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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Have you ever heard the phrase “face for radio”?

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Is it better to have the first job-interview slot or the last one?

DUCKWORTH: “Sorry, would come and interview — can’t. It looks like drizzle.” 

Also: Why does one of our listeners intentionally avoid learning what Stephen and Angela look like? 

DUBNER: I’ve been told I look like a cross between Paul Newman and Charlton Heston. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going with Robert Pattinson. 

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DUBNER: Angela, we’ve got a question here from a listener named Nana Mensah. Nana writes to say, “I’m a doctoral candidate applying for postdoctoral positions. I recently got invited for an interview that I’m so excited about. In the past, I have chosen the earliest available interview slot just to get it over with. However, I am starting to rethink this. Are you more memorable just because you were the last candidate to be interviewed? Any research on this?” Nana, Nana, Nana — is there any research on this? There’s a lot of research on this! And Angie, can you tell us all of it, right now? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what to say first, and I don’t know what to say last, and whether it matters! But I will say that these ordering effects have been studied extensively. However, less so for the very specific question of which interview slot I should take. The first and most robust thing is that there are order effects when you try to remember things. And I know that if you are an ambitious, soon-to-be postdoc, you want to be remembered — you don’t want to be forgotten. And so, there is a primacy effect, meaning that — say you’re trying to memorize, Stephen, a bunch of numbers. So, I’ll give you 1, 21, 16, 4, 32, 8, and then I say, like, “Repeat those numbers back to me.”

DUBNER: 1, 21, 16, 4, 32, 8. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, that’s pretty good. Although, that, I guess, is about the span of working memory. And I didn’t even give you prep for that.

DUBNER: And I may or may not have been writing them down while you were saying them. 

DUCKWORTH: God, Stephen.

DUBNER: The only thing worse in my memory is my inability to lie, and so I must not tell a lie. And yes, I wrote it down. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Honest Abe — Honest Stephen. 

DUBNER: Bad memory, but very honest. 

DUCKWORTH: Now, if you had not been writing that down, what memory research would say is that you’d be better at recalling the first numbers in a long series of numbers, and then the last ones — so, primacy first, recency last. And there are a lot of things, actually, that end up having, like — the beginning: there’s an advantage because of this; the end: there is an advantage because of that. And there’s lots of complexity there. But I will say that across all of the research on memory, and setting goals, and motivation and so forth, that where you don’t want to be is the middle. Towards the beginning and towards the end, there might be pros and cons, but I think it’s easy to get lost in the middle. 

DUBNER: It strikes me that being in the middle may be a double whammy.

DUCKWORTH: In what way? 

DUBNER: Well, let’s just pretend there are 10 people being interviewed and Nana is fifth — or let’s say there’s nine. So, Nana is directly in the middle. So, there is A) the inability to capitalize on either primacy or recency biases. But then, additionally, the middle may have something to do with, let’s say, hunger. I do know there was a pretty neat study — this was a while ago, I think 2001 — a study by three Israeli scholars who looked at parole hearings in Israeli prisons to see how the judges’ decisions were affected by a variety of factors, including hunger, perhaps. And that study found that the judges were more likely to grant parole at two points in the day: early in the day — so you could say, “Well, maybe primacy bias.” But you could also say, “Right after breakfast.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, delicious egg sandwich. 

DUBNER: And Mediterranean breakfasts are very good: Israeli salad, and good cheeses and olives and things like that. And then, the other point in the day at which they are more likely to grant parole was shortly after the lunch break. And then, if you work in reverse, there has been work that shows that hunger is not something that you want your judge to be. So, if you’re dead in the middle, you might run into the “right before lunch” time slot — So, that’s what I meant by double whammy.

DUCKWORTH: You know, in those Israeli parole studies, the criticism has been raised that the order in which parole cases come isn’t random. The cases might become more complex at the end of the day, because they just put the easy ones first. But I think, on balance, there is collective evidence that, yeah, when people get tired over the course [of] a day, or they get hungry over the course of a day, or they just get distracted by other things that they were thinking of over the course of the day, that that can influence decision making in reasonably consequential ways. That’s why, I think, with Nana, it’s hard to make really clear, you know, like, “Oh, Nana, you should definitely do this.”

