MAUGHAN: “That’s so much to have to remember. Bah!”
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Do ultimatums really work?
DUCKWORTH: Look, I’ve got 48 hours invested in this relationship and I just need to know, are we going to the altar or not?
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Mike, I have a question from a listener named Signe, and it’s about ultimatums. You only have one choice. You are either going to take my offer to listen to this question, or I’m never going to talk to you again.
MAUGHAN: This is a serious ultimatum already. Look, I’m going to accept, though I don’t love how you just did that.
DUCKWORTH: Signe writes, “Do ultimatums really work? I frequently wonder if those who pose ultimatums end up happy with the results. Whether it’s at work or in someone’s personal life, do we really get what we want? Is the promotion-slash-raise everything it’s cracked up to be, or do they end up quitting anyway? Or, yes, they got a ring on their finger, but the marriage doesn’t last. As I always say, the grass may be greener, but the water bill is usually higher. Sincerely, Signe.”
MAUGHAN: Mm, I’ve never even heard that phrase. I always hear the grass is greener where you water it.
DUCKWORTH: I know. I think Signe invented that.
MAUGHAN: So, when I think of ultimatum, I, I mostly think of, “Take it or leave it. You’re dead to me.” And I don’t love that idea.
DUCKWORTH: You’re dead to me if you leave it. Right? Like, “Take it and, you know, we’ve got a deal or, or leave it, and that’s the end.”
MAUGHAN: Yes. But I feel like it’s set up in such a way that even if you take it, you’re like, “Well, that was not cool.” I mean, when I thought of ultimatums initially when Signe asked this question, I thought, okay, these happen in the business world. They happen in the political world. They happen in parenting. You know, “If you don’t stop right now, you’re not getting any dessert,” right? “If you don’t clean your room right now, you’re going to miss the party tomorrow.” They happen in romantic relationships. I have a friend — they’d been dating for a long time and she said to her boyfriend, like, “If we’re not engaged by X date, it’s over.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that is actually one of Signe’s examples. So, did this friend get the ring on, on her finger?
MAUGHAN: Well, what — what’s fascinating about this one is that he didn’t propose by then.
DUCKWORTH: He missed the deadline.
MAUGHAN: Yes. Missed the deadline from the ultimatum. I don’t exactly know what happened, but fast forward and all of a sudden there’s this post on Instagram, “Hey, we eloped and got married last week.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s interesting. No posts on Instagram about a speedy divorce?
MAUGHAN: No, no, no. They’re married and happy, so far as I know. But it’s rather recent. So, your guess is as good as mine.
DUCKWORTH: Time will tell.
MAUGHAN: I don’t know what happened between the ultimatum and the deadline being missed and the actual wedding. I should go find out that story. But obviously it didn’t end things.
DUCKWORTH: It’s not an ultimatum, I think, but under similar circumstances, when I met Jason, I rather immediately knew that I wanted to get married.
MAUGHAN: I feel like you told me, like, two weeks, you knew. Am I making that up?
DUCKWORTH: Oh no, two days.
MAUGHAN: Two days. Excuse me for acting like it was so long.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, I meet him, we’re in our mid-twenties. I just think he’s so cute. I still think he’s so cute. I just thought he was so nice and so smart. And so, basically — it was like the second day of our acquaintance — I go to bed, and I have a dream. And the dream is that I’m walking down the aisle of a church in a white dress, and I get to the end and the groom turns around, and it’s Jason.
MAUGHAN: Okay. Did you tell him, because I imagine being insanely freaked out by that.
DUCKWORTH: That is exactly what happened! So, I — I think I literally didn’t — I mean, I knew his name. I certainly didn’t know his middle name. I knew very little about him. He was a little freaked out about it.
MAUGHAN: As one would be.
DUCKWORTH: As one would be. He was also in another relationship at the time. So, there were complexities.
MAUGHAN: Slight complications. Okay.
DUCKWORTH: So, eventually we get together. We’re girlfriend and boyfriend. We’re both living in New York, and since I had had this conviction from day two —.
