DUBNER: You were basically like, “I don’t think lust is a problem at all in the modern world.” I’m like, “Where have you been hanging out, lady?”
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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 sins do No Stupid Questions listeners struggle with the most?
DUBNER: Well, you say struggle — some might say enjoy.
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DUBNER: So, Angela, we just spent the last seven episodes talking about the seven deadly sins and our take on them — for anyone who’s keeping score at home: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, also known as anger, and sloth. And we agreed that some are perhaps outdated, some are much more nuanced than we think. Some of them are a little bit more virtue than sin perhaps. Still, we do love to talk about the seven deadly sins and we love to measure ourselves. That’s one thing that came up in conversation after conversation — when I’m listening to you discuss either the research or the way you designed the survey that you administered to No Stupid Questions listeners, I just think it’s a natural instinct to want to compare yourself to others. So, you created this survey. I’d like you to explain it, I’d like you to tell us what you were looking for, and then let’s get into some of the data.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so we have a survey of 32 questions. They’re just statements like the following: “I procrastinate. I quit when I’m frustrated. I avoid hard work.” Those are the items for sloth, especially sloth for doing work. There’s also sloth for doing exercise, but my point is that these statements are very simple descriptions of behavior that you then on this survey say, “never, rarely, sometimes, usually, always.” When you finish the survey, you get a little profile of the domains in which you are higher in impulsivity versus lower in impulsivity. And that’s not all. We further break down a given domain — I just mentioned sloth. You could have sloth for your work, you could have sloth for exercise. We’ll also give you your sub-scores for that. And there’s one other domain that we broke down into parts and that was gluttony because there are so many ways to have the sin of gluttony manifest in your life. So you get three scores, you get gluttony for food — like eating unhealthy food, eating more than you should — gluttony for drugs and alcohol — binge drinking, smoking, etc. — and then actually gluttony for consumer goods, you know, purchasing things you don’t really need. Yeah, shopping and so forth. So that’s what the survey is. And it’s based on research that was led by my then graduate student who’s now a professor named Eli Tsukayama. And we streamlined the survey a little bit for listeners.
DUBNER: And tell me what you were thinking you might learn, and then of course, I want to get to what you did learn. Maybe you learned some things you hadn’t thought about and maybe you failed to learn some things you were hoping to learn.
DUCKWORTH: Well, at most recent count — and the survey is still up, so anybody who wants to take it, I think it takes like about a minute and a half, maybe two minutes. It’s very fast. You can see what I mean by this survey. And at present we have over 6,000 responses from people all over the world. And I want to share with you kind of the highlight reel of the data analysis. I say to my graduate students, “Data are like fish. You don’t want them to sit around too long or they go bad and start to smell.”
DUBNER: Wait, why? What do you mean by that?
DUCKWORTH: I think that allusion comes back to Ben Franklin where he said the house guests are like fish, you know, they start to stink on the third day. But I like to say to my graduate students, you don’t want to get into the habit of being the sort of student who collects data and a month later gets out of bed and starts analyzing it. You want to be the sort of student who says “Data! Yay data!” And then you just like, get into it.
DUBNER: Okay. But it’s not like it’s perishable.
DUCKWORTH: It is not.
DUBNER: That’s what I thought you were imply — okay.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It doesn’t actually go bad and actually data turns out, don’t smell.
DUBNER: I’ve smelled some data.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, yes, exactly unless it’s suspicious. But anyway, my point is that I didn’t want to waste any time analyzing the data, and I want to give you the highlight reel of the major findings. So the first finding is consistent with what I have found in the past, which is that when you look at this sample of listeners, we are very variable across these different kinds of sins. By that I mean, if you score, like me, really high in the sin of pride, right — it’s a real problem — it doesn’t mean that you’re going to score high in the sin of lust, which, by the way, is my lowest problematic domain.
DUBNER: Now we should say, you also need to get into the demographics of this sample set, because if you’re talking about — I’m not saying that old married people can’t be lustful — they certainly can. But some of the questions were like, “Have you had sex with a stranger?”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, cheating on your romantic partner, engaging in casual sex.
DUBNER: But some of them weren’t about cheating. Some of them were just, “Have you had casual sex?” Well, that’s going to be, I think, a lot more likely among people who are younger and not married than people who are old and married, correct?
DUCKWORTH: So the average age of the listener who answered this survey was 38 years old. And I will just say, looking at the data in graph form, you really do see this center of gravity in late twenties, late thirties, not to say we don’t have people in the data who are 75, which we do, but absolutely, this is a kind of, you know, young-ish adult sample.
DUBNER: Do you have some very horny old people too? I’m just curious.
DUCKWORTH: I did not analyze the data that way.
