DUCKWORTH: “What do I need to do to you people?! Do you need a telegram? I’m trying to teach you a lesson.”
* * *
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 does facing death change your life?
DUBNER: You’re with a person who already was an ex-boyfriend?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I know. That’s near-death right there.
Also: should we be more concerned about things that are high-impact or high-probability?
DUBNER: “Would you rather take a chance that there’s a nuclear war or have nobody in America ever wear a seatbelt again?”
* * *
DUBNER: So, Angela, I recently had a near-death experience, and if I died, it would have been — not funny, exactly — but, at least, like an O’Henry short story, because I almost got killed in a traffic accident while driving back from getting my second Covid vaccine shot.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that would have been a great short story.
DUBNER: Right? I would have been willing to die for that story, but I didn’t, alas. So, we have this lame version of the story in which the protagonist doesn’t even die. But anyway, I got my vaccine early in the morning on a Sunday morning in Queens, which was about a 35-40 minute drive from where I live. And I’m driving back. And I’m on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which is usually a highway that travels at about half a mile an hour. It’s just always jammed up. But on a Sunday morning, it was flying. So everybody’s going, you know, not crazy fast, but 55, 60 —.
DUCKWORTH: Like, highway speeds.
DUBNER: Highway speed. And then, all of a sudden in the middle lane of this three-lane highway, under an overpass — or would that be under an underpass? I guess under an underpass — was a tractor-trailer parked in the center lane at a full stop. So, I slam on the brakes, and I’m waiting to either fishtail and get killed or to hit him.
DUCKWORTH: Or to get hit from behind.
DUBNER: And none of those bad things happened. Anyway, here’s my point. I didn’t die, plainly, but it was the closest I’ve come to death in a long time, maybe ever. And I expected to have some kind of an emotional reckoning or reassessment. I was grateful for sure, don’t get me wrong. But I did not have one of those Hollywood moments like, “I am going to live every day as if it’s my last day.” So, here’s my question for you today: Am I broken? Is something wrong with me?
DUCKWORTH: Are you missing a chip?
DUBNER: Or maybe this means I’ve got a mature view of death and that I’m maybe even ready to go.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s come back to that question. Let’s explore, a little bit, what people usually say when you have a near-death experience. You know, this whole idea of, like, there is a long, dark tunnel and then there’s a light. Did you see Soul, the animated film?
DUBNER: Even though you’ve told me several times now to see it —.
DUCKWORTH: You said you were going to see it, by the way.
DUBNER: I did. I lied. I do a lot of lying with you. When you tell me to do things —.
DUCKWORTH: You say that you’ll do them, and then you blithely don’t do them.
DUBNER: Well, that’s how much I appreciate our friendship. I’m not going to say no, I’m not going to do the thing. But then I don’t do it.
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, the protagonist, who’s a jazz musician, has a turn of events in his life. It’s like, oh, he finally got a gig. He’s going to start his musical career and not just be a music teacher anymore. And then, in his merriment, he falls down this pothole, and you infer that he nearly dies, because all of a sudden it’s all darkness, there’s a tunnel, and there’s a light, and he’s moving toward the light. And that’s all in the setup to the movie, which I will not spoil for you. But, I think, that’s not the interesting thing, because you weren’t like, “Gosh, I didn’t see a long, dark tunnel.” I think what you were surprised by is what didn’t happen to you, but does happen in the movie, which is that this musician puts things in perspective. And over the course of the film, he figures out that what’s really important to him in life is not necessarily what he thought it was before the accident. Basically, he figures out that relationships — and, you know, enjoying a warm breeze on a summer day — are more important than achievement.
DUBNER: That’s a message that Angela Duckworth must’ve hated. “No, get out there and achieve!”
DUCKWORTH: I know. I was like, “Do I get to tell this animated character about the wonders of grit?” But no, seriously, it was a shift in his perspective. And you did not have this kind of like, “Oh, I’ve got to zoom out.”
DUBNER: Stop and smell the roses.
DUCKWORTH: Or anything. Right? You could have also realized, “Oh, I guess I should work more,” or whatever, but you didn’t have any shift in perspective. You were just like, “Oh, what’s for lunch?”
