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DUBNER: Two, four, six, eight. Who do we appreciate? Angela, Angela, Angela! 

*      *      *

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 will the rising demand for customized products shape the future of our society? 

DUCKWORTH: We have too many jams and too many kinds of nuts. 

Also: Does multitasking actually increase productivity? 

DUBNER: Even though I’m pretty focused on speaking with Angela Duckworth, I’m also breathing and sitting. I’m probably digesting. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, I want to ask you a question that’s inspired by some of the listener emails we receive for Freakonomics Radio.

DUCKWORTH: Sounds good. 

DUBNER: So, a typical email might read something like, “I love your show, but if you ever do this again, or that again, as you did on episode number 400-whatever, I’m going to stop listening.” Sometimes it’s a particular guest they dislike, maybe for ideological reasons or political reasons. But usually, it’s the way a guest will talk — maybe a lot of uptalk, or maybe with vocal fry. There are also sounds that annoy people — sirens being used as sound effects, which we realized a long time ago is truly annoying, because if you’re out listening to a podcast on your bike or walking — 

DUCKWORTH: You don’t know if it’s a real siren. 

DUBNER: Exactly. So we got rid of that. And then, there’s something else we stopped. Here, this is an email we got not long ago. “Please,” someone writes, “for the love of all that is good and holy, never record someone slurping or chewing on your podcast again. I say this out of love and for everyone who is overcome with murderous rage when they hear those noises. Please don’t play slurps or chewing.” In fact, we’ve actually done episodes about misophonia.

DUCKWORTH: What is that? 

DUBNER: Misophonia is a condition whereby it’s very painful to hear certain oral sounds like slurping and chewing. In fact, even though we knew this, even though we’d done an episode on this topic, we recently tried out a new — what’s called a “sting,” which is a little sonic stamp that you hear meant to brand something, like 20th Century Fox. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, right, right, right. Like the Netflix sound that everyone knows. 

DUBNER: Exactly. So, our technical director, Greg Rippin, who’s wonderful and creative, created a new sonic stamp to represent the Freakonomics Radio Network since we’re starting new shows, including this very show. 

DUCKWORTH: And it’s not the cash register thing. 

DUBNER: It’s not. We got rid of the cash register thing, which I always hated because it said, like, “Here’s an ad that we’re playing now for money.” Anyway, Greg Rippin created this new, beautiful sting, which was the first couple beats of our theme song, which goes, “Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, buh, bum, bum, bum.” Right. It’s a good, old, New Orleans song with horns and drums and whatnot. It was just the first few beats, followed by the sound of someone biting into an apple, since our Freakonomics logo is what we call an “orpple.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, the orange-apple thing. 

DUBNER: Right. And immediately, the distraught emails from misophonia sufferers started coming in, saying, “You don’t understand. Hearing that sound is painful.” So if something is very disturbing to even a small share of people, what do you do about it?” You change it. We killed it. 

DUCKWORTH: If it’s Pareto-optimal especially, meaning that, if you change it, the sufferers of misophonia — like, they are better off, and nobody else is worse off.

DUBNER: Well, I think Greg Rippin would argue that it wasn’t Pareto-optimal, because he’d created something. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. Greg was worse off. 

DUBNER: It was Pareto-optimal minus one. So, anyway, here’s my point. When someone lodges a very specific complaint or request, whether it’s for a product that millions of people are consuming or it’s a meal that’s being prepared for them in a restaurant, it makes me wonder just how customizable we expect the world to be. Or really, what I’d like you to answer is: How do you assess the value, Angela, of getting what you want all the time, versus the value of being able to accept what already exists? 

DUCKWORTH: The reason why this is such a great question is that we’re living through ever more customization availability. Do you remember the days where there were three major television networks? And I remember paging through the TV Guide, and actually, with a ballpoint pen, circling — like, “Oh, Thursday night, eight o’clock, Love Boat. Can’t wait.” And the nice thing about that era was that we all were watching things at the same time. We had more, I think, shared experience. Do you remember when there would be the Peanuts specials? 

DUBNER: And you’d come to school the next day and everybody’s talking about it. 

DUCKWORTH: We were all literally on the same page, if you want to think about TV Guide, and sort of metaphorically on the same page. 

DUBNER: Could you believe the Great Pumpkin didn’t come? So tragic. 