DUBNER: You didn’t go looking for the horny elders.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I will say this. There is an age trend. So my first point was that in this sample — and we’re not a representative sample of the world by any means, but we do have a lot of variety in our own profiles. In other words, if you print out everybody’s profile, you see a lot of jagged lines because people are not across the board impulsive or across board self-controlled. But you brought up age, so I do want to say something about age and that is that in general, with age comes virtue. So there’s a very strong age trend where the older you are, the less you say you have problems across these seven domains. And then there are some nuances, but generally age is good.
DUBNER: Now it could also be that the older people who have high marks in these bad categories either don’t want to answer a survey about them or they’ve died out, right?
DUCKWORTH: It could be. It could be selection, yeah.
DUBNER: If you’re very angry, very greedy, very slothful, then maybe you’re gone by the time you’re 75.
DUCKWORTH: It could be that if you have a lot of impulsivity problems that you don’t make it till 75. But I think it’s also important to recognize in other research that we did not do on No Stupid Questions that there is this principle, the maturity principle. I’m sure we’ve talked about it at some point because it’s, to me, one of the most profound ideas in psychology — that if you look at people across the lifespan, there are systematic ways in which they change. And the reason why the maturity principle is called “the maturity principle” is that in many ways, psychologically we get better. What’s interesting is that cognitively we tend to get worse, at least when it comes to fluid intelligence, like the clock speed of your brain or just how quick you are in reaction time and so forth. But in wisdom and emotional stability — by the way, grit shows this pattern. We tend to get better, and the idea is that life teaches you lessons. So maybe we figure out how to get a hold of our impulses. The other thing I will say is, I think the strength of these impulses tends to wane as you move past reproductive years, and so forth.
DUBNER: Are there any sins that you noticed that tend to co-travel?
DUCKWORTH: What’s interesting is that most of these sins actually are correlated with each other. In other words, if I tell you my wrath score, I can ask you like, “Well, what do you think my envy score will be?” And if I have a high wrath score, you’re like, “Well, she had a high wrath score. I don’t know anything else about her. I’m just going to say high on envy too.” And the fact that there are positive correlations across these scores, across these domains, across these like individual kinds of impulsivity, suggest that there’s something that either is in our environment that makes us score the same way — could also be just the way we think of ourselves — but I think there’s good evidence to believe that there’s certain capacities like executive function that do underlie our ability to reign ourselves in and that we use those capacities across different domains.
DUBNER: But wait a minute. You started this conversation by saying how much variance there was across these sins, yes? So how do these two things fit together?
DUCKWORTH: So, here’s the subtle point that I find confusing to articulate and even to appreciate myself. It’s true that scores are correlated across these domains. So if you’re higher in one problematic domain, you’re going to be higher in another, on average, statistically. But those correlations are not perfect. They’re not like, “Oh, I know exactly what your sloth score is going to be because I know what your envy score is.” In other words, there is a loose positive correlation across domains. So there’s something that makes them travel together, but the correlations are not so high that you can say like, “Oh, there’s no variation either.” So there’s both variation across these domains within a person and also a kind of central tendency. And I know that’s hard to appreciate, but, like, that’s what it is.
DUBNER: Okay, so I want to hear a breakdown, a rank ordering of No Stupid Questions listeners, and which sins they exercise most intensely or most frequently, and so on. But, you mentioned that this is quote, “not a representative sample,” I think are the words you use. When I looked at the data and looked at education score, I thought this is so deeply, deeply, deeply non-representative. Can you just talk about education level for a minute and how that compares to, let’s say, general public?
DUCKWORTH: So we asked one education question at the end of the survey, which is, how much education have you had so far? And by the way, keep in mind that people are of different ages, and so some people could still be getting education.
DUBNER: Which means that high levels of education are actually probably underrepresented just because they haven’t been attained yet, but they may well be.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. So if you look across these categories, we asked “some high school,” almost nobody said that. “High school is my highest degree” — high school graduation — a very small number of people said that. Then there’s “some college” — again, a tiny number of people. “Associates degrees” — and again, tiny fraction. And then, you’ve got this big bar for like, “I have a bachelor’s degree,” which, it’s sometimes hard to remember but is not necessarily — I don’t know what the national statistics —.
DUBNER: It’s not as many as most people think. It’s somewhere maybe around 40 percent now of American adults.
DUCKWORTH: That seems plausible. And this survey is open to anybody in the world. So, you know, keep in mind the listenership — and we didn’t ask this, like, “Do you live in the United States or not?” So I’m not going to break it down that way, but then when you ask the question like, “What percentage of the population in different countries has achieved college?” That’s often an even smaller proportion. So that’s the most common self-designation.
DUBNER: Well, yes, but then there’s a master’s degree and then there’s a doctorate degree —.
