Search the Site

Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure somebody out there is actually eating Cheeto salads.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: What’s the best way to ask for forgiveness? 

DUCKWORTH: Say sorry. 

DUBNER: Sorry!

Also: Are we naive to think that insights from social science can result in behavior change for good? 

DUCKWORTH: We don’t need self-control anymore. We don’t need behavioral science anymore.

*      *      *

Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, have you ever heard of the gratitude letter?

Stephen J. DUBNER: No, but unless it’s something radically different than what it sounds like, I think I understand it. 

DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Is that a thank you note just rebranded?” No, it’s actually a thing.  

DUBNER: What is it? 

DUCKWORTH: So, a gratitude letter is when you write a letter to someone— 

DUBNER: Expressing gratitude?  

DUCKWORTH: But it can’t just be, “Thanks, Aunt Marge, for the beautiful yellow sweater.” That’s a thank you note. A gratitude letter is like—

DUBNER: “Thanks, Aunt Marge, for teaching me how to knit yellow sweaters.”

DUCKWORTH: “And for being such a role model in my life.” 

DUBNER: I’m tearing up now. 

DUCKWORTH: Yup, that usually happens when you get a gratitude letter. So, it’s to someone you haven’t properly thanked. And it’s about what they meant in your life. Does that help?  

DUBNER: Sounds lovely. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a lovely thing. And actually, there’s lots of research on it showing that it makes people happy to write them. It makes people happy to receive them. But here’s my question. I was wondering why there isn’t an analogous exercise called the forgiveness letter? What do you think about that?  

DUBNER: So, I would say that I’m not so sure this doesn’t exist, maybe not as formulaically as the gratitude letter. But, before we get into the apology letter or the apology generally, is the gratitude letter something that was conceived by or canonized by psychologists? 

DUCKWORTH: I think the person who should take the most credit is a guy named Bob Emmons. Have you ever heard of Bob Emmons? 

DUBNER: I haven’t. But I hadn’t heard of a gratitude letter either, so I don’t know much. 

DUCKWORTH: I know. What ungrateful rock are you living under, Stephen? Okay. Bob Emmons is a world-class psychologist. He’s really well-known for his work on gratitude. He was studying this and its many, many benefits. And I think his idea was: what could people do to actually create more gratitude, willfully? 

DUBNER: So, I know that writing in a gratitude journal is a pretty common practice now, at least among certain people. It does make me wonder what the difference is between writing a letter of gratitude to someone who will actually read it and could potentially reciprocate, versus just writing to yourself in your journal. Do you have any idea? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Marty Seligman was my Ph.D. adviser, and some people call him the father of positive psychology. So, Marty did a study with other people in the lab, including his postdoc at the time, Tracy Steen. And there was a random assignment to multiple conditions, but one of them was the gratitude letter and the other was — among others, I should say — writing in a gratitude journal. And I believe the finding was that they both make you happier in the short term, but that over the longer term, the gratitude journal might have more enduring benefits.  

DUBNER: And I’d assume because there’s more opportunity to engage, right? There are only so many people you can write a gratitude letter to. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, there’s even a lighter version than a gratitude journal, which is you just think of three good things that have happened to you, sometimes called the “three blessings exercise,” which you could just do in your pajamas while you’re brushing your teeth — you can make a habit of it, right? Whereas writing a long letter to somebody who you haven’t properly thanked is unlikely something you’re going to be doing on a daily basis.  

DUBNER: So, it’s more of a habit than a one-shot boost. 


DUBNER: So, it’s nice to hear about gratitude. And that doesn’t surprise me. As for apologies, I do know that some economists, weirdly perhaps, have developed a framework for asking for forgiveness, or at least — maybe this is a little bit more transactional than that — they call it how to “optimize” apologies. 

DUCKWORTH: That sounds right.