DUBNER: There’s also the weather effect. Do you know the study? I bet you do. It was our buddy Donald Redelmeier up at University of Toronto and Simon Baxter, a colleague of his there. They looked at the data on medical-school applicants and being interviewed on a rainy day versus a non-rainy day. So, Redelmier and Baxter write, “Overall, those interviewed on rainy days received about a one-percent-lower score than those interviewed on sunny days. This pattern was consistent for both senior interviewers and junior interviewers. We used logistic regression to analyze subsequent admissions decisions. The difference in scores was equivalent to about a 10 percent total lower mark on the MCAT, the Medical College Admission Test.” So, don’t interview on a rainy day! 

DUCKWORTH: Just cancel your interview. It’s like, “Oh, it looks like rain!” By the way, I think that would have an even larger effect. 

DUBNER: To cancel? 

DUCKWORTH: “Sorry, would come and interview — can’t. It looks like drizzle.” 

DUBNER: But wait a minute. You say that facetiously, but think about this for a second: if it has a significant effect, not huge, but significant, would it be a terrible idea to call?

DUCKWORTH: Well, but then you look like a flake. 

DUBNER: No, no, no. “I’m so looking forward to my interview tomorrow, but my ‘blank’ — myself, my mother, my cat — has just come down with a case of ‘blank.’” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you can roll the die that way if you would like to, Stephen, but if I were interviewing someone, I’d be like, “Really? Okay, go take care of the cat. When you’re free to interview for medical school, let me know.” 

DUBNER: So, you’re saying the kind of person that you want in your medical school is not the kind of person who’s got the sympathetic vibe that wants to take care of their cat? That doesn’t sound very generous of you. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’d like somebody who’s going to be taking human lives into their own hands would have an organized life enough that they could mostly make their interviews. But I am mostly being facetious. I think getting back to this question of the ordering effects, we didn’t really say much about why being at the end is good. We were just making the point that the middle can be forgotten easily. At the end, you not only are literally the last person that the interviewer sees — so, of course, they’re going to remember you; they were just with you — but there’s also the peak-end effect from Danny Kahneman’s research, that there is, to some extent, some heightening of the impact of things at the end of an experience. But I think, in general, you can argue that we tend to start paying attention — or in retrospect, allocating more attention — to the things that came at the end. 

DUBNER: So, this all makes sense, and I hope it’s at least a little bit helpful to Nana. But let me prick our balloon for a moment, in that, if you look at all these different mood factors, or biases — primacy, recency, peak-end, rainy day, dadada — all these things that may influence the decider to some degree — I have a feeling that all of those factors, maybe even combined, would be overwhelmed by a different factor. Can you guess what factor I’m thinking of?

DUCKWORTH: Aside from whether you are or aren’t Stephen Dubner? I can think of lots of factors that should be more important than the order in which your interview takes place, but which do you have in mind? 

DUBNER: This is related to order. But it’s not about order driven by, let’s say, mood when you’re hungry, or it’s not about order driven necessarily by first or last. What I’m thinking is what economists call — I’m not sure what psychologists call it — do you know about the gambler’s fallacy? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, just enough to be dangerous. Tell me about the gambling fallacy, Stephen. 

DUBNER: Let’s say that you were betting a hundred dollars on a coin flip, and there are three heads in a row. You say, “Oh, man, tails are due.” So you put a hundred dollars on that. What’s the likelihood that that next one, that fourth flip, will come up tails? It’s 50 percent. They’re independent actions. But this seems to be a very common cognitive bias, which is that people tend to see patterns, and whether those patterns are driven by something legitimate or not — “not” meaning just chance — we still look to reverse that pattern. I know the economist Toby Moskowitz, who’s at Yale, did some research looking at judges who grant asylum to immigrants. They either get asylum or they get deported. And so this was incredibly high-stakes decision making. And he found that, even in that high-stakes setting, that what would happen is that when an immigration judge would have, let’s say, two deportations in a row, that the third one was much more likely to be granted asylum than if you were to base it solely on the merit. And vice versa and so on. In other words, we seem to look for patterns everywhere and to correct patterns that seem like they’re a bit askew. And so I wonder if you think that might be an even more relevant factor for someone like Nana. Let’s say the two people before Nana are not very good and they get rejected out of hand. And then Nana comes in. And even if Nana isn’t that good, there might be a strong likelihood —

