DUBNER: How much do you look down on me, Angela? Just how much?
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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: Is empathy, in fact, immoral?
DUBNER: We should all immediately learn to be as unempathetic as possible, correct?
Also: what are the benefits of going where the wind may take you?
DUCKWORTH: I resolve to have no resolution right now. My goal is to not have a goal right now.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen. I have an email here from a gentleman named Matt Wahl. Matt writes, “Is there a downside to empathy? For most of my life, I operated on the assumption that empathy was the most important thing for making the world better. If only people could understand other perspectives, everything would be fixed. But lately, I’ve read some pretty damning research that suggests that empathy actually can make people less fair, more irrational, more biased. A study by Paul Bloom involving fictional wait lists for medical treatment found that participants would move people up whose stories they knew at the expense of the strangers on the list. I also learned that the hormone oxytocin, which I associate with love, is involved in occurrences of xenophobia. So, it seems that maybe empathy can only be practically applied to an ingroup at the expense of the rest of the world.” That is a very sophisticated question.
DUBNER: Such a good question. I do want to clear up — this research, Paul Bloom, who’s a psychologist at Yale, wrote about it in a book that was about empathy. And I think Matt gets the details right of the study, what it argued, but it wasn’t actually Paul Bloom who did that research. The research was Daniel Batson, I believe, from the University of Kansas, correct?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And Daniel Batson, I have been in recent email correspondence with about his theory of altruism. He’s been a real pioneer in the field.
DUBNER: I’ve read about the research arguing that empathy-induced altruism can essentially, what I would almost describe as, backfire. But the experiments that he used to reach that conclusion were fascinating. I’m guessing you know this literature much better than I. Do you want to describe those experiments?
DUCKWORTH: So, the gist of these experiments that Matt was describing is that you have participants make these hypothetical choices— there’s a limited commodity of a good, and you have to allocate it to individuals. And usually in these experiments, what Batson is doing is manipulating one of the opponents to empathy. So, empathy versus, in this case, the moral principle of justice. And empathy being more of a feeling kind of thing, like feeling sympathetic to the individual in need. And the moral principle of justice is utilitarian.
DUBNER: Some kind of objective measurement of who needs the most. And can you describe how, when you’re a psychological researcher, you induce empathy, or decrease empathy, in an experimental setting? What do you actually do to get the research subjects to empathize with someone?
DUCKWORTH: So here’s a typical Batson manipulation: you, as a participant, are going to either move people up or not on a list for terminally-ill children and some life-saving measure. So, in the high-empathy condition, you read, “You’re about to see an interview with a terminally-ill child. Try to feel the full impact of what this child has been through and how he or she feels as a result.”
DUBNER: And the control would be: you’re going to watch a video, we’ll talk to you after?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let me read you the low-empathy condition, because I think that actually gives you the greatest contrast. “While you’re listening to this interview, try to take an objective perspective toward what is described. Try not to get caught up in how the child who was interviewed feels. Just remain objective and detached.” And then everybody listens to an interview of a, quote, “very brave,” bright 10-year-old.
DUBNER: These are fictional creations, we should say. These are not actual sick children who are being exploited for the sake of psychological research.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and I’m not sure whether, in the study, they were led to believe that it was real or not. But yes, a fictional child who has myasthenia gravis, which is a neuromuscular disease.
DUBNER: The research subjects are then offered some options to act on their empathy, correct?
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. So, the question is: how will this manipulation of empathy change decisions? I mean, they can, in this case, decide whether to change the place of the child on the list in a way that conflicts with principles of justice. And, in fact, after you are induced into this empathic state and you’re trying to really be sympathetic, then you are more likely to move this fictional child up the list, even if that’s actually displacing other children who have greater need, or shorter life expectancy, or are more likely to benefit. So, this is a case where empathy might make the ultimate choiceless moral.
DUBNER: And at what rate do the high-empathy-treatment people essentially promote their own candidate above people who might, quote, “deserve it more”?
DUCKWORTH: I actually don’t know the details of the study that well, but I think the contrast is what really matters. Like, by inducing empathy, can you get people to make judgments that actually move away from what could be considered objectively better moral judgment?