DUBNER: Two of the economists who’ve worked on this are John List at the University of Chicago and Ben Ho, who’s at Vassar. And I believe it started when John List was working, on the side, for Uber. He was the chief economist at Uber. And he had a really bad Uber trip. I think it was something like, he was on his way to a fairly important meeting. The Uber was supposed to arrive, and it didn’t arrive. And he was surprised that he got no apology from Uber. So he called up the C.E.O., Travis Kalanick, that he worked with and said, “Hey, if I got pissed about this, I’m guessing there are a lot of other people who are getting pissed when something goes wrong. And do you think that we’re hurting our business by not apologizing?” 

So they began to experiment with different sorts of apologies when something went wrong on the Uber platform and different kinds of incentives that they could offer — cash, a coupon for the next ride and so on. And then John List roped in this economist at Vassar I mentioned, Ben Ho, who had already been working on how to optimize apologies, having nothing to do with Uber. What they concluded together was that, yes, you can optimize your apology. There’s a big difference between a good apology and a bad apology. And for a good apology to land, it must have several different components, none of which I would say are at all surprising, except maybe the last one. So, the components are: it has to be sincere, which sounds about as obvious as it could be. It’s like, “Yeah. Sorry.”  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the way that nine-year-olds say sorry when you say, “Say sorry.” 

DUBNER: “Sorry!” So, that doesn’t work. So, sincerity is important. You have to acknowledge the wrongness. In other words, the non-apology apology that a lot of people say — “I’m sorry you were offended by the thing that I said that I still believe was true.” 

DUCKWORTH: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I hate that one. 

DUBNER: So, if you want your apology to be accepted, there needs to be acknowledgement that it was wrong. There further needs to be a commitment to improve — that this was an anomaly or an aberration. “I understand it was wrong and I will not do that again.” So, none of those I think are nonobvious. The one that the economists came up with, that I do think resonates, and I think puts it over the top to a really good apology, is that it has to be costly to the apologizer. And that doesn’t mean necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of something. It has to show the person receiving the apology, or the group receiving the apology, that that commitment to improve actually involves some of your time, or money, or reputation, or whatnot. And that is how to, according to economists at least, optimize an apology. 

DUCKWORTH: I really like that. And by the way, there’s a connection to gratitude, because the emotion of gratitude is experienced when somebody does something for you. We feel grateful, especially, and maybe only, when we feel like somebody has done something for us at some cost. And so I wonder whether we could translate this into non-Uber terms. So, my most frequent context of apologizing, or needing to apologize, or wanting apologies is my marriage. The next time I, God forbid, do something that I have to apologize for, that I have to ask forgiveness for, what would it mean to offer something like reparations? What does that mean in the context of a romantic relationship? 

DUBNER: Okay, first of all, let’s focus in. What’s this transgression? What did you do that you’re asking forgiveness for? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, say, for example, I lose my temper, which, yeah, sometimes happens. Say there’s a misunderstanding. We were supposed to meet at two o’clock at this place. And then, he doesn’t show. 

DUBNER: Oh, so it’s really his fault, you’re saying, that you lost your temper, because he didn’t show. Very interesting. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, what often happens is that there’s some error that was made that I would say was his responsibility. But like on a scale from one to 10, it’s like a one. And then I react as if it were a 10. I think that sometimes happens, where I lose my temper, and it’s totally out of proportion to the tiny, little, innocent misstep that was made. And it doesn’t happen often. But when it does, I think I probably ought to apologize. And I’m wondering— I get the part where I have to say that I’m sorry, sincerely. I get the part that I have to say I’m responsible for losing my temper. It’s nobody’s fault but mine. 

DUBNER: Commit to improve as well. 

DUCKWORTH: I will try to, next time, use different language, but what about the last part? 

DUBNER: So, now, let’s make it costly. What’s something that Jason loves to do and would love you to do with him, but you never will do? 

DUCKWORTH: Rock climbing. 

