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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: I do not believe you. That is not possibly true. 

*      *      *

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 when you are born affect who you are? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to have a kid now, because it’s a lucky year.

Also: how did Angela do with her no-sugar-in-the-morning-coffee challenge? 

DUCKWORTH: The more cream, the better. 

DUBNER: Half-and-half became whole, or maybe one-and-a-half. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we got an email from somebody named Ali Calladine. And I’d like to read it to you. “Angela and Stephen, does when you were born affect who you are? In my econometrics class, we’re talking about instrumental variables. And one thing that has come up is that, while you may think that the time of year someone is born is a great random variable that can be used to make more robust estimates, it turns out that when in the year you were born is actually correlated with things like parents’ income or mental health outcomes. Is it true that people born at different times of the year are different? Does this mean horoscopes are in fact valid? Thanks, Ali Calladine.” 

DUBNER: So, the way I would think about this is, there are at least two major dimensions. One is that, the time of year you’re born, or, more broadly, the year you’re born and what’s going on in the world then, may have some natural-ish effect. But then, there’s a very different dimension, which is how the time you were born — again, what’s going on in the world or the environment — can change your outcome. And that gets even more complicated, because then we’re talking about parental behavior, and that parental behavior may be pre-or post-natal, and so on. I don’t know how much your parents, or your family, care about the traditional Chinese zodiac, but I am curious what sign you were born under and how it’s influenced your life?

DUCKWORTH: I’m Year of the Dog. And everybody has good things to say about their year. But, the year to be is, apparently, the Year of the Dragon. I’m not a Dragon. So, my parents, I’m quite sure, did not plan my birth around the lunar calendar. That’s partly because, I’m told by my sister, that I wasn’t planned at all. 

DUBNER: Oh boy. Okay. I’m not going to get into that, but it seems as though there are quite a few Chinese and Chinese-American parents who do delay a birth to the Year of the Dragon, yes? Because there’s a spike in births among certain communities across the globe during that year. 

DUCKWORTH: I find this research on the year of birth, according to the lunar calendar in cultures that really respect that, mind-blowing. I remember when my grandmother passed away. This was my mother’s mother. Apparently, they had to wait for a lucky day to bury her. And that was months away. So, they — they waited. There’s also some research suggesting that, in addition to the decisions like when to have a child, or one to have a funeral, that actually, life outcomes can be influenced because of parents’ expectations and the amount they invest in their children’s education, et cetera.

DUBNER: I do know that children born in the Year of the Dragon to Chinese or Chinese-American families, that they do get more education. They have better lifetime outcomes than non-Dragon-year children. We did do an episode about this once, years ago, with Freakonomics Radio. But according to that research, it is on the parents’ side, which is that, basically, once you’ve got a Dragon in the family, you invest a lot in that kid. Is that your understanding? 

DUCKWORTH: That is my understanding. If you are living in a culture where someone says, “Hey, this is a lucky year,” and then you’re lucky enough to be having a kid that year, then maybe, when you’re making decisions about whether one kid is going to get extra tutoring, you give it to the lucky kid, right? Because, you know, they’re a Dragon. 

DUBNER: But also, would there be a little bit of something like endowment effect there? Like, this is the child that we created on our timetable, and therefore, we feel a little bit more invested in this one. Not so much because they might be lucky, but because this is how we planned it. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think it’s necessarily that you give the child the extra tutoring because you think the child is luckier, but because they’re Dragons, and they’re going to do more with that tutoring. The research that it made me think about is in psychology. And it was by Bob Rosenthal. Have you heard of the Pygmalion Effect? 

DUBNER: Yes. My Fair Lady, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Probably, more people have heard of My Fair Lady than Pygmalion or the Pygmalion effect, but the original play was called Pygmalion. And that was, of course, after the Greek myth that Pygmalion created a statue that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it. But the plot of My Fair Lady, you have Eliza Doolittle who needs to get rid of one lower-class British accent in order to acquire a higher-class British accent. And the reason I bring all this up, and the reason why the psychological research was called the Pygmalion effect is just that the expectations — not only that you have for yourself, right, not only Eliza Doolittle’s expectations for herself, but actually Henry Higgins, her teacher, his expectations for her — were going to put the thumb on the scale of her destiny. And if he thought that she was going to do great, maybe he would act in ways that would actually make that prophecy come true. 

