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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: I hate to burst your balloons. [AD^No you don’t.] Because your balloons are so bright and cheery. 

DUCKWORTH: And you’re a little thumbtack. 

*      *      *

Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

Stephen J. DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: How much better do you really want to be? 

DUBNER: The secret to looking successful is to surround yourself with people who are quite dumb. 

Also: why do we pad our speech with so many filler words? 

DUBNER: [Speaking in a Valley girl accent.] I don’t think I quite had the Valley girl phase. 

DUCKWORTH: Gag me with a spoon! 

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angela, there is a question that often gets asked about money, but that I would like to ask you about ability, or talent, instead. That probably doesn’t make that much sense yet, does it? 

DUCKWORTH: Not yet. But why don’t you keep going? 

DUBNER: Here’s what I mean. This research literature goes back, I believe, to the 1990s, where people are asked, “Would you rather earn X amount of dollars, let’s say $50,000, while everyone else around you is earning, let’s say, $45,000? Or would you rather earn, let’s say, $55,000 while everyone else around you is earning $60,000?” 

DUCKWORTH: It’s relative versus absolute judgements. 

DUBNER: Precisely. So, that’s the money question. And many people when asked this, at least in an experimental setting, say they would rather earn less in absolute terms, but more compared to, you know, “the Joneses” that they’re trying to keep up with, or surpass by a little bit. So, my question for you, Angela, is similarly, would you rather be, let’s say, five percent smarter, or more talented, than everybody around you, or would you rather be 10 percent more talented, or smarter, while everyone else around you is a little bit better? 

DUCKWORTH: So, basically, do I want to be better in some absolute way, or do I want to be better in a relative way? And the way that you phrased that really forces me to make that choice. I’m going to give you the true answer, like, the honest answer. And then, I don’t know —. 

DUBNER: And then, the face-saving answer, or what? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, what I would love to say, Stephen, is that —.

DUBNER: Of course, I want to be with people who are smarter!  

DUCKWORTH: Right. Because I’m not competing with other people. I’m not trying to beat anyone. I’m just trying to be my own best self. I want to say that, but I don’t think there are any absolute judgments. In a fundamental way, I think all of human perception and judgment is always relative to something. And if you ask me, “Hey, how was breakfast?” And you’re saying, “I’m not asking you in a comparative sense. I’m just asking in some absolute sense, how delicious was breakfast?” I can’t answer that without thinking of other breakfasts, or, how breakfast should have been. 

DUBNER: You could say that this breakfast was demonstrably delicious, and almost anyone would think it was delicious, and it happened to have been prepared by someone who’s been training for 50 years to do nothing but make delicious breakfast. But you’re saying that, at least subconsciously, compared to every other breakfast I’ve had, it was awesome. 

DUCKWORTH: In some implicit way that can be below the level of consciousness, and very fast, there’s a comparison going on. I know that’s a broad-sweeping statement to say, like: “All of human judgment and all of human perception, even if it doesn’t feel like it is comparative, is comparative.” 

DUBNER: I think that is so important and interesting, and even though I think I agree to the depths of my bones, I don’t know if I ever would have put that label — comparative, period — on all of our human decision making. I mean, you could say there are absolutes when it comes to chemical issues and biological issues, but you’re saying, in terms of the way that we perceive the world, and our emotions, and so on — you’re saying there’s really no such thing as absolute happiness, frustration, anger, depression? Yes?

DUCKWORTH: I am. Again, it can happen so fast, and below consciousness, I don’t even know that we’re aware. One reason I believe this is true, is because you can move people’s judgments around pretty easily. Here’s an example. In studies where you ask somebody, “Do you want a dollar today, or do you want $1.50 in two months?” 

DUBNER: I want $1.50 today. Thank you. Trick answer. 