DUBNER: I find this research just so creative and illuminating too. So, I’m reading here from a conclusion of one of these papers. Batson and his coauthors write,“Empathy-induced altruism and justice are two independent prosocial motives, each with its own unique goal.” And also they write, “In resource-allocation situations in which these two motives conflict” — in other words, there are only so many slots on the list, whatever — “empathy-induced altruism can become a source of immoral injustice.” And so, this is what Paul Bloom wrote about. His book was called Against Empathy, The Case for Rational Compassion. And Matt nailed it in terms of the effect. I’m reading here, a quote from the summary of Bloom’s book. “He argues that empathy is one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality, and that far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices.” I find this shocking. And I believe what it means, Angela, is that we should all immediately learn to be as unempathetic as possible, correct? That would be the proper conclusion here?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I think that a lot of Daniel Batson’s work has not been really to say that empathy is bad.
DUBNER: Sure. I was kidding, by the way, when I said that we should not be empathetic.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, good. I was taking you literally there, Stephen.
DUBNER: I was sarcasming.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, a lot of what motivated Daniel Batson to do his work is that he started out thinking about altruistic acts. People donate to charity. They give up something — their money, or they donate organs. You take time out of your day. Why do people do altruistic things?
DUBNER: You know what the economists say, don’t you?
DUCKWORTH: It’s selfish. Right?
DUBNER: Right. James Andreoni coined a phrase that I find really useful: “warm-glow altruism.” He basically argued that true altruism is very, very rare in the wild, but the twist is — that’s okay! To allow someone to feel good about the way in which they help, or to allow someone to feel pride when they walk by a new hospital wing and it’s got their name on it. What’s more important — that there’s a hospital wing, or that somebody gets some credit for it?
DUCKWORTH: Like why are we arguing about the route to altruism when in fact, like, hey, there’s a hospital wing. The starting point, though, for Daniel Batson, wasn’t even the warm glow hypothesis. It was the evolutionary argument that if I am kind to you, it must be because it’s improving my gene-pool likelihood. And so, that’s like, the most narrow, selfish version of altruism there is. And he said that was his starting point. So, it surprised him to discover that there are multiple paths to altruism. And one of those paths is feeling, what he calls, “empathic concern.” So, it’s not necessarily that I can feel the same feeling as this 10-year-old with a disease. It’s just that I can have emotional regard or connection to you. Now, if you ask me,“Would Batson say that that’s necessarily a bad thing? And that what we should really be is like Vulcans or something, and just only think rationally.” I don’t know what Daniel would say, but I would say that the route to altruism — which goes through feeling and sentiment, which obviously can sometimes have inefficiency, or sometimes come out wrong — is a good route. It’s a legitimate route. And let me say this about children. When young children are developing, there is a very early stage, maybe around two or three, where they begin to be able to experience empathy and sympathy. And Jerry Kagan, the developmental psychologist, would say that if you do not develop that moral capacity to feel, then something’s really wrong. He calls it a moral capacity, not because it’s a highly-reasoned capacity, but just that it lays the foundations for future moral judgment and action. And, in fact, there are children who fail to develop that. They’re called callous-unemotional. And, let me tell you, the research on those children—.
DUBNER: Yeah. Not good, right?
DUCKWORTH: Not good.
DUBNER: That makes perfect sense. But, going back to Matt, our listener, the takeaway that shocked him, that shocks me, which is that — well, let me go back to Paul Bloom ,who wrote the book about it. Here’s a nice passage from Bloom: “Empathy,” he writes, “is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not, or cannot, empathize with. Our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others. It is corrosive in personal relationships. It exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.” That’s an incredibly large indictment, which again, I think, to a lot of people wouldn’t make sense at first glance, but at second, and third, you say, “Well, yes,” because we know from so much psychology and history that humans tend to be pretty tribal. And when we are going to empathize with certain people because they are in our family, our tribe, maybe they’re within the same national borders, maybe they’re the people who look like us or behave like us, what we’re doing is inevitably promoting their interests above others who are different, and that is not justice. That is a kind of altruistic tribalism.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And another person who uses that exact phrase is Josh Greene —neuroscientist at Harvard — and he would say that our brains were designed for tribal life —getting along with a very small group, and then fighting off everybody in the outgroup. He’s a utilitarian. And I think he would say that, the more justified and better approach to allocating resources, and other acts that fall into this category, is to use reason. And to not use our tribal emotions. And, in that case, yeah, don’t make your decisions entirely on empathy. We do have to reconcile these things, because it is part of our machinery. There’s also research by Deborah Small and George Loewenstein on how, if I ask you to donate to a charity and I give you a vivid story of one person,“the identifiable victim,” you’re going to donate more than if I tell you there are 10 million people who suffer from this. So, here’s the reconciliation: if it’s true that it’s part of our machinery to feel emotions that drive our behavior, if it’s also true that there’s a tendency to neglect the suffering of many more people because our spotlight is on the few people that we happen to be paying attention to, then, maybe the both/and to replace this either/or is also taking a second step and to deliberate. Because, I think, if you just start with the deliberation and the cold calculus, you just never get there.The emotion gets you off the couch, or gets your wallet out, et cetera.