DUBNER: Well, the lesson I’m taking away thus far from our conversation is that my real life is less sophisticated than that of even an animated character. So, that makes me feel really good. Here’s the thing. I use the phrase “near-death experience,” which I think means something very different to most people. I think that means you really are in a state of unconsciousness, sickness, maybe a coma, but I wasn’t that. I was fully conscious. I was scared as crap for about one-and-a-half seconds, and then I got over it. But I did wait for this wave of new, sharper consciousness or insight. And then, I did a little poking around. And I did come across some research on what’s called post-traumatic growth.
DUCKWORTH: I know a lot about that.
DUBNER: And I seem to have experienced zero of that. So, maybe you could tell me about post-traumatic growth, and how much of an outlier I am, and whether that’s a bad thing, or maybe not.
DUCKWORTH: So, post-traumatic growth is something I know about, not because I studied it directly, but it’s very much in the positive psychology canon. And Marty Seligman, my Ph.D. advisor, actually wanted me to study post-traumatic growth when I became a professor.
DUBNER: Why did he point you in that direction? Was it an area that he thought was important and understudied? Did he think you were a particularly good fit for it?
DUCKWORTH: Well, he did think it was an important area of study because, of course, what we are more familiar with as a society is post-traumatic stress disorder: P.T.S.D. — and P.T.G., post-traumatic growth, Marty thought was understudied and maybe more common. So, post-traumatic growth is positive change experienced as a result of struggle and trauma, whereas post-traumatic stress disorder is negative, lingering change. I ended up not studying P.T.G., but I did learn a lot about it. So, this idea was spearheaded by Tedeschi and Calhoun, who, in the 90s, wanted to say that there was this alternative ending to the story of trauma. And they basically said that, in various ways, you could strengthen your relationships with people who are important to you in the wake of trauma. And you wouldn’t have that happen had it not been that there was an accident, or cancer, or something truly awful. You could also learn a lot. You could learn new coping skills. And you might put life priorities in order. You might actually have a greater sense of meaning. So, the science says that, indeed, in the wake of trauma, there can be this growth. And, of course, there can be suffering too, but there is this alternative ending.
DUBNER: Interesting. Is it the case often or ever that post-traumatic stress disorder is a step on the way toward post-traumatic growth?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know the answer to that, but I do believe that most people who study trauma think that — as with grief, as with negative events in life — part of a healthy response is actually to have a period of challenge, of negative emotion, and so forth. So, it’s not that the optimum is to skip over bad feelings, and the like. Characteristic features of post-traumatic stress disorder is that there is an overgeneralization of what you learn. So, you know, you learned that bad things happen and that you might not have control over those bad things. But I think the key to post-traumatic stress disorder is overgeneralizing that and thinking, like, bad things are always going to happen, and they’re always on the horizon.
DUBNER: Maybe I’m experiencing P.T.S.D., because, I’ll be honest with you, the next time I got in a car to drive, I wasn’t enthusiastic. I should also say this. I pay more attention to traffic deaths and crashes than most people do. Well, you know, for all the things that people worry about in the world — especially all the things they worry about dying from — to me, the no-brainer that we don’t think about as much as we probably should is car crashes, because if you just look at the numbers in the U.S., it’s around 35 to 40,000 a year. That’s people, humans, every year. Globally, 1.3 million people a year get killed in car crashes. And interestingly, this year, what would you suspect would happen in the Covid year — 2020, let’s call it — in the U.S., in terms of traffic crashes and deaths?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, because I’m married to somebody who’s slightly obsessed with this topic, I think I know. But let me test my knowledge. I think there’s been less traffic, but paradoxically, more deaths.
DUBNER: Exactly. So, these numbers aren’t firm yet, but there’s an estimated 42,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle crashes. So, that’s an 8 percent increase over 2019. And again, 2020 wasn’t an entire pandemic year, but let’s make that rough comparison. But, the amount of travel was 13 percent fewer miles traveled. So, this 8 percent increase in deaths is really more like a 24 percent increase if you look at per-miles traveled. And I think what’s happened is that with so much less traffic there are more people driving really fast and recklessly — and maybe also very, very high and very, very drunk.
