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DUBNER: Look at you, knowing stuff.

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH +DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Where do intrusive thoughts come from?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, no. Now, I have this unwanted thought. Oh, wait. No! I thought about it again! 

Also: how can you become a more confident person? 

DUCKWORTH: I would be confident if I succeeded. 

DUBNER: But I can’t succeed without the confidence! 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, we have a listener question today from one Chris Levenberg, and I think you are going to love this question. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I’m ready for it. 

DUBNER: Chris writes to say, “I was talking with a friend recently, and he admitted that he sometimes had awful thoughts, such as slapping a stranger on the street to see what sort of reaction he’d get, or at a pool party he’d get an urge to push a stranger in the pool.” So, I want to be friends with Chris’s friend. I have to say, this sounds fun. Chris continues, “This friend is the most gentle, good-natured person I know. So, I was surprised that he had these thoughts. I admitted to him that I’ve always had those thoughts too, but I thought I was the only one. It doesn’t necessarily always involve other people. Sometimes, standing at a red light I think about running into oncoming traffic or jumping off a tall structure and I have zero suicidal tendencies. I’m wondering if this is something more common than I imagined. Is there a psychological basis for violent fantasies that we have no apparent motivation to enact? If the two of us, normally gentle and kind people,” Chris concludes, “have been harboring these strange thoughts, it makes me wonder if many people are, and if so, why?”

DUCKWORTH: So, interesting. These thoughts are what are called “intrusive thoughts” — that’s the clinical term from psychotherapy. And it’s been studied in the context of obsessive-compulsive disorder, O.C.D. I mean, just imagine that you’re sitting quietly in your room, drinking a cup of tea, and an intruder just bursts in and starts doing crazy things. It is a little bit like that. It almost feels like there’s another person in your head who’s saying things or thinking things. Now, this is the thing that I’m a little confused by from Chris’s note: when Chris says, “Hey, I have a friend. And they have these thoughts, like slapping a stranger on the street, or getting an urge to push a stranger in the pool.” Now, I might be splitting hairs here, but there’s a big distinction in the clinical research on O.C.D., etc., between a thought and an urge. In fact, this is just a general distinction in psychology. You might have the thought, “I could push this person into the pool,” or you could have the urge — like, a feeling of, “I’m about to do it. I want to do it.” I think that intrusive thoughts often are thoughts that are not urges. And since Chris is only talking about his friend, I’m wondering whether Chris is making that distinction. But if you’re having intrusive thoughts without the urges, I think these are not only common, but pretty benign. 

DUBNER: In terms of common, how common? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what the epidemiological statistics are about how often people have intrusive thoughts. It depends on how you define them, too. There’s intrusive thoughts like running into traffic. And then, there’s also intrusive thoughts like, say you walked by a stranger and you just think for a moment, “What would they look like without their clothes on?” Or, you know, “What would happen if I struck up a conversation with this person?” And depending on where you draw that line, then you’re going to have a higher or lower number in the population. But one thing that’s unequivocal is that all human beings have uninvited thoughts. Let’s go back to that image: you’re sitting, having a cup of tea in your living room, and somebody bursts through the front door of your house, uninvited. And that is, in a way, you having your own little conscious, intentional stream of thinking, and then, there’s this thought that comes unbidden, unwanted, and bursts in. And I think that, you could argue, happens to quite literally all people at some point and in some form.

DUBNER: So, when it comes to these intrusive thoughts, what was interesting is — Chris says it right there in the email, “I’ve always had those thoughts, but I thought I was the only one.” So, is this a case of what your tribe calls “pluralistic ignorance,” where you don’t have a good sense of what other people think about things?

DUCKWORTH: It is exactly a case of pluralistic ignorance, which is when you think you’re the only one. Like, “I’m the only one who feels like they don’t fit in.” Or, “I’m the only one who noticed that there’s something wrong here.” And where pluralistic ignorance happens is when the behavior, or the thought, or whatever it is, is private. It’s hidden. And so, you see the exterior of what’s going on with other people, and then you just assume what’s really happening in their minds. And you, of course, can’t know. 