DUCKWORTH: But just in contrast to these other losers who came in before Nana. Okay, I’m going to come to the same recommendation as you do for Nana: try to line up two or three total losers before you end up being interviewed. But I actually have a slightly different interpretation of this gambler’s fallacy. I think what’s really going on there isn’t that people are seeing patterns when there aren’t patterns, but that people have some sense that there is a distribution. If you interview people for a living, you know that some people are going to be really good, some people are going to be really terrible, and then most people are going to be in the middle. So, we have experience of a kind of normal-shape distribution, or a bell-curve distribution, or some distribution. You don’t expect everyone to be the exact same level of attractiveness as a job hire. But what’s happening there is that people don’t realize that what gives rise to the distribution are a lot of events that are completely independent of each other. If you flip a coin and you get heads, and you flip a coin and you get heads, and you flip the coin and you get heads, and you think it’s a fair coin, you might think, like, “Oh, well, the next one’s going to be tails. Because, I mean, like, what are the odds?” But really, you’re confusing things. The fact that the coin is fair will eventually give rise to a distribution that is going to be half heads and half tails, but you’re not supposed to impose that on the next event. So, that’s kind of irrelevant to the recommendation. I do think that if you have a few not-so-great candidates before you, you’re going to look better for lots of reasons, including the contrast effect. But it may not be because of an overdeveloped pattern-seeking muscle. 

DUBNER: Now that you’ve explained that, I think I was totally wrong in saying that this was about pattern-seeking, necessarily. I think it was more about evening the ledger in your mental accounting. 

DUCKWORTH: Creating the distribution! 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: I do know this study by Uri Simonsohn and Fran Gino, who are business-school professors, and they were interested in MBA admissions interviews. 

DUBNER: Oh. So, very close to what Nana is talking about. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. But in this case, the question is: Is the order in which you’re interviewed, does that matter? And it turns out that if an interviewer has seen, say, three great applicants, and they’re like, “Yes, admit this person. Yes, admit the second person. Oh, the third candidate is amazing.” Now, you’re the fourth person. And it turns out that interviewers are biased against you. 

DUBNER: Even if you’re great, perhaps.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Because they’re like, “Oh, we can’t admit everyone.” And they’re, again, forcing the distribution. But, hello, newsflash: distributions do not come from human beings actively taking a role to make the next coin flip heads or tails, or to make the next applicant an “admit” or “deny.” 

DUBNER: So, I can’t imagine any of us are immune to these different scheduling effects or ordering effects. If you were to give advice, though, to Nana, the interviewee, or maybe even more interestingly to the interviewer, to prevent making bad decisions, what do you tell them? 

DUCKWORTH: I think the better advice is to the interviewer. But first, for Nana. Yeah, there are order effects. By the way, you don’t have any control over when you’re going to be interviewed as a postdoc. So I will cross my fingers for you, Nana, that you are not in the forgettable middle. But I think, for the interviewer, it says, “Hey, don’t schedule 12 interviews in a row, because by the eighth or ninth one, you’re going to be cranky and tired, and you’ll have forgotten a lot.” And so you should protect against some of these fatigue and hunger effects. Also, if you do know that you’re going to have some irrational bias, just to know that you are human and fallible might actually be a check on you. And I think this is also why best practices in all of these things are that you have multiple interviewers who, ideally, do the interviews in different contexts so that these things play out evenly and that everybody gets a fair shake. 