DUBNER: There you go. So, you could say, “You know what, Jason? I totally lost my temper. I apologize. It was wrong. I need to stop doing that. And I’m going to try to stop doing it. And you know what? Just to show my commitment to this, the next time I do it, I’m immediately going to book us a couples rock climbing session.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you know what I love about this? You didn’t say, “And you know what? I’m going to go rock climbing with you.” You said, “The next time.” Like you’re my agent here. “No, she’s not going to go rock climbing today, but we’ll talk about the future.”

DUBNER: And also, the value of an apology is not just to cleanse your conscience or to make the other person feel better. But if it’s a relationship — it’s a friend, family member, whatever — the point of an apology, I mean, this is a point that the sociologist Christine Carter makes, is that, if you’ve hurt or offended someone, the idea is to repair and then grow the relationship. So, really, if you look at it in that way, even from an economic perspective, an apology is a great thing because it produces future benefit. And look, we should say, it’s a totally different deal when you’re talking about a person apologizing to another person, and a company apologizing to its market, whatever. It is interesting, though. In medicine, for instance, for years there was essentially a prohibition for doctors to apologize to patients if things went wrong because that might lead to malpractice. 

DUCKWORTH: Right, because it’s an admission of responsibility. 

DUBNER: And then a bunch of states passed what came to be called “I’m sorry” laws that allowed doctors to apologize without having any liability accrued to them. And they found that that actually cut down on malpractice lawsuits. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, because when your doctor says, “I’m sorry,” and accepts some responsibility, you feel less motivated to sue them. 

DUBNER: If I have it correct in my memory, that’s roughly the gist of the story. And I think it’s not such an easy story to prove, because there might be other factors that led to fewer malpractice suits, that might have co-traveled along with these “I’m sorry” laws. But that is at least the premise. But that does suggest the power of an apology that resonates with people. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, it would be nice to live in a society where we apologized and took responsibility. I don’t know that everybody has to do the equivalent of going rock climbing with each other. But I really, really appreciate it when I get an apology that is sincere and also where I feel like the person really did take responsibility. And it doesn’t always happen.  

DUBNER: Yeah, I have to say I dislike people who never apologize. It’s just not a good look. And I think we all know some people in our personal lives, or in public, where their strategy is basically to, even if they’ve done something that’s demonstrably wrong, just to counterattack.  

DUCKWORTH: So, why do you think they do that? 

DUBNER: Well, there is research from a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh named Karina Schulman, who has looked at why people fail to offer apologies. The three barriers she notices are that they have a low concern for the victim or the relationship. In other words, you just don’t really care. You have a perceived threat to your self-image. If I have to admit that I was wrong, I look bad in the eyes of other people, or maybe just in my own eyes. And then, also, there’s the perception that the apology won’t be effective, that you’re going to go ahead and demean yourself by apologizing, and it doesn’t matter. 

I would add one more, which is, you think it’s too late. Something happened, and then you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t handle that well. I should not have said that. I wish I had done something different.” But you don’t apologize. And then, after a few days, you’re like, “Well, if I go back now and do it, it’s going to be worse.” And I have to say, as someone who, on a couple occasions, failed to receive an apology that I thought was due, even if it came 10 years later, I would still like it, honestly.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, then I have a Yom Kippur question for you. 

DUBNER: I have a Yom Kippur answer for you then.

DUCKWORTH: Why, on the Day of Atonement, are you supposed to ask for forgiveness? You’re not supposed to actually literally ask the person that you wronged, right? It’s not an actual letter that you write to another person, is it? 

DUBNER: It’s a two-phase thing. You are encouraged to ask people for forgiveness for any transgressions that have happened during the previous year. That’s the individual part. But then there’s the communal part, where if you go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, you stand with all the other members of your congregation, and you recite this long set of prayers of all the different transgressions that are possible. And what’s really moving about that is, this is not about what I did, it’s not about what you did, it’s the fact that this is what humans can do. 