DUBNER: I mean, the more we talk about this, I think that all of my thoughts are intrusive thoughts by this point. 

DUCKWORTH: There’s nobody having tea in the living room in my head. Everybody’s bursting in as a party crasher!

DUBNER: I guess, when I think about actual thoughts that I have, of course, there’s some intentionality — especially when you’re working on a project, or a problem, or something. But thoughts are always coming into my mind. So, I’m not one of those people who has no intrusive thoughts. On the other hand, there’s plainly a continuum here, from relatively harmless and perhaps even wonderful intrusive thoughts, to violent, hurtful thoughts, taboo thoughts. So, can you describe the continuum? And I’m curious, especially, at what point that continuum tips into what we would define as a mental illness?

DUCKWORTH: Let’s begin with the most benign or unemotional example. The great Dan Wegner, a psychologist who was really just a towering figure in social psychology, all the way up to his death about a decade ago. So, Dan Wegner was a professor of psychology at Harvard. And he did the famous white bear study. Have you ever heard of the white bear?

DUBNER: Oh, the white bear. I have. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know why white “bear.” I’m sure there’s some —. 

DUBNER: I always wondered about white bear too, because white bear sounds like a polar bear. And then, I’m thinking about Antarctica. These are my intrusive thoughts. So, anyway, tell us about the white bear.

DUCKWORTH: So, in this experiment, what Dan Wegner asked participants to do is to just speak out loud. Like, talk through their thoughts — just let the stream of consciousness flow. And the key in this experiment is that, in the treatment condition, he asked them not to think of a white bear. 

DUBNER: And weren’t they supposed to ring a bell or something if they thought of the white bear?

DUCKWORTH: He had two ways of measuring how often these intrusive thoughts — in this case, a white bear — barge into the living room of your consciousness. He had them ring a bell if they thought it, because he wasn’t sure whether people would really be able to verbalize everything in their stream of consciousness. But he also had them talking. And whether you just note in the transcript or by the number of bell rings, what you find is that people are really bad at not thinking of a white bear. And, in fact, when you ask them to not think of a white bear, then they think of a white bear, of course, way more than if you never asked them to not think of a white bear. So, that’s the paradox of thought suppression.

DUBNER: So, let me ask you this. If I’m thinking about pushing someone in a pool, or worse: into the path of an oncoming train, pushing someone off the top of a building — should I instead just think about a white bear, and that will get me off that intrusive thought?

DUCKWORTH: Well, yes! And the reason I say that is that it was found that one way to not think of a white bear is actually to actively think about just anything else. Like, think about, you know, eggs and ham. “Eggs and ham. Eggs and ham.” And then, your mind is going off in a totally different direction. So, yeah. If you want to not think about something, you actually do have to focus your attention on something else. That’s one way to get yourself to not have intrusive thoughts. But I think, actually, a deeper solution is something that comes all the way back to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Really, what is causing people distress from these intrusive thoughts isn’t exactly just the thoughts themselves, but this kind of secondary, like, “Oh, no. Now, I have this unwanted thought. Oh, wait. No! I thought about it again!” And, in a way, the answer to this is to accept intrusive thoughts. Say you’re trying to focus on your breathing, and you’re trying to be present in the moment. And then, what keeps intruding on your consciousness are your worries about work. And what sometimes is recommended in these mindfulness practices is, like, it’s like as if a cloud has passed over the sun. Instead of being like, “Oh no, I’m thinking about the future!” — you just gently let the cloud pass by the sun. So, there’s an acceptance that, in a way, is the escape route out of this thought-suppression stress — “Oh, my gosh, now I’m thinking about it even more”— cycle. And the reason I say it’s related to O.C.D. is that the “obsession” part in obsessive-compulsive, that refers to the thoughts, and the compulsion is usually the behavior. So, some would argue that the problem in this pathology is not that you have intrusive thoughts, because everybody has them, but there is this reaction to your own thoughts that’s the problem.