DUCKWORTH: The famous finding is that people prefer immediate gratification. But you can shift people’s answers by giving people a comparison. You say, “Would you rather have a dollar today and nothing in two months, or would you rather have nothing now and $1.50 in two months?” You are shifting them to a certain comparison. It’s called the hidden zero effect. You’re taking the A versus B alternative, but you’re bringing out something — which was always true — and you can move people around, and in the hidden-zero effect, people are more likely to delay gratification. And I know this isn’t going to sound plausible, but I actually — on February 13th, I emailed Danny Kahneman the following Melville quote. So, Melville wrote, “We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

DUBNER: Interesting. He’s using, however, an absolute measurement — temperature — to talk about the difference in experience. But let’s go back to the question of you being around more talented, smarter people. I’ve come across this phrase: “interpersonal preferences” — we inevitably compare ourselves, all the time, to everyone else, on every dimension. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, that was going to be my second point. Human beings spontaneously compare themselves on things like talent, or ability, or personality, or likability, to other people. We immediately want to know how we stack up. Like, when I give people a grit score, they always want to know, “What percentile am I in?” And I say, “Hey, rather than comparing yourself to other people, maybe you could just focus on how you answer these questions, and what that reveals.” And they still want to know what percentile they’re in. So, there is a human tendency to compare ourselves to other people, especially when it’s something ego-related. 

DUBNER: So, you hinted at your answer — or one of your two answers — to this actual question about you being around people who are smarter than you, or you getting to be a bit smarter, but around people who are less smart than you. But you haven’t said your true answer. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Let me be straight with you.  My honest answer is, I would probably rather be five percent more talented than the people around me. 

DUBNER: Because, why? 

DUCKWORTH: My ego exists, and it’s going to want to feel good, and it does it by making a relative judgment to what I see. And even though I want to want to tell you, Stephen, that I only care about the absolutes and better that everyone else be even better off, the realistic answer, and the one that we live, is the one where I’m just looking at other people’s relative standing. 

DUBNER: So, you’d rather be a big fish in a slightly stinky pond than a slightly smaller fish in a pristine pond? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s what I want, but I want to want the more noble answer. 

DUBNER: Of course you do. Probably the vast majority of us are just like you. But let’s for a minute pretend that you, and all of us, would like to align our —

DUCKWORTH: Our “wants” with our “want to wants.” 

DUBNER: Exactly. So, let’s talk about the advantages of being around people who are smarter, more accomplished, more disciplined, whatever. What do you know about that? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, this is actually the pattern of experts. You know, if you’re playing chess, do you want to play somebody who’s about as good as you, worse than you, or a little bit better than you? And if you are an expert chess player, or somebody who has ambition to become an expert chess player, you absolutely want to play somebody who’s a little better than you. And then ditto for golf, tennis, et cetera. Leaders often say this. I think Andrew Carnegie has on his tombstone that the secret to success was just to surround himself always with people who were a little smarter. 

DUBNER: I thought it was going to be the other way around: the secret to looking successful is to surround yourself with people who are quite dumb. Also, can I just say, you had me at golf, because it is so true. I love to play golf with golfers who are better than me, but not too much better.

DUCKWORTH: Why is that you do want to? Because this could go both ways. 

DUBNER: Exactly. I think about that, because I have friends who are about at my level, but they prefer to play with people that they’re a little bit better than, because they’re more likely to win. But I find that, for the most part, when you’re actually interacting with people who are better than you, it’s pretty easy for that to rub off, or for you to rise to that level. That’s what I find with golf, if I play with people who are better —. [AD^You’ll get better.] Yeah, and partly that’s because there’s a strong mental component, which is an expectation — like, this guy is going to be able to accomplish this, and, of course, I should be not too far behind him. But then, the question is, do you want to put yourself in an arena where you’re constantly not as good as the others around you,  and you may feel like, “Well, I may get better long run,” but in the short run, I was thinking, outside of the sports realm, let’s say a student gets admitted to an incredibly selective school, even though they don’t really think that they’re an awesome scholar yet. So, there’s a choice. I can go there, and there are other variables, there’s the prestige, and so on, but do I want to be around people who might make me feel inferior, or do I want to go to the place where I can excel? Again, big fish, slightly stinky pond.