DUBNER: So, these are behavioral components, and belief, and preference components. Let’s go back, for a second, to the biology question. I don’t know much about this. I’ve done a little reading. I’m curious to know if you know more. But in terms of biology, the month of year that you’re born, or the season that you’re born, I have seen some arguments that, to me, look between weak and mixed that there is a strong effect. I read one piece, for instance, that argued that babies born in the spring are more prone to optimism, but also more prone to depression. And I realize they’re not polar opposites, necessarily, but it does make me feel like some of this thinking may be, like I said, somewhere between weak and mixed. But I’m not ready to dismiss it, in part, because there’s been so much interesting science in the last 10, 20 years on circadian rhythms and how real they are according to time of day. So, month of year might also have similar effects. I’m curious if you know, or think anything, about that. 

DUCKWORTH: I know very little, but it would be hard for me to believe that the time of year that you’re born, which, of course, has its own particulars for how long the days were versus the nights, and also, by the way, other things, like the availability of nutrients, vegetables being in or out of season — of course, that’s less relevant these days, because we can get our strawberries year-round — but I would be surprised if any of these effects were huge. I can, maybe, imagine a small effect, frankly, but nothing large, because there are so many other things that would swamp the effect of, you know, if it was a six-hour daylight day versus an eight-hour daylight day. 

DUBNER: In other words, the question to ask here is, what’s becoming my favorite question over the course of these last several months of talking with you, is, compared to what? It’s easy to talk about an effect being perhaps real, perhaps even significant. But compared to what? And you’re saying, compared to all the other things that go into that stew that produces a baby, month of year is probably fairly minor. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, that would be my strong intuition. 

DUBNER: Let’s discuss some other birth effects. There is the “relative age effect” that people are very curious about, and I’m guessing many people listening to the show have heard some version of it. We’ve written about it in a couple of our books. Malcolm Gladwell has written about it a ton. I think the most common example may be in sports. Once you learn that youth sports are organized around a birthdate cut-off, then, it turns out that the oldest kids in that cut-off cohort tend to do better over the long term. And the reasoning being that they’re a little bit bigger, a little bit more mature, and they catch the eyes of the coaches, who then invest more in developing them and so on. So, can you just talk about the magnitude of that kind of effect, whether we’re talking about it in sports or school — there’s such a thing as academic redshirting, which began in college sports, but now trickles into kindergarten. And so, what do you know about that?

DUCKWORTH: Right. The kid on the borderline for whether they can get into kindergarten, and then they’re on the younger side of their classmates, or, like, will they be the six-year-old in kindergarten? I am not an expert in these birth effects. But I guess it depends on how small you think they ought to be, because I think it can be surprisingly big if you’re like, “What? It actually matters?” If you happen to be in a class full of students who are older and, therefore, a little more advanced than you, then that can actually influence your self-concept a little bit. You can downrate yourself. I mean, these are not huge effects, but they’re reliable. 

DUBNER: I could imagine, however, it could go in the other direction, which is, you’re around people who are a little bit more mature, a little bit smarter, and you learn from that. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. There are lots of data suggesting that, when you’re in an advanced group, it’s a little bit like playing chess with somebody who’s better than you. You can improve faster, because they’re raising your game. But at the same time it’s possible that they could make you a little less confident. So, then the question is, in the long term, which is going to prevail. But, if we assume that these things are all, for the most part, with some exceptions maybe, on the small side, I do think, as a parent, if I think about birth month or birth year influencing my expectations, I can see how, if I am that way over and over again with my kids, then suddenly, a tiny, tiny effect, repeated and snowballing, could become something substantial.

