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My guest today, Charles Duhigg, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the author of blockbuster bestsellers, including The Power of Habit. He’s got a new book out entitled Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.

DUHIGG: And I found out that we’re actually living through a golden age of understanding the neurology and psychology of communication. So there’s a lot of insights that can help us.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

I honestly believe that understanding how to have great conversations is one of the most valuable and underappreciated skills a person can develop. I wouldn’t have said that three years ago, but having this podcast has led me to think a lot about conversation. In the two weeks since I read Charles Duhigg’s book I’ve tried hard to put the book’s ideas into practice, and I have to say, it has been shocking to me how powerful these tools are.

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LEVITT: So you’ve got a brand new book and it’s called Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. I’m just imagining that if I’d written that book, I would feel tremendous pressure to be an amazing conversation partner. And I would hate to have that expectation always hang over me. Do you feel the pressure I’m describing?

DUHIGG: Only in one context, which is that ever so often now, my wife during a dinnertime conversation when I’ve, like, monologued for the last seven or eight minutes, will say, “You know, there’s this book about communication that I think you could read that would really help you a lot.” No, I think the answer is that I don’t feel that because one of the big insights from this book and from doing this reporting and this research is that we all have these instincts, many of them created by evolution, to help us figure out how to connect with other people. And so part of what I tried to do with the book is to explain how conversations work so that, in some sense, people can stop thinking about having those conversations. They can let their natural instincts take over. Because the truth of the matter is, you are a great conversationalist. You’ve literally spent your entire life practicing being a conversationalist. And once we understand how conversations work, we can converse and connect with really anyone.

LEVITT: So this is essentially a how-to book — how to have great conversations. But it differs in one important way from most how-to books, which is that most authors of how-to books are really great at whatever their book is about. So Dale Carnegie was really good at winning friends and influencing people, I’m sure. And Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, they write books about how to golf. But your motivation for researching and writing this book was that you felt like you were bad at communicating. You wanted to get better.

DUHIGG: Absolutely. It’s a how-to book, but it’s also self-help and by self-help, I mean help myself, right? So I had these two experiences. The first is that I was made this manager at The New York Times and was really good at everything that did not involve communication and was terrible at communication. And it totally caught me off guard. Like, I have an M.B.A. I’ve had bosses my entire life. And yet I kept on screwing up at this. And it was really driven home for me when I would come home and talk to my wife and I’d tell her like, “My bosses don’t understand me and my colleagues don’t appreciate me.” And I’d start complaining and she would have this really good practical advice. She would say, like, “Why don’t you take your boss out to lunch so you guys can get to know each other a little bit better?” But instead of being able to hear her, I would react as if I’d been attacked and be like, “I don’t understand why you’re not supporting me. I want you to be outraged on my behalf.” And she would be frustrated because she was trying to give me good advice. And it made me realize there’s something going on with communication that I’m just not getting, ‘cause sometimes I can have great conversations and sometimes I can’t, and I can’t figure out what the difference is. And so that’s why I got interested in this was just trying to learn: what do we know about conversation? 

LEVITT: So one of the most basic insights in the book — and it sounds totally obvious once you present it, but it’s something that I personally was completely oblivious to for the first 40 plus years of my life — is that the person you’re talking to can have various different goals from a conversation. You just alluded to it. You were talking to your wife and you wanted empathy. But for most of my life, I thought that the purpose of every meaningful conversation was to find a solution to a problem. But I was so wrong. I learned along the way, and I was reinforced by your book, that there are all sorts of things people want out of conversations, and one of the most fundamental aspects of being able to talk to people is recognizing that and figuring out what the point is of any given conversation.

DUHIGG: The problem that you cite is not an uncommon one — particularly for men — particularly, I’ll say, for economists. Oftentimes economists are people who are rationally minded, see the world as a series of puzzles to be solved. And you’re exactly right that oftentimes when someone comes into a conversation, they have a problem and they don’t want you to solve it. They want you just to listen to their problem and emote with them and comfort them. We think of a discussion as one thing, but actually every discussion contains multiple conversations, many different kinds of conversations. And in general, those different kinds of conversations fall into one of three buckets. There’s these practical conversations, which is when we want to solve a problem, or perhaps we want to make a plan. But then there’s other conversations, as you pointed out, where I come in and I talk about a problem I’m having — like my boss, I think, is a jerk — and I don’t want the other person to solve my problem. I just want them to understand me, to tell me that my emotions are valid. Those are emotional conversations. And then there’s another basket, which are conversations about how we relate to each other, and how do we see ourselves in the context of society? And those are social conversations. And so these three big buckets of conversation — practical, emotional, and social — they’re really useful because they tell us what the goal is. And if we’re having a different kind of conversation than someone else, then we’re probably failing to connect.