DUCKWORTH: Right, if you combine master’s and doctorate’s —.
DUBNER: So master’s and doctorate combined —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, then that’s the tallest building in this little graph. It’s like holy shmoly. And the number of people with master’s degrees is nearly identical to those with bachelor’s. If you, again, compared to say, U.S. national statistics, I think it’s fewer than 1 percent of people who have a doctorate or the equivalent, like J.D., M.D., Ph.D. — and masters are also quite rare. They’re very expensive, by the way, for one thing, but, you know, going beyond college, we’re a really educated group, I guess.
DUBNER: So basically this survey group, which was drawn probably almost exclusively from No Stupid Questions listeners.
DUCKWORTH: I can’t imagine how anybody else would — well, I guess in theory people could get to it otherwise, but yeah, I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty much us.
DUBNER: Right. So either, a lot of people are lying about their terminal degree or it is an extraordinarily over-educated versus the general population sample. Does that change how you think about the survey responses?
DUCKWORTH: I think the threat as it were — because this is how we talk about it in research — the threat would be to what’s called external validity. And that means that you know the results are what they are, but how generalizable are they to populations external to this sample? Like, what about people who don’t have master’s or doctor’s degrees? What about people who live in countries that we didn’t sample? What about little kids? You know, there are lots of reasons to be modest about what we can say about humanity writ large. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t make some conclusions about the people who we are. Like, this is a sample of us and if this is who we are, we can talk about that.
DUBNER: So let me ask you what I think everybody listening wants to know, which is, where are we?! Where are we the most sinful?
DUCKWORTH: All right let’s drum roll please. Okay, so here’s where we stand. I’m going to share with you what our greatest sin is and —.
DUBNER: Before you do that, can you just say, just to be clear, as we’re listening for the data, for the information, even though there are seven quote “deadly sins,” there are actually 12 categories that you surveyed because some sins have subsets, as you said, yes?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s right. You can either look at it first, I think, maybe most intuitively as, like, if you don’t care about subsets and you just care about the seven, where are we the most sinful. I think that’s the place to start. Then we’ll break it down.
DUBNER: But — and I’m cheating because I’m looking at your histogram here — the highest incidents and the lowest are subsets of the same sin. So that’s why it’s really interesting.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. That’s right. You could start with that, or you could start with just the seven. Either way you get to the same thing, which is to say: there’s a lot of variation across the seven sins, and there’s even tremendous variation within a sin. And I think the moral of the story here is going to be that our situations really matter a lot. We’re not just self-controlled people everywhere we go. It really matters what situation we’re in and it doesn’t mean that my trigger situations are going to be the same as yours, Stephen. It’s just that within any person, there’s tremendous variation.
DUBNER: Okay. Give it to me.
DUCKWORTH: So let’s start with the seven, because I just think that’s the simpler story and then we can get to the more nuanced one, which I think is maybe even more interesting. So the sin which we apparently say we struggle with the most is sloth actually.
DUBNER: And these are the overeducated people that are feeling slothy.
DUCKWORTH: That’s so true. Is slothy a word? I guess so — slothful!
DUBNER: Uh, I like slothy better.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Slothalicious ding dong. I don’t know. But, I want to say what the data are. Then we can interrogate whether we’re just too hard on ourselves. The next sin, which is pretty close behind it, by the way, is gluttony. You could imagine these are the sins of the modern world, right? That in the old days, where you just had to go out and farm or you would starve to death — and by the way, you might starve to death, so you didn’t have a problem with gluttony either — like, these might be particularly modern vices because of our environments. So after gluttony, there’s greed, then pride, then wrath, then envy, then lust.
DUBNER: An extremely un-lustful sample.
DUCKWORTH: We are decidedly low on lust. So if I look at the average score, it’s about 1.6 on a scale from one to five. That’s somewhere between never and rarely.
DUBNER: And again, I think we should keep pointing to the fact that this sample is a rather heightened sample of, let’s say, educated, ambitious, probably accomplished people. You also said something really interesting to me. You said you wanted to know whether we’re maybe too hard on ourselves in a certain category. Would you think that perhaps people who have a lot of education and accomplishment are more likely to rank themselves as slothy because the opposite of sloth is an important component of getting to where you want to get, and therefore you may just beat yourself up more on that than you might on something like wrath?