DUBNER: So, in terms of “compared to what” and your intuition that most of these effects are relatively small, we did look at the ultimate effect for Major League Baseball. We wrote about this, I believe it was in SuperFreakonomics, but we looked at the “birthdate bulges.” And it does turn out that most youth leagues in the U.S. have a July 31st cut-off date. And so, as it turns out, a U.S.-born boy is roughly 50 percent more likely to make the majors if he’s born in August than in July. So, that sounds huge, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay.That’s a really big effect. That’s not a small effect. 

DUBNER: And look, we saw fairly similar magnitude effects when we looked at soccer players. And I believe Malcolm Gladwell, when he looked at hockey players, it was a similar, what looks to be a really, really large effect. But again, when you ask, “Compared to what?” While that birthdate bulge may be responsible for a 50 percent greater likelihood, what if I were to tell you that there is another factor that would make a given boy 800 times more likely to play in the majors than a random boy? What do you think could possibly have such a mighty influence? 

DUCKWORTH: What would be 800 times? Is it, like, having A-Rod as your dad? 

DUBNER: Yeah. I mean it doesn’t have to be A-Rod, but if you have a father who also played Major League Baseball, that’s an 800-times effect. So, to me, that’s a really good example of the magnitude that we’re talking about here. 50 percent sounds pretty good. 800 times more likely sounds a little bit better. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, maybe it’s because when your dad is a professional baseball player, it’s not just one thing. It’s many, many, many things. You’ve got the genes. You’ve got your network. Also, just like, what do kids in those families do all day. 

DUBNER: You go to the ballpark with your dad and hang out in the dugout with Don Mattingly. Do you know the work of Doug Almond? [AD^I do not.] So, Doug Almond is an economist who has measured a number of, what I think of as, birth effects, but with interesting nuances. These have more to do with the timing of birth and what’s going on in the world. So, he co-authored a paper about children who were born in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Not locally, but in Sweden, to look at how far the radiation carried. And he found that there was a fairly significant in-utero effect. In other words, babies who were in utero at that time had less cognitive output, or whatever, than children who were born significantly before or after. He also wrote a paper about the pandemic of 1918, influenza, and found that, again, babies who were in utero during that period had significantly worse life outcomes. It was World War I, and so on. And he co-authored another paper about Ramadan, and how some Muslim women, who are excused from fasting during Ramadan, still do. And he found that there was an effect there. Again, being in utero during the time when your mom is fasting can lead to some really poor outcomes. Although, I should say, there was later evidence that argued that, maybe, that finding was not as strong as he had said. 

DUCKWORTH: It does seem to me, if you ask the question whether restricting caloric intake when you’re pregnant during certain trimesters can have an effect on outcomes, I think the answer is yes, and you shouldn’t do it. Which is, I think, why norms around Ramadan for pregnant women have actually evolved in modern times. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, let me ask you, getting back to the listener’s original question, the concern seemed to be, as an instrumental variable, how valuable is time of year or year? We’ve given a bunch of more complicating factors, rather than a yes or no. But this person sounded like they really wanted to know for the sake of their econometrics work. So, how would you try to summarize for them? 

DUCKWORTH: Ali gets an A-plus for intellectual curiosity in her econometrics class. But, you know, the year, or the month, you’re born is what economists would say is exogenous. In other words, it happens. And it’s not at the moment that it happens necessarily correlated — with the exception, maybe, of those Chinese parents that you mentioned who said, “I’m going to have a kid now, because it’s a lucky year.” But with that exception, you can think of it as being exogenous. I think that the challenge is, in many contexts, it’s not only that you care that it was random when it happened, but also that it doesn’t have any influence on the thing that you’re going to study that you’re not accounting for. So, now that we have established that there could be some biological effects, there could be some psychological effects, especially on the expectations that other people have for you, and how much they’re willing to invest in you, or give you the benefit of the doubt, it ends up being pretty complicated. 