LEVITT: So you’re saying if I’m having a practical conversation and you’re having an emotive conversation, it’s a disaster, right? Because I’m trying to solve your problems, you’re asking for something different, and we don’t connect.

DUHIGG: That’s exactly what happened with my wife and me. I came home and I was in an emotional frame of mind. I wanted to have an emotional conversation. She responded with practical advice, which was really wise, but because we were having a different kind of conversation, neither of us could hear the other person. 

LEVITT: You know, what’s been hard for me conversationally is that I never have conversations where I seek empathy. I literally cannot remember a conversation where I was seeking empathy from a person and so it never occurs to me to pause and consider whether the person I’m talking to is looking for that. And I’d say if there’s one thing that has transformed my conversations, it’s being attuned to that very simple idea. And in the last few weeks since I read your book, I’ve really been practicing that just in conversations at home, but also with baristas at coffee shops. And my God, it is incredible. It is so shocking to me. It’s like magic watching people 

melt when you acknowledge a little bit of emotion.  

DUHIGG: Does one come to mind?  

LEVITT: I’ll tell you about one with a barista. So I was at a coffee shop and she said, “How’s your day going?” And I said, “Pretty good. How’s your day?” She said, “Oh, it’s been busy.” And I said, “What’s it been busy with?” And she said,” Well, I’m applying to schools and I’m going to college.” And we ended up having a long talk about her college preferences and why she was a little nervous about it, and it was a weirdly intimate conversation that came in 30 seconds that she made a coffee. And then I went and sat back down with my wife and I said, “Oh, that was a really nice young lady there. I think she’s going to go to Michigan Tech, but if she gets into Purdue, it’s going to be a really hard choice.” My wife looked at me like, “What are you talking about?”  

DUHIGG: Who replaced my husband with this person?  

LEVITT: I really feel like I’m on a stage acting when I do it ‘cause it isn’t at all natural. And I always expect, well, people are going to see how completely artificial what I’m doing is. But they don’t. They melt. It’s really strange.

DUHIGG: It’s totally natural that when we start to do this, it does feel like we’re performing. Because all of conversation is a performance. And we’ve just gotten habituated to some kinds of it. But what I heard you saying is that you asked her a question that’s known as a “deep question.” You asked this barista something about her values or her beliefs or her experiences. “Where are you going to school? Why are you thinking about this school versus that school?” Those all seem like normal questions, but they’re actually deep questions because they’re inviting the other person to reveal something about themselves, to bring her authentic self into the conversation. And that always feels wonderful.  

LEVITT: I think we take for granted that conversation is so natural, that it isn’t a learned skill, but obviously is a learned skill. I have a two year old and I can see how he’s learning to have conversations. My own natural inclination, is to think that I don’t want to talk to anybody about anything. So whenever anyone tries to engage me, I feel a sense of panic and I try to close off as quickly as possible. Now, what’s so strange about it is I don’t actually mind talking to people. And I do often have really wonderful conversations with complete strangers. And when you’re done talking to them, you just say, “Hey, I got to go.” But I think that’s my problem is I fear that I can’t escape when strangers talk to me.

DUHIGG: So when you know that you have to have that tough conversation, or you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to go and I’m going to talk to the barista,” what are you doing to make that easier for yourself and the other person? How do you manage that?

LEVITT: So it’s interesting you say that because this podcast is the best example of that. So I have completely different conversations with people on this podcast than I do in any other setting. And the best example is my own daughters. So I have these grown daughters who I never have meaningful conversations with. We do what a lot of parents and kids do — is just to talk, but never about anything important. But for the podcast, I think I do a lot of the things that you recommend in your book, which is, I think ahead of time, very carefully about what I’m trying to do, why I’m talking to the person. I learn a lot about the people I’m going to talk to. I think about their perspective and I try to create a set of topics we can talk about. And I ask what you call these deep questions, right? I have a whole bunch of deep questions in my head to ask them. And I have to say, many people, maybe most of the people who’ve listened to my podcast who have heard that one, have said it is the best one.

DUHIGG: Oh, that’s interesting. 

LEVITT: And yet if they were a fly on the wall and watched me talking to my daughters outside of the context, they would be horrified at how little we have to say to one another. If I prepare for a conversation and I’m ready to go, I don’t want to admit it, but I can pretend to be empathetic. If I have my mindset, I can act like I’m empathetic, even though I think in a deep level, I’m not a very empathetic person. But I know what it feels like to be empathetic. And I can go through the motions. 