It’s an amazingly long and specific list. There’s like: for the sin we have committed by being hard-hearted, for the sins we have committed knowingly or unknowingly, for the sins we have committed by scoffing, for the sins we have committed by acting in a haughty demeanor, for the sins we have committed by an insincere confession — which indicates, by the way, that a bad apology can be worse than no apology at all. And so this is this very, I find, powerful collective request for forgiveness. And I do think it’s an interesting model. On the other hand, it’s only once a year. So I think it’d be better to build a mechanism where we could all apologize, or ask for forgiveness, more routinely than that. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And you don’t just mean becoming Catholic, right? And then going to a weekly confessional? “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” 

DUBNER: Look, whatever floats your forgiveness boat. I don’t think that forgiveness is only sanctioned within the realm of thousands-of-years-old religious traditions. I think that there’s a lot to be said for finding super-secular and accessible modes of apology and forgiveness, as evidenced by the fact that I expect to see you on a rock climbing wall in the near future. 

DUCKWORTH: I think I owe my husband enough rock climbing to get to the top of Mt. Everest. So, I agree. And I think that if we can develop a habit of thinking of three good things every morning, then maybe, at least once a week, you could think of one thing that you really ought to take responsibility for, and say sincerely, “I’m sorry; I’ll try to do better, and here’s what I’m going to do for you.” 

DUBNER: In fact, maybe you just bake that into the gratitude journal. So, on the last line of every page of the gratitude journal, there’s your forgiveness section there, your apology section. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. A slight amendment to that. You know why this has probably not taken off the way the gratitude exercise has? When you do the gratitude journal, you know what you feel? 

DUBNER: You feel good? 

DUCKWORTH: It makes you feel great. 

DUBNER: You’re immediately assuming that apologies don’t make you feel so good?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I mean, your attention is going to something that you feel bad about, right? That’s why you’re apologizing. 

DUBNER: But then you deal with it and you have a clear conscience. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, except for that if you weren’t thinking about it at all, then you’re still a net negative, right?

DUBNER: Oh, come on. You’re a psychologist, and you’re telling me just because you’re not thinking about it at all doesn’t mean it’s in there working its way?

DUCKWORTH: But you know what? What you’re not thinking about doesn’t actually have a lot of potency. That’s why denial is such a—

DUBNER: River.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I’m not saying we should be in denial. But, that’s why people do it. It’s a coping mechanism. 

DUBNER: I thought we were collectively of the opinion that too much denial will come back to haunt you. 

DUCKWORTH: Sure. Totally agree. I’m not saying that’s good in the long run. I’m just saying that you can do it. So, when you have a little forgiveness journal, you are activating all these thoughts of things that you did wrong. And so, here’s just a gentle suggestion. Let’s create a journal where you think of three good things, and you think of one thing that you could have done better that you should apologize for, but let’s just change the order, if that’s okay with you. So, first you ask for forgiveness. And you’re maybe feeling a little relief, but it’s a little bit of a bummer. Then you write your three good things. 

DUBNER: You really want the happy ending, don’t you? 

DUCKWORTH: I want to end on a high note. 

 DUBNER: So, let me just say this. I apologize for not thinking that your idea was better than mine. I now see that it was. I acknowledge I was wrong. I will work hard to improve on my assessment of your ideas versus my ideas. And the next time I make this mistake, I will go rock climbing with Jason. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Why hasn’t the behavior change revolution made us all heathier, happier, and more productive? 

DUCKWORTH: You sort of just really enjoy sitting around and not exercising. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angela, one project that you have been involved in, which is one of the ways that I got to know you much better, is a project called Behavior Change for Good, which has been around for a few years now. Do you wanna just give a top-down description of it? 