DUBNER: So, for Chris, and Chris’s friend, or for anybody listening to this, would you say that a steady stream of intrusive thought is a sign of something to be concerned about? Or does it depend on the thoughts themselves? Because we’ve been talking about a great spectrum of thoughts from innocuous — maybe a little pranky — to quite violent.

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think, first of all, that to acknowledge that we have intrusive thoughts and they’re not all G-rated, that is, actually, important for people to know. So, yeah, people have violent thoughts — about other people, about themselves. They also have sexual thoughts. And as long as they are not translated into behaviors — as long as they don’t pass into cravings or urges that then become what you do, I think you’re on the safe side. 

DUBNER: Like Jimmy Carter. He lusted in his heart.

DUCKWORTH: Wait. What did he say, that he was okay with lusting in his heart? Give me the whole Jimmy-Carter thing. 

DUBNER: I don’t know the whole Jimmy-Carter thing. I just know that Jimmy Carter was this lovely, peaceful, gentle fellow. I don’t know the context, but the quote that has stuck with him forever, is something along the lines of, “No, I was never unfaithful,” to his wife. What’s her name? 

DUCKWORTH: Rosalie?

DUBNER: Roseanne? Roxanne? “Roxanne!”  His wife, Mrs. Carter — that he was faithful to her, but that he admitted to having lusted in his heart. And I think a lot of people laughed at him — kind of like I’m laughing now. And I probably shouldn’t be. But yeah, who doesn’t lust in their heart? 

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t it the Catholic tradition that it’s bad even just to think bad thoughts? 

DUBNER: Having been Catholic for many years, we called them “impure thoughts.” And I have to say that I, as a boy, and a young man with my friends who were also boys and young men, we thought it was really unfair that you had to confess to, and say penance for, impure thoughts. But then, I will say this: I don’t mean to offer a comparative-religion mini-course here, and I don’t mean to assign values to one or the other. However, there is a principle in Judaism that what you think about someone, if you hate them in your heart, if you want to kill them in your heart, if you want their entire family to fall into a raging inferno and die in your heart, it doesn’t matter. What matters is your acts. And I would argue that a lot of Christian thinking also coincides with that. But I did find that a very attractive feature of Judaism, is the distinction between the thought and the act. And, to me, it was also an acknowledgement that everybody does have those thoughts, that they are natural, that whether you have a violent thought probably doesn’t have that much connection to whether you are potentially a violent person, because so many people have those, if not violent, then very negative thoughtsBut, I was wondering what is the effect of having these, let’s say, violent thoughts about other people? And I did find a piece here in The Atlantic from just a couple of years ago. It says, “Kai-Tak Poon, an assistant psychology professor at the Education University of Hong Kong led a team that asked a group of 138 American adults to pick the person they hate the most. Half were then asked to fantasize about doing something violent to that person. The other participants were asked to fantasize about taking any neutral action.” Again, this is the person you hate the most. “The results suggested that those who fantasized about aggression were more likely to ruminate, which then lowered their perception of their own well-being. Thinking about hurting a sworn enemy bums people out, even if on a certain level, the idea is really appealing.” Does that resonate with you? Do you think that makes sense?

DUCKWORTH: I think what that research is — by the way, I’m really glad that I wasn’t the person to ask for university permissions to run such an experiment. I can only imagine the human-subjects review on the ethics of that. But anyway, I think that what that’s getting at is that when people do have these taboo thoughts, these intrusive thoughts, they really get upset about them, because they do feel more Catholic than Jewish. They’re like, “Oh no, I shouldn’t lust in my heart. I shouldn’t feel violent things in my heart.” And even when it’s experimentally induced, you’re like, “Oh, well, someone just asked me to think about my worst enemy and think about these terrible things.” Even then, we still feel bad. That’s very interesting. But Paul Rozin — the psychologist in my department — Paul Rozin has this idea of what he calls benign masochism. His idea is that we enjoy experiencing bad things that are not super, super terrible. Like, let’s listen to a sad song. Let’s watch a movie and cry. Let’s put hot sauce on our taco so that we’re crying because it’s so painful. So, this is kind of, like, enjoyment we get from suffering. 