DUHIGG: I think it’s actually synonymous, to be honest with you, acting up empathy and feeling empathy. I don’t think your empathy is any less true if you act it and you don’t feel it yet. Because you will. What I hear you saying, and this makes a lot of sense to me, is two things. Number one, preparing for a conversation helps that conversation go better. Study after study shows that’s true. And by preparing, it can be as little as just saying, “Oh, here’s two topics I could talk about.” That preparation actually reduces our anxiety significantly. But the other thing I heard you say, and I think this is actually a more important thing, is that when you’re having that conversation with your daughters on the podcast, one of the things that’s happening is that you’re giving yourself permission to ask them questions that you might not ask them if you were just, like, watching TV together. And you’re also giving them permission to tell you what they want to tell you about their life. One of the ways that this is used in schools is that teachers are taught if a student comes up and they need to talk to you about something, particularly if they’re upset, ask them: Do you want to be heard? Do you want to be helped? Or do you want to be hugged? And those are just the three kinds of conversations: the practical, emotional, and the social. At the core of how we communicate is giving each other permission. When we ask a question, we’re giving the other person permission to tell us about who they are. And when they ask that question back, they’re giving us permission to listen and to share.

LEVITT: Noting successes, many of my best conversations have come because I don’t have very refined social skills. I will ask people questions that other people will never ask them because they would seem like they cross over some boundary. When my kids’ friends come over and they’ll say something like, “I’m going to my dad’s house after I leave here.” I sometimes will ask them, “Has it been hard for you, going through your parents getting divorced?” And my daughters roll their eyes at me. They say, “Don’t ask questions like that.” But every time, their friend will really give a very honest answer. Another example, I had a son who died when he was one. People were so awkward about talking about it. And I guess they thought that if they brought up his life or his death, it would feel bad to me. But what you know if you’ve had a son die is you think about that constantly. It’s always in your mind. It’s never gone. And to talk about it doesn’t make it worse. It only makes it better.  

DUHIGG: After my father passed away — about five years ago now — This was the most meaningful and in some ways the most interesting and the most complicated and the most revealing and powerful experience — one of them — of my life. And I was desperate to talk about it. Like I would have loved if someone had said like, “Tell me about your dad. What was he like?” Or, “What was it like to go to the funeral and hear the eulogies?” But you’re right. People would say, “Oh, my condolences.” And then they would never ask about it again. And the few people who did ask me about it, the same way that I’m sure the kids whom you asked about what it’s like to go through the divorce, they treasure that moment — because it shows that, A, someone cares, but B, we learn about ourselves by talking. We get to figure out how we actually feel about a divorce, or about our father, or about death, by explaining it to other people. And when someone gives us that gift, it’s enormous.

LEVITT: Now you didn’t talk about it in your book, but one thing that’s got me thinking about is that I’m especially likely to default into problem-solving mode in situations where there’s a power differential, where I’m in power. So when I’m a professor talking to a student or when I’m talking to someone who works for me. But I think in those rare cases where there is this power differential, but where I can recognize that a person I’m talking to wants empathy, these are some of my most rewarding conversations. Maybe because empathy from someone in a position of power is particularly soothing. Is there any research on that?

DUHIGG: There’s a ton. And, you know, the book is filled with all these stories and one of them is about this surgeon in New York, a surgeon named Behfar Ehdaie His specialty is prostate tumors. And he had the exact same experience because when you’re a patient, even if you’re a very successful person, if you walk into a doctor’s office, you’re at a power disadvantage. And Dr. Ehdaie, he just assumed his job was to give people advice. And so patients would come in, and he would tell them, “Look, here’s the options you have, and here’s what I suggest.” And he found that again and again and again, not only did they not take his advice, it was as if they could not hear his advice. It just failed to register with them. And so he started talking to some communication experts, including some folks at Harvard Business School, and they said, “Look, the problem is that you’re assuming what the other person wants from this conversation. You need to actually ask them what they want. So here’s the question you should ask. It’s a deep question, but it’s an easy one. What does this diagnosis mean to you? And they’re going to tell you whether they want to have an emotional conversation or a social conversation or a practical conversation.” 

LEVITT: It worked? 

DUHIGG: It worked amazingly. It’s an interesting situation because the problem is that the prostate’s located really closely to the nerves that control urination and sexual function. And so there’s this real risk of lifelong consequences if you get the surgery. And the cancer’s very slow growing, so oftentimes people will die of old age before they die of prostate cancer. So for the vast majority of patients, what Dr. Ehdaie and other physicians recommend is active surveillance. Like, “Don’t do anything. We’ll biopsy it every two years. We’ll do some blood tests every six months, but don’t do surgery. Don’t do radiation. Don’t do chemotherapy.” And Dr. Ehdaie figured everyone would love having this conversation because they’re being told you don’t have to do a risky surgery. 