DUCKWORTH: I kind of miss that. And maybe I’m just romanticizing the era before you could customize your social media feed to be only people that you agree with. But I do think that we have lost something. 

DUBNER: I embrace elements of your old person’s argument, and I share some of them. Because, yes, there is something wonderful about simplicity. And yeah, shared experiences, yada, yada, yada. But even if that were more desirable, it’s long gone. And look, you can customize things to have a very narrow choice set, if that’s what you want. If you want to program your cable at home to have only ABC, NBC and CBS, I’m sure you can quite easily. The challenge really is, as the digital world, especially, makes things more customizable, do we want to extend that into our relationships, our work and so on? Or again, is it better to make yourself more adaptable to circumstances? So, common sense tells me the latter — that rather than being a person who has a very fixed set of preferences, or traits, or relationships, it would be good to be able to go with the flow, to get along with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. But is it perhaps better to expect that the world should become you rather than you become the world? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Who should do the bending? First, I’m going to argue for one domain in which I think customization is hands-down good and we should do more of it. And that is in education, personalized instruction is when a software program, or, in fact, a teacher, gives you, as a student or learner, exactly what you need at that moment, instead of what the next chapter says we should all be doing. You recall what it was like to be sitting there, just bored as could be, while the teacher said something that the teacher thought was applicable to most of the class, but certainly wasn’t applicable to you. Like, you already know what the answer to number 17 was, and you don’t need it worked out on the board. 

DUBNER: And it’s a waste of time. And as you start to get frustrated, you’re less engaged. And whatever question 18 is — you’re not interested, already.

DUCKWORTH: The two-sigma effect in learning refers to this finding that you would have a two standard deviation increase — enormous learning gains — if you would only allow students to be working on exactly what they needed to be working on, not what all the other students need to be working on. Economists have been studying personalized instruction and finding that, indeed, it’s an extremely reliable way to improve learning without changing the nature of what was being learned — just to customize where in the curriculum that person should be and where the feedback needs to be directed, etc. 

DUBNER: I remember first learning about this kind of thing, customized education, probably 10, 11, 12 years ago. There was a pilot program in the New York City Department of Ed called School of One, which then morphed into a for-profit program called New Classrooms, run by a guy named Joel Rose. So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this particular program or company. 

DUCKWORTH: I am. Joel Rose is an educator. His platform is very much about how there is not enough customization in education. And he was like, “Why would we do that? Should we all wear the same size shoe? Like, of course not.”

DUBNER: Yeah. And when I first heard about it, it made so much sense. His argument was that, with math, especially, skill acquisition is so heterogeneous, people acquire at vastly different speeds and dimensions. So he and his team came up with a way to measure each student’s ability, then receive a lesson in any number of different modalities. There might be a teacher at the head of a classroom with many kids. There might be a smaller group. It might be peer learning. It might be virtual. And then, test each kid after each learning session and see which kid learned best under which modality. Then, you take your magical algorithm, feed that information into it, and the next day, every kid has their own customized learning algorithm with the different modalities that work best for them. So, anyway, that’s his model. According to that firm, it works pretty well. Obviously, one side effect of the pandemic is that there’s been some move toward virtual and asynchronous education. But I’ve been astonished by how little that idea seems to have invaded education, generally. And maybe I’m missing it. My kids are no longer young, but it seems like it’s not made that much headway. 

DUCKWORTH: I am sad to say, Stephen, that I’m never astonished at the snail’s pace at which education seems to embrace common-sense innovation. 

DUBNER: One area I don’t know more about is the degree to which teachers, and especially teachers’ unions, are against this movement. And I know that was a question that I asked Joel, way back then when I was reporting on School of One. And his reply was, well, having this kind of technology and customizable education doesn’t necessarily presume there will be the need for fewer teachers. In fact, there might be more, because there might be more circumstances and more modalities. But, I think, whenever something is the way it’s been, there’s always a quadrant that is reluctant to change for all kinds of reasons, some of them good. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not sure it’s individual teachers who are reluctant or whether there’s a kind of institutional inertia. You know, “We have all these textbooks that we’ve been using, and we spent a lot of money on them, and all of our professional development trainings are already set up for the next year.” There’s just all kinds of reasons. Although, I would add to that very long list — individually, many of us yearn for change but cling to the familiar, as the saying goes. But we are not going backward, we are only going forward. And just think about Khan Academy, Zearn Math — all of these programs that we’re starting to take for granted because so many people are using them, they’re all customizable. 