DUCKWORTH: I think, the most important benefit is that it’s challenging, and therefore, you will perform better. You’ll learn more for sure. The downside really is ego and the short term losses. There is this big-fish little-pond effect. You said “stinky pond,” but there is work by Herbert Marsh that says that, for example, with students, if you end up going to a magnet school, and all the kids are really bright, that’s a bigger pond, or a tougher pond to be in, than the school you would have gone to otherwise. And what Marsh finds in lots and lots of research, including hundreds of thousands of students, is that this can actually lead you to have a lower academic self-concept. And it’s pretty common sense why. My own two daughters went to a public school that was a magnet school. And they would come home after a day of school (pre-pandemic), and they would say, “I’m kind of an average student.” I tried to point out to them what they knew intellectually, which is that even though their day-to-day and hourly experience is being surrounded by extremely bright, hardworking kids, and therefore they see themselves as middle of the pack, the whole pack is not in the middle of the pack. But it was very, very hard to convince them of this, because you’re now trying to contradict hourly and daily experience with intellectual fact. And anyway, that’s the big-fish little-pond effect. 

DUBNER: How does this relate to what I’ve seen called “relative deprivation.” Do you know anything about that?

DUCKWORTH: Relative deprivation is a term from the social psychology literature that you have the judgment that you’re worse off compared to some standard, and that leads to anger and resentment. So, again our judgments are spontaneously relative, and then when we don’t come out well in that arithmetic, we can be angry and resentful. 

DUBNER: In terms of osmosis and the smartness of the people around us rubbing off on us, or us learning from them, I’m curious whether that same phenomenon has ever been studied in, let’s say, kindness or charitable behavior. If I’m a selfish person, and I start hanging out with a bunch of altruists, what happens there? 

DUCKWORTH: One prediction might be that just like everything else: money, or status, or ability — that it’s just going to make you feel worse. Alternatively, Chris Peterson and Marty Seligman, two psychologists — Chris Peterson is now deceased — but Peterson and Seligman published this book on character about 20 years ago. And their claim was that when it comes to kindness, or honesty, or forgiveness, or dimensions of character, we actually don’t make these relative comparisons. We don’t have a rank ordering. We don’t say, like, “Oh, I’m the fifth most kind person in the room out of five. Now I don’t feel good.” When we’re around a lot of kind people, we just feel great.

DUBNER: That is encouraging, because when you began this conversation with this, sort of, categorical assessment of humans as comparative animals, I assumed that those characteristics would be included as well. So, I’m happy to hear that.

DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s what they claimed.

DUBNER: Uh-oh. Duckworth is here to tell you that they’re a bunch of liars? 

DUCKWORTH: Look, I don’t have data. I’ve got, like, a Melville quote. So, I’m not saying that I have systematically tested this hypothesis, I really do feel like, even for kindness — when I think of my mom, and I think of myself, my mom is kinder than me. She is more generous than me. But here’s the thing. I do spontaneously make a relative comparison to her. The comparison doesn’t necessarily make me feel angry and resentful. So, it could be that what Peterson and Seligman are arguing about the consequences, emotionally, may be different for virtues, but I think the fact that we make the comparisons, spontaneously and without urging, I think it’s true. 

DUBNER: I am interested to know whether we might have an easier time absorbing the virtues of others, than the more measurable traits like academic talent because I could see you in some grocery store about to crash over some person who’s in your way and saying, “What would my mother do? My mother would probably stop and say, ‘Hey, person, you’re sitting there blocking up the whole aisle. So, you must have some problem. Can I help you solve that problem?’” As opposed to Angie, which is like, “Get the hell out of my way, shopper!”

DUCKWORTH: Stiff elbow. Dirty look. Okay. So, if we spontaneously make relative judgments, and if sometimes that can make us feel bad about ourselves when the other person is more admirable, there’s got to be some benefit to learning. And the golf example is one, — kind of ups your competition. And very related to that is thinking, “What would Teresa do?” 

DUBNER: Who’s Teresa? 

DUCKWORTH: My mom.  

DUBNER: Oh, sorry. 

DUCKWORTH: I guess I forgot you’re not on a first name basis with my mom. But like, if I think, “What would my mom do?” I can use that to emulate her. So, there’s got to be benefits to being around other people. And I think it’s a terrific thing to have on your tombstone to say, “I had the courage to be around people who were better than me. And, I got my ego out of the way so I could learn and be better.”

DUBNER: I hate to burst one of your balloons. [AD^No you don’t.] I do, because your balloons are so bright and cheery. 

DUCKWORTH: And you’re a little thumbtack.