LEVITT: Absolutely, yeah.

DUHIGG: But again and again, the patients would say, “Okay.” They’d go home. They talk it over with their spouse. They come in the next day and they’d say, “Nope, I want the surgery. Cut me open.” They just completely failed to hear what he was saying. So he changed how he was conversing to ask this question: tell me what this means to you. And he found some people would answer that question by asking him about different treatments. They were interested in a practical conversation. They wanted medical advice. But the vast majority of other people, they would start talking about illnesses their parents had, or a divorce that their dad had gone through, or a bankruptcy in the past, or their worries for their kids about the future and climate change. They would talk about all the stuff that had nothing to do with the tumor on their prostate. And what he realized was, “Oh, actually, they’re not here to ask me for advice. They’re here to help me help them understand how to make sense of being sick. How do you think about yourself as someone with cancer? Will other people see me differently if they learn I have cancer?” That’s a social conversation, not a practical conversation. Or it could be an emotional conversation.

We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with journalist Charles Duhigg after this short break.

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LEVITT: There’s this professor at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, and his name is Nick Epley. And I’ve known him for 20 years. I talk to him maybe once a year when we run into each other by accident on campus. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with him socially. Certainly I’ve never been to his house or had him over to my house. But when people ask me, “Hey, do you know Nick Epley?” I always have the same knee jerk response. And I say, “Oh yeah, I love Nick Epley.” And it’s kind of strange because I barely know him, but now it all makes sense to me because he shows up in your book as an example of a super communicator. You had that same experience talking with Nick, right? Of you met him and you loved him.

DUHIGG: I feel so close to this guy! I’ve talked to him three times in my life. And the thing is that’s funny — you know, and I’m curious if this has been your experience too — it’s not like Nick is a super dynamic guy. Like, if you were to ask people, “Who’s the most charismatic person you have ever met? Who’s, like, the Bill Clinton at the University of Chicago?” No one would say Nick. He’s not this glad hander. He’s not outgoing. Instead, I think actually the reason we both feel so close to him is because he asks deep questions. And then, and this is the most important part, he reciprocates. So if you tell him something about yourself, he tells you something about himself. And oftentimes he’ll tell you something about himself before he asks you a question. I mean, again, I’ve only talked to the guy a couple of times. I know about his children, I know that he’s adopted, I know that his wife lost a child, that they have a child who’s sick right now. Like, I know so much intimate stuff about Nick’s life, and I know that because Nick volunteered it. And when he does, it makes it feel so natural to talk about my life and how I’m feeling. 

LEVITT: Now, you didn’t put Nick into your book because he’s a wonderful person. You put him in because he does amazing research. Could you talk about what he subjects the hedge fund guys to? I loved that story in the book. 

DUHIGG: Absolutely. So he was invited to go speak at this hedge fund. And these are like masters of the universe, people who, like, earn billions of dollars. And they think they invited him to learn how to listen better. They want tips on listening. But he walks in and what he says is, “Look, what I’m going to do is I’m going to pair you with someone you don’t know, basically a stranger, and you’re going to ask and answer a series of questions. Just three questions. And the last question is: When is the last time you cried in front of another person?” Then he goes, “How many of you think this is going to be a great conversation?” And everyone’s like, “No.” In fact, one guy is like, “Oh s**t, this is going to be terrible.” Like these people don’t want to talk about when they cried with a stranger. These are, like, high-powered, type-A personalities. And so then he does the experiment. And the questions he drew were from this thing called the Fast Friends Procedure. Sometimes it’s referred to as “the 36 questions that make you fall in love.” These two researchers tried to figure out: how can we make two strangers into friends? They found that the only method that they could really use was to come up with these questions of escalating what they called “personalness” — like, if you could have a dinner party with anyone, who would you invite? Or when’s the last time you cried in front of another person? And what they found was that if people took about 45 minutes to ask and answer these questions, then afterwards, we can’t help but feel closer to each other. So this is what Epley is trying to tie into. So he tells these hedge funders, “Okay, you’re going to have to have this conversation. You’re going to ask this question that you’re dreading asking and answering.” And then he sets them loose. He says, “We’ve got five minutes, go ahead and start.” He sees, like, after a minute and a half, one person, they’re like wiping the tears off their face. In another part of the room, these two women are hugging each other who, like, were strangers minutes ago. And then eventually he gets everyone to quiet down. It takes them like 25 minutes to get everyone to stop talking to each other. And he says to them, “Okay, tell me what that experience was like.” And people shoot up their hands and they’re like, “That’s the best conversation I’ve had in years.” And again, it’s because they were invited to ask a deep question and to answer a deep question and because they gave each other permission to say something real. And I think what Nick proves, as we’ve experienced just in talking to him, is that you can give that permission to someone else. You can give that permission to yourself. And it’s a lot easier than we think it is.  