DUBNER: I will say this— empathy, I’ve heard described in a way that I find fruitful, is a first step toward compassion. The difference being, empathy means some form of perspective-taking, but the people who argue in favor of compassion would say that compassion is actually turning your empathy into action. I know, Josh Green, that you mentioned, he makes the argument that what’s really needed is some kind of justice framework. I read an interview once where he called it meta-morality. He says “utilitarianism” may be accurate, but it’s a bad name for it —just because people have associations with utilitarianism.
DUCKWORTH: He wants to rebrand utilitarianism as meta-morality?
DUBNER: He wants to rebrand utilitarianism as what he calls “deep pragmatism,” which boils down to this — here, I’ll read a quote from an interview he gave: “Maximize happiness impartially. Try to make life as happy as possible overall, giving equal weight to everyone’s happiness. It’s a meta-morality because it’s a system. Unlike simple rules such as ‘don’t kill people,’ deep pragmatism tells you how to make tradeoffs.” So, I think this is why many people believe that rather than picking favorites all the time, and do all the virtue signaling and hand waving that we do about a cause, or a victim, or an idea that has gotten popular, and you want to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I support that, too,” that what we should try to do more is improve systems — how they work, and how to create incentives that encourage the most sensible, and the fairest, prosocial behaviors across the board. I realize that’s easy to say, much harder to do. But I think that what Matt is calling attention to here is a really important idea that expressing empathy, especially on the top of your Twitter feed, for instance, is a potentially really shallow — and even more troubling, potentially backfiring —signal.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I am actually utilitarian myself.
DUBNER: You’re now a deep pragmatist, I’m sorry.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, that definition— “Maximize happiness impartially. Try to make life as happy as possible overall, giving equal weight to everyone’s happiness.” That is literally utilitarianism. But if he wants to rebrand it as deep pragmatism—.
DUBNER: I think it’s because a lot of people now think of utilitarianism as a kind of cold-hearted version of what the old utilitarians used to promote, and therefore, they’re shying away from it. It’s like conservatism. A lot of conservatives I know don’t like to use the word “conservative” anymore. It’s interesting how empathy has even become a political tool. I think, when I look at the U.S. at least, that the left, or the Democrats, consider themselves the sole possessors of empathy. And they think that everyone who considers themself conservative — on any dimension — are without empathy. Now, based on many people I know who identify as conservative, I know it’s very, very wrong, but to me, that’s a horrible consequence of the political duopoly and how the Republicans and Democrats treat us all like we’re football fans. If you like Team X, you are required to hate everything about Team Y and believe every slander against every member of them.
DUCKWORTH: Talk about tribalism, right? Paradoxically, if we say this whole swath of the world population must lack empathy, that itself is a failure of empathy. So, I think the way forward here is to say: first of all, when you hear the phrase “terminally-ill 10-year-old girl,” I don’t think the answer is to say, “Well, I wish I didn’t feel anything when I heard the expression.” But then, to also hold in our minds: because that is a spotlight, that urgency and that animus is going to be potentially crowding out something which is even more important, which is all the other children whose names I just didn’t hear. But it is both/and, because you can’t really jump to complete rational calculus without acknowledging that the way we’ve evolved is to feel something. And I don’t want to hang out with people who are just making cold, calculated decisions on resource allocation, even if it is to maximize the happiness of everyone. I want to hang out with people who, I tell them a story about a particular person, and immediately,I can tell that they’re feeling something.