MAUGHAN: Okay, but “eventually” you get together. You want to marry him after day two. You have this dream. “Eventually” is two weeks in this story?
DUCKWORTH: Eventually is — let’s see. I remember feeling like it was forever. We met in the spring. We started dating officially in the summer. It was about nine or 10 months until he asked me to marry him. It felt like an eternity to me. I mean, every holiday, every major event, every time we were going to go out to dinner, I thought he was going to propose.
MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh. You were putting so much pressure on the relationship.
DUCKWORTH: That’s what he said! Now, I never issued an ultimatum. I never said, “If you don’t ask me to marry you by Valentine’s Day —.” That was one of the days I was crestfallen, by the way, because he didn’t ask me to marry him on the first Valentine’s Day.
MAUGHAN: We should talk about expectations on Valentine’s Day.
DUCKWORTH: The very first one we celebrated. So, I never said, you know, “I’m leaving you if you don’t ask me to marry you immediately,” but I made a lot of noise, right? And I cried a lot, and I would do other histrionic things. And I think what this reveals to me about what a true ultimatum is, is that it really is like, “This is my final offer,” right? It’s “Take it or leave it,” or more like “Take it or I’m leaving.” And I think that A) it was good that I didn’t issue a true ultimatum, because I think you’re right. There’s, like, a hostile vibe. There’s a kind of coercive, manipulative vibe to ultimatums. And also, I think that when you really ask questions about relationships, not one-time transactions, like, there’s got to be a better way to move forward than for one person to threaten the other.
MAUGHAN: The thing I think of, though, is I don’t think there are many single-transaction moments in life anymore. The world is so small that even if I’m never going to do a deal with that person or that company again, your reputation precedes you in everything.
DUCKWORTH: And it follows you in everything.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, for sure. And so, I always try to approach every negotiation or conversation recognizing if I act with integrity, if I act with honor, if I am fair in the negotiation and in the process, then that’s going to follow me everywhere I go.
DUCKWORTH: So, what I am taking from where we’ve gotten so far in this conversation is that neither of us would make very good economists. And — and the reason I say that is because, when I got Signe’s question, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is related to the Ultimatum Game,” which is a game invented by economists to probe how we make transactions in the marketplace between two parties where there’s a scarce resource — a limited amount of money, say — that needs to be divvied up. And it’s so revealing to me that economists, first of all, would come up with a game called the Ultimatum Game. Not the Cooperation Game.
MAUGHAN: Supply and demand. Come on. Which is fair. There is a limited supply of Jason’s undivided love, and you needed that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right? So, in the context of the Ultimatum Game, they’re not talking about marriage proposal. Just so you’re not confused. And actually, I think the best way to explain this game to you is for us to play it. And Mike, what I’m going to do is I’m going to give you the directions just as you would hear them if you walked into one of these economic experiments. I’m going to play the experimenter. I’m, like, the person in the white coat. Mr. Maughan, welcome to the experiment. Thank you for coming.
MAUGHAN: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited.
DUCKWORTH: Today you’re going to be participating in a decision-making task with another person. Your decision, and theirs, may impact the amount of money you both earn, but you’re not going to meet them. They’re down the hallway. And, um, I’m going to say the following to you. “Mr. Maughan, there are two roles in this game, the Proposer and the Responder. Now, the Proposer decides how to split $100. The Responder chooses to accept or reject the offer. That’s it. If the Responder decides to accept your offer, both of you will receive the money just as you’ve decided to divvy it up. If the Responder rejects your offer, Mr. Maughan, neither of you will receive anything. Do you understand?
MAUGHAN: Oh, I do understand. I think this is super interesting. I mean, if I’m a fair person, I’m probably going to say we each get $50, and then everybody leaves happy, and that seems very fair. Now, what I could do if I’m a selfish person — I hope I’m not — I could say $90 to me, $10 to you. If they reject it, we both get nothing. So, it’s in their best interest to say yes, because then they get $10. But it’s really unfair, and so it’s like, “I’d rather both of us have nothing than I get $10, because I don’t want you to have $90.”