DUBNER: That is such an interesting idea, the benign masochism. It reminds me: I mentioned this email from Chris to my daughter, Anya, because we talk about this stuff often. She’s taking a couple of psych classes and some philosophy. And it made her wonder about how natural violence is for all of us. In other words, is that an instinct that we all have at the ready in our minds? She was imagining that we might have these thoughts about committing these actions — that we fear and that we know are bad — because we know we’re never going to do it, and it’s only going to be in our imagination, but there is a certain satisfaction of doing that.

DUCKWORTH: You’re not going to do it, but you want to look at it. You want to play it out, in a way.

DUBNER: Yeah. And maybe even connect to the emotion, depending on how good your imagination is. Like, there’s no way you would do it, but to bring yourself up to the brink of imagining having done the awful thing is a way to get in touch with a part of yourself that you will probably never be in touch with, thank goodness. So, I wonder, when Chris writes about this notion — I’m not saying it’s psychotherapeutic — but it is a way to connect to a part of yourself that you will probably never encounter in real life. You want to see what it feels like. 

DUCKWORTH: And maybe the reason why he thinks about jumping off a skyscraper or, running into oncoming traffic is, really, that he’s afraid, right? He’s afraid of falling or he’s afraid of dying violently. Freud thought almost everything we do is a defense mechanism against some very deep, deep, unconscious pain and suffering. And that we have unhealthy defenses like denial, but we also have mature defenses that don’t get us into more trouble, that are actually healthy. One of them is called anticipation. Anticipation is when you play out something in your head in a fantasy, and then, you manage it. An example would be, like, the worst thing that you can imagine is that a loved one dies. And then, you play it out in your head. You play out the accident. You play out the phone call when they say, “I just came back from the doctor.” You do it so often that it’s not so bad. It’s that kind of coping mechanism. I mean, what are thoughts? They’re just mental representations. They are your neurons lighting up and giving you the image of a truck, or the image of a skyscraper, the image of you doing something. And I do think there’s so many reasons why that mental representation could get lit up. And to understand that, “Oh, yeah, these are neurons in my brain. They’re lighting up. There’s lots of reasons why. It could be that I saw something that reminded me of this. It could be that I have an underlying fear.” Everybody’s brain lights up in this way, and they have thoughts that they want, but lots of times they’re unbidden. And then, just be like, “Oh, okay.” And that, to me, is what these mindfulness approaches are at their core. They’re your thoughts. Let them be like clouds passing before the sun.

DUBNER: So interesting. All right. Let’s see how smart you are. Can you tell me exactly what I am thinking right now?

DUCKWORTH: Is this like the Johnny Carson trick? 

DUBNER: Right. Carnac. Based on this conversation, I’m seeing an image.

DUCKWORTH: The image is —

DUBNER: I’m in it. I am physically interacting with something. 

DUCKWORTH: Is this taboo? 

DUBNER: Nope. This is kind of a mashup of everything we’ve been talking about so far.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, gosh. All right. You’re on a skyscraper. Really? What?

DUBNER: Yes. Exactly.

DUCKWORTH: With a white bear.

DUBNER: Yes! And what do I do?

DUCKWORTH: You want to throw the white bear off?

DUBNER: Yes! You got it. Oh, my gosh. You’re good. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the best tactics to increase your self-confidence.

DUBNER: I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angie, I have a timeless, but difficult, question for you today. 

DUCKWORTH: The best kind of question. 

DUBNER: I would like to think so! It has to do with confidence, with self-confidence. I see this as a classic chicken-or-egg problem, or maybe catch-22. Confidence helps you succeed, but the way to build confidence is by having success.

DUCKWORTH: Mmm, so the catch-22 is, “I would be confident if I succeeded—.” 

DUBNER: “But I can’t succeed without the confidence!” Right. And then on the flip side, it seems doubly punitive. If you’re unsuccessful, then you’re lacking confidence. So, how do you advise a person to be more confident?