DUBNER: Right. But how then do you translate that feeling for that one person who needs help — maybe the one victim of a crime or a war? I think of cancer and there are many, many different kinds of cancers. And some cancers are inherently more attractive to donors than others that happen to be much more fatal. So, if you, or someone you know, is suffering from that particularly terrible cancer, you’re saying, well, all these other cancers, which are nowhere near as fatal —maybe they’re more common, but they’re not as fatal — they’re getting all the attention.
DUCKWORTH: There is a limitation of these research studies where you are allocating dollars on a list — like, who gets more — because, I think, the alternative, really, in real life is that people just do nothing. I was on a foundation board once for this orphan cancer called carcinoid. A very small number of people get carcinoid. It was called Caring for Carcinoid. And, I will say, it occurred to me when I was on this, I was like, “Is this a morally good thing to try to gather charitable donations to fund this orphan disease? Because maybe there are other diseases that would be an even better use of those dollars.” And the way that I eventually came to understand it —maybe it’s just rationalization — is that, the alternative is that people are probably just going to give nothing to anything. So, better that they give $100 to carcinoid cancer research than nothing. So that, I think, is the reason why we shouldn’t throw out empathy altogether. It gets people to do things.
DUBNER: I totally agree. So, to answer Matt’s question, is there a downside to empathy? I think the answer is an emphatic yes. There is a downside, and it’s important to recognize the limitation of empathy in and of itself. But we don’t want to throw out the empathy baby with the empathy bathwater, because, for many people, it can be the first step toward compassion or deep pragmatism — whatever you want to call it. And also, I think if you see no injustice anywhere, if you see no pain or suffering anywhere, if you see no lack of opportunity anywhere, then I think you’re just walking around with your eyes closed. And that’s not so good either.
DUCKWORTH: And we are human beings, not Vulcans.
DUBNER: At least one of us is. You’re the utilitarian.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why people enjoy taking personality tests like Myers-Briggs.
DUCKWORTH: They love to take these BuzzFeed quizzes and other little tests to see “what sort of Harry Potter character am I.”
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DUBNER: So, Angie, there are some days when I wake up, and I like to think of it as just “going with the wind.” I just try to exist and see what chance will lead me to do, or to read, or to work on, or think about. But then, there are other days when I like to “be the wind” and decide very concretely and specifically what my activities — even what my thinking — is going to be. So, I see you very much as a “be the wind” person, if you don’t mind me saying so. And I’m probably 80 percent wind myself. I think there are pros and cons to being the wind or going with the wind. I’m really curious to know what you’d have to say about whether I — or one — would be better off, over time, sticking to one or the other.
DUCKWORTH: I am absolutely more of a “be the wind” person. And I think that that’s partly why I get a lot done. But, I have to say, especially lately, I’ve been thinking about the trade-off. If you are goal-oriented, seven days a week, during all your waking hours — and, by the way, let me add that I’m a terrible sleeper, and because I wake up sometimes during the night, I can tell you what I’m thinking about or dreaming about: I’m working in my dream. So, I’m not only goal-directed in my conscious hours. I’m apparently goal-directed and working in my unconscious hours. There could be a lot of different tradeoffs. But one of them, I do think, is creativity, and capitalizing on serendipity, because, you know, me with my to-do list — I’m just pounding out what I knew I was going to do in advance. And then, I’m missing opportunities that are right in front of me, but I’m not noticing them, because I’m just getting things done. So, I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe I should move from 100 percent “be the wind” and zero percent “go with the wind” to 95-5.
DUBNER: You’re willing to let up five percent of your wind.
DUCKWORTH: At least that. And I could be persuaded. Hey, that was a starting offer.