DUBNER: Right. All right. Let me ask you one last question that’s a little bit perpendicular to what we’ve been talking about. Let’s say you are a would-be parent and you’ve been thinking about having a kid. And then Covid came. And it just disturbed and disrupted everything. As it turns out, preliminary data show that the birth rate in the U.S., and elsewhere, is going to be way down to the tune of, like, 15 to 20 percent, perhaps, which is massive for a year-over-year change. 

DUCKWORTH: Even though we’re all locked up inside? But, I guess, we’re doing other things. 

DUBNER: We are apparently doing other things. [AD^Watching Netflix.] I mean, those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, we should say. You can multitask. So, let’s say that you were in that position of considering starting a family, or expanding your family, right now. And you read the data. And you see that this cohort is going to be much, much smaller. Are you more likely to, A, say, “Well, yeah, that makes sense, I don’t want to have another kid now either, because there’s too much going on in the world,” or, B, say, “Wow, that’s a light cohort, my kid’s chances—”? [AD^It’s going to get into college.] There you go. So, where do you go — A, B? 

DUCKWORTH: I would do C, which is: why would anybody think about something like what everyone else is doing when they’re deciding whether to have a baby? 

DUBNER: Good answer, Angela Duckworth. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen quizzes Angela about her quest to kick a life-long sugar habit. 

DUCKWORTH: Can I notice three new things about this coffee? No. There are no three new things.

*      *      *

DUBNER: So Angela, a recent conversation we were having about compromise somehow turned into a challenge for you to stop putting sugar in your coffee. You remember that? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, of course. 

DUBNER: Let’s replay a little bit of that conversation so we can remind ourselves and our listeners exactly how this came about. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. 

DUBNER: So, Angie, in the spirit of compromise, I propose that either you have your coffee tomorrow morning without sugar or I put sugar in mine. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m up for this. I think that tomorrow morning, I can wake up and have my coffee with half & half and no sugar. I just want to learn, the way that Stephen Dubner experiences it. And tomorrow morning, you are going to have your coffee with half & half, and, just so you get this right, a teaspoon of sugar. 

DUBNER: So, Angie, now that I hear that, I realize that I left you hanging. I did not put sugar in my coffee. 

DUCKWORTH: We were both going to make a change. It was an empathy exercise. 

DUBNER: Right. I failed. 

DUCKWORTH: I, for my part, did exactly what I was supposed to do. 

DUBNER: Well, that’s why you’re an Ivy League professor, and I’m sitting in a closet recording podcasts. I should say, I have drunk coffee with sugar before. So, I know what it tastes like. 

DUCKWORTH: You have the distant memory. 

DUBNER: Yeah. And I guess I didn’t do it because, honestly, I didn’t want to do it. So, I tricked you. I was talking about compromise. And I was really just strong-arming you. But anyway, the question I want to ask you today is, how’s it going? Are you a convert? What was the experience like? 

DUCKWORTH: I learned a lot, Stephen. Here’s what happened. I got a lab notebook. I made entries for each day of this fourteen-day no-sugar challenge. I created a scale for myself. So: zero, the worst coffee I’ve ever had — “swill,” is what I wrote in my lab notebook. And then ten, the most delicious coffee that I could imagine. 

DUBNER: Now, when you drink your coffee at home before this no-sugar challenge, where would you have ranked it with sugar on the zero to 10 scale? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, very good question. What was my baseline, right? I would say it’s probably an eight. I’m pretty excited for that first cup of coffee in the morning. 

DUBNER: So, the way that you make your coffee at home, it may not be like the Italian café version. 

DUCKWORTH: But still pretty good. French press. Grind the beans right before I put in the water, which is exactly 200 degrees. I’m a pretty serious coffee maker. 

DUBNER: Do you drink the coffee beans that are pooped out by the civet — that’s supposed to be best coffee in the world?

DUCKWORTH: What?I have no idea what you’re talking about.

DUBNER: No wonder you’re only on an eight out on a scale of 10… 

DUCKWORTH: Is this 11 out of 10? Tell me about the, um — what? 