DUCKWORTH: Right. And very, very angry and very, very distracted.
DUBNER: Or just parking their rig in the middle of the highway to see what happens, maybe.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let me ask you this, if you think like, “Oh, maybe I didn’t have P.T.G., maybe I had P.T.S.D.” By the way, you don’t have to have one of these two. It’s not a binary choice. You could have neither. But for P.T.S.D., there are these characteristic symptoms. Do you want me to test you? [SJD^Yes please.] So, number one, do you have intrusive thoughts — like, do you have involuntary memories of the near-death experience and flashbacks?
DUBNER: Honestly, I don’t.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I don’t think you have P.T.S.D. Let’s, uh — let’s take that off the table.
DUBNER: Okay, but here’s the sick thing. I came out of this scary, near-tragic event not even thinking about the lingering consequences of the fear and the negativity — only reaching for like, “Hey, this is going to turn into a positive for me.” So, I guess I’m just a little greedy, is what I am.
DUCKWORTH: Well, optimistic or greedy. But you’re saying that you’re spontaneously looking for: “Wow, I bet I’d learned something great. What’s it going to be?” Then, a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t an epiphany. Well, can I share with you my near-death experience? I was maybe 20 years old, and it’s summer break at college. And it’s China. And I am, for reasons I cannot fully reconstruct, interested in hiking this trail above what is called Leaping Tiger Gorge, which is like a 500-foot drop, or more, to the Yangtze River below. And I’ve got my Lonely Planet, and this I also cannot figure out — I’m with my ex-boyfriend, who at the time was an ex-boyfriend.
DUBNER: Wait, you’re with a person who already was an ex-boyfriend?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I know, right? That’s near death right there. What the hell was I doing? I mean, a nice guy, but don’t go to China with your ex-boyfriend. Words to the wise. So, the trail’s washed out. And, in fact, in the Lonely Planet, it says this trail often washes out, and it can be really dangerous. And every year some people die. And the question is, are we going to hike the planned part of the trail above Leaping Tiger Gorge, or are we going to backtrack now that we know that it had rained a lot that previous week? And in fact, I think somebody did die that very week before we got there. Are we going to backtrack and do twenty extra hours of walking, or are we going to keep going forward?
DUBNER: And did you know at the time you were hiking that someone had died the previous week?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. We knew. So, of course, being 20, or whatever, I was like, “Let’s do it anyway!” Plus, thinking about going backwards and, like, adding another twenty hours was like, “Oh that sounds worse than death.” So, we’re hiking along, and we’ve got this guide. Of course we have our Goretex on and our expensive boots, and our guide is wearing flip-flops.
DUBNER: Oh, a guide meaning a human guide? Not a guide book.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, sorry. Yes. Not the Lonely Planet, but an actual human.
DUBNER: And this person says, “It’s okay. Even though most people fall and die, we’ll be fine.”
DUCKWORTH: The guide had no problem with us doing it. And in his words, “No scary.” I remember this. He was like, “No scary. No scary.” And I was like, “Well, a little scary.” So, we were following along and um —.
DUBNER: Sorry to interrupt here, but just for clarity, had you told the guide your feelings about the ex-boyfriend, and do you think the guide was thinking maybe this is a two-bird, one-stone situation?
DUCKWORTH: No, I had not confided my romantic past to our mountain guide, I was mostly concentrating on putting my left foot in front of my right foot, because if memory serves, it was actually a trail for animals. I think it was, like, a goat trail in the mountains. It was not, like, a path where you could put your feet next to each other. It had to be one foot in front of the other. And you had to lean into the mountain — you had a backpack on with all of your travel belongings. So, you lean a little bit toward the mountain. You put your left foot in front of your right foot. And after several hours of hiking, we get to a part of the trail where the guide stops, and he turns around, and he explains in so many words that this next 10-15 foot stretch of trail had washed out completely, and you couldn’t see anything. It was just, like, mountain face. And every step of the way, by the way, you see the Yangtze River under the mist, because you’re kind of in the clouds, and the gravel, you know, every time you kick a little bit, it skitters off into the mist. So, now, the question is, what do you do? Do you turn around? Or do you forge on? And I think we were almost to where we needed to be. So do you try to cross, or do you not try to cross? What would you have done?