DUCKWORTH: Well, at the risk of repeating myself, because since this is an active area of research, I may have held forth on what’s called reference bias before, but I will hold forth again because I think it’s really important. When anybody asks you, “How much do you procrastinate? How much do you have a problem with overeating?” Whatever the question is, you are going to have to answer that according to a standard, right? There’s no other way to answer that. And what reference bias is, is other people than you having different standards, and therefore your result being biased by what your, perhaps, idiosyncratic standards are. And in particular the reason why it’s a bias and not just random error is that people who have high standards systematically tend to be the ones who underrate themselves. So you have this paradox that maybe the hardest working people who have the highest standards for hard work are penalizing themselves the most. But anyway, this idea is that we have these standards and maybe these standards are from who it is that we hold up as like, “That’s what it means to be, you know, fill in the blank.” And it doesn’t necessarily have to just be my best friend. So I think this idea of the very hardest workers, perhaps these Ph.D.s and masters and college graduates in the No Stupid Questions listenership — maybe we’re collectively really hard on ourselves and maybe we’re not procrastinating as much as we think we are.
DUBNER: So this sample is relatively high sloth, relatively low lust.
DUCKWORTH: In self-report.
DUBNER: In self-report, for sure. Tell me some interesting things about what lies in the middle, whether envy, wrath, pride, many other things.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think maybe what’s most interesting about this is that, as you pointed out, if you actually look then at the sub-domains, so not just gluttony overall, but gluttony for different kinds of things that we consume, now you see the full spectrum. So let me say specifically that the score that is the very highest when you break it down in these more nuanced ways is gluttony for food. And I’ll just read those items as a refresher for those who took the scale. And maybe for those who haven’t yet, you’re hearing them for the first time. Gluttony for food is, “I eat unhealthy food. I eat more than I should. I eat when I’m not hungry.” And that is the highest score. We talked about ultra-processed food recently. I just read a book actually since we had that conversation. Do you know who David Kessler is? Have you ever interviewed him?
DUBNER: I do. Sure. Yep. Former F.D.A. chair and then a bunch of other things.
DUCKWORTH: Has he ever been on Freakonomics?
DUBNER: It’s a good question. I would not be surprised, but honestly I don’t remember, I’m afraid to say.
DUCKWORTH: He may have been interviewed by someone named Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: I’m certainly well aware of him and his work.
DUCKWORTH: So apparently David Kessler, whose books I’ve been reading of late, is just obsessed with ultra-processed food. If you read any of his books — books, plural — and when he talks about himself, he says that really this domain of food he would say it’s very personal. So he apparently has struggled with his weight his whole life. That’s something of a coincidence that he was also appointed to the head of the Food and Drug Administration. This is, I think, during the Clinton administration. He’s also been the dean of two medical schools, including Yale.
DUBNER: I think U.C.S.F.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so two of the most prominent medical schools.
DUBNER: He was also heavily involved in the COVID vaccine effort as well, we should say, just for credentials.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. I think he was appointed — is it by Biden? — to be in charge of —.
DUBNER: Yep. I think he took over Operation Warp Speed when Biden came into office, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know him actually, but he seems like a very energetic person who, at least by his own account, struggles more in this domain than others. So let’s talk about our overall gluttony pattern across these three kinds of gluttony and how spread out it is. But just to say that a person could really struggle with food and not, say, struggle with another kind of gluttony that we asked about, which was gluttony for drugs. And let me read you those items. And I know it sounds weird — gluttony for drugs — but, again, this kind of consumption sin. So here are the three items from the Seven Deadly Sins Scale: “I binge drink, I smoke cigarettes, I take illegal drugs.” If you say, no, no, no, never, never, never on drugs, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to say never, never, never for food or for the third domain of gluttony, which was like consumption, money, impulse spending, buying things you don’t really need, buying things on impulse, spending money when you should be saving.
DUBNER: So who am I to say, but if I had been in the room when you were developing this scale, I don’t think I would’ve put drug consumption and food consumption even — and certainly not shopping — all in the gluttony category. Although I could see why you did.
DUCKWORTH: Where would you put it? You’d put it in greed, or something?
DUBNER: I don’t know, but my first thought is that I’m thinking about this the way that maybe an economist would look at it, and you’re saying that it’s a little bit surprising maybe, or maybe a lot surprising, that the highest-rated violation among this sample is gluttony for food and the very lowest is gluttony for drugs.
DUCKWORTH: And then gluttony for shopping and spending is like in the middle. Right, exactly. The full range.
DUBNER: But I guess my first thought is rather than think of drug consumption and food consumption as being grouped in the same category, I might think of them a little bit more as substitutes rather than compliments. Like, I would not necessarily go to the notion that, “Oh, it’s surprising that someone who does a lot of drugs isn’t doing a lot of food gluttony.” Or, “Someone that’s doing a lot of food gluttony is not doing a lot of drug gluttony.” Because to me they just don’t seem to be driven by the same impulse. Now I’m sure there are some people who can make an argument that they are driven by the same impulse.