DUCKWORTH: What you’re saying is that confidence leads to success, which leads to confidence. And basically that can be a virtuous cycle if it’s all going well — lots of confidence, lots of success — or it could be a terribly vicious cycle when you have a lack of self-confidence, which leads to a lack of effort and motivation, leading to lack of success. I will go back to the great Al Bandura, the psychologist at Stanford who recently passed away. Early in his career, it was still the heyday of behaviorism. And that’s when psychologists thought that what people did and what they didn’t do could completely be explained by rewards and punishments. And Al Bandura thought, “That cannot be right.” He was, by the way, a clinical psychologist and he also had the benefit of talking to people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, phobia, etc. And he was like, “Oh, this is not just about rewards and punishments. There is stuff that’s going on in the head.” And famously, he talked about what he called “self-efficacy.” I think he preferred that term to “confidence” for a variety of reasons. But I think the intuition that you and I have about what it means to be confident — like, “Can I succeed in physics? Should I major in it or will it be a disaster? Can I handle this new job?” I think confidence is really, effectively what Al Bandura meant. You know, “Can I do this if I try?” And what he discovered in many, many, many experiments over many, many years was that: how likely it is that you think you can do something if you try — your confidence — is enormously important to what you do and how you eventually perform. And so, this really was the death knell for the pure behaviorist idea of human motivation. 

DUBNER: It was the death knell because why? I don’t quite understand that.

DUCKWORTH: Because what Al Bandura found in his research is that it matters enormously what you think you can do, not just whether someone’s going to pay you to do something or punish you if you don’t. For example, “Why isn’t this kid studying for this test? There was going to be lots of rewards if they do well, lots of punishments if they don’t do well.” And one of the reasons — maybe the major reason that a kid might not be doing what you think is in their best interest — is that there’s this other thing called confidence. Students will not try to do things that they think they can’t do, because it’s a subjective understanding of your likelihood of succeeding. 

DUBNER: And where in this model does self-esteem fall? What’s the relationship between it and confidence? Are they first cousins, siblings?

DUCKWORTH: Well, “self-efficacy,” as Al Bandura would prefer to phrase it, and self-esteem are correlated, but they are different. Self-efficacy is, “Do I think I can do this thing if I try?” Self-esteem is, “How worthy of a person am I?” They’re obviously related because you might think, like, “If I can’t do something, then I’m not worthy.” I have a student who’s really, really interested in this. They said, “It’s because I have —” This is my students speaking. “I have very high self-efficacy for doing well in psychology. I do not have very high self-esteem.” So that’s an example of how these things can pull apart. Like, “I know I can do this if I try, but I don’t feel like I’m a deserving or worthwhile person.”

DUBNER: How often are self-efficacy and self-esteem not in sync? 

DUCKWORTH: They are pretty correlated, meaning they tend to go together. If they were perfectly correlated, then there would be no people like my student. So, I would say that, in general, they do go hand in hand, but there are enough counterexamples to know that they’re not exactly the same thing. 

DUBNER: What about self-handicapping? Which, as I understand it, is you basically regulate the threat from low self-esteem by telling yourself, or even others, that you’re not going to do well at something.

DUCKWORTH: This idea of self-handicapping, it was actually a term that didn’t exist before Ed Jones, who was a really, really great psychologist. He died decades ago, so this is research from, like, the seventies. Ed Jones said, “There’s such an interesting phenomenon that happens where people sabotage their own performance.” For example, the night before the S.A.T., obviously you wouldn’t want to go and get crazy drunk so that you’d be, like, hungover and dehydrated on the day of this five-hour exam, right? Like, who would do that? Well, I had a friend who did. And I remember thinking, “Why would they do that?” The reason, I think, is that now that friend gets to say, “Oh, I totally bombed the S.A.T., but obviously I was, like, hungover.” The thing you’re protecting is your ego because what Ed Jones said is that you are now creating some external villain. You’re not stupid. You could have gotten a good S.A.T. score, but, you know, you were hungover. 