DUBNER: It’s interesting you say that about creativity, because on the days that I am going with the wind, I feel more creative. I’ve got more ideas coming at me. Whereas the days that I’m being the wind, fewer ideas, more about execution, and so on. And I guess that’s why so many of us like experiences like travel, and trying different things, and fresh starts. It’s an opportunity to go with the wind, even if you don’t have that as your norm. But I guess the dream would be to be and go with the wind at the same time, right?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think it’s possible. I think it’s partly why the brain has the default mode network and then, you know, the prefrontal executive function.I know we talked about this — briefly, at least — before, but when we are task-oriented, like, I’m proofreading a paper, I’m writing an email, I’m talking to you, I’m getting something done — there are parts of the brain that are recruited largely in the prefrontal cortex. These are our executive functions, among others. But one discovery that was made reasonably recently was that, when the brain is “at rest,” quote-unquote, when you’re not actually overtly engaging in some task or activity that has a purpose, the brain is still doing something. And this is called the default mode.. And the default mode network includes all these brain structures. They’re on both the left side and the right side of the brain, and this is what actually ends up being active. And since the discovery of the brain at rest actually doing stuff, scientists have begun to understand a little bit about what this default mode is for. And some of that is about self-referential thinking — like, you’re replaying things where you’re center of action. Some of it is emotion —replaying emotional episodes or thinking about things that have an emotional valence. But there’s some speculation —and maybe more than speculation because there’s some empirical data — on the default mode being important to creativity, like, making novel associations that are not obvious, that could be useful.
DUBNER: When I think about “being the wind,” there’s a phrase that we’ve all used: a Type A personality. And this goes a few decades back. But I’m curious, is Type A personality a real thing? And is it a personality, or is it a behavior? Is it fixed or dynamic?
DUCKWORTH: You know, this idea of the Type A person — I remember, growing up in the 70s, I heard it a lot. I think it was because, my dad —.
DUBNER: Was one?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Describing himself. And I always wondered, is there a B? Is there a C?
DUBNER: I thought it was a Z — just the way I heard about it, I thought a Z must have been the other end of the spectrum.
DUCKWORTH: But are there all the other letters? Are there 26 different types? The modern personality research, for the most part, stays away from casting people as types. So, interestingly, I think what people like — like, they want to know what “type” they are. Are they Type A, or are they not Type A? For people who have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test, they want to know, are they an E or an I? Are they an E.N.F.P. or an I.N.T.J.? There are all these types, these categories. But the reason I think that modern personality psychology doesn’t talk a lot about types is that, for the most part, scientists don’t think that’s the way human nature is. We’re not categorically, you know —Type A was supposed to be stereotypically uptight, kind of stressed, had to get their own way.
DUBNER: You have a lot of heart attacks.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. My dad would say things about his Type A personality while clutching his chest —not like he was having a heart attack, but he would bemoan that he had a Type A personality. Anyway, I don’t want to deny that when people describe a Type A personality, that they don’t exist. But almost everything you can think about yourself exists more on a continuum than as a category. Not like, either you are Type A or you’re not, but more, how Type A are you?
DUBNER: You mentioned how obsessed some people are with personality types and especially Myers-Briggs. So, like, somebody who finds out that they’re — whatever — E.N.F.P. Is that a combination?
DUCKWORTH: That’s me, actually. That’s why I mentioned it.
DUBNER: Oh, okay. So, I’m curious to know why you think people want to know their type — whether it’s, in the old days, the Type A, now an E.N.F.P. In other words, what curiosity is that satisfying exactly?
DUCKWORTH: Well, there’s two levels at which this is interesting. First of all, the fact that people want to hold up a psychological mirror to themselves and see what’s in it. People want to know about themselves. You know, they love to take these BuzzFeed quizzes and other little tests to see “what sort of Harry Potter character am I.” But maybe even more interesting is if I said, “Hey, on extraversion, you’re about a 3.6 on a one to five scale, and here’s the distribution,” people would be like,”Oh.” But if I said, “You’re an E. You’re not an I. You’re an E,” we really seem to crave that kind of typology.
DUBNER: What’s a little weird about it to me is that, most people believe in capacity, and potential, and change, and so on — all of which are dynamic. I think of types as fixed. So, is this a desire to have a fixed base? Or am I missing something there?
DUCKWORTH: I think there are multiple motives. So, why do we have this fascination with“types” of people? Part of it might be a bias toward fixed traits —like, “Okay, well, that makes it simple. That explains everything about Stephen Dubner. He’s an I.N.T.J.”
DUBNER: Hell yeah.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, have you taken the Myers-Briggs?
DUBNER: I have, but it’s been a long time.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t remember your letters?