DUCKWORTH: So, if you think like a nasty economist — I’m not saying economists are nasty, but just imagine you are a nasty economist — you could say, “I’m going to take 99, you’re going to get one.” Because when the Responder chooses, the best thing they can do is take the one, because the alternative is to get nothing.
MAUGHAN: I know, but this is where economists are crazy, because they think we all think rationally. And yes, it’s better for me to take the one dollar, but I’ll tell you what? Not a chance I’m going to take the dollar, because I also believe in fairness, and I think you’ve treated me unfairly.
DUCKWORTH: I 100 percent agree with you, but let me add to the directions I gave you a line that is always uttered in some way, shape, or form in a true Ultimatum Game experiment. So, I would say as the experimenter, “Mr. Maughan, your decisions, I want you to know, are going to be kept entirely anonymous. No one is going to know what you did.” This is like an incognito window of life.
MAUGHAN: But they do know that it’s $100.
DUCKWORTH: It’s $100, and everybody knows it’s $100. So, when the responder gets the offer, they will know that you kept 99 and are offering them one, and they have that choice or zero.
MAUGHAN: It’s interesting, because the other thing that we already talked about is reputation, right? And you’re taking away reputation in this game. And so, not only do I get no blame for not being fair, but I get no credit for being fair.
DUCKWORTH: So, does it change anything? Or do you still divvy it up 50/50? What would you actually do?
MAUGHAN: Well, first of all, you also have to like, acknowledge how much do you need money, right? If the Proposer is someone who is in need of money, then I sort of don’t blame them if they take 99. But of course they don’t know my situation, and maybe I as the Responder, am really hard up for cash. Ah, I don’t know what I would actually do. I hope that I would say I want to treat other people the way I want to be treated, and I would do 50/50. I feel like the furthest I would let someone go if I’m deciding whether to accept or reject, is 60/40, maybe 70/30. Beyond that, I’m going to decide in my own worst interest, and I would rather shut it down than be treated unfairly.
DUCKWORTH: So, what is your final offer, Mr. Maughan?
MAUGHAN: I will offer 50/50.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re going 50/50. You know, I played the ultimatum game. When I was reading Signe’s email and I was like, “Oh, right, I’m going to look up the research on the Ultimatum Game,” and I opened a ChatGPT window, and I played the ultimatum game —.
MAUGHAN: With ChatGPT?
DUCKWORTH: ChatGPT administered it to me. I asked ChatGPT to run the ultimatum experiment and to put me in the role of the Proposer. So, I was read these instructions and I was asked the question, “There’s $100 dollars on the table, there’s somebody down the hallway. Like, go for it. What do you want to do?” And I — I said, “50/50.” I felt very strongly that I should give half to this other person that I would never meet and who would never have an interaction with me again, and half for myself. So, we’ve just violated, in a way, economic expectations, because we sort of left, you could argue, $49 on the table that we could’ve just taken ourselves. And the Ultimatum Game, Mike, has been studied ad nauseam, actually. Like, there’s so much research on the Ultimatum Game. There’s this one paper that tries to summarize 36 different theoretical proposals.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, what’s the average? What do people do?
DUCKWORTH: The modal offer in the Ultimatum game, meaning the most common one, is, you know, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent, so close to half.
MAUGHAN: That gives me faith in humanity, I’ll be honest.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah! Right? So the somewhat surprising finding, I think, to economists who are like, “Why are people leaving $49 on the table?” — it’s really affirming to those of us who would identify as nice people that people are on the side of fairness. And I also want you to know that we have run this experiment so many times as social scientists that we also know how often people reject the offer, right? And essentially, when people get offers of less than 30 percent — so, the experimenter walks into the room, you’re like, “There’s this person, you’ll never meet them. They’re down the hallway. We gave them $100 to divide up between you and them. They’ve chosen to take 71. You have the choice to either take the 29 or you reject the offer and neither of you get anything.” And in that case, most people reject the offer.
MAUGHAN: I mean, this goes with what I was — I said, anything 70/30, I’m not going to do it, because that’s too much.