DUCKWORTH: You know, we group them not because they correlate together or for any really deep reason. It’s more that the way that these items were generated in the first place is we just ask people without actually priming them about the seven deadly sins — we just ask them about self-control in their lives. We ask them where they struggle. We ask them where they thought other people struggle. And in these conversations, these items emerged, and then it was very clear that some of these were about exercise and some of them were about holding your temper and so forth. And then maybe as just a rhetorical device, we were like, “These seven deadly sins, if you were going to map them, where would you put these behaviors that people talk about, like where would you stick them?” And so they may not be like a natural family.
DUBNER: So if I were to ask you to summarize this really interesting and variegated and slightly wooly in some ways set of findings, what’s your best summary?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I want to tell you about one finding, then summarize. Is that cheating? I want to tell you about gender differences.
DUBNER: That is not cheating. Oh yeah, let’s hear about that. I’m guessing the lady lust is low. I think you’ve already hinted at that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. What would be your expectation —.
DUBNER: Like, ratio of lust being a problem? I would say probably like three to one, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: It was really, really striking. The biggest gender difference that there was — and I looked to see whether there were gender differences, of course, across all the domains — but men are much higher in the sin of lust than women.
DUBNER: And were you surprised by that? Because when we first talked about lust on the show in the series a while ago, you seem to think —.
DUCKWORTH: I wanted to strike it from the sins.
DUBNER: You were basically like, “I don’t think lust is a problem at all in the modern world.” I’m like, “Where have you been hanging out, lady?”
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think my concern with lust wasn’t the prevalence of it as much as, I just felt like it was this archaic idea that we shouldn’t have a sex drive, like that we should be cha — I mean, chaste? I guess chaste.
DUBNER: Or chastised.
DUCKWORTH: Chastised for not being chaste. Yeah, I mean, lust, to me on theoretical grounds, seemed to be not really a sinful sin, but obviously you can get people into problems.
DUBNER: I’m going to put that one in the category of “Angela Duckworth, not a realistic person.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait. There are other gender differences, so yes. You guessed a big one.
DUBNER: Can I guess?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DUBNER: Give me a question. I’ll give you an answer.
DUCKWORTH: Where did women rate themselves as being more impulsive than men? And there were a few subcategories and categories that this happened.
DUBNER: The one that comes to mind is, I would probably guess food gluttony.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And by the way, this is also true of prior data that I’ve collected. Women say they struggle more with food than men say they struggle with food.
DUBNER: And I would guess another one, but I would really suspect that it might be wrong in reality if you were to compare it to the actual data, but I think that women might beat themselves up a little bit more on the sloth exercise scale than men do.
DUCKWORTH: Interesting. As you guessed, women say they have a problem with sloth for exercise more than men say they have a problem with exercise.
DUBNER: Again, I would really love to know if that perception is real.
DUCKWORTH: Is it about your standards? Like, do you care?
DUBNER: It’s about your standards and it’s about society’s standards too. I know a lot of women who feel like “I have to do X, Y, Z to present a certain way to the world,” and I know a lot of men who just don’t give a crap.
DUBNER: Is there any more you want to do on gender difference before we move on to a summary?
DUCKWORTH: No, I think some of the other ones are there, but they’re kind of small. The big thing to know is that men apparently struggle more with lust by a lot.
DUBNER: Well, you say struggle — some might say enjoy.
DUCKWORTH: Some might. We didn’t do any interviews with this survey, so, you know, we only have like a blunt instrument here. And then there’s variations in other things that in some ways follow stereotype, like women say that they are more likely to impulse shop than men, etc. I think it just goes to show you that when you ask the question, “Who has more self-control?” — men or women — the answer’s a little complicated. If I take all the scores and I average them together, then there is a small difference and that is favoring women, in the sense of, like, women seem just a little bit more self-controlled. In other words, men are a little bit more impulsive. But the real story is: it depends on what domain. Like, if you ask the practical question of: What do I do with my seven deadly sins feedback? I mean, for me it says like, “Angela, maybe we need to think and work on pride, wrath, and envy. Maybe you don’t need a lot of counseling when it comes to eating and exercise and procrastinating for work.” So the hero of the story — or the villain, depending on how you want to think about it — is really the domain in which you’re trying to exercise self-control.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, what should you do with your seven deadly sins scores?
DUCKWORTH: How does it make me feel? What does it mean?
DUBNER: Yeah. How does it make you feel? What does it mean? Good questions.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the Seven Deadly Sins survey results.
DUBNER: Now, if someone goes to look at these results on the website and they’ve taken the survey and they see that gluttony for food is the No. 1 violation and let’s say someone is exactly the opposite. What do you suggest for someone who feels sort of out of sync with the larger sample?
DUCKWORTH: Well it’s easy for me to imagine that because I’m actually higher on pride, envy, and wrath than I am —.