LEVITT: Okay, so I have a permission giving example. I was at a conference with a set of incredibly high achieving people. These were all folks who had received funding from an organization called Schmidt Futures, which is the most innovative philanthropic organization that I’ve ever seen. So shortly before dinner, one of the organizers pulls me aside and asks me if I could be responsible for facilitating the dinner conversation at my table. Okay, anyone who knows me knows that this is roughly the last thing that I would ever do, but I didn’t really feel like I have a choice because they gave me money, and so I thought I had to say yes. So then she hands me a piece of paper that lays out some kind of team-building exercise I was supposed to lead. It involved role play and, oh my God, I thought, “This is going to be torture.” So, without asking permission, I decided I would just do something completely different. And when the eight of us sat down at the table, I didn’t want people to make their standard introduction. I wanted each of us to tell our life story with one simple rule: that you couldn’t show any modesty.

DUHIGG: Oh, interesting.

LEVITT: And I even used the word permission. I said, “I’m not only giving you permission to brag about how amazing you are. I’m insisting that you do it. I want you to tell your story in a way that breaks every social norm about restraint, about saying all the good things happened to you were because of luck. I want to hear the unfiltered version of your greatest hits.” So sitting next to me was a woman named Marina Nitze. She’s awesome. She later came on my podcast as a guest and I’d only known her for a few hours and she’s the nicest, most self-deprecating person you’ll ever meet. And so we went around the table and we told our secrets — not our embarrassing secrets, but the things we’re secretly proud of, but we don’t want to admit we’re proud of. I’m sure I must have talked about my SAT scores. I have literally not mentioned my SAT scores in my adult life to anyone. But at this table, I told people I had really high SAT scores because I’m secretly kind of proud of it. But after we finished, one of the men at the table, he said something like, “Well, I’ve told you my whitewash story where everything’s perfect. Would it be okay if I also tell you about my deepest regret?” And then we ended up, eight strangers at a business dinner, having one of the most wonderful and intimate group conversations I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’ve never seen anyone cry at a work dinner. Every single person at the table cried that night.

DUHIGG: Oh my gosh.

LEVITT: So what do you make of that?

DUHIGG: So I think two things are happening here. The first thing is that you are inviting a social conversation. How do I see myself? How do I believe that the world sees me? And you’re inviting people to talk about that, which can feel incredibly intimate. When I tell you how I want you to see me, by sharing a story with you that I’m proud of, and kind of ashamed that I’m proud of it, it’s enormously powerful. And then my guess is that what’s happening next is that everyone else at the table is proving that they’re listening — through their emotions, through how they react. Not only would they match the candor and the intimacy of the person who had gone before them, but they might actually also referenced other people. They probably said like, “You mentioned X and that made me think in my own life of Y.” And this proving that we’re listening is really, really important. And in fact, there’s a technique in the book referred to as looping for understanding where in a conflict situation, oftentimes what you should do is you should ask a question, repeat back in your own words what the person just said, and then ask them if you got it right. And that third step is often the one that people forget, but by asking them if you got it right, you’re giving them permission to correct you or to say, “Yes, you understand me.”

LEVITT: So I’ve tried the looping technique that you have in your book and I did it with some trepidation because I have to admit, when I fight with my wife, I often don’t understand what we’re fighting about and what she’s upset about. So I was afraid that I’d get it wrong. I’d try to repeat back to her what she said and if I got it wrong, I was really going to be in the doghouse. And so what was interesting is the first time I tried it, I said what I thought she had said and she’s like, “No, that’s not it at all.” And then she told me again, actually, in a way that was much clearer what was wrong. My expectation was by getting it wrong, it would show her I wasn’t listening. But, consistent with how you’ve described it, by repeating back to her what she said, even though I got it wrong, she felt heard.  

DUHIGG: And more importantly, she probably realized that you genuinely wanted to understand what she was saying. Sometimes when we say something and the other person doesn’t hear us because they don’t want to hear us, right? And we suspect they don’t want to hear us. They’re just waiting their turn to speak or they’re taking the most uncharitable perspective possible. But when you say to her like, “Here’s what I heard you say,” and then you screw it all up, and then you say, “Did I get that right?” What you’re really saying is, “No, I really want to understand what you’re saying. I am not smart enough right now to figure it out based on what you said.” But that intent, that desire, once we show that, then a lot of people will give us the benefit of the doubt, and they’ll help us understand what they’re saying.  