DUBNER: But I was looking up the quote on the Carnegie tombstone, and I come across a page here that is from Carnegie Hall. In New York, we call it “Carnegie Hall,” but in Pittsburgh they call him “Carnegie.” Anyway, Andrew Carnegie, who died at age of 84 in 1919, this says, “In a 1901 speech” — so this is 18 years before he died — “Carnegie stated that he wished  to have his tombstone inscribed with the words, ‘here lies a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself. This, however, did not happen. Instead, chiseled into the base of a simple Celtic cross is simply, “Andrew Carnegie, born Dunfermline, Scotland, 25 November 1835. Died Lenox, Mass. August 11, 1919.”

DUCKWORTH: That’s it? There’s no epigram? 

DUBNER: There’s apparently a story how 18 years before he died, he wanted to be remembered as the kind of person who wanted to have people around him better than himself. But doesn’t this illustrate your story perfectly? 

DUCKWORTH: That it never got onto the tombstone? 

DUBNER: No, that everybody says that they want to have better people around them,  but in fact, I’m not going to have those people on my tombstone, damn it!

DUCKWORTH: I think that whether those words made it to the tombstone,  and even whether Andrew Carnegie — or Carnegie — lived that way, it’s definitely an aspiration. And I do think this: if you have a decision about whether to hang out with people who are better than you, character-wise or talent-wise, or not, the key thing is, are you out to protect your ego, or are you out to learn? And if you’re out to learn, then do as Andrew Carnegie said. 

DUBNER: Not as he did. I did run this question through my head as well. I actually do more enjoy being around people who are smarter than me, as long as they’re not too much smarter. For Freakonomics Radio, for instance, I love the learning. I love asking people who really know stuff to explain it. But I don’t want to be around people who are running circles around me. And I don’t know if it’s ego, necessarily, or just the very frustrating feeling of not being able to keep up. That, I hate. And so, I do wonder if that possibility repels a lot of people from being around others who are smarter, more talented, richer even, than them, because they feel that they will be frustrated, even though, in many cases, it may turn out to be a much more pleasant and useful experience than we think. We often get intimidated by people who have — to put a very broad brush on it —  a little bit higher status than us, in some way. And I think that’s a good reluctance to shed, would be my argument. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to revise my answer, Stephen.  Your answer makes me want to change. Is that allowed? No, I can’t?! Okay, upon reflection — and when I think about who I hang out with — Katy Milkman, Danny Kahneman — these are people who, I think are five to ten, to however many percent better than I am in what we do, like, in my actual job.  And, I think, the reason that I choose to be around these people is that I am learning from them faster than I would be if I were hanging around just a lot of Angela Duckworth clones. And maybe, to your point about them being a little better than me, but I don’t think they’re so far beyond me. There’s something called “desirable difficulty.” There’s a zone of difficulty where things are just beyond your reach. And honestly, if I had no idea what they’re talking about, then I don’t think I would be learning from them. So, the key here is that if the choice that you’re making is based on learning, then being around people who are five percent better is a great thing. And maybe being around people who are 500 percent better isn’t a great thing. So, I don’t know if you need to shed that reluctance. I think it’s very adaptive. 

DUBNER: I’ll tell you one thing that Katy Milkman, Danny Kahneman, and no one else in the entire world of psychological science is better at than you.

DUCKWORTH: And that is hanging out with you? 

DUBNER: I was going to say inventing tombstone inscriptions for long-dead steel magnates. Because you nailed that one. 

DUCKWORTH: The next time my ego is a little black and blue, I’m just going to go right back to that one. Thank you, Stephen. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why our sentences are so loaded with so much unnecessary junk. 

DUBNER: “Needless to say” — if it’s needless to say, why are you saying it? 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: [Using a Valley girl voice.] Stephen, like, I used to, you know, like, talk like a Valley girl, and then I learned not to, but it took me a long time. How about you? Have you always spoken like the British documentary narrator that you sometimes sound like to me, because you don’t say “like,” and, “you know,” and, “um,” and so forth.  Or did you have a Valley girl phase? 

DUBNER: [Speaking in a Valley girl accent.] I don’t think I quite had the Valley girl phase.  

DUCKWORTH: Gag me with a spoon! Oh, my God. 

