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Episode Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio.  It’s that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner.  He is the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name — it is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, how are you?

Stephen J. DUBNER: Kai, I am great, thank you. Hope you’re well.

RYSSDAL: Happy New Year and all that.

DUBNER: Thank you — to you as well.  Today, big news: the baseball Hall of Fame voting was announced — I don’t know if you caught that — and a grand total of zero people were elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

RYSSDAL: Now, were you surprised?

DUBNER: I was a little bit surprised.  It’s the first time since 1996.  You know, all the talk was about the fact that because the steroid age is happening now and guys like Clemens and Bonds, who deserved to be in, but won’t be elected …

RYSSDAL: Oh, oh! Wait a minute. Are we going to have to have that conversation? You think they deserve to be in?

DUBNER: Well, no. I’m not having that conversation — that’s another conversation. But the argument was that because those guys are not going to get elected, it would free up a little bit more space, potentially. But, as it turns out, nobody got in. And, I gotta tell ya — this is what I’m here to talk about today. This is bad news. If you get nominated to a Hall of Fame and don’t get in — not only do you not get in, but I hate to tell you this, Kai, you actually might die a little bit sooner.

RYSSDAL: Ow! Because? Because? Why?

DUBNER: Well, there’s a growing body of research that looks at the relationship between what we call “status,” generally, and life expectancy. So the economist David Becker — he looked at Baseball Hall of Fame data and he found that while a player who gets elected to the Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily outlive the average baseball player, he does live a couple years longer than a player who gets nominated for the Hall of Fame but, year after year, gets rejected. Here’s David Becker:

David BECKER: This seems to suggest to us that it’s really the story that getting close but not winning is what’s really bad for health, which we think is potentially a really profound point about the nature of status competition more broadly in our society.

RYSSDAL: So actually, it’s not “an honor just to be nominated,” right?

DUBNER: That’s exactly right. Which is appropriate to talk about, since tomorrow the nominations for the Academy Awards will be announced — there’s also an “Oscar Effect.” Donald Redelmeier, who is a medical professor at the University of Toronto, has done research and now argues that Oscar winners outlive their peers. Here’s his best guess as to why that is.

Donald REDELMEIER: Once you’ve really got an uncontestable measure of your own peer approval, all of the subsequent nasty reviews or setbacks or rejections just do not seem nearly as aggravating. They sort of roll off your back and, in turn, that makes you much more resilient.

DUBNER: Now, Kai, let me say this: this longevity research is pretty complex. Some researchers are unpersuaded. But the more fields you look at, the more plausible it seems that a status boost is good for your health. And perhaps more convincingly, that getting close to the mountaintop, but never quite reaching it — that’s a real setback. The economist Andrew Oswald looked at this phenomenon among 50 years’ worth of Nobel Prize winners.

Andrew OSWALD: We do find that if you’re lucky enough to win the Nobel Prize, you can expect about 18 months more of life.

RYSSDAL: O.K., but hold on. I mean, that’s great – 18 more months. But when you win the Nobel Prize, you get like a million dollars. How do you know it’s not just being rich that makes you live longer?

DUBNER: That’s a good question. So that’s one of the first problems that a researcher has in this kind of research, which is to isolate a particular effect — in this case status — from other factors, like money. So they use a mathematical model that will control for other differences. In this case, Oswald found that the money was not a factor in the Nobel winners’ longevity. It was, he says, the winning itself:

OSWALD: A nominee for the Nobel Prize looks virtually identical to someone who actually wins the Nobel Prize. The real difference is simply one of them gets the telephone call from Stockholm and the other doesn’t.

RYSSDAL: Well, I will speak only for myself here. I am not going to win a Nobel Prize. Or get into the Hall of Fame. Or win an Oscar.

DUBNER: [LAUGHS] Hold out hope! Never say never, Kai! Yeah, for most of us, that’s not going to happen. We did, therefore, go looking for something that might help anybody, if they want to live a little bit longer. And, you know what, Kai? We actually found something.

RYSSDAL: All right. Hit me, brother. What do you got?

DUBNER: Annuities.

RYSSDAL: Really?

DUBNER: Yes. It’s a financial instrument you buy that pays off a set amount each year — but only as long as you stay alive. So it’s like a “longevity lotto,” right? Research shows that people who buy annuities tend to live longer — and not just because they are the kind of people that have the money to buy annuities to start with. It’s apparently that little extra incentive of the annuity payout that keeps people going. So maybe those Hall of Fame losers want to stock up on the annuities this week.

RYSSDAL: Any little bit helps, I guess. Stephen Dubner, is the web site. Dubner, we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

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