DUBNER: I will say, I once had a conversation, not so long ago, with my daughter, because she likes psychology. She’s been studying psychology. This is my daughter Anya, that you know a bit. We were actually talking about these things: primacy bias and recency bias. And we were talking about it in all different kinds of contexts. And she, she made an interesting point, which is that a lot of people who talk about these ordering biases or scheduling biases, it’s sort of a defense mechanism for rejection — like, they are looking for an explanation. 

DUCKWORTH: A reason other than not being good enough.

DUBNER: Yeah. They’re looking for an explanation of why they didn’t get what they wanted or why they failed. And she — I mean, this sounds a little cutthroat; she’s 19; she’s not really cutthroat, she’s just very matter of fact — said, “You know, I think the best thing to do is just to be better.” 

DUCKWORTH: I wanted to give that advice to Nana. Like, do you want to allocate your cognitive capacity to getting the perfect position in the interview schedule, or do you want to think really carefully about what you want to do your postdoc about and really blow the socks off of your interviewer because you have such great ideas? 

DUBNER: Let me ask one last question about this. Some of these research results suggest that totally unrelated factors, like hunger and weather, can affect the mood of the decider, and that can have some impact. If you can’t affect where you are getting ordered in an interview process, maybe you can affect the mood a little bit. Is there anything you can suggest that can improve the mood of the decider — of the judge, of the interviewer — if you happen to catch them on a rainy day or before lunch? 

DUCKWORTH: One of the best things that you can do to affect the mood of your interviewer — or, in fact, anybody that you’re interacting with — is your own mood. So, if you walk in and you’re just really positive, like, “Hi, I am so excited for this interview!” That’s going to put things in the right direction. And, I will say, if you notice something is really distracting for your conversation partner — I remember when I sold Grit, the book proposal, I had this sequence of these group interviews. I didn’t know who was doing the interviewing — whether I was really interviewing these editors or they were actually putting me on trial. But anyway, there were these conversations, one after the other, and I remember in one of them, the person seemed to me that they had a tickle in their throat. They kept clearing their throat. And I just stopped everything. And I was like, “I think you need a drink of water.” And then I just went and found a water bottle and I just gave it to them. And then we just proceeded. And I think that probably put them in a better mood and maybe showed that I was a not-so-terrible human. So, when interacting with other humans, my recommendation is to be human. 

DUBNER: I don’t know if this is just the recency bias talking, but I think now, having heard that story, that you’re the best human ever. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss which is more powerful — audio or visuals. 

DUCKWORTH: I said, “Oh, by the way, who are you? This has been an amazing conversation.” And they were like, “I’m your cousin.” 

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I love this email that we got from a Martin Glass in Scotland. I’m going to read it to you. 

DUBNER: Please. 

DUCKWORTH: “I am a new listener to NSQ, and I’ve been making my way through all the episodes. One question I have is: Why do I never want to know what podcast hosts look like?” 

DUBNER: Have you ever heard the phrase “face for radio,” Martin? Not you. I’m not implying you, Angela. 

DUCKWORTH: You’re being self-deprecating, not Angela-deprecating. “I never want to look up Stephen or Angela to see what they look like. The mystery of just the voice is weirdly soothing for me. Can Angela fix me or am I broken forever? Love the show, Martin Glass in Scotland.”

DUBNER: Plainly, you’re broken forever. You are unfixable. 

DUCKWORTH: Next question! 

DUBNER: Angela, I am curious whether you can fix him. Although, when I hear that question, I’m not sure this is a problem that requires fixing. He’s already not doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. We should all have such problems. 

DUCKWORTH: I think this is such an interesting question, because he has the intuition that visual information — knowing what Stephen Dubner looks like, knowing what Angela Duckworth looks like — that should be something that he wants. And I think he is right to note that that’s curious. Because so much of perception, and making your way in the world, and surviving, is based on sight. Think about evolution. So much of our survival has depended on being able to detect motion, being able to detect friend or foe very quickly. The human brain is able to recognize all those complex inputs. If those features come together as a face that you know as your first cousin, or as your next door neighbor, or as your spouse, that is immediate. So, I think Martin Glass is very canny. You’re right to wonder why you don’t want that information.