DUBNER: But I still do have plenty of, like, tics like you.  [Drops the accent.] Apparently I start way too many of my sentences with the word “so.” I know this, because we have very helpful listeners to Freakonomics Radio, and this show, who are very happy to inform me of all the filler language, and tics, and mispronunciations, and vocalizations that they don’t like, not only of me, but of every single guest. So, if there’s ever a guest  that sounds a little bit gravelly, or slow, or fast, we hear a lot. 


DUBNER: And, you know — well, there I just did one, “you know.” I’ve been working on cutting down on the filler in my own vocalizing for a long time, but I’m sure I’ll die with plenty of filler, because it’s a natural linguistic thing, even though in writing we plainly don’t do it, but in vocalizing, we certainly do. 

DUCKWORTH: As someone who’s had plenty of conversations, with plenty of people, and having dispensed and received lots of filler, what is the function of filler?

DUBNER: We’ve talked to some linguists about this. We did an episode of Freakonomics Radio once called, “That’s a Great Question,” which is something that people say often when asked a question in an interview setting, even when the question isn’t great at all.  So, you can ask someone, like, “What’d you have for breakfast?” “Oh, that’s a great question.’” And we examined that, because it has become such a common thing in media, and you see it at a lot of conferences where there’s a moderator, and a panel, and, every panelist, after every question by the moderator, will say, “That’s a great question.” So, we wanted to explore the function of that. Many of these verbal fillers are what linguists and communication experts call “discourse markers” or “verbal pauses.” So, in most cases, they’re serving as a moment for your mouth basically to catch up to what your brain is working on. 

DUCKWORTH: So it’s a stall tactic, essentially? 

DUBNER: Yeah. Sometimes you’re filibustering: like, um, you know,  well, dadada — and, in some cases, that function is to tell your listener that you’re still talking and that you don’t want to be interrupted yet. So, it buys time in that way, too. [AD^Kind of like a real filibuster.] I know there is a linguist named Michael Erard who wrote a book called Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean, and he makes the interesting note that — here, I’ll read a bit, “With a few exceptions, people didn’t really start talking about ‘um,’ or complaining about it, until the advent of voice recording. It is likely they were using it all along, but either they didn’t notice it or didn’t deem it worthy of writing down. It wasn’t considered a word, but a noise like a cough.” And then he notes that all languages have their own version of “um.” I will say that, having interviewed a few thousand people over the last many years, especially when you interview people for audio, for podcasts, or radio, where the editing process really reveals the filler — I will say that very few people speak without filler. 

DUCKWORTH: Is it at all indicative of more intelligent content to speak without the filler? In other words, to the people who have lots of filler or have less-interesting things to say? 

DUBNER: I would say, as a rule, no. In addition to being a sort of verbal tic or a linguistic demarcation, a lot of filler is also a manifestation of nerves, for sure. If there’s one breed of person who seems to use very little filler, it would be lawyers.

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. I was going to go with the Brits.

DUBNER: No. I have a lot of British friends who have the most entertaining, but gobbledygooky, filler. 

DUCKWORTH: Can we digress to that for a moment. What do Brits say? Because I thought they spoke in complete sentences without qualifiers — without “like,” and, “you know,” and “ums,” and “ers.” Maybe I’ve just been extrapolating from Richard Attenborough to the entire  British populace.  

DUBNER: Are you basing this on watching British television shows, perhaps? 

DUCKWORTH: No, nature documentaries, which — for whatever reason — are primarily narrated by Richard Attenborough, but sometimes another British guy. 

DUBNER: They’re also scripted, I hate to tell you that. 

DUCKWORTH: You said that the British people that you’ve interviewed also use filler. What filler are they using? 

DUBNER: Oh, their filler is the same as our filler. When I think about the list of the most common fillers that our guests use, generally, I would think “you know” is right up there, “um,” “like.” Here’s another very common category: the “sort of’s” and the “kind of’s.” You also get a lot of people who say “right” after nearly every sentence. You’ll be talking to a social scientist, and they might say, “It’s easy to understand this effect. Right? You’re blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right? And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right?” And it’s almost like a little checkmark they’re making. I will say, there is one human — American economist — who speaks as if every sentence is perfectly extracted from this nicely written  early-20th-century academic treatise, quite formal, and yet specific, and even emotive. And that would be Ed Glaeser. Ed Glaeser is an economist who’s done a lot of interesting work, but especially around the economics of cities. But I will say this — it can be very distracting for a listener to hear all that filler language. When we make Freakonomics Radio, we do our best to clean up the language of the people who are being interviewed, because it’s counterproductive to have all that filler in there. 