DUBNER: I would have just crumbled into a fetal ball. Um, what I would have done? I can’t say. There are too many variables in your psychological and relationship makeup to know, but knowing you, I’m thinking there’s no way you’re turning around.
DUCKWORTH: You know what? Even at age 20, foolish as I was, I was deliberating. And I was trying to calculate, “Okay, if we go backwards is there another way?”
DUBNER: Were you familiar yet with the sunk-cost fallacy? This idea that if you’ve spent a lot of time or effort on something, that it would be foolish not to go forward, when in fact, it’s often the smart thing to just abandon it.
DUCKWORTH: I was not yet familiar with the sunk-cost fallacy, but I was really actually trying to think of alternatives. I was looking up the mountain, and I’m like, could we hold on to a branch and climb up?
DUBNER: Do they have Uber for helicopters at this moment in history?
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, I am standing there deliberating, and sweating, and I can’t believe I didn’t pee my pants. And the guide grabs my wrist, not my hand, but my wrist. And he says, “No scary. No scary.” And he just starts running. So, I ran, and as my left foot hit the ground, gravel would come off and skitter down into the mist. And then, you would just try to put the right foot on the mountain before you just lost it entirely. And we ran across this stretch. And I kid you not, you know that expression that people kiss the ground? When we got back to the other side, I kissed the ground, and I really nearly wept with joy, because there was at least a 50 percent chance that I could have died.
DUBNER: Wow. It’s an amazing story. Did your ex-boyfriend die, or did he live?
DUCKWORTH: He’s alive and well. I believe he’s married and with children.
DUBNER: I have to say that the clarity with which you recall this event and the fear of it suggests — to me, at least — that you experienced some post-traumatic something or other, whether it was stress or growth. Do you think that that incident led to a significant reckoning, appreciation, reassessment, et cetera?
DUCKWORTH: You know, like you, I do not recall epiphanies of any kind. I don’t think I was like, “You know what? What really matters is other people, dammit.” I didn’t have a reordering of my life priorities.
DUBNER: We are anti-epiphanists, you and I.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Either that or dumb. God is like, “What do I need to do to you people?! Do you need a telegram? I’m trying to teach you a lesson.”
DUBNER: Well, there is that story of the old man who was stranded. There was a big flood and he had to go up on the roof of his house.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, Noah? Wait. Is that Noah?
DUBNER: No, it wasn’t Noah. It was a just guy in Louisiana, I think. And he went up on the roof of his house.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I thought you were going Bible on me. Sorry.
DUBNER: He was up on the roof of the house, and some guys came by in a canoe, and they said, “Hey, jump in. We’ll take you.” And he’s like, “No, no, no, no. I’m waiting. I’m waiting, I’m waiting.” And then somebody offered to get a helicopter, and he said, “No, no, no. I’m waiting.” And then, he’s praying to God, praying to God, praying to God. And then God finally says, “Hey, dummy, what are you doing up there on the roof?” And the guy says, “Well, I was waiting for you to save me.” And God says, “What the hell do you think the canoe and the helicopter were all about, you idiot?”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, is that true or is that, like, a bar joke?
DUBNER: That was not true.
DUCKWORTH: I was like, “Oh, this sounds like Katrina.” I guess I should have gotten tipped off by the God part. Sorry.
DUBNER: So, can I ask you this though — pivoting slightly or accelerating this slightly — what about just thinking about death generally? Do you do much of it?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I often say to my graduate students, “You’re going to die soon, and so am I.” Whether it’s 50 years or 100, still not a lot of time. So, I think about death in the following sense — and maybe this is why I didn’t have a life-shifting epiphany at the time — I have often framed my life in the kind of, “well, it’s not going to last forever” terms. And therefore, previous to the Leaping Tiger Gorge adventure, I was thinking like, “I’m not going to be here very long.”