DUBNER: There is a lot of research on the fact that the human face is a very intense target for the human brain, as you just alluded to. The face can capture our attention, or maybe demand our attention, in a way that can distract us from a secondary task, right? 

DUCKWORTH: The face in particular, but visual information more generally. But let’s start with faces, because, you know, Martin wants to know why he doesn’t want to see ours. So, there is a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, and it is in charge of facial recognition. If you get a lesion there, if you have a problem like a stroke there, then you will not be able to recognize faces in the very automatic, effortless, and immediate way that the rest of us, like — we might remember the time that we were walking down the sidewalk and we failed to recognize a classmate from twenty-five years ago, but that is because we’re used to recognizing everybody all the time. It’s very fast — facial recognition happens much quicker than vocal recognition. So, if you’re talking to someone, you also start to recognize who they are. Say, for example, on the phone, if I have my daughter Lucy call me, or my daughter Amanda call me, eventually I would be able to figure out which it is. But I will tell you that for a good two or three minutes, I am sure that they could hoodwink me.

DUBNER: No. Get out of here. 

DUCKWORTH: I am not kidding. This is maybe a comment on me as a mother. 

DUBNER: Either that or you have two children who happen to sound remarkably alike. 

DUCKWORTH: They do sound alike, at least, to me. But I would not have trouble picking one or the other out of a crowd or, in fact, distinguishing them from each other visually. So there’s something very fast and very efficient, particularly, about facial recognition. 

DUBNER: But could it be that you are particularly bad at audio recognition? 

DUCKWORTH: You know what? I’m just bad at recognition. I did actually introduce myself to somebody at a wedding once. And after, like, a two-hour conversation, I said, “Oh, by the way, who are you? This has been an amazing conversation.” And they were like, “I’m your cousin.” And I was like, “Knew that. Totally knew that!” So, I’m bad at recognizing humans. But, in general, though, facial recognition is a special category of visual information. And it turns out that the human brain is so good at visual information. 

DUBNER: So, bringing this notion back to what Martin is asking about, I empathize with his desire, or maybe his lack of desire, to do the thing he doesn’t want to do, because I think about it in the context of a book that you’ve read and loved, and then the movie comes out. 

DUCKWORTH: You hate it, right? 

DUBNER: I don’t even want to see the movie. And, obviously, there are some movies that come out really well, maybe even better than the book. Like, I can think of one book that I loved, loved, loved. And I saw the film, and I didn’t hate it. And that was Angela’s Ashes, which I thought was a pretty good film. 

DUCKWORTH: I did not know that was a film. Wait, who’s in Angela’s Ashes? I love the book.

DUBNER: No idea. It was an incredibly well-crafted and moving version of the book. But then I think of another book that I loved, Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. 

DUCKWORTH: Love that book too. 

DUBNER: Great novel. And then the movie came out. 

DUCKWORTH: I can’t remember that movie. 

DUBNER: You are so fortunate, because it was a really terrible movie. And it’s too bad, because it was — Brian De Palma directed, who’s a very good director; had Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis. The journalist Julie Salamon was actually on set for a lot of the making of that movie, and she wrote a book about it. 

DUCKWORTH: She wrote a book about the movie about the book Bonfire of the Vanities

DUBNER: Correct. She wrote a book about the making of the movie, because it just was one disaster after the next. And the book was called Devil’s Candy. But now, even weirder, recently she has made a podcast about the writing of that book and the making of that movie.

DUCKWORTH: Wow. This book has really gotten far just generating derivative products. 