DUBNER: As evidence of how little it means to me, I have no idea. But I’m happy to take it again at some point.
DUCKWORTH: It’s really long. I just want to warn you.
DUBNER: Oh, never mind. I’m pretty lazy too. Is there a lazy type? Because I could be that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right. If you don’t answer all the questions, they give you another output. I think there might be kind of, like, “Life would be simple if there were these fixed traits and I could understand it.” But I think it’s even deeper than that. There’s something about the simplicity of categorical thinking. We just like bright lines. It’s a lot more digestible.
DUBNER: So, let’s say that we revert to my mushy measurement scale — rather than Type A and B, or rather than I.N.T.J. versus whatever —that we stick with the wind metaphor here. And so, let’s just say that I’m feeling very windy one day. I’m a cyclone today. But I don’t want to be. I want to go with the wind. Do you have any advice for me?
DUCKWORTH: This idea of being intentionally without intention, I think that’s what you’re saying — it’s like, I resolve to have no resolution right now. My goal is to not have a goal right now.
DUBNER: I crave having no craving.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, sometimes people say, “I plan to be spontaneous this afternoon,” right? I know it sounds ridiculous. It sounds like a New Yorker cartoon or something, but I think it is possible. And actually, there was recent work that was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which we affectionately call TICS, T-I-C-S. And it was about mind-wandering with and without intention, which again, I understand mind-wandering without intention —your mind is just wandering; it’s going wherever it wants. But what about mind-wandering with intention? The authors want to say that you can distinguish between these two kinds of mind-wandering. And in fact, the kind of mind-wandering that — as we briefly discussed in a prior conversation— Dan Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth —their research suggesting that mind-wandering is associated with unhappiness: the wandering mind is an unhappy mind. That may or may not be true of intentional mind-wandering. Like, those days that you wake up, Stephen, and you say, “Today I go with the wind.” Those are days that you’re not unhappy, that you actually want to just, you know, be chillin’ like a villain.
DUBNER: I guess if you’re also used to being the wind, going with the wind is a novelty. And therefore, there’s the appeal of novelty. What about vice versa, though? What if I feel like I am going with the wind so much that I’m just being blown all over the yard and that I would prefer to be the wind? Do you have any advice for that scenario?
DUCKWORTH: Well, for people who really want to have more directed, intentional activity in their life, I would point them to, first and foremost, this research by Locke and Latham. Gary Latham and Ed Locke. Their work is on goal setting. And basically, the idea is that human beings are by nature, actually, goal-setting creatures. So, we spontaneously say to ourselves and to others,”This is something that I hope happens.” A goal is a desired future state. And goal setting is when you very intentionally say what that desired future state is. And if you say,”I have a goal to not have sugar in my coffee for the next 14 days,” or “I have a goal not to tease my little sister so much,” those intentions, once you have specified them and brought them to conscious awareness —and ideally, defined appropriately challenging goals, now, you’re going to be much, much, much more productive.
DUBNER: So, let me ask you one last question about this, Angie. As a person who we’ve determined is at least 95 percent wind and probably 99 and a half percent wind, do you look down on people who go with the wind? Let me rephrase that. How much do you look down on me, Angela? That’s what I really want to know. Just how much?
DUCKWORTH: Au contraire, Stephen Dubner. I look up to people who can go with the wind more, not only because I think that they’re more creative — you know, maybe I’m just, like, executing these things, but I’m not seeing the big picture, but also just as an end itself. I just saw that Disney animated movie Soul. Did you see it?
DUBNER: I’ve heard of it, which for me is really good, because we know that I don’t know much about movies.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’ve taken the first step.
DUBNER: Jamie Foxx voices a character. That’s what I know.