DUBNER: And look, it’s different in every realm. If you think about medicine, I mean, goodness — customizable, personalized medicine has been a mantra now for many years, not just for things like cancer that are so complicated, but generally, the more data a doctor, for instance, has on you, and the more data there exists on potential treatments, the better the outcomes — theoretically, at least. Also, there is a tool online called the Configurator Database Project. This is an example of how widespread mass customization is from the consumer end. So, when you want to buy stuff, you can go on this Configurator Database Project and look at how different companies — more than 1,300 companies in 17 industries — what they offer from a customized perspective. Whether it’s camping gear, clothing, cars and so on — and the options become, for those who are comfortable using it, unbelievably bountiful. But I think that the world offering so many options, so quickly, is overwhelming for people. And while it’s pretty easy to make an argument that the benefits are large to customizing, I think the intimidation, or the confusion factor, persuades some people to say, “Nah, I just want my three channels. Get out of my face.” And that’s the friction that I’m feeling when I ask this question. 

DUCKWORTH: This is like the opposite of Trader Joe’s then, right? What I love about going to Trader Joe’s is, when you go, you don’t have 17 kinds of cashews. You basically have a choice, and you buy them or you don’t. And I love the reduction of choice, actually. 

DUBNER: Or as Sheena Iyengar proved with her famous jams study, if you have, like, 24 different types of jam on display in a beautiful grocery store, many, many, many people will stop for free taste, if that’s what you’re offering. But not that many people will buy — as opposed to, if you have three or six flavors on display and offer a sample, then fewer people may stop by the spectacle, but more will buy. That’s the paradox of choice lesson. 

DUCKWORTH: Now, when you think about the paradox of choice, and we have too many jams, and too many kinds of nuts, and customization can be really bad, actually, or there’s this hidden cost of it — it may be that technology will rescue us once again, having created a problem of too much choice, it’ll rescue us because of artificial intelligence algorithms that serve you up, you know— like, Alexa just told me the next book I should read, Netflix is going to tell me the next movie I might want to watch, and the education programs that I mentioned aren’t giving you 14 different math problems that you could do next. It’s just going to say, “Do this one.” And it’s been selected for you based on this very sophisticated computation, and your past history and so forth. So you could argue technology to the rescue. But I think the tax of customization is that if you raise your children to always want things to be evermore “just so” for them, you are, I think, setting them up for a bit of unhappiness. They’re never going to be satisfied with what they got because there is always going to be some room for things to be a little more customized to your idiosyncratic preferences. 

DUBNER: I have to say, that sounds a little bit like a surprisingly antediluvian argument coming from you. 

DUCKWORTH: What does that word “antediluvian” mean? 

DUBNER: Uh, old-fashioned, let’s say.

DUCKWORTH: What does “diluvian” mean? 

DUBNER: It was before the age of diluvia. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, “ante” as in “before.” Oh! I always thought, like, “Who’s against diluvia?” The nation of Diluvia or something. 

DUBNER: It’s the time before the flood, the Biblical flood, antediluvian. So, like, a long time ago. So, you sound like an old fogey. And I get the nostalgia part, and I get the shared community part. But don’t you want young people, old people, every people, to embrace all the possibilities that exist in humankind and civilization? In other words, don’t you want people to be concerned about a disease that only kills 1,000 people a year? Don’t you want artists to think about an idea that may matter only to 10,000 people in the world? Because isn’t that what we really mean when we talk about our embrace of diversity? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, two things can be true at the same time that give you different prescriptive recommendations.

DUBNER: You can cure cancer and have only three TV stations at the same time. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s exactly my point, Stephen. Glad we’re on the same page. No — my point being that, in some ways, customization is amazing. And I’m so glad that technology has made customization not only in medicine, not only in education, but in consumer goods and so forth — like, I love that I can buy exactly the coffee bean, caffeination, grind — all good. So, that says, “Yay, thumbs up on customization. Let’s have more of it.” At the same time, I think it’s possible to recognize that when everybody is doing their own thing, there’s something lost there. And it’s not that one is always better than the other. 