DUCKWORTH: Behavior Change for Good is a project that I am doing with Katy Milkman, who is its real leader. And the idea at its inception was: can you take social science — economics and psychology and sociology — and apply it to the question of enduring human behavior change? So, can you help people make healthy habits that last for months and years? And I say that in the past tense, because in the last few years since we got started, we’ve run some studies, and it’s become clear to us that changing behavior in the short term hasn’t yet been completely solved. So, before we end up trying to change behavior for good, we ought to do better at changing behavior even over the course of, for example, weeks. 

DUBNER: Wow. So, you just answered about 80 percent of my question. But let me go ahead and ask the question. We’ll get to the other 20 percent. And I should say, for anyone that wants to listen, we made a few Freakonomics Radio episodes about Behavior Change for Good. They are episode number 282, which was called “Could Solving This One Problem Solve All the Others?” That one problem being behavior change, basically. Episode number 306 was called “How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution.” And episode number 382, which was called “How Goes the Behavior-Change Revolution?” 

And this is what I wanted to talk about. It was inspired by a listener named Mark McMann writing in with the same question. He wrote, “I want to know how goes Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman’s behavior revolution?” And the reason it strikes me as a particularly good time to ask that question is, when I look at the pandemic, and the efforts that have been successful and unsuccessful at moving people toward compliance, when compliance is generally agreed-upon — mask-wearing, hand hygiene, social distancing, etc. I went looking for evidence that behavioral science was really contributing to this, that there were campaigns, or signs, or conversations that were informed by the kind of behavioral science that you and Katy do and many behavioral economists, Richard Thaler and so on, who wrote a book called Nudge, talking about the way to nudge people towards prosocial behavior, as opposed to mandates. And I came up empty. 

It made me really want to just revisit this larger question of behavior change generally. When smart, motivated, well-intentioned people like yourself and like Katy Milkman set out to routinize behavior change, I just wonder if changing human behavior in a way that we think is prosocial, all the things that you’re trying to get people to do — better nutrition, better savings plans, better education plans — I just wonder if you’re starting to feel like this is, if not a much harder project than you had envisioned in the beginning, maybe even not so possible.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not ready to say that human behavior change is impossible. Although, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re not saying that people can’t change. You’re saying that the project of applying social science to the problem of human behavior change may be a fool’s errand. Is that right? 

DUBNER: Yes. And I also don’t mean to turn this into a binary — like, no, the economists were right when they said that incentives are all that matter, versus the psychologists were right and they said all that matters is really framing things in the right way. I think it’s silly to be that binary. But I am frustrated that there aren’t more great successes of nudges and so on. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, I would first of all say that in cases like today where we’re in a pandemic and there are externalities, to use the economic term, to someone not wearing a mask — it’s not just bad for them; it’s bad for other people — that you might want to go right past nudges and go to hard paternalism. Just make it a law. I would be delighted if there were a law passed that said, “Wear a mask in public spaces, period.” And, of course, here’s a free mask. 

DUBNER: And can I just say, for people who might feel that that’s stepping over the limit of personal freedom. It’s interesting. I think one parallel that I’ve been thinking about a lot is seatbelts in cars, which are, of course, legally mandated now. But when seatbelts in cars were first proposed, they were mostly decried. The auto manufacturers didn’t want them in their cars because they thought that the prominent appearance of a safety device in this machine that was all about freedom and mobility would accentuate how dangerous they were. 

DUCKWORTH: Kind of a buzzkill. 

DUBNER: Congress — there were congressional hearings — felt that seatbelts were just a way to get more money from customers. If you put in a seatbelt, you’re going to charge $50 more. There was reluctance from many, many, many avenues. But what happened is, because the same thing kept happening over, and over, and over, and over, which is that tens of thousands of people kept getting killed every year in cars, finally, it came to be accepted. And now it’s obviously mandatory. But I find that a really interesting lesson in history to show how reluctant we can be for many reasons to embrace something that we now finally, as you said, had to require ourselves to use. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s amazing how long it can take us to do something which is common sense. Recently, the director of the C.D.C., Dr. Robert Redfield, said that if you just got everyone to wear masks, it would be even more effective than there being a vaccine. Masks are extremely effective, even though they’re primitive technology. And vaccines are great, but vaccines tend to not be 100 percent effective for all people. Okay. But if you asked me to audit the successes of behavioral science, which is not laws, and not mandates, and not taxes, but social norms, framing effects, defaults, etc., I would say that there are some wins that go on that side of the ledger. So, for example, I think defaults for retirement savings have generally been effective.