DUBNER: This is a, a Hollywood history podcast called The Plot Thickens. The new season is about the making of the movie of Bonfire of the Vanities and an interpretation of her own book. But the point is, for me, and I think for a lot of people, when there’s a book that gets its hooks into you, you do a lot of things in your brain that you probably don’t think about, but you imagine — maybe not so much what the characters look like, but you have a feel for them. You imagine the scenarios. You know, Tom Wolfe — he was a nonfiction writer and a journalist for many, many, many years, who then started writing novels. So, he reported an awful lot in order to write fiction. You’d read these scenes, and you really feel like you understood all the characters and all the incentives. And it was just incredibly interesting and exciting. And then the movie comes out, and it’s like a terrible, plastic version of all that. And, for me, it kind of ruined the book. Because visuals are so powerful, the bad visuals of this bad movie superseded my own memory and reckoning of this story. And it’s hard to undo that. It makes me think about research where there’s a visual component that gets subtracted or added. I’m thinking about the famous research — this is from quite a few years ago by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse about blind auditions in orchestras. I think it was mostly in service of exploring why female musicians were being hired much, much less by good orchestras than they should have been. In this research paper — here, I’ll, I’ll read a little chunk: “A change in the auditions procedures of symphony orchestras — that is, adoption of, quote, ‘blind auditions’ with a screen to conceal the candidate’s identity from the jury — provides a test for sex-biased hiring. Using data from actual auditions, we find that the screen increases the probability that a woman will be advanced and hired.” So, that was a case where there appears to have been a bias that was erased by erasing the visual component. 

DUCKWORTH: I think there’s even more non-intuitive research, recently, by Chia-Jung Tsay. Full disclosure, she’s a girlfriend of mine. She’s also a business-school professor in Wisconsin. And she was, herself, this very highly trained pianist. But she had been to all these piano competitions, and she thought to herself, “You know what? I think the people who win these piano competitions are not necessarily the best pianists.” And she wondered whether the visual information that some of these musicians would — you know, they’re kind of like Lang Lang, you know, the most famous pianist in the world. He’s always, like, throwing his head back, 00:41:35 and they’re, like, sweating. And you’re like, “Oh, my God, they’re so passionate. They should win.”

DUBNER: So, her theory is that the visual performative aspect was making up for some deficiencies in actual musicianship? 

DUCKWORTH: Was dominating the auditory signal. And so it was a pretty provocative thesis, which is that: it’s so strong, the visual information, that it can actually make us worse judges of who’s the better musician. And that was a paper that she published called “Sight Over Sound” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the way these musical competitions are playing out is that all the judges are being misinformed — or at least distracted — by the visual information. You’re better at predicting who is going to win a music competition by only being able to see them, and not even hear them, than if you have sight and sound. Because so much of our information has been visual — it tends to dominate other forms of information. And so we should just know that we are going to be distracted by visual information whenever it’s available. And maybe that is why Martin doesn’t want to see us, because he realizes he’s getting more out of listening to us than he would if we projected ourselves. 

DUBNER: I think this is all evidence in favor of the argument that Martin is a wise person. 

DUCKWORTH: Martin is one of my favorite people.

DUBNER: So, he’s exercising this caution, or self-control, because he’s got a relationship with a thing that he likes in a format that satisfies him. And he doesn’t want to distort or dislodge that relationship by adding some elements of a different format. It makes me think — if we were going to name it, I might call it the “Wizard of Oz effect.” Because when the curtain gets pulled back and it’s just the little shmo there who is not as omnipotent and mysterious as we thought — you know, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” That is a good cautionary tale. I will tell Martin, if he doesn’t want to look us up, if he does want to know — just to hold an image in his head — I’ve been told I look like a cross between Paul Newman and Charlton Heston. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was going with Robert Pattinson, but, you know, choose your generation.

DUBNER: A little bit of him, too. Who have you been told that you look most like, Angela? 

DUCKWORTH: Angelina Jolie. 

DUBNER: Yeah, I see that. Now, I have seen research about the power of the voice in and of itself that I also think is worth considering. This is from a study by M.W. Kraus, in American Psychologist, from 2017. There was a write up of this paper in Greater Good magazine, which is out of Berkeley. “Kraus found that we are more accurate when we hear someone’s voice than when we look only at their facial expressions or see their face and hear their voice. In other words, you may be able to sense someone’s emotional state even better over the phone than in person. When we only listen to the voice, he found, our attention for the subtleties and vocal tone increases. We simply focus more on the nuances we hear in the way speakers express themselves.” This reminds me of something I mentioned many, many episodes ago about why so many photographers prefer and stuck with black and white photography, even after color had become very affordable and common. 