DUCKWORTH: You liposuction the transcripts. 

DUBNER: I think of it as a neutron bomb where you kill everything except the real words.

DUCKWORTH: But don’t we need time to catch up also? So, if you say, “um, like, you know” — that gives us a few more milliseconds for our brains to catch up.” 

DUBNER: I would argue, no. 

DUCKWORTH: The listener doesn’t need the intermissions. 

DUBNER: Here’s a good example. Imagine that you are listening to an audio book that’s well read, versus the same person talking about their book. Almost the same passages. I can guarantee you the writing that has been written with consideration and is read, which doesn’t have filler, that is much more pleasant to listen to. Now, that said, there is something about all this filler, maybe just because we’re used to it, that does convey authenticity. So, if you’re talking to a listener — on this podcast or in a lecture — you don’t want to sound like a news anchor reading from a teleprompter. We’ve all heard those lectures of people who give the same lecture every time, and the punchline lands exactly right. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to someone kind of, sort of, stumbling over, like, every other word. A lot of these little filler words might seem, or sound, less intelligent — or at least that’s the perception — whereas you don’t want to over-formalize your speech just in the pursuit of sounding intelligent. 

DUCKWORTH: It feels insincere. It feels inauthentic. 

DUBNER: It’s the difference between a person talking to you and a person reciting something, as if off a teleprompter. By the way, do you know what decade the teleprompter was invented in? 

DUCKWORTH: I do not know the decade.

DUBNER: What would you guess?

DUCKWORTH: Okay. I’m going to guess 1955. 

DUBNER: Oh, you’re really good. You’re much better than me. I thought it was the 70s or 80s. It was the 1940s. One of the three inventors of the first teleprompter, I learned recently, was Irving Berlin Kahn, who was a nephew of Irving Berlin, which is kind of neat. Irving Berlin, of course, holds the record for writing the most awesome Christmas song, “White Christmas”, while also being Jewish. So, what about you? You intimated that you had some Valley girl issues that you weren’t happy about. Have you mostly brought the girl out of the valley? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I have been aware of this, partly because, at an earlier point in my life, I was a young woman making her way in her career. Now, I’m a middle-aged woman, and I don’t have the same concerns. But I remember thinking, “How do I sound like more of an authority?” And I made an intentional change in my elocution. I had another resolution, which is that I wouldn’t end my sentences like questions, because even though that’s the way I spoke through all of my teenage years, and it was totally natural, I thought, if I give lectures where every time I say anything it sounds like a question,  it would be not only annoying, but it would undermine the authority that I was trying to communicate. 

DUBNER: Unfortunately, we can’t really examine the science on this, because you’re an “n” of one, and we haven’t videotaped every word you’ve ever spoken. But do you think that your concentration on sounding a little bit less Valley-girlish actually contributed to your being better regarded as a scientist? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it probably had to have. 

DUBNER: Based on what evidence, though? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, there is scientific research on the inferences that we make about people based on their speech. Katy Kinzler is the psychologist who leaps to mind, who has shown that even very, very young children jump to conclusions about the gender of somebody, and the age of somebody, and the status of somebody, based on vocal tone, and intonation, and so forth. I have to believe that making the shift from somebody who sounds like they’re 16-years-old at Cherry Hill High School East in the 80s to somebody who ends their sentences like statements, doesn’t have so much larding of “like” and “you know” — that had to have helped. I also wanted to just be a more effective communicator. And to your point, I don’t think it’s a benefit to the listener in most circumstances to have too much of this filler. 

DUBNER: Do you think the pursuit of that legitimacy is harder for women than for men? Do you think that women run a greater risk of not sounding as competent, smart, legitimate, whatever, if they use filler, than men do? 

DUCKWORTH: My guess is yes, because of the assumptions before we even hear the person speaking. If it is true that people have an expectation and a bias — that whenever the guy says is going to be intelligent and authoritative, and whatever the woman says is going to be less so — then that can only be exacerbated by how we interpret the fact that they started their sentences with “like” or “you know,” or ended it on an uptone. That would be my hypothesis. 