DUBNER: Okay. Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you immediately. 

DUCKWORTH: Except for—

DUBNER: You’re right. Well, this was a really, really, really big one. And it was something that Dick Thaler did many years ago with, I believe, Shlomo Benartzi

 DUCKWORTH: Shlomo Benartzi, yeah. 

DUBNER: And it’s great. And basically, it said that people have a hard time saving for pensions within their companies, in part because it’s a pain in the neck to sign up, all that paperwork, then you have to choose among all these mutual funds. What if, rather than having to opt in and do all that paperwork, you’re presumed to enroll, and you have to opt out instead? So, as you said, it flipped the default. And that was an awesome idea. And it’s been wildly successful. It’s helped people save billions, maybe trillions of dollars. But the fact that that is the first one that you mention — it’s often the only one that anyone can mention. And it happened 30 years ago.  

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Let me see if I can come up with a more recent big win. One of the big insights from behavioral science is that friction is bad. And if you want people to do something, you have to remove the barriers. Now, I’m not going to consider the following an example of a public good, but one-click shopping is essentially behavioral science in action. Somebody at Amazon figured out that if you could buy something with no effort — and also, if people can get their paper towels tomorrow, because of hyperbolic discounting, because, “Oh my gosh, waiting until Thursday — are you kidding me?” If I can click and it comes tomorrow, I’m capitalizing on the way we experience utility and our inability to imagine the future, etc. So, that’s not necessarily a public positive, but it’s certainly pervasive. 

DUBNER: It is pervasive. But let me challenge it a little bit and say that a lot of changes that we try to make via behavior change — let’s say, hand-hygiene compliance. What you can see in the realm of hand hygiene that really worked much better tend to be either design or technology changes. There’s having an R.F.I.D. chip in your I.D. badge. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so that when you go to the sink, it logs. 

 DUBNER: So, that puts a little shame in. Or designs so that the sink or the disinfectant is right at the proper spot. But what you’re describing with Amazon is, I would argue, more in the category of better design and technology than behavior change. I mean, it’s using the insights from psychology and behavioral science that, yeah, people want stuff right away. And yeah, people don’t want to go to a lot of trouble to do it. But I would argue that’s much more of a technology and design win than a behavior-change win.  

DUCKWORTH: There’s a blurry line between better U.X. and behavioral science.

DUBNER: Yeah. We should just say U.X. stands for user experience. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I think that’s the clever, sexy way. 

DUBNER: Yeah, that is really sexy. 

DUCKWORTH: So, this big, splashy study that came out recently where the New York City Justice Department was sending out court summonses, and what behavioral scientists among them did was they just redesigned the summons form just to basically be better U.X., more readable. I think they may have sent a text message. And they were able to reduce the percentage of people who neglected to come in. And then, of course, there’s all these consequences. There’s jail time that needs to happen if you don’t answer your first summons, etc. So, was that behavioral science? Well, it was published in an academic journal. In fact, it was published in Science, the best academic journal, and it was conducted by scientists. Or was that just basic common sense and user experience? So, there’s a bit of a blurry line, I think.  

DUBNER: Good point. Noted and accepted. So, let me ask you this. A little bird told me that you, to some degree, acknowledge the difficulty of behavior change generally to the point where you’ve come up with a list, like Angela Duckworth’s 10 — or I’m told it’s 13 — commandments of why behavior change is hard. Is that true? 