DUCKWORTH: You’re indignant.
MAUGHAN: I — I would be, absolutely.
DUCKWORTH: Really, this is not a test of economic exchange — it’s really a test of fairness.
MAUGHAN: It feels in every way like we’re trying to go with the old golden rule: treat people like you want to be treated. Even though they’ve set up these parameters — you never meet the person, they don’t know who you are — I always tell people that life is long and the world is small.
DUCKWORTH: You are just a walking fortune cookie.
MAUGHAN: In my next life, I write fortune cookies.
DUCKWORTH: “Life is long, the world is small.”
MAUGHAN: Even if I’m not going to run into these people, I want to know about myself that I’m a fair person.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss what it means to give a compassionate ultimatum.
MAUGHAN: Hey mom, I want to move to New York to become an actor.
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about ultimatums.
MAUGHAN: So, I think one thing that’s interesting — there’s this Harvard Business School professor named Deepak Malhotra, and he talks about ultimatums in a lot of different ways. One of the things he says is that they’re not always bad. Meaning that if you’re doing it in a way that gives information — like, “I have actual non-negotiables that have to be met.” Like, “I need to do it by this date” — that can be perceived as information rather than a threat or coercion. And I actually don’t blame people in dating that sort of like, “Hey, I’ve invested two years of my life with you. If we don’t have this and I get that —.”
DUCKWORTH: Or two days, you know, whatever the case may — Like, “Look, I’ve got 48 hours invested in this relationship and I just need to know, are we going to the altar or not?”
MAUGHAN: That, I think, maybe is, uh — I’m going to stay out of that. I’m so glad that it worked out for you.
DUCKWORTH: It really worked out. We just celebrated our silver anniversary. Is that the 25th one?
MAUGHAN: I — I don’t know, but I’m very happy you did. I celebrated one wedding anniversary with you guys, which I know you won’t remember —.
DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah! That was not 25 though.
MAUGHAN: We were at some random meeting.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, weren’t we at, like, a fundraiser?
MAUGHAN: And I walked in and you and Jason are like, “Glad you’re here. It’s our wedding anniversary.” And I thought, “Well, that — that’s fun.” Also, “What? Way to keep the romance alive. Anyway, to Deepak Malhotra’s idea. They’re not always bad, but he says, “Before giving an ultimatum, always ask yourselves: one, is it really an ultimatum?” A.K.A., would I actually follow through? You have to be committed, otherwise you lose all credibility. “And two, is there any other way I can achieve these objectives without resulting to the ultimatum?” Because there’s usually a less aggressive way to get to the same result. I think about the most recent sort of high-profile ultimatum out there that I would say is is, Elon Musk and Twitter. So, the guy spends $44 billion to buy Twitter.
DUCKWORTH: Is that how much he bought Twitter for?
MAUGHAN: Yes, and it’s not worth that, and he — whatever. And so, he gets sued and he has to go through with the deal. He’s kind of frustrated about it. Anyway, he sends a very early morning email to Twitter employees back in November of 2022. And the subject line is “A Fork in the Road.” And he basically says, “Going forward, we’re going to build Twitter 2.0. Everyone working here has to be, quote, ‘extremely hardcore.’ We’re going to be working late nights.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, did he say “hardworking” or “hardcore”?
MAUGHAN: “Extremely hardcore.” And then he goes on to say, “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
DUCKWORTH: This is, like, out of the textbook for how not to communicate as a leader, but keep going.
MAUGHAN: No comment. But then he says, “If you’re sure you want to be part of the new Twitter, click “yes” on the link below. Anyone who has not done so by 5:00 PM Eastern Time tomorrow will receive three months severance. Whatever you decide, thanks for your efforts.”
DUCKWORTH: Wow. I didn’t know any of this. I — I live in a cave.
MAUGHAN: But like, you’ve spent your career build — I know what it’s like to build a tech company. You are sacrificing a lot. You’re putting in a lot of blood, sweat, and literal tears. You create this incredible bond with your coworkers, because it’s hard to do these things. And then, you have a new person come in who bought the company —.