DUBNER: You’ve already accepted the eventuality.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And so, I didn’t have to have a shift. I was already at, like, “Wow, life is short. You’d better do things that you want to do.”
DUBNER: That sounds like a very reasoned conception of death. How much different do you think is the perception of death for a person who believes in an afterlife versus one who doesn’t?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I mean, to state the obvious, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you’re playing a game that has a terminus, and then everything has to happen before the end of your conscious-waking moments. And, I guess, if you’re of the belief that this is just one of a series of reincarnations, or there is heaven, or whatever, you’re playing a different game. I don’t know of data of whether people who do believe in the afterlife actually conduct themselves differently.
DUBNER: There is a lot of data on, well, belief in the afterlife. Let me just say for the record, I don’t personally believe in an afterlife. What about you? Do you believe in an afterlife?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t believe in an afterlife.
DUBNER: That puts us rather aggressively out of sync with the majority of America. The numbers that I’ve seen range from roughly 65 to 80 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife, often specifically heaven and hell. So, I will say this. I have seen firsthand how a belief in the afterlife can make the approach of death a very positive experience. And this was my mom who died when she was about 81. She had a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is ultimately fatal, but it’s gradual. And so, she’d been declining for a few years. And so she had a lot of time to, as they say, “get your affairs in order.” And she was a wonderful person — very religious, smart, savvy — and as she was dying, which was in the home of one of my sisters. So, it was essentially her home. She lived there for a few years. Many of the siblings were there. We knew that it was coming. And as she was dying, she was, you know, pretty out of it, but not suffering at all. And she had adopted — and I so wish I could have asked her where she got it — she had adopted this mantra that she was whispering, which was as follows. She said, “I have never seen anyone so relaxed, so relieved, so pain-free.”
DUCKWORTH: She was whispering that?
DUBNER: She was saying that to herself, to guide herself to the other side. And interestingly, to me, it was not a religious sentiment, but I believe it was informed by her religion. So, I was just incredibly impressed with that and happy for her. I think, when my time comes, if I’m lucky enough to die as she did — at home surrounded by family — I think I’ll just be editing something in my mind, like, “Ugh. I should have gone with the em-dash there, not the semicolon.”
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Too many syllables, dammit!”
DUBNER: Yeah. Unless I die from colon cancer, then I would have been grateful even for a semicolon.
DUCKWORTH: Oh God.
DUBNER: But when you think about how people consider death, I think it’s almost irresponsible to not think about that in light of what that belief is. I don’t want to belittle it by saying it’s an insurance policy. That’s not what I mean. But it does change the shape of the conception of how finite this thing is. But if that’s the case, you would think that people — like you and I, who don’t believe in an afterlife — would fear death much more than those who do.
DUCKWORTH: Right. We should be much more afraid.
DUBNER: And yet, look at us! We’re laughing in the face of stopped tractor-trailers and Flying Tiger Gorges.
DUCKWORTH: Hahaha, almost died! Maybe something is wrong with you, Stephen. But then, I guess, whatever is wrong with you is probably wrong with me, too.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela talk about how bad people can be at assessing potential risk.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s all pool our risk together as a society.
DUBNER: So that when Angela messes up, I can support her.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Exactly.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen we got an email from a listener named Henry Stack.
DUBNER: Hi, Henry.
DUCKWORTH: And Henry is a high-school sophomore in Nashville, and he writes that he does a lot of debate, and he wonders — and I wonder, too — whether we should prefer high-probability impacts or high-magnitude impacts.
DUBNER: So, when he says “whether we should prefer” I’m not quite sure whether that means, like, would I rather die of cardiovascular disease from eating too many bad foods and not exercising at age 75, or would I rather be struck by a flying golf cart at age 75. I don’t think that’s what he means by “preference.” I think it’s the cognitive process he’s getting at, which is — yes, we do gravitate toward what he calls “high magnitude.” Although, what I see more commonly is what people refer to as high-impact, low-probability events. Many people think of this now as “the black swan effect,” after Nassim Taleb’s book of that name. But, you know, it’s funny. This is one of those things that happens in your field. I know it happened with Anders Ericsson and the so-called “10,000-hour rule,” where when a theory, or an idea, becomes popular and commonplace, and it really enters the language — you just say the word and it connotes a whole concept to people — I think it often gets smooshed.