DUBNER: I hate to say this. In the words of Angela Duckworth, “I violently agree with you.” And in fact, I was mostly taking the devil’s advocate position. Because I too enjoy the communal bond and shared experience of “the thing,” the one thing. But I do find it to be a really interesting puzzle, and especially a generational puzzle. Our kids are of the age — they’re in their late teens — where they’ve grown up with a palette of options, especially digital options, that plainly didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. And I’m really interested to see how that will play out in non-digital realms like relationships and work and so on. You know, a friend of mine — this is totally non-scientific — but a friend of mine whose two kids got married quite early, and most highly-educated families, kids don’t get married so early. 

DUCKWORTH: No, they’re getting married later. 

DUBNER: But they did. And he said, “These days, young people — they can go through the entire universe of prospective mates in a very, very, very short time because of technology.” You can basically find as close to a match as possible and eliminate a lot of non-optimal choices. And then you’re like, “Well, let’s get on with it.” Again, that is about as unscientific as it gets. 

DUCKWORTH: Like, you can, for example, go on their Facebook account and learn so many things about them, that the search process is so efficient that you could maybe marry somebody when you’re 23, versus in your 30s or something. That is so interesting. I mean, I don’t disagree that you can learn things more quickly. But I think the unhappy consequence of a culture of customization is that we have standards which are sometimes impossible to meet. And there are many people who just are holding out for somebody who’s even more customized to everything they wanted. They don’t realize that, more than getting the customized person that you want, it’s about building a relationship together and actually doing a lot of bending, honestly. But I do think this kind of like, “Hey, maybe if I hold out a little longer, I can get someone who is even better,” I do think that’s kind of problematic. 

DUBNER: I see your point. You know, there was a mantra going around when our kids were little. I don’t know if you had the same mantra in Philadelphia. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Even better in Philadelphia, because you don’t get that much in Philadelphia. 

DUBNER: But why the heck are we telling this to our children when they’re entering into an age where that’s not at all true? 

DUCKWORTH: Mm. How about, “Ask for more, email Stephen Dubner specifically, and maybe he’ll change it?” 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela tests Stephen’s multitasking skills.

DUCKWORTH: Start with the number 11 and add 17 and just keep going. I also want you to answer my next question. Can you do those two things in parallel? 

*      *      * 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’d like to read you an email from one of our listeners. Bob Banack writes, “I recently listened to No Stupid Questions Episode 42.”

DUBNER: Oh, 42 was a good one. 

DUCKWORTH: “In it, Stephen jokingly responds to Angela that people can multitask. Rebecca did not fact-check the point at the end of the episode, but I think you should address the topic in a future episode since the stories I’ve read on the subject say when you multitask, you end up not doing your best on any of the tasks. I think this is a worthy topic for your investigation.” 

DUBNER: So, first of all, I love that Bob is fact-checking our fact-checking, or lack thereof. 

DUCKWORTH:  Yeah, very meta.

DUBNER: When I “jokingly” said that people can multitask, we were talking about the fact that fertility has fallen in the U.S. during the pandemic. And you said, “It’s because everybody is binging on Netflix.” And I said, “Well, can’t you do two things at the same time?” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Well, I guess it depends on whether you’ve put one of those two things on autopilot. 

DUBNER: But Bob didn’t actually ask a question. He says it’s a topic worth investigating. So, Angela, how about we turn it into a question for Bob, or maybe two, starting with perhaps: what is multitasking? I believe the word first arose in the 1960s talking about computers — IBM computers specifically. And the idea was that a computing machine could literally execute multiple tasks simultaneously, unlike a human. But it’s come to mean something else, which I think we all know but we should probably define. 

DUCKWORTH: I think the term multitasking refers, generally, to doing two tasks synchronously, and I think that’s the key — not in series, but at the same time. 

DUBNER: But if you say “two tasks synchronously,” I could say, “Well, right now, even though I’m pretty focused on speaking with Angela Duckworth, I’m also breathing and sitting. I’m probably digesting. I ate lunch earlier — I hope I’m digesting. So, in that regard, I’m just like a 1960s computer.” But that’s not what Bob means, plainly. I gather Bob is much more concerned with the sort of cognitive multitasking that we talk about, yes? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that when you talk about the fact that you are breathing and so forth, those are also cognitive in the sense that your brain has a role. 

DUBNER: Oh, now you’re getting all smarty pants on me. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m going neuro. And by the way, I have, like, a degree in neurobiology and a degree in neuroscience. So I’m going to flex a little bit here. 