DUCKWORTH: Who didn’t put in the blood, sweat, and tears.
MAUGHAN: Right. And then you get this email with an ultimatum and it’s not like, “Oh, I’ll give you time to process or think through.” It’s like, “Tomorrow at 5:00 PM you’re in or you’re out, and exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, was that an empty threat, or did he carry through on the ultimatum?
MAUGHAN: Elon Musk does not make empty threats. So, he’d already fired half of the workforce.
DUCKWORTH: Prior to the “fork in the road” email.
MAUGHAN: Yes, including a bunch of the top management. Anyway, in the six months after Musk took over Twitter, headcount dropped by 90 percent.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. Wait, is that what Elon Musk wanted, though? Did he want to reduce headcount to reduce costs? So, he was like, “Good! I’ve got the 10 percent of exceptional performers.”
MAUGHAN: Yeah, but I don’t know that he got exceptional performers. I know that he got 10 percent of the company. That’s pretty different.
DUCKWORTH: Right, that’s true. One might imagine that some of the exceptional performers who don’t like that kind of culture left and went to other tech companies.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I might even say people with a certain level of self-respect are like, “Come on, I’m not doing this.”
DUCKWORTH: Mmm, they’re like the Responder with the, like, “Are you kidding? That’s unfair and terrible. I’m leaving and I — I’m going to cut off my nose to spite my face.”
MAUGHAN: Right, but also maybe to save my face. Here’s what Musk says. Six months later, he says, “We need to hire people. And if they’re not too mad at us, probably rehire some of the people that were let go. Because desperate times,” he says — of course, you know the phrase — “Desperate times call for desperate measures. And we probably let too many people go.”
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to see how many aphorisms we can cram into one conversation.
MAUGHAN: That was Elon Musk saying that.
DUCKWORTH: I know, but before Elon Musk said it, it was a cliche, but that’s okay. It’s all right.
MAUGHAN: No, no, no. I’m just saying, I’m — I don’t want to be accused of being the only one who ever says them.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Fair enough. You’re taking no credit for it. So he, said, “Take it or leave it,” but then later was like, “Oh, just kidding,” in a way, right, by hiring back some of the people who rejected his offer.
MAUGHAN: Well, saying that, “I probably need to hire them back, but they might be too mad at me.” And I think this goes back to what this Harvard Business School professor, Deepak Malhotra, was saying. One of the things he talks about is that what’s not negotiable today might be negotiable tomorrow. So, be careful with your ultimatums because you may think this is a non-negotiable — and that’s where Elon was like, “Hey, this must happen.” But then later he says, “Maybe this is a little more negotiable. Maybe now that I only have 10 percent of the workforce left, and maybe it’s not the 10 percent that I wanted.” I mean, think about it. Maybe the people willing to sign up and stay are the people who are a little more desperate for a job and not sure that they’re going to be able to get hired somewhere else, right? It created these perverse incentives. It’s not like, oh, the top 10 percent of performers who are like, “I’m all in. Let’s go do this” — that’s not necessarily who you’re going to get.
DUCKWORTH: Right. So, since we’re all on team anti-ultimatum, we should actually also talk about this paper that came out very recently. There were these business school professors who wondered, is there a way to escape the trap of this kind of ultimatum mindset? And what they were specifically thinking about were exactly those kinds of, like, “Take it or leave it.” You know, “This is the job that has this salary and these benefits, and you can take it or you can leave it. It’s your choice.” And, you know, they wondered about whether we could frame that exact conversation in ways that would allow us to escape that kind of, Well, I guess that’s all there is,” like, these two options. So, what these professors did was they ran a series of experiments, and they randomly assigned people to have what they call a “choice mindset.” And that would be contrasted with, I guess, I would call it the “constraint mindset.” So, in this experiment, you will, for example, be told that you’re in this hypothetical scenario and you’re in a negotiation with a hiring manager. And if you’re in the choice-mindset condition, you are prompted, quote, “Now, think about all the choices that the hiring manager has within this negotiation. For example, the hiring manager can have many choices about the amount of salary that they can give you, or they could have many choices about the location of your job. Please list all the choices that you think the hiring manager has in the boxes below.” So, the control condition is constraints. “Now, think about all the constraints that the hiring manager has within this negotiation. Please list all the constraints that you think the hiring manager has in the boxes below.” This all happens. Like, you’re in one condition or the other. You don’t see the other condition —
MAUGHAN: Okay, so I either think through constraints or I think through choice sets.