DUBNER: The civet is some little rodent, maybe? It’s a little animal. And apparently, when the civet eats coffee — I guess it probably eats the whole cherry — and then it poops out the bean, and then those beans are collected up and roasted, and those are apparently the best coffee beans in the world. 

DUCKWORTH: I do not believe you. That is not possibly true. What? Really?! People go around and pick up rodent poop and then, like, pick out the whole beans that are mysteriously in them, then clean them off, then roast them, and then it’s good?

DUBNER: I think that was accurate except for the cleaning off. I’m not sure how cleaned-off they are. 

DUCKWORTH: Ok. Well, that’s a delight that waits me. 

DUBNER: I already said more than I know about this, but hopefully Rebecca can ascertain whether I’m totally making things up. In any case, you like coffee. You drink it routinely in the morning. You put sugar in it. 

DUCKWORTH: Every day. 

DUBNER: And so, you’re eight on a scale of 10, and then, because you’re so enterprising, and kind, and cooperative, you took this compromise — even though I totally failed and backed out, but you did it. So, let’s hear about it. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was thinking, this is an opportunity to experience changing of tastes. I know you started off talking about compromise and empathy. But I realized that I’m not sure I can understand what it’s like for somebody, like you or like my husband Jason, to have their coffee without sugar, because even though I was mimicking what you guys do — which is you wake up, you have your coffee in the morning, you don’t put sugar in it — I was still bringing my whole lifetime of experience, and all the things that I felt about sugar, and my memories. So, I think it was a useful thing to do. But, if anything, it taught me about the limits of empathy and how hard it is, actually, to see things from somebody else’s perspective. But then, I quickly realized, this is an opportunity to see whether I can change my preferences. 

DUBNER: Your colleague at Penn, Paul Rozin, who studies disgust, but a lot of things around food, he once told me something that shocked me, which is that, we don’t really know much about why people like the things that they do. He was talking mostly about food, and drink, and so on, but that astonished me. Did that astonish you when you first realized it? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, I’ve had similar conversations with Paul, and he says, we don’t really know why some people like spicy food, why some people like their coffee with cream, other people prefer it without cream. We know some things, like, we all, as human beings, like sweetness. We all, as human beings, are born with an aversion to bitterness. We all, at some point during our lives, overcome the initial aversion to bitterness, but still, there’s all this idiosyncrasy in what we prefer, and it’s a scientific mystery, for the most part. 

DUBNER: So, I have a question. This is more about me than you, but I’m going to jump in and ask it, because I’m selfish like that. 

DUCKWORTH: Because you failed the empathy exercise — that’s why, Stephen.

DUBNER: At least I passed the consistency exercise, however, by continuing to be non-empathetic. But here’s my question. So, I know that Rozin and others have talked about our, I guess, genetic or environmental, at least, predisposition toward sweetness. But I have less of a sweet tooth than most people I know. And I’ve always been curious whether it was because, even though I may have been imprinted with that taste when I was a baby, like all babies — when I was a kid, we consumed very little sugar. I grew up in an early-organic household where we grew most of our own food, and my mom baked a lot of our own bread, and so on. She didn’t allow what she called “refined,” or white sugar in the home. And so, there was very, very, very little of it consumed. Even as a kid, I craved it. There was this one lady at church, Mrs. Ferry, who, every Sunday after mass — I was an altar boy. She’d come up and shake my little hand, and she would have in it a stick of Doublemint gum. And it was the most transgressive, awesome gift. 

DUCKWORTH: You mean, she would slip it to you kind of like you slip a head waiter $10. 

DUBNER: Or a glassine of crack cocaine, is the way I used to think of it. But I wondered if my enduring lack of a sweet tooth is, perhaps, connected to the lack of intense sugar consumption as a kid. 

DUCKWORTH: That may be. We do know that tastes evolve because of experience. And there is some research suggesting that what you ingest in the diet that your parents plan out for you and feed you does influence your preferences. 

DUBNER: Okay. Enough about me. Let’s get back to Angela Duckworth and her “no sugar in the coffee” experiment. I understand you kept some audio journals of your drinking coffee. Would you mind playing us a little? 