DUBNER: Interesting. Let me ask you about an imaginary scenario. Let’s say I am a boss. Let’s say I’m even me. Okay? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m imagining that you are you. Okay. I’m following. 

DUBNER: I know that’s tough, but I think you can pull it off.

DUCKWORTH: I’ll try. 

DUBNER: So, let’s say I’ve got someone working on our team. And this person does good work, but not great work. And let’s say I try to encourage them to aim higher, to be more creative, to stretch beyond the standard path. But that when I do so, they take those suggestions or encouragements, not as, “Oh, great, that’s exciting! I can get better. I can try new things.” They take them as criticisms.

DUCKWORTH: Which they are.

DUBNER: It’s supposed to be productive. But then what happens is you see the confidence just falls, and this person will get more tentative, more careful, and that doesn’t produce the best work. So, if you want that person to succeed, it would seem to require more confidence, but it seems that confidence comes from accomplishment. So, that’s where I get back to the catch-22. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s like, “Wait a second. I want them to do better. As soon as they start doing better, then they’ll have more confidence, but how do I get the whole engine going?” So, what Al Bandura did in some of his early experiments was what he called “guided mastery.” As I mentioned, he was a clinical psychologist, and one of the kinds of patients that he was trying to help were patients with severe phobias — so extreme fears of heights, of airplanes, of snakes, that kind of thing. And the discovery was that you basically say, “Look, one day I would like you to not be afraid of snakes, completely unafraid of snakes. Like, you’d put a snake around your neck at a zoo demonstration.” Yeah, I know. I’m never the person to volunteer for that. 

DUBNER: I’m very afraid of snakes. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, are you really? For realsies?

DUBNER: Uh, so afraid of snakes. 

DUCKWORTH: Didn’t know that. Okay. Well, Stephen, you be yourself and I’ll be Al Bandura. Can you imagine that? 

DUBNER: Do you have a mustache, or no? I’m just trying to draw the picture. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think so. He never had a mustache, actually. 

DUBNER: Okay. Clean-shaven, Al Bandura.

DUCKWORTH: So, you say, “I’m deathly afraid of snakes, but that’s okay. I’m just going to avoid them for the rest of my life.” And I say, “No, no, no. It’s going to be much better for you if you can actually overcome this fear. We have to overcome these irrational things that stand in our way.” So, what I do with you is “guided mastery.” I don’t say, “Okay, great. I’m going to put a boa constrict—.” Well, I definitely wouldn’t put a boa constrictor on your neck. Sorry.

DUBNER: Thank you, Dr. Bandura. That was very kind of you not to kill me.

DUCKWORTH: This experiment would be very brief. 

DUBNER: No wonder you have a hard time finding research subjects for your experiments. 

DUCKWORTH: So, he would break things down to, like, 27 steps. He’d be like, “First, I want to just write the word ‘snake’ on a piece of paper. Can we do that?” And you’d be like, “No, I don’t want to look at the word snake.” “Oh, but I’m going to sit next to you, and we’re going to do it together.” The important part about guided mastery is that you have a role model who actually scaffolds you. They give you the support, and also they show you what you can do, but you can’t yet do it yourself. And the reason why this is so profound is this is also how children learn. Children, in many cases, can’t yet do something, and the parent does it with them. And in these tiny ways, they begin to do things that they couldn’t do on their own. The parent doesn’t totally do it for them, but it’s this intermediate step, that guided mastery, like, “Let me tie your shoes with you.” So, you break down something like being able to handle snakes into tiny little steps, and then with the role model who’s capable and skilled, you travel along this journey of mastery. That is how Al Bandura would say you start the cycle of confidence and success. But I want to go back to this criticism that you gave this junior person on your team. So, guided mastery is that you have this cycle of small wins. You know, “I don’t think I can do it. Oh, my mentor thinks I can,” and then you surprise yourself, and you do it, and it’s all positive. I think what’s interesting is that there is a point at which your confidence is high enough that you can actually take critical feedback, which, by the way, is very efficient, right? Like, let’s take you and me. When you tell me things that I could do better, we have achieved a certain level of trust and confidence that we can very efficiently take this criticism for what it is, which is, in a way, a sign of how much faith we do have in each other, because we’re not holding back. It reminds me of a study by David Yeager and Geoff Cohen and his colleagues called “the wise feedback study.” In the study, there are these middle-school students and they get feedback on their essays. Do you remember getting your essays graded by your English teacher and there’d be like a sea of red? Like, “This sentence is too long and this a run-on,” right? The experiment was: half the kids got these Post-It notes stuck on their papers that said, “I’m giving you this feedback, because I have high expectations, and I know you can achieve them.” And I think what happens eventually is that you have a trusting enough relationship to take this critical feedback as a sign of confidence. Like, “You must think that I can achieve your high expectations, otherwise you wouldn’t have wasted your time.” 