DUCKWORTH: And then, as this experiment unfolds, you’re next told by the hiring manager that it’s a last and final offer. And what the researchers find is that when you’re primed to be in a choice mindset, that you will not take offers as last and final in the way that you would if you’re thinking about the constraints of the person you’re negotiating with.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I know they’re looking at constraints versus choice. It almost feels to me, though, like they’re taking away my power or giving me power as the person getting hired, because if I’m doing the constraint model, I’m almost giving empathy and trying to just think through, “Oh, it’s really hard for them. They’ve got a lot of things that they’re trying to work through. I guess I don’t have any power here. I’ve ceded the power to that individual.” Where in the other one, it feels like you’re giving me power over my own life again. Saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Everything’s negotiable. It takes the power back to the individual rather than the organization, right?
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s right. You know, I am one of the rare business school professors who has never taught, nor taken, nor practiced, a negotiation in her life, but I — I was recently on a walk with Max Bazerman at Harvard Business School, who’s, like, super famous for his research and also his teaching of negotiations. And I said to Max, I was like — and this is a true story. This was, like, oh my gosh, a week or so ago. I was like, “Max, I don’t want to read all your, like, dozens if not hundreds of papers. Like, just what’s the gist of negotiations?”
MAUGHAN: “Can you just summarize a whole lifetime of work, please?”
DUCKWORTH: “Can you just summarize it, like, in a sentence? Because I might need to have a negotiation at some point.” And he said, “Sure.” And he said, “Can I have two sentences?”
MAUGHAN: You’re like, “That’s so much to have to remember. Bah.”
DUCKWORTH: He’s a good negotiator. So, he was like, “Could I have two sentences?” And I was like, “Yeah, I — I could take that.” Anyway, so he is like, “Look, there’s two mistakes that people make in negotiations. One is they fail to take the other person’s perspective.” But he’s like, “Really if you, like, fully take the other person’s perspective, you can get a lot farther in negotiation than what people often do, which is like, they’re just so energetically thinking about their own perspective and how they’re not being heard or they’re not being fairly treated.” So, empathy is rule number one. Second rule — and I’m not saying these are in order of importance — but the second thing Max said to remember in any negotiation is that you need to think win-win. But the idea here is that if you think of a negotiation as a zero-sum game — and that’s exactly what the Ultimatum Game is. There’s $100, you get 70, they get 30, you get 50, they get 50, you get 10, they get 90. It’s a zero-sum game. It all adds up to the same amount — then you’re going to only have, like, a certain narrow set of outcomes. But in almost every real negotiation, in any real scenario, there are a multitude of possibilities, and they’re often ones that you don’t think of in the short term. So, if you were Max Bazerman playing the Ultimatum Game, I don’t know, maybe you’d raise your hand and say, “Let’s actually think about whether it’s really $100 on the table.”
MAUGHAN: What a great summary of an entire life’s work. And what a beautiful ability to summarize. Can I give you an example of my favorite compassionate ultimatum?
DUCKWORTH: You may. I want to hear about this. It’s a good ultimatum.
MAUGHAN: It’s a good ultimatum and a compassionate one. So, John Krasinski, who played Jim in The Office —
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes. I have watched many, perhaps most, but not all of the episodes of The Office. Go on.
MAUGHAN: So, John Krasinski is on the Stephen Colbert Show, and he’s just sort of talking through his life. And he was studying to be a teacher at Brown University. And he thought, “I’ll just go to theater school for a hot minute.” And he likes it. So, he — he’s in the car with his mom and he says, “Hey mom, I want to move to New York to become an actor.” And, again, he’s just finishing up at Brown where he’s studied to become a teacher all this time. And I don’t know about you, but I think most parents would be like, “Hey, that seems like a bad idea at this point in your life.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, what, acting? Because it doesn’t make money unless you make it big?