DUBNER: I have seen research, I can’t remember from where now, that if you essentially have females and males saying the same statement, that it will be assessed as more intelligent if the male said it, including by female listeners. And related to that research,  I believe it was the same researchers, who also had an American person say something and a British person — well, a person with an American accent and a British accent. And essentially, the stupidest thing said by a Brit would still be perceived as smarter than the smart thing said by the American. So, we accord all kinds of bonus points based on perception of whatever. 

DUCKWORTH: What if this is all about status? If you ask the question, “Why do we think the Brits have a great accent? But South Jersey isn’t?” Maybe all of this is that we have certain cultural assumptions about the cultures that are better. And we can break free of these biases about what speech is supposed to sound like. 

DUBNER: I am sure you’re right, to, at least, a substantial degree. I will say this: not all filler is casual, or informal, or the product of nerves. I find interesting the filler that makes someone sound more formal or official. Politicians do this all the time. [AD^Like what?] “At the present time, dadada” — as opposed to “now.” There’s a perfectly good word for that. “Needless to say” — if it’s needless to say, why are you saying it?  I see this in golf commentary. It is a weirdly stilted language that golf broadcasters use. So, no golfer is ever just “very good with his driver” or “very good at driving.” He’s always “a very good driver of the golf ball.” There’s this appendage. No golfer is ever “24” or even “24-years-old.” They’re always “24 years of age.” Every idiom has its filler/jargon that’s meant to show that you belong to that tribe. And so, when you’re speaking with a friend, it kind of, you know, maybe, I mean, I guess, it sort of makes sense to show that you’re relaxed enough to, like, um, you know, take your time  and hold the floor, et cetera. Personally, I prefer straight talk: say what you’re actually thinking, try to put as little junk as possible in your sentences, be generous toward others who may put more junk. And so, um, like, um, that’s what I think. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, like, you know, Stephen, if I had to choose between hanging out with girls who grew up in New Jersey in the 80s and a bunch of golf commentators, I, like, totally know the choice I would make.

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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.

Angela refers to the language that Andrew Carnegie said he wanted on his grave as an “epigram.” An epigram is defined as an inscription, or a short poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought. The sentence that Carnegie requested — “here lies a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself” — could potentially be referred to in this way. But Angela likely meant to say “epitaph,” which is an inscription on a tomb, or a brief composition characterizing a dead person. Carnegie’s headstone might be missing the requested epitaph, but other famous graves do feature some interesting ones. Poet Charles Bukoski’s reads, “Don’t try.” American television show host Merv Griffin’s says, “I will not be right back after this message.” And Looney Tunes voice actor Mel Blanc has a headstone inscribed with, “That’s all, folks!”

Later, Angela doubts whether British people use filler words. As a point of reference, she points to nature documentaries eloquently narrated by Richard Attenborough. Richard Attenborough was an English actor, filmmaker, and president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art — well known for his appearance as John Hammond in Jurassic Park and Kris Kringle in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. He was not, however, known for narrating nature documentaries. That honor goes to his younger brother, Sir David Attenborough, who wrote and presented the BBC Natural History Unit’s Life series, which documented wildlife all over the planet. And, for the record, British people do use filler language. As Stephen said, it’s similar to American filler, often with alternate spellings — for example, “erm” replaces “um” and “er” stands in for “uh.”

Finally, Stephen said that he couldn’t remember who was responsible for the research on the perception of men and women — and Americans and Brits — saying the same statement. The researcher in question is Stanford phonetician Megan Sumner. Stephen recalled that listeners assessed the statements of men, and of British people, as more intelligent than those of women and Americans. That’s slightly misleading. According to Sumner’s research, average American listeners did a better job of remembering the words of men and of people speaking in a “Southern Standard British English” voice than of women and people with American accents, and statements made in a woman’s voice were rated as less reliable than statements made in a man’s voice. Sumner says that this has huge implications for how we interact and the types of information that we use to make decisions on an everyday basis.

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. Thanks also to Lyric Bowditch for her help with this episode. 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 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, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: You are good at Valley. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. It’s my people. 

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