DUCKWORTH: Addition by subtraction. Yeah.

DUBNER: I do think that when I listen to audio — and maybe when people listen to you and me — because of the lack of that visual distraction, or any other distraction, you are able to engage with the material in a deeper way than you might if you had those other inputs. 

DUCKWORTH: Let me propose something bold here, Stephen. So, what I think this classic study by Kraus, and some other research that we mentioned by Chia-Jung Tsay, et cetera, is all pointing to is that we can’t process very much, and therefore the brain is making prioritizations. And so we shouldn’t just worry about information that’s given, we should also worry about the priority of the information that’s processed, because you can’t actually process all of it. So, Stephen, I confessed this to you before, that when I’m on Zoom calls, listening to some other faculty members — some professor, maybe from another university — giving a presentation with a PowerPoint, I like to turn off my video and go outside and take a walk. And I swear to God, I am actually understanding more, not less, of that same talk without the visuals. I think what’s going on is that when I look at that Zoom video with the graphs, that, of course, my brain is trying to process everything and it’s crowding out some of the most important stuff, which is what the person is doing with their voice. 

DUBNER: I think most people who present in that standard format, whether it’s academia or the corporate setting — 

DUCKWORTH: They should all go to hell. 

DUBNER: Okay. That’s a little stronger than I was going to say. But many people do this borderline, in my view, idiotic thing, which is: show someone visual information that you’re asking them to read and understand while talking to them about the same information, but in a way that’s not a perfect parallel. The famous visual-design guru Edward Tufte, who wrote several books about the best way to present visual information, generally — basically, data in pictures, but broader than that. I think he’s brilliant, both as a practitioner, but also as a diagnostician of how bad it is to do this thing that we do. And I can’t remember — he had a particular pejorative for PowerPoint, per se. But I do think there’s something to that, in that when you are presenting information, there are only so many channels that our brain can work on. So, you talked about how a lot of information can simply be too much information. But I also think that when we actually want to focus on this material, like your academic colleagues are asking you to do in this setting, their narration of it is pure distraction. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. All this to say is that the human mind is a tiny, tiny little receptacle when it comes to perception and what we can actually actively process and retain. And so more isn’t always better, and visual isn’t always better — with one exception, Stephen. I think this is really important. Twilight, the movie, was everything I wanted it to be and more. So, I am very glad that I have the visual of Robert Pattinson as Edward for the rest of my life. 

DUBNER: So, basically, everything that we’ve said over the previous 15 or 20 minutes, ignore it. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And go watch Twilight, again. 

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

In the first half of the episode, Stephen references a paper on whether judges’ parole decisions in Israeli prisons were affected by scheduling and food breaks. He thinks that the study is from 2001, but he was actually off by a decade. The paper, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. And, interestingly enough, it was edited by friend of the podcast, and NSQ’s most-cited behavioral psychologist, Danny Kahneman. 

Later, Stephen says that he can’t remember who stars in the film adaptation of Irish-American author Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes. The movie features Emily Watson as the titular character, Frank’s mother, Angela McCourt, and Robert Carlyle as Frank’s father, Malachy McCourt. English filmmaker Alan Parker directed. I’d venture to guess that it’s not a coincidence that Stephen can’t remember those names, but he can remember the entire cast of The Bonfire of the Vanities — a movie adaptation where the visuals overwhelmed his positive impression of the book. 

Finally, Stephen mentions data-visualization pioneer Edward Tufte’s distaste for PowerPoint, but he can’t recall the pejorative term that Tufte uses to describe this sort of stereotypical presentation of information. Stephen was perhaps thinking of “chartjunk” — a term that Tufte coined in his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Tufte writes, quote, “The interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of the cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

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

DUBNER: Angie, this also makes me think of the voice actors that are hired for big Hollywood animated films. If I’m keeping the budget of the film, I would say, “No, no, no, no, no. I do not want to hire —”

DUCKWORTH: “Get Dubner.” 

DUBNER: Yeah. Get Dubner for that, or even Angie! Sorry, not “even Angie.” “Get Angie, or even Dubner!” 

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