MAUGHAN: Well, it’s just a very risky proposal.
DUCKWORTH: High risk, right.
MAUGHAN: And you’re deciding maybe a little late in life to go that direction. He says he has a super, super supportive mom. And so she actually says to him — she said, “Great. Here’s the deal. If in two-and-a-half or three years you haven’t had —” she uses fishing analogies. “If you haven’t had a nibble or a bite,” she says, “you have to make me one promise. You have to pull yourself out, because as your mother, you can’t ask me to tell you to give up on your dreams.” So, she sets the ultimatum, she gives the timeframe. You have two-and-a-half to three years.
DUCKWORTH: Then you have to promise to pull yourself out of acting.
MAUGHAN: Yes. So, the ultimatum is: this long, you have to do it yourself, because I can’t do it as your mom.” John Krasinski says that’s —
DUCKWORTH: He accepted the offer?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, he said it was very fair. He said, “That’s totally fine.” Two-and-a-half years in — so, he’s hit the opening of that range. Two-and-a-half years in, he says, it’s September. He calls his mom and says, “Come pick me up. This is a disaster. I can’t do this any longer. I’m pulling myself out.” And his mom says, “You know what? It’s September. Why don’t you just give it until December? And let’s see.”
DUCKWORTH: Which is still within the, the window.
MAUGHAN: Still within the window. Three weeks later, he books The Office.
DUCKWORTH: Makes you want to believe in the divine. Does it not?
MAUGHAN: It does. Now, I’m not saying that that means you should all just keep going for three more weeks perpetually, but I do love this idea —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, what is the moral of the John Krasinski story?
MAUGHAN: The moral for me was that there are compassionate ways to make ultimatums and — to the point that you’ve been making in terms of empathy, win-win — his mom wasn’t saying like, “You can’t come home. You have no place.” It was, “I have empathy. How can we think about this in a way that, like, you feel like you went to your breaking point but kept going a little longer?” I think for me, though, it’s a sign that you can have compassionate ultimatums that allow you to try things or do things or go in a direction while realizing that there’s this level of flexibility we’ve been talking about the whole time.
DUCKWORTH: So, Mike, I want to hear from listeners. I would love to hear from John Krasinski, but whether or not you are John Krasinski, I’d love to know if you have given or received an ultimatum. Tell Mike and me your story. Did things work out for you? Record a voice memo in a quiet place. Put your mouth close to the phone, and email us at NSQ@freakonomics.com. Maybe we’ll play your story on a future episode of the show. Mike, I’d love to end this conversation about ultimatums in a gentler, kinder way than I began it, because I did say “Take it or leave it. We’re talking about this question from Signe.”
MAUGHAN: Does this mean you’re giving me $70 and you’re keeping 30?
DUCKWORTH: I have $90 for you, Mike. I think your point about John Krasinski’s mother really, to me, is the ultimate moral of the ultimatum story. Because I think what it says to me is that when we issue a kind of “take it or leave it” ultimatum in that hostile, aggressive way that I began this conversation with, you do, as the Receiver, feel, like, threatened, imperiled, and certainly, you know, bullied. And what I love about the John Krasinski story is the way the mom said like, “The ultimatum is not that I’m going to come and pull you out in two-and-a-half to three years.”
MAUGHAN: Right, you’ve got to do it.
DUCKWORTH: “You’re going to have to do it yourself. So, you have autonomy. I just want you to, like, reckon in a way with the realities.” And I also love that he called her and that she didn’t let him quit on a bad day. I love that.
MAUGHAN: No quitting on a bad day.
DUCKWORTH: So, I don’t want to leave you with any kind of forced choice, path in the road, “we’re only here if you’re hardcore.” But I do want to say, Mike, that I’m kind of glad that in searching my memory, I don’t have many memories of either being issued ultimatums or issuing them myself.