DUBNER: Oh, so you’re really out of step with all of us.
DUCKWORTH: I know, what’s wrong with me? And it’s pride where I struggle the most, but I also struggle mightily, according to my own data, with envy and wrath, which tend to be low for us. I guess the question would be: how does it make me feel? What does it mean?
DUBNER: Yeah. How does it make you feel? What does it mean? Good questions.
DUCKWORTH: For me, I think I’m more interested in how out of sync I am —.
DUBNER: Oh, that’s a dodge. Hang on — halfway into that sentence and I’m going to tell you’re — No, I really do want to know how that makes you feel, because you’ve identified some things you just noted within yourself that are a little bit out of sync with the overall sample, which can be great. It can give you an insight into yourself. It shows that you’re certainly unusual on those dimensions. But I’m really curious to know just how it felt to get those results and how it made you assess the way that you think about the world.
DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, when I talk about how I compared to others, there is a nuance here, which is that overall, all the scores are pretty low. We just talked about gluttony for food as being our greatest sin as a listenership, but even that didn’t even reach the midpoint of the scale, which is “sometimes.” So the listenership is virtuous across the board.
DUBNER: If you had asked people, “do you listen to too many podcasts?” you’d have a bunch of sickos on our hands, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, maybe we’d have that as like a whole other domain. So, you know, I don’t want to say that I’m a perfect person, but also, by the way, my scores weren’t, like, off the charts high either. So relatively, I struggle with pride then with wrath and envy, but you know —.
DUBNER: But let me ask you this. When you say you struggle with those, do you feel that even though they have some downside or some negative perception at least, and maybe some negative consequences, that they’re also an important part of who you are and what drives you as a person, as an academic, even as a member of your family?
DUCKWORTH: Yes and yes. I mean, I do think they’re a part of my identity in a way that I don’t entirely want to reject. You know, we’ve talked about how pride can be a good thing and it can be authentic pride and it can drive you to be ambitious and get things done.
DUBNER: You’ve also openly expressed envy, which I find to be really rare. I assume everybody’s envious at least some of the time, and I very rarely hear people talk about it. And when I hear you talk about it, I think it’s great modeling honestly, for people to understand that yeah, I can have this element of myself that I’m not super proud of, and it may be a little bit not-so-productive and so on, but it is what it is and I’m not going to pretend it’s not there. So I want to just —.
DUCKWORTH: You want to applaud me. You want to praise me.
DUBNER: I want a big firecracker salute for that, for sure.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. The one sin that is a problem for me and also one that bothers the most, it —.
DUBNER: I know what it is.
DUCKWORTH: It’s wrath.
DUBNER: Oh. I thought you were going to say using Q-Tips to clean your ears, which I know is really, really bad.
DUCKWORTH: Which everyone does even though the package says — why does it say this, like, “Please don’t stick in your ear.” I’m like, “Where else are you going to stick it? Everyone sticks the Q-Tip in their ear.”
DUBNER: Unbelievable. It’s like putting on a bottle of beer, “Please do not drink.” Like, what am I going to do with it?
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s just so they don’t get sued.
DUBNER: Come on. Okay, so let’s talk about your wrath a little bit.
DUCKWORTH: The question is like: Why does that bother me? Why isn’t being envious bother me more? And I think it’s because my core identity and the thing that I —.
DUBNER: Your brand is nice! And anger and nice don’t go together so well.
DUCKWORTH: So, what do I say to myself when I’m feeling insecure? I literally say to myself under my breath, like, “I’m a nice person.” I like to think of myself as my mother, who’s just the kindest person. I’m not saying I am. I’m just saying that that’s where I retreat in moments of self-doubt. I’m like, “Well, I can’t do this and I can’t do that, and my book’s going terribly, but I’m nice.”
DUBNER: You know, Michael Bluth used to say that about himself too.
DUCKWORTH: Who’s Michael Bluth?
DUBNER: Did you ever watch Arrested Development?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I did! Oh yes, I love Arrested Development! I don’t know why I couldn’t remember Michael Bluth.
DUBNER: That was Michael’s kind of calming patter to himself, his self-talk, like, “I’m a good person, I’m a good person.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Wait, remind me which character is Michael Bluth? Is it the son?
DUBNER: He was the one who was supposed to be the good person, the one that theoretically rescued the family, while plunging them deeper and deeper.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, right, right, right. Played by —
DUBNER: Um, a guy — whose name is Justin Bateman.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. Okay, right. I couldn’t tell whether you were talking about the father, the grandfather, or the son, but like, yes. Okay. So I have that. And it’s — I’m blushing even to say that. Like, who walks around saying, “I’m a nice person”?
DUBNER: Can I just say I’m applauding you again?