DUBNER: Hey, you know what? It’s all worth it now. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s right. Well, what I’m about to say I didn’t really need those degrees for. But it is not a trivial example to say, I’m breathing, I’m digesting. You’re also using your eyes — your visual system is processing lots of information. You should at least just acknowledge that there’s parallel processing. I think what is intriguing, and maybe more to the point for Bob’s question is, what about, for example, if I said, “Stephen, I want you to start with the number 11 and add 17 and just keep going.” And then, if I said, “Stephen, I also want you to answer my next question.” Can you do those two things in parallel? That’s the kind of higher-level problem that is hard to do in synchrony with another higher-level problem of the same kind. 

DUBNER: Right. And adding prime numbers is just hard. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, it is. You might be able to do it if I said, like, “Start with zero and add twos.” By the way, I think it would actually still be hard. 

DUBNER: Let’s try it. Two, four, six, eight. Who do we appreciate? Angela, Angela, Angela. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, what did my mother tell me, Stephen? 

DUBNER: Your mother told you that — ten, 12, 14, 16, 18 — 

DUCKWORTH: My mother told me you get what you get, but you don’t get upset. 

DUBNER: 18, 20, 22, 24. It wasn’t actually your mother that told you that, because that came after your mother. You’re referring to an antediluvian conversation now. 26, 28, 30, 32. 

DUCKWORTH: And, by the way, the fact that you are saying it out loud, that might have been a way for you to actually multitask a little better. 

DUBNER: 168.

DUCKWORTH: But multitasking itself is actually a topic of lively debate among neuroscientists and psychologists as well. There are things that the human brain is able to do in parallel with other things at no cost. I think physical and cognitive can very often take different real estate. Like, you can walk and you can listen to a podcast at the same time. I think the question is this: Clearly, there are certain higher-level mental tasks — doing really hard arithmetic, thinking about the meaning of life — that does seem to have an interference problem. And there’s a reasonable consensus in the scientific community that there is something of a, quote-unquote, “scarce resource” of conscious attention. And that is debated about why it is finite, what is exactly the sense in which it is finite, how does the neural architecture work? But the finding itself, that some things the brain can’t do in parallel, is pretty incontrovertible. 

DUBNER: You mentioned a finite supply of conscious attention. Is there a way to increase that supply? 

DUCKWORTH: There are two ways in which a resource can be finite. Attention might be finite in the sense that it runs out. There is another sense in which attention and cognitive control can be finite, and that is that, at any given moment I only have a certain amount. It’s more like bandwidth. And if it’s being taken up by one thing, it crowds out something else. But it’s not diminished over time. It’s not depleted. And I think one of the big controversies is whether these cognitive-control, attentional resources are finite in the first sense. Like, A) if I spend a lot of energy focusing on Stephen, then after this podcast session, I’ll have to go home and take a nap or indulge my impulses, versus the second kind. The growing consensus in the scientific community is that these cognitive-control resources are more finite in the sense of bandwidth, that at any given time, you can only allocate them to one thing or the other, and that may be the crux of why multitasking is difficult. When you are driving a car, if you want to check your text messages, at that moment, your attention is not allocated to, for example, the oncoming traffic or what else is going on that you need to be aware of as a driver. That’s the sense in which attention and cognitive control is finite. That is the sense in which you cannot truly synchronously multitask. You have to do it in series. 

DUBNER: That was such a lovely and useful explanation of the two different ways in which attention can be finite. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, it took me a long time to figure that out, because ego depletion as a theory has been a big deal in psychology. Barack Obama said something when he was in office about how he didn’t want to crowd his day with too many decisions because it might be depleting. And I think that kind of took these two ways in which something could be finite and maybe blurred them together. And actually, I think it’s much more useful to think of the human brain as having a finite bandwidth that isn’t necessarily depleted over time, but at any one moment has its limits. Now, I didn’t even answer your question, which is, like, can we grow the resource itself? 

DUBNER: I assume that if I smoke a lot of marijuana then I become much more focused on multiple tasks?

DUCKWORTH: I actually know some scientists who might give you surprising answers to that question. There’s some evidence, though, that cognitive control, how much attention we even have, right — like, our working memory, etc., there is certainly a segment of the scientific community who would say you can train it. Like anything else about us, it’s malleable, and you can practice. 