MAUGHAN: But you are glad that you have a lot of memories of making Jason a little bit uncomfortable by talking about marriage starting on the second day.
DUCKWORTH: That is correct.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
Angela suggests that listener Signe might have invented the phrase “the grass may be greener, but the water bill is usually higher.” In fact, that version of the aphorism “the grass is always greener on the other side” seems to have originated in a line from Mrs. Miracle, a 1996 book by the best-selling romance novelist Debbie Macomber. The original maxim evolved from “The Art of Love,” by the Ancient Roman poet Ovid, who wrote, “The harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s field.”
Later, Angela says that she played the ultimatum game after asking the artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT to administer it to her. But answering a question from a chatbot isn’t the same as actually playing the game, because there isn’t real money at stake. It would be more accurate to say that Angela chose to split 100 hypothetical dollars with a hypothetical other person in a hypothetical version of the ultimatum game.
Finally, Mike states that Elon Musk does not make empty threats. In fact, the executive chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Twitter, now “X Corp,” has issued a lot of public ultimatums — and he hasn’t always followed through. A few recent examples include: threatening to sue Microsoft for using Twitter data to train its artificial intelligence models, threatening to sue independent researchers for documenting the rise in hate speech on the platform following Musk’s purchase of it, threatening to suspend Twitter accounts that link to rival social media platforms, and threatening to reassign National Public Radio’s account to another company. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we end today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on bragging.
Chris POLLETT: Good morning. This is Chris from Elmer, Ontario, Canada. Just calling in around your “How Do You Like Me Now” episode. One piece I think that was overlooked was the nonverbal bragging that you see quite often — where people have the flashy cars, and flashy houses, and flashy items, and they just outwardly are really bragging about their success. Quite often, they don’t actually have the means to do that. And I think it comes from a lack of self-confidence, and from the banking industry, where I’ve kind of come up, you see a lot of folks that are literally check to check, but yet they have the flashy car and flashy house. It’s quite sad, because quite a few of these people are very successful in their own rights and are actually making themselves less successful by trying to put that up. And so I think having confidence in your success, and you don’t need to brag outwardly and have those flashy things, and live within your means, and enjoy your life.
That was listener Chris Pollett. Thanks to him and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your stories about giving or receiving ultimatums! Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: How do you practice self-compassion?
MAUGHAN: For only $10.99, you can let every visitor in your house know that you are struggling.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I still hate the phrase “warning” because it feels like Jaws, like, duh nuh duh nuh.
- “Boundaries or Ultimatums? How Therapy-Speak Changed the Language of Relationships,” by Lauren Ironmonger (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2023).
- “Elon Musk Says Twitter Will Try to Rehire Some of Its Laid-Off Staff, and That Some of the People He Fired ‘Shouldn’t Have Been’ Cut,” by Pete Syme (Business Insider, 2023).
- “Elon Musk Has Chopped Twitter Down to About 1,000 Employees,” by Kali Hays (Business Insider, 2023).
- “Read the Midnight Email Elon Musk Sent Twitter Staff Telling Them to Work ‘Long Hours at High Intensity’ – or Quit,” by Jyoti Mann (Business Insider, 2022).
- “When to Use Ultimatums & When to Avoid Them,” by Deepak Malhotra (Negotiation Insights Video Series, 2020).
- “‘Take It or Leave It!’ A Choice Mindset Leads to Greater Persistence and Better Outcomes in Negotiations,” by Anyi Ma, Yu Yang, and Krishna Savani (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2019).
- “John Krasinski Was Ready To Quit Acting Before ‘The Office’,” by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2018).
- “Models of the Evolution of Fairness in the Ultimatum Game: A Review and Classification,” by Stéphane Debove, Nicolas Baumard, and Jean-Baptiste André (Evolution and Human Behavior, 2016).
- “15 Rules for Negotiating a Job Offer,” by Deepak Malhotra (Harvard Business Review, 2014).
- Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond, by Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman (2007).
- “Fairness Versus Reason in the Ultimatum Game,” by Martin A. Nowak, Karen M. Page, and Karl Sigmund (Science, 2000).