DUCKWORTH: Deformed. Misunderstood. Oversimplified.
DUBNER: Yeah. Exactly. So, Nassim defined a black swan event as having three central characteristics. Number one, and this is really important, it is unpredictable. Number two, it carries a massive impact, and number three, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable than it was. So, I think the — I’m not sure if “paradox” is exactly the right word here, but —.
DUCKWORTH: It never is, by the way. Just don’t use it. Also don’t use irony.
DUBNER: You’re never right when you say irony. It’s never ironic.
DUCKWORTH: It’s never ironic, and it’s never a paradox.
DUBNER: But anyway, I think one “weird thing” — (How’s that?) — about the black swan effect, is that people go seeking them out. They say, “Oh, this is a black swan event coming. This is a black swan,” when by its nature, it is unpredictable.
DUCKWORTH: And rare.
DUBNER: And very rare. So, one result of many people having read this book, and becoming familiar with the concept, is that they’re now trying to predict every black swan event they can — which, of course, means that they’re not black swans. So, yes, it is well known that we humans like to pay more attention to outlier events. I mean, if there’s a plane crash that kills 100 people, which so rarely happens — it is one of these marvels of modern life that we fail to appreciate, how unbelievably safe commercial air travel, at least in the U.S. and other countries like it, incredibly safe. But if there’s a plane crash that kills 100 people, we will pay a lot of attention to that for a long time. If there’s a plane crash that kills one or two people on the ground, we pay a lot of attention to that, because it’s got this high-impact, low-probability component. Meanwhile, whatever day that plane crash happened, roughly 100 people died in car crashes in the U.S. that very day, and every single day. I personally wish we would train ourselves to be better probabilistic thinkers and focus on the things that are less-dramatic, that are higher-probability, even though they seem to have low impact. And that, I think, is the way to make gains in society. And, to be fair, I think that’s the way a lot of society has advanced. But I share Henry’s frustration — if indeed he’s frustrated by this lack of probabilistic reasoning.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m guessing since Henry’s probably, like, 16, he’s too young to be frustrated — still curious. You know, in economic theory, there are two variables in the utility of a choice. So, should I buy this car? Should I get into this car and go on a trip? And it’s always about the benefits and costs — that’s the value. And then there’s the probability. Nassim Taleb is saying that we tend to have a kind of irrational way of thinking about things where the probability is low and the value — the benefits and costs — are really high, actually, in either direction. Right? Like, lotteries or catastrophes. You play out a little mental model, or some simulation, of what you think is going to happen and you neglect the 9,999 other possibilities. You have a very vivid scenario, and then you just kind of ignore all the other ones. That can distort the subjective probability.
DUBNER: I have spoken with people in the past who are smart about these things, including evolutionary biologists, who, when you say, you know, “Why does it make sense to pay more attention to the very, very, very unlikely but life-ending, or planet-ending, event and not pay more attention to the everyday risk or concern, or whatnot —.”
DUCKWORTH: The mundane.
DUBNER: Yeah. And their argument is that death only has to win once. And so, it does make sense to pay attention to consequences that have potentially infinite value. And your life — I mean, if I ask you how much do you value your life, you might put a dollar number on it, but, I think, the truer answer is infinity.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, so if you go back to this equation, if there are two variables, probability times value, you get infinity.
DUBNER: Right. So, I totally understand why people focus on the high-impact, low-probability events, probably because nine times out of ten, you don’t want to die. So, that makes a lot of sense. That said, the world has gotten a lot safer on many dimensions. Obviously, people still die all the time of many different things. So, we know that death is a constant. You and I almost met it.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. That’s true!
DUBNER: Me recently, you on your Flying Tiger Gorge.
DUCKWORTH: Leaping Tiger Gorge.