DUCKWORTH: It is true. And let me group them for you, because 13 is a lot for anybody to remember. But I think there’s three buckets of reasons why behavior change is extremely hard. So, the first bucket has four reasons in it. The bucket is called “restraining forces.” And at the beginning of behavior change, they make the status quo very sticky. And they restrain you from getting started. Imagine that you want to start an exercise program. There could be ambivalence about that. Like, you just really enjoy sitting around and not exercising. If you can’t get the person to really want to get started, then what are you going to do? There’s only so much you can say to a person if they don’t feel like they want to change.  

DUBNER: I see. I’m curious whether— this is something I learned actually while reporting on one of the episodes about your Behavior Change for Good project. When Danny Kahneman was talking about his influence of Kurt Lewin—  

DUCKWORTH: Yes. So, Kurt Lewin was this amazing scientist. You know you’ve really made it when your name becomes an adjective. So it’s “Lewinian.” If you read these old articles that he wrote, he has all these force diagrams, just like we learned in physics with the arrows pointing different ways. And he really thought of behavior change as essentially a problem where you have promoting forces. Like, I could be healthier if I started exercising. Maybe it would be a way to meet other people. But then you have restraining forces. Like, I don’t have any of the stuff to exercise. I get out of breath very quickly. I feel kind of silly doing things that I don’t know how to do. So, Lewin had the insight that when we try to change our own behavior, and especially when we try to change somebody else’s behavior — our romantic partner, our colleague — what we tend to do is we try to pile on more promoting forces. We tell people all the reasons why they should exercise. We try to make it sound better. 

 DUBNER: Which can come off as preaching and scolding, by the way. 

 DUCKWORTH: It tends not to work for various reasons, including that one. And then, the further insight was that you can actually get more leverage in many cases by removing the restraining forces, by identifying the reasons why the person isn’t yet exercising and then taking them out of the way. 

DUBNER: Now, do you think our natural tendency, or what I assume is a natural tendency, to try to promote promoting forces as opposed to removing restraining forces, do you think that’s a human instinct? Do you think that’s something that comes from certain kinds of cultures or even political systems? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s probably mostly a human instinct. The promoting forces are what’s obvious, right? You’re trying to get your kid to study. So, you exhort them to study. You tell them that studying is important, etc. You don’t ask the question, why aren’t they studying already? It’s just less obvious. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, you make the argument that behavior change is hard for many reasons. They’re divided into three buckets. The first bucket is that there are a lot of restraining forces, especially at the beginning, that make the status quo sticky, essentially. What’s bucket two? 

DUCKWORTH: So, I guess if we’re going to go all Lewin on this, if there’s a force diagram and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve removed some of these arrows that are pointing in the wrong direction, but objects don’t move until they have a shove, right?” So, now we’ve got to shove people in the right direction. And I think getting going is hard. From a perspective of a policy maker, you’re going to try to get people to wear masks, or wear seat belts, or stop smoking, or eat healthier — we send these public service announcements or these nutrition labels. We slap them on the side of every box of cereal. But the U.X. is just bad. It’s bad graphics, bad writing, not engaging. Collectively, the “getting going is hard“ category has a lot to do with design, actually.  

DUBNER: So, restraining forces, getting going is hard — I hope the third basket has some good things in it. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, we’ve removed the restraining forces. We gave the object a shove in the right direction. And the last one is momentum. Sticking with change is hard. 

DUBNER: But wait. Momentum in physics at least, once you get it moving, it wants to stay in motion, no? 

DUCKWORTH: Only if you are in an environment that has no friction, Stephen. And there are no such environments. 

DUBNER: I thought you just removed the friction from the first basket. 

DUCKWORTH: But you can’t remove all friction. And I think that’s really important, because in human behavior change, there’s also frictional force. Let’s take for example, you’ve decided to start eating a salad for lunch instead of your usual bag of Cheetos. Now, that’s really hard, but we remove all the restraining forces. We make the salad available. 