DUBNER: So, this is about developing confidence with the help of someone. Maybe it’s a senior person, maybe it’s a mentor, maybe it’s a teacher, maybe it’s a boss. What about just on your own? I guess self-affirmation? Like, when I think of self-affirmation, I think of primarily — what was his name? Was it Stuart Varney? “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!” Is that how I should be building up my confidence in myself? 

DUCKWORTH: I know it’s easy to parody. But I actually know people who do some form of this, like students who tell me they actually have a Google Doc of things that people have said to them that are positive, and they literally reread it just to remind themselves in a moment of doubt. I think reminding ourselves of things that were wins — you know, there’s this research on what’s called “the values affirmation.” This is when you say, “One of my core values is —” and then you pick from a multiple choice — usually, like “honesty,” “my friendships,” etc. And then you write about it for about 10 minutes. Like, “I believe in honesty.” And then you write about how you are an honest person, why that’s important to you. This actually has enormously positive effects on your motivation to do hard things, your happiness, and so forth. So, I do think there’s a little bit of D.I.Y. You know, start the cycle by focusing on the positive. 

DUBNER: I think this is a bit disputed, or maybe entirely disputed, but what about the notion of power posing? I stand and look strong, and confident, and smart, and therefore I am a little bit more all those things. What’s the science say on that?

DUCKWORTH: This is the work of Amy Cuddy, a psychologist who, at the time, was at Harvard Business School. And I know Amy, by the way, and she’s a wonderful person. Here’s the drama though. The finding that she published — with coauthors, by the way — was a laboratory study where adults were randomly assigned to take different postures. For example, one of the power poses, it’s basically standing like Wonder Woman, or putting your hands over your head like you just won an Olympic gold medal. And then, there was a contractive pose — you know, you’ve got your hands across your chest, and that’s kind of the opposite. So, one is the victory pose and the other one is the vanquished pose. Here’s what happened. She gives this TED Talk on this finding, which is that in the original research, when you stand up like Wonder Woman, you actually have not only more confidence, but also might take more risks, and have higher levels of testosterone. Super sexy finding. But then, other scientists were like, “Really? I don’t believe it.” And they actually tried to replicate this research and they interrogated the data. They said, “This is not true. If you collect bigger samples, if you look at this in a more rigorous way, you do not have an effect of power posing on your hormones, and your behavior, and your confidence.” The latest in this is that there was a meta-analysis just last year where scientists said, “We have now gathered all of the data on how these different poses influence our feelings, our behavior, and our hormones. And we’ve looked carefully not only at power posing versus this kind of submissive, contractive posing, but also what’s in between, which is neutral.” And the finding of this meta-analysis is that there is maybe an effect of posing on our feelings, but it’s not power posing versus neutral; it’s neutral versus this submissive, contractive pose. So, maybe there is a “there” there, but it’s not the same “there” that we thought it was in the beginning. I’m sure there’ll be another chapter. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question related to this, and it may be a very obvious question, but to me, it’s worth asking: what does self-confidence necessarily accomplish? In other words, maybe it just feels good, but it doesn’t lead to greater accomplishment. Do we know if it does?