LEVITT: I could talk with you all day about Supercommunicators, but I’m really curious to talk about the other things you’ve done, like your first book, The Power of Habit. That came out back in 2012. And my God, it was an unbelievable success. Great reviews. It sold a zillion copies. It spent three years on the bestseller list. But the origin of that book was pretty humble. You just wanted to break a few bad habits, right?

DUHIGG: Oh, totally. I wanted to lose weight. I had this basic question. It’s the same question that kind of motivated this book, which is like, “If I’m so smart and successful, why am I 20 pounds overweight and I can’t make myself go running in the morning?” I honestly just wanted an excuse to call experts and ask them how to improve my own habits — like how to make it easier to exercise and eat less. And the only way, as you know, you can do that as an author is that you have to write a book about it because otherwise nobody wants to talk to you. But if you tell them you’re writing a book, they’ll talk to you for like an hour. 

LEVITT: So the core idea in The Power of Habit, it’s really simple, that there’s something called a habit loop, and understanding that loop helps people devise strategies for breaking bad habits and building good habits.  

DUHIGG: Absolutely. Every habit functions the same way within our brain. And every habit has three components. There’s a cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior. The routine itself, which is the behavior, and that’s usually what we think of. And then a reward. Every habit in our life has a reward, whether we’re aware of it or not. And this is the habit loop. And once you know how to diagnose the cues and the rewards in your life, then you can start shaping these new behaviors that become more and more automatic. And that’s really powerful because it basically says there’s no behavior that’s beyond your grasp. If you just try and do the routine, just try and do the behavior, it’s not going to get easier. But if you think about the cues and you think about giving yourself rewards, then your brain eventually is going to make that into a habit that happens almost automatically.

LEVITT: I know that at one point you were keeping a running tally of the number of readers who wrote to you about their experiences applying the tools. And it was a big number, right? 

DUHIGG: Yeah. It’s in excess of 26,000 emails at this point. And it’s been a decade — it didn’t all happen overnight. But every week I get three or four emails from someone who says, “I struggled with procrastination and now I have a system, a plan to not procrastinate.” And I respond to every single email a reader sends.

LEVITT: No, not really. 

DUHIGG: Yeah, yeah. Every single one.  

LEVITT: Wait, let me think about this. You said 26,000, right?

DUHIGG: Yeah.  

LEVITT: So, let’s say you spend five minutes. That’s, I don’t know, 130,000 minutes, roughly.  

DUHIGG: You’re good at math.

LEVITT: That’s 2,000 hours and it probably takes you more than five minutes. 

DUHIGG: Well, first of all, it’s over 10 years, right? 

LEVITT: Literally a year’s full-time job. 

DUHIGG: And it probably doesn’t take me five minutes per email. Because a lot of them, it’s just a matter of reading the email and then saying, like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s really inspiring to hear that you can change.” And it’s very rewarding, right? Like I get to talk to these people who spent time writing me and whose lives were changed. There’s all these things that we can change in our life about how we behave, but most of my happiness, most of my sense of satisfaction and success, it comes from how I interact with other people. And habits are all about me. They’re all about changing myself. But if I want to focus on getting better with other people, then that’s all about communication. I’m really hopeful that, you know, a couple years from now, I’m getting those same emails from people who are saying, “I had trouble connecting with my sister for a decade, and then I used one of the ideas that I found in the book, and now we feel closer than ever before.” As a journalist, you basically just steal other people’s ideas and then try and explain them in entertaining ways. Like I can’t think of something more meaningful or a way to pay homage to these ideas better than to help people connect with the people that they love the most.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with journalist Charles Duhigg. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about what we can learn from the movie Frozen.

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Charles Duhigg has one more big book that we haven’t talked about yet. Called Smarter, Faster, Better. It tackles productivity and uses great storytelling to make its point.

LEVITT: So you followed up The Power of Habit with another book, I think, four years later, on productivity.

LEVITT: There’s a story in the book that I actually wish I had never read.

DUHIGG: Oh, yeah?

LEVITT: Because it shattered my innocence. So, just as background, I have a lot of kids. I have seven kids, and five of them are girls. And that means that I’ve spent a lot of time with the movie Frozen. And it’s come to occupy a really special place in my heart. And it’s funny because I’ve always thought of Frozen as just being hatched, fully grown, that there’s only one way that Frozen could be and Frozen is that way. But then in the book, you tell the real story of the making of Frozen and I couldn’t believe the circuitous path that it took the creators to come up with what Frozen was.  

DUHIGG: It’s amazing, isn’t it?