DUCKWORTH: It’s so good. And anyway, I won’t tell you anything about it, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But this movie is not about grit. It is not about goal-setting. It’s not about productivity. It’s not about achievement. The moral of this story is about going with the wind, and listening to the wind, and seeing a little leaf that blows by in the wind and saying, “What a beautiful leaf.” And, I remember, when I went to bed that night, I was like, “Oh, I wonder if this is contra, like, all of my work.” And then, when I woke up the next morning, I realized that, I think, getting things done and being a directed, intentional person is wonderful. But I think the movie had a really good point, because sometimes, we and everybody else are better off when you just go with the wind.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and, Sudhir Breaks the Internet. 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, Angela breaks down social psychologist Daniel Batson’s research of empathy-induced altruism. The experiment she references is part of a 1995 study where participants were asked to listen to audio interviews — not video interviews, as Stephen and Angela imply — with a fictional terminally-ill 10-year-old named Sheri Summers. In order to effectively induce empathy, the researchers did lead the participants to believe that Sheri was real, and said that as a thank you for taking part in the study, participants could choose whether to move the child up on a list to receive an expensive pharmaceutical treatment. As Angela alluded to, 73 percent of the women and 73 percent of the men in the high-empathy group did choose to move Sheri up on the list — this compared with just 27 percent of women and 40 percent of men in the group who were asked to remain objective.
Also, in his email, listener Matt writes about a connection between oxytocin and xenophobia, but Stephen and Angela never address that reference. In 2011, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, quote, “oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation.” The researchers write that, “These findings call into question the view of oxytocin as an indiscriminate ‘love drug’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ and suggest that oxytocin has a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence.”
Finally, during their discussion about Type A personalities, Stephen and Anglea wonder if there are also Type B, C, or Z personalities. The idea of a Type A personality was first proposed in the 1950s by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. The theory was based on years of research showing that people who had certain personality traits, which they grouped as Type A — like impatience and irritability — were significantly more prone to heart attacks than those with more relaxed, go-with-the-flow Type B personality traits. In 1974, they published a book about their findings called Type A Behavior and Your Heart. The public embraced this terminology, but Dr. Friedman was unhappy with the label for many of the reasons that Stephen and Angela proposed. According to the medical director of the Meyer Friedman institute, Friedman was concerned that the idea of personality type suggested something fixed and unchangeable, when he actually believed that these traits were learned behaviors reinforced by habit and could be changed with time and effort.
That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. Thanks also to Lyric Bowditch for her help with this episode. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Don’t you think Jamie Foxx is the coolest human being?
DUBNER: I don’t have enough information to answer that question, I’m afraid.
- Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University.
- C. Daniel Batson, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kansas.
- James Andreoni, Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego.
- Jerome Kagan, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
- Joshua Greene, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
- Deborah Small, Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- George Loewenstein, Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
- Matt Killingsworth, Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar.
- Gary P. Latham, Professor of Organizational Effectiveness at the University of Toronto.
- Edwin A. Locke, Professor of Leadership and Motivation at the University of Maryland, College Park.
- “The Default-Mode Network Represents Aesthetic Appeal that Generalizes Across Visual Domains,” by Edward A. Vessel, Ayse Ilkay Isik, Amy M. Belfi, Jonathan L. Stahl, and G. Gabrielle Starr (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019).
- “Empathy and Callous–Unemotional Traits in Different Bullying Roles: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” by Izabela Zych, Maria M. Ttofi, and David P. Farrington (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2016).
- Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom (2016).
- “Mind-Wandering With and Without Intention,” by Paul Seli, Evan F. Risko, Daniel Smilek, and Daniel L. Schacter (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016).
- “The Brain’s Default Mode Network,” by Marcus E. Raichle (Annual Review of Neuroscience, 2015).
- “The Empathy–Altruism Hypothesis,” by C. Daniel Batson, David A. Lishner, and Eric L. Stocks (The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior, 2015).
- “How to Close the Gap Between Us and Them: A Q&A with Moral Tribes Author Joshua Greene about Emotion, Reason, and Conflict,” by Jill Suttie (Greater Good Magazine, 2013).
- Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene (2013).
- “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert (Science, 2010).
- “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory,” by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006).
- “The Devil You Know: The Effects of Identifiability on Punishment,” by Deborah A. Small and George Loewenstein (Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2005).
- “Immorality from Empathy-Induced Altruism: When Compassion and Justice Conflict.,” by Batson, C. D., Klein, T. R., Highberger, L., and Shaw, L. L (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995).
- Unstable Ideas: Temperament, Cognition, and Self, by Jerome Kagan (1992).
- “Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving,” by James Andreoni (The Economic Journal, 1990).
- Type A Behavior and Your Heart, by Meyer Friedman (1974).