DUCKWORTH: Sure. You want to hear the very beginning? 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: All right. Here we go. Having my coffee without sugar. You know, I reflexively reached for the sugar, didn’t I? Isn’t that interesting. All right. Here we go. What’s this taste like? Definitely not as good. Bitter. It’s like coffee without sugar in it. I’m going to put extra Half & Half. Here we go. See if it tastes better. You know, I’ll give you this: you don’t have to stir it. 

DUBNER: So, Angela, first of all, you are quite the loud sipper. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, it was very hot. And yes, I am a loud sipper. 

DUBNER: Where on a scale of zero to 10, did you rate the taste experience that first day?

DUCKWORTH: I started with a five on that first day. So, I went from an eight down to a five. 

DUBNER: And then, tell us how the rest of the 14 days went. 

DUCKWORTH: The ratings would hover around five. I made some discoveries, though, Stephen. One of the things that I learned was that, the more cream, the better. Just more dairy. The ratings were even at the six mark. 

DUBNER: An interesting, uh, compensatory behavior there. Half & Half became whole, or maybe one-and-a-half.

DUCKWORTH: The second discovery was actually an email that you sent me, completely on a different subject. I’m sure you were not thinking about the no sugar challenge when you sent me an article that was co-authored by Ellen Langer, the psychologist at Harvard, who has this idea of mindfulness — and her specific definition of mindfulness, which is an unusual definition, not one that’s shared by everyone, is that what mindfulness really is, is noticing new things. And so, I read the article that you sent me. And the next morning, I decided to notice three new things about my coffee. And at first, it seemed impossible. I was like, “Well, there’s nothing to notice about the coffee that I’ve been drinking without sugar.” And then I said, “Well, since I can’t see anything that’s different, I’ll put it closer to me, and I’ll smell it.” And I was like, “Okay. I noticed the smell.” And I was like, “Okay. I’ll notice the smell. That’s one. What are two more of those.” Then I was like, you know what? I noticed the warmth. I was just, like, noticing how the mug felt in my hand. And then, finally, I just looked at it, and I was like, “Well, I’m noticing that kind of burnt caramel color.” And I will say that was a six-point-five. More than any other day. So, I know it’s not an eight, but I started at five. So, that was day 10. And I think this little mindfulness exercise where I was turning my attention to aspects of the coffee that had nothing to do with sweetness, and even not really to do with taste, actually increased my sensory enjoyment. 

DUBNER: That is so interesting on its own. But also, I did come across an academic paper that essentially did exactly the experiment I would have liked to have done, but I’m too lazy, and I don’t do these kind of things, which was: a randomized-controlled trial of trying to reduce sugar use in coffee. But get this, one of the conditions was using mindfulness — exactly as you’re describing right now. So, there were, basically, two treatment groups. One used mindfulness to address the lack of sugar in their coffee, and the other took an incremental approach of decrease — which I’ve always thought would be the most sensible one. 

DUCKWORTH: You have recommended this to me and directly suggested that I decrease my sugar just a little bit every day, as opposed to going cold turkey, which is what I did.

DUBNER: Exactly. Just because I was using the premise, or the theory, of incrementalism that does work, especially when you’re building up to things. Like, if you think about exercise, or anything where you’re trying to gather some kind of mastery — you can’t climb the mountain in one day. I always just thought that the reverse, you know, frog boiling metaphor would work— that if you decrease a little bit, incrementalism would work in that direction as well. But, this study — that was published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2020, again, tested a gradual decrease in sugar versus cold turkey with a mindfulness treatment. And the control group was just people going cold turkey. I don’t know quite how that’s a control group. That sounds like a third treatment to me. 

DUCKWORTH: Let’s just say a comparison group. 

DUBNER: Okay, comparison group. Now, cold turkey is what you did. You also did a little bit of mindfulness, and you did not do the gradual decrease of a few less grains each day. Well, guess what their study shows is the most effective and which is the least effective? 