LEVITT: It hurts me a little bit to know it.

DUHIGG: One of my favorite details of that is that they finished the script for Frozen months before it was released. They literally didn’t know what the end of the movie was as they were doing the animation for the beginning of it. And you’re exactly right. There were all these different things. Like, when Frozen was first born, there was a character, Anna, and then a Snow Queen that came and kind of bullied Anna. And they played with that and they couldn’t get it to work. And so then they were like, what if we have two sisters, but one is a good sister and one is an evil sister. Still the Snow Queen, they just happen to be sisters. And again, it just didn’t work. They spent years trying to figure out how to make that script work and failing again and again. 

LEVITT: One thing I was shocked by is it sounds like they actually had made a movie with that theme and screened it, and everyone hated it, and they threw it out. So it wasn’t like they just talked about this and discarded it. They literally made a movie that was terrible, that had a completely different story, and then somehow, at the last minute, managed to salvage something amazing out of something that was awful.

DUHIGG: And this was bewildering to them because they couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t crack this code. And they’re like, “This is a big problem. We’re already on the books for a release date.” And so they sit down and they say, “Okay, look, let’s go around and let’s just talk about some of our favorite stories. Like, why do some stories work?” And I’ll mention, there’s an unusually large number of women working on Frozen. In fact, one of the directors was the first female director in Disney’s history. And they would say things like, “My favorite book when I was a kid was Little Women. And I like stories that are about how women relate to each other and how girls relate to each other.” And then there was this other thing that they started talking about, like, how are the stories that you use to define yourself? And a lot of people in that room said, “One important way I define myself is through my siblings, particularly relationships between sisters.” And so what they said is, “Okay, look, we have the Snow Queen narrative. What if we were to take a little bit of Little Women and a little bit of these stories that we all know about sisters and how complicated our relationships are with our siblings, and we were to just mix these three stories together?” That is Frozen. That’s why it works. It’s this idea known as being a innovation broker, that oftentimes creativity comes not from a brainstorm. Creativity comes from being, like, in the import-export business of ideas and just mixing ideas together in new ways. Behavioral economics is pointed to as the apex of innovation brokerage because it takes some basic questions from economics and some basic questions from psychology, which at that point weren’t necessarily seen as exciting, but mixing them together suddenly made them really exciting. Is that fair? 

LEVITT: I think it is fair. And it’s really a one-way journey. What has happened is psychologists and economists have found things in psychology and imported them into economics. The opposite just hasn’t happened. There hasn’t been this reverse transference. Honestly, thinking about it now, I’m not exactly sure why that is the case. It’d be good to ask somebody like Danny Kahneman or Richard Thaler why that is, but I think it is a fair statement that it has been purely a one-way transfer. I mean, one of the things that I always say to everyone when they’re talking about ideas is it’s so much easier to steal — we’ll call it borrow maybe — but to borrow an idea than to come up with something new. I mean, speaking of Danny Kahneman, he and I used to work together in a consulting firm. And I don’t think Danny and I, in the entire time we worked in consulting, ever created something from scratch, something new. It was always something that we managed to take from others or maybe take from our own work in the past.  

DUHIGG: One of the things that I love about your career is that you’ve never felt constrained by the orthodoxies or the boundaries that other people just accept unquestionably. Like, you’re willing to ask new questions in different ways. Where does that come from? Because in a sense, it’s an act of courage.  

LEVITT: Well, I wouldn’t call it courage. I think more desperation is where it came from in the first place. Because I was so ill-equipped to be a regular economist. And in graduate school became apparent to me, and it was apparent to everyone around me, that if I played by the regular rules, I was going to have a very short career in economics. And I made a very conscious choice that I wouldn’t play by the regular rules. And I figured I was still going to have a very short career in economics, because if you don’t play by the rules, usually things don’t go well. All I did was I was myself. I just actually tried to pay attention to what was interesting to me and didn’t worry about whether it would be interesting to other people or whether it would easily fit into what economists are doing. So about real-estate agents — look, I was actually buying houses and I was experiencing the fact that the real estate agents were ripping me off and they were lying to me and so with a little bit of curiosity, a little bit of willingness to be childlike and to actually dive deeper into these situations — that’s all I did.  