DUBNER: Just for the purposes of verisimilitude, we should say that there was a transition where it became a Cheeto salad. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think Taco Bell actually made a fair amount of money when they made a salad in a deep fried— which should be illegal practically, right? I’m sure somebody out there is actually eating Cheeto salads. But let’s take the case of somebody who stops eating Cheetos and starts eating green, leafy, oil-and-vinegar salads. You do it one day, you do two days, you do it three days. But, there are all these frictional forces against you. Maybe your husband has not taken on the salad lunch routine. And he wants to instead go to McDonald’s. So, that’s one frictional force.

There’s other frictional forces. You just went on your autopilot mode, and you just, before you knew it, ate a bag of Cheetos. And it just happened. So, I do think that even once you’ve gotten going and even when you’ve had some small wins, that sticking with behavior change can be hard. And I don’t think there is a universe in which there aren’t these counter forces that you have to deal with if you want to change behavior really for good. 

DUBNER: So, you’ve just given us 13 points worth of essentially bad news, if you want to use behavioral science to affect behavior change. But, I guess, what I’m asking is a big and scary existential question: Do you feel it’s time to give up on the promise of this kind of social-science-driven behavior change and acknowledge that we’re going to need either a more aggressive paternalism, we’re going to need more aggressive design and technology, we’re going to need to leave the humans more out of the equation, and just set up the ecosystem better so that they can’t screw it up? 

DUCKWORTH: So, I’m going to argue for a cocktail. I think if there are at least 13 reasons why behavior change is hard, we can’t expect the answer to be one thing. We shouldn’t expect that these are going to be panaceas because the problem is much more complicated, and there are multiple forces to be reckoned with. So, we should work more and more towards these complex, multi-ingredient interventions. I’m just saying that I don’t think you’re ever going to have a day where you’re like, “We don’t need self-control anymore. We don’t need behavioral science anymore.” Because, in some way, shape or form, we’re still going to be doing battle with ourselves. 

*      *      *

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

During the conversation about forgiveness, Stephen tells Angela about how economist John List’s poor experience with an Uber ride resulted in a framework to “optimize apologies.” However, Stephen’s recollection was slightly incorrect. He says that List’s car never arrived; the Uber actually did pick him up, but instead of dropping him at the conference where he was scheduled to give a keynote address, the driver took him on a 25 minute detour that ended back at List’s house. You can hear John List share the full story in Freakonomics Radio Ep. 353, “How to Optimize Your Apology.” 

Later, Stephen breaks down the reasons that people often fail to offer apologies, and references the work of psychologist Karina Schulman. He actually meant to say Karina Schumaan. Schumann is the social psychology program chair at The University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on apologies, forgiveness, empathy and revenge. 

During the second half of the episode, Anglea compares Stephen’s idea for a Cheeto salad to an option available at Taco Bell. It’s possible that she was thinking of the Fiesta Taco Salad, composed of beef, beans, fried tortilla strips, rice, sour cream, cheese and a hint of lettuce. But for those who are more interested in Frito-Lay than Taco Bell, “recipe developer” Nicole Perry actually created a flaming hot Cheetos kale salad that includes white wine vinegar, toasted walnuts and Pink Lady apples. For listeners who are brave enough to try it at home, we’ll link to the full recipe in our show notes. 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin and James Foster. Our intern is Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. 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 Cheeto-inspired concoction that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: So, Angela, you’re a busy person. You have your hands in a lot of pots. That’s not a phrase, is it? 

DUCKWORTH: That is not a phrase.

DUBNER: You have your poker in a lot of fires?

DUCKWORTH: I think we should stop.

Read full Transcript


  • Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.
  • Marty Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Positive Psychology Center.
  • Ben Ho, economist at Vassar College.
  • John List, economist at the University of Chicago.
  • Christine Carter, author and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center.
  • Karina Schumann, psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago.
  • Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Shlomo Benartzi, professor of behavioral decision making at U.C.L.A.
  • Kurt Lewin, social psychologist.



Episode Video