DUCKWORTH: I would have been, like you, that the gradual is probably the best. 

DUBNER: And I would have thought, “Mindfulness? Come on.” But these scholars showed that the mindfulness group had a larger increase in the consumption of sugar-free coffee in the future. And the gradual-reduction intervention was the least effective. But the cold turkey worked about as well as mindfulness. That finding actually shocked me. But I’m happy to know what does work and what doesn’t, at least in that very narrow setting. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. And, you know, that’s averages. So, people could differ. I will say that, when I did this mindfulness exercise, I realized, when we’re experiencing things, we have such a laser focus on one thing or another. And we are essentially neglecting almost all the other sensory stimuli, all the other information out there. So, it was actually pretty revelatory to me. And, as I said, when I first started thinking, “Can I notice three new things about this coffee?” I thought, “No, I can’t notice three. There are no three new things.” But there were. And for the rest of the week, I tried, actually, to notice new things about my other experiences too. 

DUBNER: I don’t mean to sound like either Philistine, or just a child, but I mean, you can’t keep noticing three new things about one cup of coffee, can you?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I haven’t been trying to notice three additional new things about my coffee every time. But, now that I have torn my attention away from just how sweet is this coffee, I have actually continued to appreciate the warmth in my hands, the smell of the coffee, the color of the coffee. So, the three things I noticed the first time I tried this exercise, I’m continuing to appreciate. And I look at my journal and my ratings. I was in the fives, for the most part, before this mindfulness intervention. And then, post-mindfulness, I’m largely in the sixes, except for one day — day 13, Stephen, where I had to accommodate that it was a reheated cup. That was only five-point-eight. But, I would say, that there has been a durable improvement in my experience because of this one-time mindfulness intervention. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, this requires a couple more questions. Number one, do you have any audio journal from the end? From day 12, 13, 14? I’m just curious to hear the difference. 

DUCKWORTH: I have so much audiotape, Stephen, because I decided to take voice memos most days. But yeah. Let me play you this day. 

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DUCKWORTH: All right. Today is day 12. I was almost to the end. And then my husband — want to say “hi,” Jason? [JD^Hello.] I’m recording my coffee challenge. And you mistakenly made me coffee with sugar. How did you not know I was doing this challenge? Okay, you’ve lost interest and wandered off. So, he makes me coffee with sugar, which I’ve now tasted. Oh God, that is good. Okay, what do I think of the coffee, no sugar? I’m going to do a little mindfulness thing. Smell it. It’s kind of pleasantly bitter, actually, in a way. And it goes so well with my peanut butter toast. I’m going to give it a six-point-five.

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DUBNER: There is so much to unpack in that little audio journal. Number one, you sound peeved that Jason wasn’t aware that you’re experimenting with no sugar in your coffee. Can I just say, in defense of Jason, why should he have been aware? And you penalize him for having made you a cup of coffee the way that you traditionally do like it. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I wake up earlier than him. And so, usually, I have already had my coffee by the time he comes down. So, I should give him a pass. I just felt like this is a big part of my existence. And so, how did he not know that I was logging and experiencing all these things? 

DUBNER: There was one other element of that audio journal that made me curious about you. You’ve got this odd situation now of having the coffee with sugar that your husband lovingly prepared for you, not knowing that you were going to scold him for making the very thing that you love, because now you’re also drinking this coffee without sugar. And now, you’re toggling back and forth, and plainly, you like the taste of the sugar one. [AD^It was so good.] Then you went to the one with no sugar, and you didn’t sound horrified. And what that made me wonder about is what your people, the psychology tribe, calls the mere-exposure effect. 

DUCKWORTH: That with continued experience, with continued exposure, that my preferences would change. You’ll get used to it, is basically the idea. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, like, I might consider carving into a deceased body a horribly disgusting, revolting act, but if I get a job in a place where I have to do that — I guess that would probably be some kind of medical facility, not just a restaurant, or whatnot — I will get over that disgust over time. And the mere-exposure effect happens a lot with foods and so on. Right? 