DUBNER: Like memory, like some forms of intelligence, etc. 

DUCKWORTH: There are other researchers who would say that our working memory, the short-term buffer, the number of digits we can keep in our head — that there are some hard limits on that. I would say this: Whether or not in some fundamental way you can train your cognitive control resources to just have more of them, one thing, which is probably easier to do and higher leverage, is to learn strategies that actually make it so that you don’t need these limited resources as much. 

DUBNER: So, a strategy would look like what? 

DUCKWORTH: For example, let’s take the driver and the texting thing. You could say to me, “Well, I hear what you say about attention being finite. And I hear what you say about it being dangerous — texting while driving — but maybe I’ll just grow my attention enough that the pie is big enough that I can drive and text at the same time.” And I have a colleague, I should say, at Penn named Kit Delgado, an emergency-room physician who actually changed his whole career because he, as an E.R. physician, had so many experiences, tragic, tragic accidents, where the victims of texting while driving — often the person who was not the texter. He changed his entire career. And that’s all he works on right now, behavioral science to reduce texting while driving and other very foolish things. But I think rather than saying, like, “Oh, I’m going to train my attentional resources to be bigger,” The smarter thing would be to use strategies to make it not easy or possible for you to text while driving. 

DUBNER: Okay. Sure. So, that’s the constraining way to do it. Can I describe a slightly different way to make someone like Bob, or even someone who’s maybe texting and driving, feel a little bit different about it? So, it’s a conundrum, right, — that people want to multitask because they think they’re doing something good. 

DUCKWORTH: They think they’re being more efficient. 

DUBNER: And I have seen research — this is by Gal Zauberman at Yale. Do you know Gal? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I do know Gal. 

DUBNER: And maybe you know his coauthors, Shalena Srna and Rom Shrift. So, they found, in what looked to me like a series of pretty clever experiments, that many people pride themselves on being good at multitasking, but what Zauberman and his colleagues came up with was an idea that — what if you could essentially lie to people and tell them that they’re multitasking, which makes them feel good, but have them not literally multitask, and therefore have the task turn out well? 

DUCKWORTH: So, how does this work? 

DUBNER: So, they recruited a bunch of people to watch a video. It was a “Shark Week” video from Animal Planet. They split the participants into two groups. One group were the alleged multitaskers. And they were told that they were going to work on two tasks at the same time — a learning task, which is about what’s in the video, and a transcribing task, which means they need to write down what’s being said in the video. The other group is doing exactly the same thing — they’re watching and comprehending the video, and they’re going to write down what is said, but it was framed to them as a single activity. Afterwards, there’s a multiple-choice quiz about the content of the video to see how well they processed it. And here, I’ll read from a summary. “The most fundamental finding is that when you take the exact same activity between these two groups, you find that those who believe they are multitasking are more engaged and perform better than those who believe they’re doing a single task. Zauberman and his colleagues ran a total of 32 experiments across multiple realms to confirm this effect.” So it’s a mind trick, plainly. But can you imagine a way in which that kind of cognitive trick — we could use it on ourselves? 

DUCKWORTH: So, there is always a cost to doing two high-level mental things at once. And I don’t know if there are any real tricks to get yourself to do it better. The major thing is that people should know that they are feeling more efficient, probably, when they’re multitasking — you’re toggling between your email and this document that you’re writing, it feels like you’re getting two things done at once, but the switching costs are real. And every time you have to reorient your eyes on the page, you’re losing ground. 

DUBNER: We have talked on this show before, though, about the mental challenge and the sort of excitement of keeping several balls in the air. I think the example we talked about was a wait-person in a restaurant keeping up with several tables of diners. And you and I have talked about how, in the morning when I get up, I’ll do some reading, and then I’ll look at emails, and then you’re kind of sorting through which puzzles you want to solve and when and how. And there’s some feeling there that, to me, is very exciting, of not being sequential and robotic. There’s a little bit of, “Well, they might actually intersect or feather together in a useful way. And so let me go with one.” But then that might trigger something useful in how to think about a different project or respond to someone else. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s toggling, right? And you’re being open while you’re toggling to the possibility that you’re going to change what you do because of some thing that happens when you’re toggling. But you’re not doing those things at exactly the same time. 

