER: Do you think that some interruption is a manifestation of a too-large ego then? That I need to get my stuff in — even though I suspect that you probably address this, I just want to show that I’m ahead of you.
DUCKWORTH: I think it can be, “let me show you how I’m a smarty-pants.”
DUBNER: Now we know that the University of Chicago Econ Department has never allowed anyone in with a large ego though, let’s just set the record straight on that.
DUCKWORTH: Well, they also have, like, all the Nobel Prizes, right? So, there’s some justification for feeling good about yourself if you’re a University of Chicago economist. Oh, footnote: if you are a University of Chicago economist that I’m currently working with, I adore you. End footnote. But I think there’s also just, like, self-absorption.
DUBNER: I like that you just interrupted yourself, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. So, there’s just a self-absorption — I don’t even know if it’s, like, I need to show everybody I’m super smart, but just, like, I happen to want this question to be answered right now, and like a 3-year-old, I’m going to ask it right now, because I want to know right now.
DUBNER: Interesting. One last question for you, Angela. Do we know anything about whether non-human animals exhibit impatience?
DUCKWORTH: In the, like, not wanting to wait in lines at Trader Joe’s sense?
DUBNER: Yeah, because whenever I go to Trader Joe’s and there’s a bunch of baboons there, they are, like, not interested in waiting.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You know, in animal experiments, when a lab rat is given the choice of, like, press this lever ten times to get a pellet, or press this lever just once to get the same pellet. Animals immediately find the more efficient solution. So, you could say that that’s a form of validation, Stephen, that you are just like a lab rat. You’re just trying to get your little pellet faster.
DUBNER: Nice. And I guess you could tell the baboon that given the, you know, direction and shape of the evolutionary ladder, if they just can be a little more patient, they’ll be us.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, just wait a few millennia. Things are going to work out great. Just wait to see what’s going to happen with your prefrontal cortex. It’s amazing.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and, Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen says an upside of irritability is the creation of pearls by oysters. Oysters produce pearls as a natural defense when tiny irritants, like a grain of sand or another foreign substance, enter their shell. To protect its body, the oyster creates a pearl by covering the object with layers of a mineral substance called nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl. But oysters actually aren’t the only animals that produce pearls from irritants. Any kind of mollusk with a shell has the ability to create one. This includes clams, mussels, scallops, and even snails!
Stephen and Angela also debate the origin of the adage “patience is a virtue.” It is not, in fact, originally attributed to Ben Franklin — a very intelligent individual — and Mark Twain didn’t say it either. Rather, it’s from the allegorical poem Piers Plowman, written by English poet William Langland about a decade before Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales.
Finally, Stephen refers to Angela’s attempt to reframe interruption as “Steve Jobs reality- distortion-field stuff.” For those who are unfamiliar with this concept — like I was when he made this reference — here’s a quick explainer. Apple Software Vice President Bud Tribble first used this phrase from Star Trek to describe Jobs in 1981. He said, quote, “Steve has a reality-distortion field, in his presence reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs: the Exclusive Biography, said that this idea applied, quote, “Whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible.” The reference may be an accurate way to describe Jobs’s charisma, but I’d say Angela and Stephen have a ways to go before they reach Jobs-level manipulation or, like the aliens on Star Trek, they’re able to create illusory worlds indistinguishable from reality. That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.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!
DUCKWORTH: You almost snorted. I almost got a snort out of you.
- Amy Morin, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.
- Matthew Lieberman, professor of social psychology.
- Mother Teresa, saint in the Catholic Church.
- “Is Interrupting Inherently Jewish (and Inherently Rude)?” by Mira Fox (The Forward, 2021).
- “Do Conversations End When People Want Them To?” by Adam M. Mastroianni, Daniel T. Gilbert, Gus Cooney, and Timothy D. Wilson (Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 2021).
- “8 Things to Do if You Feel Irritable,” by Amy Morin (Verywell Mind, 2021).
- “Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation,” by Jared B. Torre and Matthew D. Lieberman (Emotion Review, 2018).
- “The Developmental Psychopathology of Irritability,” by Ellen Leibenluft and Joel Stoddard (Development and Psychopathology, 2015).
- The Lab Rat Chronicles: A Neuroscientist Reveals Life Lessons from the Planet’s Most Successful Mammals, by Kelly Lambert (2011).