DUCKWORTH: Actually, let me give a little nuance here. I think that, if you get used to something and it doesn’t bother you as much as it used to, then that’s really habituation. Mere exposure is something similar, but it’s that with repeated exposure, you actually get to like it. So, it’s not only that you dislike it less, but that you like it more. But both those things could happen. You get over the dislikes, but also come to like something by mere exposure. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I’ve always embraced the notion of habituation and mere exposure, even long before I ever knew that there were phrases to describe that, because, as a human in the world, I just came to the conclusion that people are wildly adaptable. You’d read stories about people in horrible situations, and the question I would always ask myself was, how did that person go on another minute, much less day, much less year? And so, I guess from that, I developed this notion that all of us can adapt to some degree. But with something as simple as removing sugar from your coffee. To me, that’s just a little problem of engineering. You just need to find a way to engineer yourself into the choice — as you have — and then you’ll adapt. So is that what you found? Did you find after two weeks of doing it that you’re like, “You know what, I don’t want to put sugar in my coffee anyway.” Have you arrived at that spot? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s what happened at the end. It was a 14-day challenge, and I was very happy when it was over. I was going to go nuts with beautiful, granulated sugar in my coffee. And you encouraged me to keep going. 

DUBNER: So, what are you going to do now? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, look — I have been drinking my coffee, including this very morning, Stephen, without sugar. Now, I’m not going to tell you that I think it tastes as good as if I had put sugar in it. I haven’t gotten my preferences to evolve over the course of only a few weeks. But, I am learning to appreciate this coffee on more dimensions than its sweetness. So, thank you, Ellen Langer. I don’t know if I’m going to get back to an eight, but I can see this actually becoming my routine. 

DUBNER: Wow. So, as is usually the case, after we talk, I’ve made you a little bit more bitter and you’ve made me a little sweeter in the process. 

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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.

In the first half of the episode, Anglea briefly describes Pygmalion, a 1912 play written by George Bernard Shaw that was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical My Fair Lady and a major motion picture starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. As Angela suggests, the story of Eliza Doolittle’s phonetic transformation was inspired by the Greek myth of an artist named Pygmalion who falls in love with his sculpture that magically comes to life, which he calls Galatea. However, the story of Eliza Doolittle isn’t the only acclaimed adaptation of the myth. English dramatist W.S. Gilbert wrote the play Pygmalion and Galatea that was first performed in 1871 — and a musical burlesque parody of the story premiered at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1883. 

Later, Stephen attempts to summarize the role that the civet plays in the creation of luxury coffee. The Asian palm civet is not a rodent, as Stephen suggests, but rather a small, cat-like creature native to south-east Asia. The anal glands of civets produce a greasy, musk-like secretion used in the commercial manufacture of perfume. The civet eats the coffee berry, and then the bean within the fruit ferments in the civet’s digestive tract before it’s finally excreted. The smooth, caramel-like coffee made from these beans is called Kopi Luwak. It can sell for several hundred dollars per pound. And, yes, it is washed before it’s roasted.

Finally, Stephen wonders if his diet growing up affected his affinity for sweet foods. But this preference may have begun even before childhood. According to research from Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, preferences for flavor begin in utero. A mother’s diet flavors the amniotic fluid ingested by the fetus, and prenatal experiences with taste lead to greater acceptance and enjoyment of these foods during weaning. So, it may be that, because Stephen’s mom chose to steer clear of refined sugar during pregnancy, Stephen now experiences fewer sugar cravings than the offspring of women who did snack on sweet things while pregnant— here’s looking at you, Angela’s mom.

That’s it for the fact-check.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, 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 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: Some days it was worse because I was reheating old coffee from the day before. 

DUBNER: Ugh. Angela, I’m so disappointed in you. You sounded like a serious coffee drinker. 

DUCKWORTH: I am a serious coffee drinker. I’m cheap, too. I’m a complex human being, Stephen.

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Sources

  • Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Douglas Almond, professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University.

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