DUBNER: Oh sorry, I think Flying Tiger is the lovely Scandinavian tchotchke shop that just went bankrupt in New York. So anyway, I think the problem that Henry is wrestling with is how to get more people to invest more in your basic probabilistic thinking and less worrying about the big, big thing. You know, it’s been a while since Americans have worried a whole lot about terrorist attacks. But there was a period where that was pretty much what everybody was worrying about all the time. One way to assess that, and it sounds perhaps a little heartless, is to say, well, 9/11 was the most tragic event that anyone ever could have considered in this country, of that type. And it killed 3000 people, roughly. And that’s horrible. And for every one of those, that’s a horror. And for all their entire families and generations, it’s a horror. And, yet again, if you look at the daily cost of something like traffic accidents, that’s only a month’s worth of traffic accidents. I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate how terrible those high-impact events are, but if we expect them to become the norm, then we tend to undervalue and underweight the risks that are more real. Now, it’s also not a perfect equation, because when something terrible happens, we start to pay more attention to the terrible thing and put into place a lot of things to help that same terrible thing not happen again. I mean, that’s what insurance is, right? Insurance is, theoretically at least, a hedge against low-probability, high-impact events. But interestingly — this is sort of a tangent — but it’s one reason why the U.S. healthcare system is so complicated and messy, is that we have made healthcare insurance the standard way of paying for things, not just big things, but the standard way. And that introduces all these perversions into the system, because it skews us away from things like prevention, and maintenance, and nutrition and many would argue, common sense. So that, I would argue, is really an example of what happens when you overvalue those events.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t think people even understand what insurance was supposed to be. Like, “Do you have healthcare insurance?” I think what they’re thinking is like, “Is there a copayment? Is somebody paying for your healthcare?” But insurance as a concept was supposed to insure you against low-probability events, unlikely to happen, and so, let’s all pool our risk together as a society.
DUBNER: So that when Angela messes up, I can support her.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Exactly. That was the whole origin of insurance.
DUBNER: Did you know that in the U.S., when life insurance was first offered, that it was considered a horrible, immoral profanation of life itself?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I did not know that. Because why?
DUBNER: I believe that the first forms of what we now think of as life insurance were essentially widow and orphan funds, where there would be money collected — usually via a church or religious organization — where, when the man of the family was killed by falling off the roof or whatnot, there would be money pooled together to support the family. Then, that became, over time, a little bit more organized and ultimately commercialized. But there was a huge objection to it on the grounds that one should not benefit from death — that death was an act that was perhaps sad, but divine. And to write an insurance product that went against, essentially, God’s will was an act of profanation and therefore shouldn’t be allowed.
DUCKWORTH: I think what you’re suggesting, and I agree, is that: how we do think about risks, probabilities, and how we think about outcomes — it’s culturally-influenced. I mean, my mom — she was born in the 30s in China. And she describes childhood as being really different in terms of the cultural norms about risk taking, and just the idea that, you know, you have some kids, some of them will live, probably not all of them.
DUBNER: I bet she went around that Leaping Tiger Gorge, like, twice a day and didn’t think about it.
DUCKWORTH: Skipping and hopping. Well, actually, I did show my mom pictures of Leaping Tiger Gorge. And I told her the story, and she was actually so mad at me.
DUBNER: Good for her.
DUCKWORTH: Like really mad. So maybe she spent too much time in the United States. But, returning to Henry — maybe it’ll be helpful to actually read a little more, because Henry elaborated a little bit what he was interested in. So, he writes, “The essence of my question is what makes a potential impact significant and real in our heads? This question becomes particularly interesting in the sphere of politics. For example, should a leader choose to prevent a small chance of nuclear war or an issue with a lower magnitude but a much higher chance of happening, like pollution?”
DUBNER: I think that’s one thing that’s so hard about having responsibility, whether you’re a politician, or whatnot, is you have to worry about both, you really do. And so, yes, it’s worth investing a lot of time and energy in modulating against low-probability, but really high-impact events, like nuclear war. But, you also need to teach people that the small choices you make every day ultimately have a massive effect on your own outcome and that of your society. He mentions pollution. You know, when there are negative externalities — that is, things that are a byproduct of your activity, but you’re not paying the cost of that byproduct — then that becomes extra tricky. So, how much can you, or should you, discourage people from doing activities that don’t negatively affect them, but may negatively affect other people? So, yeah, I think Henry has waded right into the interface of where psychology, and economics, and politics have been trying for these last 40 or 50 years to come at problems in a different way. None of these are easy answers, but I think the best knowledge is knowing that someone who’s only, whatever, 15 or 16-years-old, like Henry, is actually thinking about how to balance these things, because that’s, I think, the way of the future.