DUBNER: Because I think that by your admitting in this private seeming, but actually public sphere that you do something that you do that in order to assure yourself in a moment of insecurity or whatnot — I think it’s good modeling, because I think that very often accomplished people will present only the accomplished part of themselves. And there’s a whole world out there that loves to look at what accomplished people do and how they do it. This is part of a bigger problem I have, which is we try to mimic success in a lot of different ways that I think is often extremely unsuccessful for two big reasons. One, a lot of success is anomalous, and the success that someone had is not the same success I can have. Yeah. But also because they leave out the good stuff. They leave out the real stuff. And you’re not leaving out the real stuff. And that’s why I think it’s very valuable.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, don’t praise me too much because I’m not —.
DUBNER: I’m done, just so you know. I have no more praise.
DUCKWORTH: “I’m out of praise.”
DUBNER: I had a bag of praise I walked in here with today — I’ve used it all.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, well good. You don’t have to praise me for saying this, but I’ll just say, this habit that I have of saying under my breath and sometimes aloud, like, “I’m nice” — which is a very odd habit actually — the research on this, which is, you know, completely separate from I think why I do it — but there is research on values affirmation, that you can call to mind elements of your identity that are positive. “I’m honest,” you know — whatever it is, fill in the blank. I know for Jason, my husband, he falls back on feeling like he’s an earnest person. Also some version of nice, right? So the research on values affirmation, it’s pretty clear, I think, from the data that people spontaneously do this to shore up their ego in times of ego threat, and that in experimental studies, it can do exactly that. It can make people feel less defensive, more open to new information, etc.
DUBNER: One last question for you though: you’ve identified the things where you have some weakness and the areas where you have strength, which happen to be areas where many other people have weakness. So when you’re assessing yourself versus the group overall, do you say, “Hey, you know what, I’m just going to race my strengths. I’m going to go with what got me here because it’s been working pretty well,” or do you think that you really want to address those weaknesses?
DUCKWORTH: It’s an age-old question, and it’s also a modern question. People have asked, “Should you remediate your weaknesses? Is that how you should spend your energy, trying to bring up the bottom? Or do you race your strengths? Do you lean into them? Do you try to get even more virtuous on the things that are natural strengths for you?” And my answer is this. I think that if you’re really low in something, it’s very likely to be problematic in your life. If you have a real impulsivity problem in one of these domains, I think you do have to remediate that weakness because, no doubt, that is a handicap for you in some way. But with that advice, I will say that most people are successful in life, not because they have some even profile where they brought up the bottom on a bunch of things, but more that they were also able to find a few spikes, a few areas in which they really soar. That’s what you get paid for. That’s what you specialize in. That’s what people want to collaborate with you for. So I don’t believe in living your whole life trying to bring up the bottom on all your problems. I believe there’s some of that, but then once you’ve remediated the real problems, then I think you should lean into the things that you’re good at.
DUBNER: So I just wanted to say thank you for doing this. I think it was amazing that you put it together.
DUCKWORTH: Can I thank the intern who did this? So his name is Andrew Rosin and he’s an Amherst student and a listener of No Stupid Questions, and I think he runs the behavioral science podcast for Amherst. And Andrew, you did such a great job. I am praising you. You can be the good kind of proud for having done it.
DUBNER: Andrew, I’d like to say thank you as well and I think people enjoy seeing the results generally, and certainly where they stack up if they’ve taken the survey themselves. Angela, the Seven Deadly Sins series we’ve done has been, I think, incredibly illuminating, and fun even, for something so sinful. But, there’s one more conversation I want to have with you, which is this: We asked listeners several weeks ago to assess the existing list of the seven deadly sins, and especially keeping in mind that it’s a pretty old list — centuries and centuries old — what would be a good nominee for an eighth deadly sin? Something that really belongs on that list today, that might even be more appropriate, today than then. And so next time, I want to go through with you some of the listener nominees, and then you and I are going to pick a loser. How does that sound?
DUCKWORTH: Sort of like a reverse Oscars. The best worst thing about you.
DUBNER: Ah, I cannot wait. I’m tingling with sinful anticipation.
DUCKWORTH: So am I. I think this is going to be really fun. I take it that there were just a bajillion nominations.
DUBNER: It’s actually three quarters of a bajillion but it was still a lot more than a gazillion.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, roughly. Rounding up to the closest bajillion.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with help from our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. Early in the conversation, Angela says that fewer than 1 percent of Americans have a doctoral degree or the equivalent. That number is actually closer to 2 percent of the population. Then, Stephen says that there are 12 categories measured in the Seven Deadly Sins survey because some sins have subsets. In fact, there are ten categories: sloth for work, sloth for exercise, wrath, gluttony for food, gluttony for drugs, gluttony for money, envy, lust, greed, and pride. Later, Angela says that David Kessler was appointed head of the Food and Drug Administration during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Kessler was actually first appointed by President George H.W. Bush, but he continued to serve as head of the FDA under Clinton as well. Finally, Stephen and Angela both say that the Arrested Development character Michael Bluth was played by Justin Bateman. He was actually played by Jason Bateman.