DUCKWORTH: Literally right now — I mean, not literally right now, but these days I am in correspondence with a psychologist I greatly admire, but disagree with on this point of confidence. His name is Don Moore, and he’s a very accomplished scientist at Berkeley. And Don Moore and I, and also our common friend, Katy Milkman, were all in this three-way correspondence on what the effect of confidence is on motivation and performance. And I think that confidence absolutely does influence your motivation and performance in the way that Al Bandura described — that more confidence gets you to try harder at things, that trying harder leads you to perform better, and that it can create this virtuous cycle. Don says to me and to Katy, “Hey, I have run a lot of laboratory experiments where I give people feedback on some pre-test, and if the feedback is positive, they should have higher confidence, and then that higher confidence should pay off in greater motivation in a subsequent task. And I’m not finding it.” But I think in a lot of things that are outside the lab, like real life — not a 20-minute session where you’re playing this arbitrary computer game, but actually, like, you’re trying out for the soccer team, you’re wondering if you should major in math, you’re wondering whether you should keep your restaurant open or not — I think, in real life, over longer time frames, when the stakes are real, and in many cases your ego’s involved, I think absolutely your confidence matters, and Al Bandura was right. Maybe there are circumstances in the lab where in that little arbitrary, experimental task, you are like, “Oh, okay, great! If I did that well, I’m going to take my foot off the pedal a little bit on the next thing.” So, that’s my interpretation. But it is an indication that not all scientists agree about the benefits of confidence. 

DUBNER: I have a quotation that I want to read you about confidence. And I’m wondering if you can tell me who it is — who said it. Here’s the quote: “I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time.” Who do you think said that?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Like, everyone said that. Don’t you think that was said by, like, Taylor Swift, Adele —. 

DUBNER: You have the correct gender. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, good. I’ve eliminated half of the human race. I’m doing well. A female — and a scientist? 

DUBNER: Yes. 

DUCKWORTH: It wasn’t Anna Freud, right? 

DUBNER: It was Anna Freud. Look at you knowing stuff.

DUCKWORTH: Can you read me the quote one more time? 

DUBNER: “I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time.” And I don’t think when she says “it comes from within,” she was thinking about posing like Wonder Woman. 

DUCKWORTH: I will say this: I think confidence is a great thing. And if we can figure out how to kickstart that cycle, whether it’s reading quotes from Anna Freud or writing affirmations down on little slips of paper — it doesn’t do any harm, and I think it might do a little bit of good. 

This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela wonder why psychologist Daniel Wegner chose the image of a white bear for his experiments. Wegner was directly inspired by a moment from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, one of his nonfiction pieces. Dostoevsky writes, quote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner was so intrigued by this idea that he decided to build an experiment around it.

Later, Stephen and Angela struggle to remember the details of President Jimmy Carter’s famous admission that he lusted in his heart — including the name of his wife, former first-lady Rosalynn Carter. The quote was part of an interview that Carter did, while he was the Governor of Georgia, for the November 1976 issue of Playboy magazine. Carter is quoted as saying, “Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.’ I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do — and I have done it — and God forgives me for it.”

Finally, Stephen attributes the comedic line, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” to Stuart Varney. This is incorrect, as Stuart Varney is a British-American commentator for Fox News. Stephen was actually thinking of Stuart Smalley — a fictional character performed by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live where the character hosted a parody of a self-help show called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to 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! 

DUCKWORTH: By the way, Anna Freud seems to be a much more positive figure than her — you know, “everything’s always terrible” — 

DUNER: Than Daddy? I chalk it up to her being the sixth and last child of Sigmund Freud. And I, as the eighth and last child, think that being the youngest is a really big advantage, because you get to watch all your siblings screw up. Also, they wear your parents out. 

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Sources

  • Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States.
  • Kai-Tak Poon, professor of psychology at the Education University of Hong Kong.
  • Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania.
  • Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis.
  • Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Edward E. Jones, professor of psychology at Duke University.
  • David S. Yeager, professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin.
  • Geoffrey L. Cohen, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and bestselling author.
  • Don A. Moore, professor of management at University of California, Berkeley.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of behavioral economics at University of Pennsylvania.
  • Anna Freud, British psychoanalyst.

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