DUCKWORTH: I think Henry should put that on his resume and his college application that Stephen Dubner has anointed him. But it is a really good question. Henry is asking, essentially, a “would you rather” question. Like, should a leader prevent —.
DUBNER: Yeah. The problem with “would you rather” is often both or neither. I mean, when you’re playing the game: “Would you rather eat a scorpion or have peanut butter on your eyelashes?” the stakes are pretty low. But if it’s like, “Would you rather take a chance that there’s a nuclear war or have nobody in America ever wear a seatbelt again?” That — you know, I’d rather have the peanut butter on my eyelashes at that point. That’s my answer.
DUCKWORTH: Very clearly, I think the answer for you, Henry, is put peanut butter on your eyelashes, and everything is going to be fine.
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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 has difficulty determining whether his near-death experience took place under an overpass or under an underpass. An overpass can only exist in relation to an underpass. Without an underpass, an overpass is just a bridge. Without an overpass, an underpass is just a tunnel. So, the dangerous incident with the tractor-trailer must have occurred on an underpass, beneath an overpass. However, a road can be both an overpass and an underpass simultaneously, if, for example, it’s part of a multi-level highway system.
Later, Angela tells the story of hiking Leaping Tiger Gorge along the Yangtze River. The landmark is actually called Tiger Leaping Gorge. China only opened Tiger Leaping trails to tourists in 1993, and Angela graduated from college in 1992, which means either that she and her ex-boyfriend were hiking before the trails were open to the public, or she misrecalled the time of her life in which this happened. Stephen also misnames the canyon when he accidentally refers to it as “Flying Tiger Gorge.” He defends his mistake by saying that Flying Tiger is, quote, “the lovely Scandinavian tchotchke shop that just went bankrupt in New York.” I’m a New Yorker, and I have never heard of this store, but his excuse checks out. Flying Tiger is, in fact, a Danish variety store — but it didn’t actually go bankrupt. Because of Covid, the company closed all of its U.S. locations in 2020, but the franchise still includes 909 stores across 27 countries.
Finally, Stephen breaks down the history of life insurance. His story is generally accurate, but widow and orphan funds were far from the earliest form of life insurance. Citizens of ancient Rome were known to join groups called burial societies. These clubs paid for the funeral costs of their members out of monthly dues. In addition to burying dead members, they also regularly held parties and feasts, a practice which, unfortunately, modern life-insurance companies have failed to continue.
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 Tyrrell. Lyric Bowdich is our intern. 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!
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DUCKWORTH: It’s summer break, between the spring and the fall semesters at college.
DUBNER: Most of us do know when summer is, but appreciate your clarifying that.
DUCKWORTH: Are you irritable because you nearly died in a car crash? You’re like, “No. This is the way I am.”
- Lawrence Calhoun, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
- Richard Tedeschi, professor of psychological science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
- Nassim Taleb, professor of risk at New York University.
- Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University.
- Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- “‘Tragic’: Driving Was Down In 2020, But Traffic Fatality Rates Surged,” by Camila Domonoske (NPR, 2021).
- “Road Traffic Injuries and Deaths—A Global Problem,” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020).
- “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” by the National Institute of Mental Health (2019).
- “Growth After Trauma: Why Are Some People More Resilient than Others—and Can it Be Taught?” by Lorna Collier (Monitor on Psychology, 2016).
- “Most Americans Believe in Heaven … and Hell,” by Caryle Murphy (Fact Tank, 2015).
- The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb (Random House, 2010).
- “The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma,” by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996).
- “The Psychology of Sunk Cost,” by Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 1985).
- Soul (2020).
- “How to Become Great at Just About Anything (Ep. 244),” Freakonomics Radio (2016).
- The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry (1905).
- Flying Tiger