DUBNER: And do you feel that toggling is a more acceptable cognitive trick, or cognitive pursuit, than multitasking? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, toggling is the only option your brain has, really. Again, when you’re using the same neural architecture, or using the same higher-order processes, you only have one option. That’s the only thing the brain can do. You can just fool yourself into thinking that you’re not toggling. Now, acknowledging that, you could say, like, “Okay, how do I make best use of that?” Say, for example, you want to toggle at the time scale of 10 minutes. You’re like, “I want to do 10 minutes of email. And then I’m going to take 10 minutes to do something else.” Great. I toggle, actually, at the time scale of days. So, in my lab, Wednesday is a no-meeting day. I mean, we break this rule sometimes. But we like to toggle between having lots of conversation and collaboration, and then a day in the week where you’re not really allowed to talk to anybody else or invade their schedule, and you just read and think and write notes. And so, I think you could lean into the toggling at the level of minutes or the level of days, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s possible to do everything at once. 

DUBNER: So, we can’t multitask well, but we like to think we can, and therefore, many people do. Or many people do because they enjoy it. They enjoy the feeling of feeling productive. Or maybe they’re too easily bored to stick with one thing. So, do you think there’s any significant upside worth considering in that pleasure that people get from doing it, even if it’s not productive? 

DUCKWORTH: I will say this: I think the ideal for many of us very busy people is that we do certain things enough so that, instead of competing for the same higher-order neural architecture, it’s possible to basically put it into habit mode —and then you are, quote-unquote, “multitasking,” in that you are having a really intense conversation with a friend but also making quesadillas. But it’s not really competing for the same neural architecture. So, the salvation may be here habit, that if you can routinize or habitize certain things that at one point in your life probably did take a lot of cognitive control — like, you don’t know how to make a quesadilla — and then you can become that efficient person that you aspire to be. 

DUBNER: I have to say, I found this conversation extremely interesting and fruitful. I thank you for it. I also, while listening to you, I did a crossword puzzle and my taxes, I emptied the dishwasher. So this was awesome. 

*      *      * 

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

Stephen uses the opening music for 20th Century Fox movies as an example of an audio sting. The sound does fit the definition of a sting, but it’s also described by 20th Century Studios as “fanfare” — a short, ceremonial tune sounded by trumpets, bugles or horns. The theme was originally composed in 1933 by Fox music director Alfred Newman — uncle to American composer Randy Newman. It began to disappear from movie screens in the 1970s until George Lucas insisted on including it at the beginning of his first Star Wars film. In fact, Oscar-winning composer John Williams wrote the main theme of Star Wars in the same key as the fanfare in order to make the opening score sound more like one continuous piece. 

Later, Angela asked Stephen about the word “antediluvian,” which is, in fact, used to describe the time before the flood in the book of Genesis. “Diluvian” on its own means “of or pertaining to a deluge,” which, of course, refers to an overflowing of water, or any destructive inundation — for example: a deluge of customization made Angela nostalgic for the days when television had only three channels. 

Finally, Stephen recalls hearing “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” when his children were much younger, and he wonders if Angela is familiar with the phrase as well. The mantra is actually known to parents around the world. Children’s book author Victoria Kann included the line in her New York Times best-selling picture book, Pinkalicious — a story about a little girl who, as the name of the book suggests, loves the color pink. When Pinkalicious asks for more pink cupcakes after already receiving seconds, she is told by her mother that, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Spoiler alert: She eats them anyway and turns pink as a result. The book was originally published in 2006 and was adapted into a PBS television series in 2018. Obviously, the sentiment behind the phrase is echoed throughout a wide array of parenting expressions, including Mick Jagger’s famous lyrics, “you can’t always get what you want” — a line that has been repurposed and sung to dissatisfied children since the song was first released in 1968.

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, James Foster, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: I could not understand the phrase “drag and drop,” which is, you know, what you do with your computer.

DUCKWORTH: I do know what that is. 

DUBNER: The first 50 times I heard that, I thought, what’s a dragon drop — a drop that’s left behind by a dragon? 

DUCKWORTH: There are so many things like that, like “doggy-dog world.” My dad used to say, “It’s a doggy-dog world.” 

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Sources

  • Joel Rose, co-founder and C.E.O. of New Classrooms.
  • Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia University.
  • Mucio Kit Delgado, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Gal Zauberman, professor of marketing at Yale University.
  • Shalena Srna, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan.
  • Rom Schrift, associate professor of marketing at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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