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DUCKWORTH: I hope I’ve made you feel bad, Stephen.

DUBNER: Not very. 

*      *      *

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 cheating purely a moral decision?

DUBNER: I’d be the guy who, when I was writing in the test —.

DUCKWORTH: You would put your elbow — you know that move?

Also: what’s better: to keep learning new skills, or to go deep on what you’re good at?

DUCKWORTH: She’s just been poaching one pear after the other.

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Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I was talking to my daughter Lucy the other day. And I’m very worried, because she was telling me that cheating is epidemic right now. 

Stephen J. DUBNER: Because of virtual education.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Students are at home taking their calculus exams. So, I’m wondering, is this something that you have any personal experience with? Have you ever cheated, for example, on a calculus test or anything else you’d admit to on the air? 

DUBNER: Well, back when I was a young man, we couldn’t cheat with the online education. 

DUCKWORTH: This new-fangled online. 

DUBNER: It is a topic of interest to me, because I have two kids who are both in college. And they’ve also been talking to me about how everybody’s cheating. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s kind of the way they phrase it. They’re like, “Oh yeah, everybody’s cheating.” 

DUBNER: Yeah, guess I do have some thoughts. I think it was W.C. Fields who once said, “A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for.” So, we are talking about a primordial act here. This has been, obviously, with us since the beginning of time. First, just to answer your question directly, I have to admit, I was never much of a cheater. I didn’t cheat at school, I think because I was a pretty good student, honestly. So, I didn’t have to cheat. 

DUCKWORTH: You didn’t have as much of a need or incentive. 

DUBNER: And I will tell you, this brings back some unpleasant memories — two, in particular. One is, there were people who wanted to cheat off of me and I think I disliked it too intensely. I think I was a jerk about it. 

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean being a jerk about it? They’re trying to cheat off of you! 

DUBNER: I know, but I’d be the guy who when I was writing in the test —. 

DUCKWORTH: You would put your elbow — you know that move? 

DUBNER: I know that move. Your whole shoulder.

DUCKWORTH: And then, you flip up the page. Have you ever done that? 

DUBNER: Of course. I’m not proud of this. 

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean you’re not proud of it? Stephen, that person was cheating! Come on. 

DUBNER: I was conflicted. I told myself, “I’m lucky that this is easy for me, and they’re not.” But I wasn’t so charitable as to let them cheat. Then, there was one incident in high school where I was accused of cheating on a math test. I think it was trig. And I hadn’t. And I was livid. 

DUCKWORTH: How did they think you were cheating? Because your answers looked suspiciously correct? 

DUBNER: To this day, I do not know. It was a teacher who had taught all of my brothers and sisters before me. I was the youngest of eight. We mostly did pretty well in school. So, it wasn’t like we were making crap grades. I think I got a 98 on this test. She asked me to come up afterwards. And she said something to the effect of, “I don’t think you came by this grade honestly. And I want you to take the test alone tomorrow in this room.” 

And I was more flabbergasted than anything because, I was actually pretty good at math, believe it or not, way back when. And then, she made me take the test again the next day. I think I got a 99. She never apologized. And it was a really interesting experience for me, because first of all, I’m ashamed to say, I held a grudge against her. This math teacher once showed up at a book reading after I’d started writing books and wanted her book signed. 

DUCKWORTH: And you said no?

DUBNER: I’m a polite person. I was probably the most impolite version of polite that I can be. So, I signed it, but I didn’t put a smiley face on the signature!

DUCKWORTH: Oh, good. You showed her. You also should have some empathy, though. 

DUBNER: Zero.

DUCKWORTH: No, come on. I know a professor who told me that last semester, they had a student who turned in a final written assignment — and clearly plagiarized much, if not all, of it. And it was such a pain in the you-know-what for this professor to prosecute this infraction. The student hired a lawyer. Now, it’s going to go to appeal and many, many meetings and deans. And, I have to say, I have some sympathy for your old math teacher. It takes a lot of courage and integrity to even care about these things, as a teacher should. 

DUBNER: You’ve given me a fraction of an iota of a shard of empathy for this mean teacher. 

DUCKWORTH: I was saying, I hope I’ve made you feel bad, Stephen. 

DUBNER: Not very. Nah. So listen, I’ve seen research from psychology and elsewhere saying that most of us cheat just a little bit, but we rationalize it by saying that, “I’m mostly a good person and this is an acceptable level of it.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, look, I think that I didn’t cheat when I was a student. I’m now, of course, hoping that I’m not just doing what most people do, which is creating an image of themselves as a reasonably honest person. Because there are all these border cases, the gray zone, where you could interpret what you did not as cheating. And Dan Ariely has documented the motivation behind dishonesty really is that we can give ourselves a little edge and create a narrative where we’re not such a bad guy. 

DUBNER: So, to me, the interesting question is: why does one cheat or not cheat in a given circumstance? And I think there are a lot of reasons. So, we wrote a bit in our first and second Freakonomics books about different kinds of cheating. You mentioned school teachers who look the other way. We wrote about school teachers who actually did the cheating to make their students’ test scores higher. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes, I remember reading that. 

DUBNER: We wrote about sumo wrestlers in Japan who cheated. And then, we also wrote in SuperFreakonomics about something that might not strike many people as cheating, but I would argue that it was. We wrote about these lab experiments that purported to show altruism. These were experiments built around the ultimatum and dictator games where the research subjects, who were usually college students, were given some money. And then, they had an option to pass along some of that money to a stranger, or not pass it along. And they usually did. 