That’s it for the fact-check. Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on pride and your favorite humblebrags.
Sabina OSTROWSKA: Hi, it’s Sabina here from Spain. Last April in one of the Facebook reading groups that I belong to, which has like, thousands of readers who I don’t know personally. I found myself posting a note. “Oh, hi guys. Sorry I haven’t had time to write in a while. But I’ve been so busy helping Ukrainian refugees.” I posted it, I looked at it for a few seconds, I was so disgusted with myself. I don’t know why I posted it. I deleted that post and forgot about this humblebrag of mine until I heard your podcast this morning. But anyway, if you can beat humble-bragging about charity, I’m looking forward to hearing it. Okay, ciao and adios, bye!
Jasmine KELLY: Hi, Stephen and Angela. My name is Jasmine Kelly. The other day I was walking with a friend who brought along her friend, who I’d never met before. I’m constantly humming or singing along to songs either in my head or out loud. So I was humming a song mindlessly when the new friend asked what song I was singing. It took me a while to realize that I was singing my own song that I wrote a year or two ago and forgot about. So after thinking for a bit, I blurted out, “Oh, I think it’s my song.” We all started laughing because it was such a humblebrag, or a subtle flex as the Gen Z call it.
That was, respectively, Sabina Ostrowska and Jasmine Kelly. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela choose the ultimate eighth deadly sin.
DUCKWORTH: Have you checked with the Catholic church by the way? Is this good with the pope?
DUBNER: I’ve got the pope —.
DUCKWORTH: You have the pope on speed dial.
DUBNER: I’ve got the pope on the other line.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research help from Dan Moritz-Rabson, and we had help with the Seven Deadly Sins survey from Andrew Rosin and Victoria Liu. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. 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 follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. And now, you can also find our episodes on YouTube! If you know someone who doesn’t listen to podcasts but spends a lot of time on YouTube, tell them to go to Youtube.com/@Freakonomics — that’s the “at” sign, followed by “Freakonomics.” To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: “Oh, Stephen. He’s a really hard worker.”
DUBNER: But not very lustful, unfortunately.
DUCKWORTH: But apparently not lustful. So who knows how many little Stephens will be in the next generation, but —.
DUBNER: Okay, calm down there.
- David Kessler, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco; former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- Victoria Liu, lab manager of the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Andrew Rosin, undergraduate student at Amherst University, managing podcast editor at The Amherst Student, and host of the Terras Irradient podcast.
- Eli Tsukayama, professor of business administration at the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu.
- Seven Deadly Sins Survey, by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Large Studies Reveal How Reference Bias Limits Policy Applications of Self-Report Measures,” by Benjamin Lira, Joseph M. O’Brien, Pablo A. Peña, Brian M. Galla, Sidney D’Mello, David S. Yeager, Amy Defnet, Tim Kautz, Kate Munkacsy, and Angela L. Duckworth (Nature: Scientific Reports, 2022).
- “Refining the Maturity Principle of Personality Development by Examining Facets, Close Others, and Comaturation,” by Ted Schwaba, Wiebke Bleidorn, Christopher J. Hopwood, Stephen B. Manuck, and Aidan G. C. Wright (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2022).
- “All That Glitters Is Not Grit: Three Studies of Grit in University Students,” Chathurika S. Kannangara, Rosie E. Allen, Gill Waugh, Nurun Nahar, Samia Zahraa Noor Khan, Suzanne Rogerson, and Jerome Carson (Frontiers in Psychology, 2018).
- “Census: More Americans Have College Degrees Than Ever Before,” by Reid Wilson (The Hill, 2017).
- “How Unaware Are the Unskilled? Empirical Tests of the ‘Signal Extraction’ Counterexplanation for the Dunning–Kruger Effect in Self-Evaluation of Performance,” by Thomas Schlösser, David Dunning, Kerri L. Johnson, and Justin Kruger (Journal of Economic Psychology, 2013).
- “Emotional Experience Improves With Age: Evidence Based on Over 10 Years of Experience Sampling,” by Laura L. Carstensen, Bulent Turan, Susanne Scheibe, Nilam Ram, Hal Ersner-Hershfield, Gregory R. Samanez-Larkin, Kathryn P. Brooks, and John R. Nesselroade (Psychology and Aging, 2011).
- “How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains,” by Tara Parker-Pope (The New York Times, 2009).