DUHIGG: One thing I hear you saying — and this is, I think, really meaningful — is that you pay attention to yourself, like you pay attention to your own emotional reactions and intellectual reactions. There’s a writer, George Saunders, who’s a wonderful short-story writer and novelist. And one of the things that he says is that if you want to be a writer, you really have to learn to be able to observe yourself as you read. So when I read something new, I’m experiencing it, but I’m also observing, like, when I feel happy or when I feel sad? Like, why is this particular passage making me feel this way? And in some respects, that’s what communication is too, right? When we’re communicating with someone, we’re trying to share an idea with them but we’re also observing. If we’re a good communicator, if we’re a supercommunicator, we’re observing ourselves a little bit, like we’re observing when we feel emotional and trying to share that with the other person. This capacity for sort of meta observation of ourselves and others, I think that’s a really powerful tool. It means that our own experiences become a data set that we can learn from.

You know what I find so amazing about this conversation with Charles Duhigg? I just read his book, so I’m hypersensitive to the tools he lays out for having great conversations at various points as we talked. I could even name the particular technique he was implementing as he was saying something. You would think that would make me cynical, that I would feel like he was just manipulating me. But the crazy thing is, my reaction is completely the opposite. I can’t stop thinking about how much I love Charles Duhigg, how he feels like a close friend, even though this is the first time we’ve ever spoken. It’s almost like he cast a spell over me. That’s how powerful these conversational tools are. To learn more about the nuts and bolts of having great conversations, and to increase the chance, you will cast a spell over me if we meet, pick up the book Supercommunicators.

LEVITT: And now it’s the part of the show where I invite my producer Morgan on and we take a listener question.

LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So, a listener named Shaun wrote to us about the word enshittification. It was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2023.

LEVITT: Now, I have to say, when Shaun wrote that, I felt old and out of touch because that is not a word that I was familiar with.  

LEVEY: Uh, you’re not that old, Steve, because I have not heard of it either.

LEVITT: Okay, really?

LEVEY: So, listeners, enshittification was coined by a journalist named Cory Doctorow, and he describes it as the process through which internet platforms die. So first, platforms are good to their users. Then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers. Finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, the last stage is that they die. So Shaun wants to know why the market hasn’t punished these bad actors, or is the fall of these internet platforms coming, do you think?

LEVITT: I admit when I heard the concept described, it certainly has a ring of truth to it. Although my own feeling is that the spirit isn’t quite right. But let me just tell an anecdote to capture some of what’s going on here. So Facebook was founded in 2004. So eight years later, I remember visiting Facebook. Facebook had 4 or 5,000 employees at that time. And we were meeting with the team that was in charge of generating revenue. It turned out out of the 4 to 5,000 employees they had, there was maybe 12 to 20 — it was a handful of people whose actual job was to make money. And that’s exactly in the spirit of that. This was a social network that had developed without the idea of making money. And at that time, I think the revenues might have been $5 billion a year. Now the revenues are over $100 billion a year. And it’s exactly by the process that Cory Doctorow describes, I think, that they generate those revenues. Okay, but all that being said, it’s kind of sensible and normal. And I think there’s something off in the consumer mindset that we’ve come to believe that the internet should provide us with amazing products, which bring us joy and happiness and we spend hours of the day on, and should ask nothing back in return. I just feel like consumers are spoiled by the fact that the networks start out by taking huge losses in an attempt to grow and become big. And then later on, they do the sensible thing, which is to find a way to get some of the value for themselves.

LEVEY: So is there anything to be done, or are internet platforms just doomed to enshittification?

LEVITT: Everything would change and would change for the better if people owned their own data. It wouldn’t be worth anything to you on your own. There’s no way for you to take your data and monetize it. You need the big platforms to work as a partner with you to try to monetize it. And I think what would be so amazing about data ownership is that people would have a menu of choices. They could cooperate not at all with the platforms and probably get very little service in return. They could cooperate at the exact same level they do now. They essentially just get to share a little bit in the flow of the revenues. Or you could actually become a partner and work side by side with the network, providing extra information, providing exactly the kind of things that these third party advertisers want to know about you. And because you’re sharing in some of the revenue, you’d be eager to do it. It would just be a very different ecosystem. It would be one that might be able to escape the phenomenon of enshittification. It would be fun to watch that unfold.

LEVEY: If you have a question or comment for us, our email is That’s We read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.

In two weeks, we’re back with a brand new episode featuring Rajiv Shah. He’s the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, the former head of U.S.A.I.D., and the author of a fantastic new book entitled Big Bets: How Large Scale Change Really Happens.

SHAH: I wrote this book, Big Bets, to make the case that precisely at these moments of catastrophe and crisis, you have to be bold, and you have to be highly aspirational, and you have to be incredibly data driven. In order to have any chance at success, however you define it.

As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and Morgan Levey, with help from Lyric Bowditch. It was mixed by Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

DUHIGG: Do you want me to go on and tell you the end of the story? 

LEVITT: Yeah, I want to hear what — I want to hear what he does, yeah. What, we’re going to end it there?  

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