And this informed a conventional wisdom that people are at baseline altruistic. But then, a later generation of researchers, including John List, showed that what looked like altruism was, in fact, the product of scrutiny, that these research subjects were more likely to be giving money because they knew they were being observed, and they had some concern about their reputation. And we know that scrutiny certainly constrains cheating. So, you might consider that a form of cheating to boost your reputation, or maybe even your self-esteem. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you mean giving away the money in that case, or even not copying answers because you think people are watching you and going to come to conclusions about your character or whatever. 

DUBNER: Exactly.

DUCKWORTH: Well, look, definitionally, I think cheating could be defined as dishonesty in the service of self-benefit. And so I think that fails the requirement that it’s dishonesty. If I don’t cheat because I think people are watching, or if I do do something because people are watching, that’s not really cheating. 

DUBNER: Okay. But let’s say that you go to church, and the collection basket comes around, and you put a $20 bill in the collection basket. Maybe other people see it, maybe they don’t, etc. And then, right after church, you go to the store and buy something, and you get your change, and they give you an extra $20 bill. 

DUCKWORTH: Both of these things have happened to me, Stephen. 

DUBNER: So, I’m assuming that you returned the $20. 

DUCKWORTH: I did. This happened to me at McDonald’s. And I figured it out blocks away. And I was like “shit.” 

DUBNER: So, you drove back many blocks. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I had to walk back. 

DUBNER: Our little Abraham Lincoln here. Was it snowing, I’m guessing, and really cold? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, uphill both ways. No, but I did feel like — “oy.” And I probably did feel some sense of ridiculous moral righteousness, because I had to stand in line again. It was really inconvenient. 

DUBNER: So, you stand in line and say, “Excuse me, this is your money.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was like, “You gave me a $20 back.” And then, actually, I learned something that day, because they’re like, “Oh, thank you.” Because, I guess, the way these registers work, or at least this particular McDonald’s, it comes out of that cashier’s pocket. If you don’t make the right amount when you turn in your tray, guess what? You’re paying for it. 

DUBNER: It’s interesting because I was assuming that you might have run into a principal-agent problem there where the person who was accepting the money didn’t really care. But if indeed they did care, that’s a good thing. You did them a solid, plainly. 

DUCKWORTH: And here’s the thing about honesty and cheating that I think is pretty consistent with research by Ariely and others. When we don’t think anybody is looking, we’re more likely to, on the edges, round up or down, or do whatever it is that advances our own self-interest. Usually, I think Ariely and others find that we don’t do egregious things. It really is on the border, right? We don’t just go into somebody’s bedroom and take all their money. But we might look the other way when we get back $20 extra. So, the question for me is: if we know that we’re more honest when we are being watched, then are we able to impose upon ourself greater surveillance? 

DUBNER: It is really interesting. Because of the pandemic, technology has changed a lot with how tests, in particular, are administered. For instance, ProctorU — are you familiar with ProctorU, and do you use it? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m not. What is it? 

DUBNER: So, it is an online proctoring service. Their job is to set up tests, as I understand it, in a way that you can make more or less opportunity for cheating available and that you can then actually observe and confirm if there has been cheating. And they gathered some data from June 2020 to December 2020, so heart of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, they caught people cheating on fewer than one percent of the exams that they administered. But then, the rate rose to above eight percent. 

DUCKWORTH: Wow, an eightfold increase. Now, that’s an epidemic. 

DUBNER: Although, you may say, ‘Well, eight percent, that’s fewer than one in 10. That’s not bad.” 

DUCKWORTH: Ninety-two percent of people aren’t cheating. 

DUBNER: But I should say two things about that. One is, these are students who know they are being watched. So, you could imagine circumstances in which the cheating is much, much higher. A scholar of cheating and surveillance, Donald McCabe, collected evidence across a wide span about undergraduate students in college and graduate students in college. And his evidence argues — this is survey data, so, I don’t know how strong it is — but his evidence shows that 39 percent of undergraduates admit to cheating on tests. This is way pre-pandemic, by the way. And 62 percent admit to cheating on written assignments.

DUCKWORTH: So, the majority of students admit to cheating on their written assignments. 

DUBNER: Those were undergraduates. Now, what would you suspect the numbers would look like for graduate students? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go with lower, because they’re more intrinsically motivated. 

DUBNER: And they are indeed lower. So, it’s about half the percent of graduate students who admit to cheating on tests — 17 percent versus 39. So, less than half. And the share who admit to cheating on written assignments, 40 percent versus 62 percent. 

DUCKWORTH: Still higher than I would like. 

DUBNER: It does get at the interesting question about the reason for why a given person in a given circumstance is going to cheat. The cheating schoolteacher data that we wrote about in Freakonomics, the way that the teachers cheated was they would give an exam, they would collect the score sheets from the kids, and then, they would literally erase wrong answers and fill in correct ones. 

DUCKWORTH: That is not in the gray zone. 

DUBNER: It’s pretty bad. But then, when Steve Levitt analyzed the characteristics of the teachers who were most and least likely to do that, what he found was fascinating. It was the worst teachers who were most likely to cheat, which the minute you hear that, it makes sense. The reason they are cheating —.  

DUCKWORTH: They have more to gain. 

DUBNER: Well, they need to cheat because they’re doing poorly. 

DUCKWORTH: This is the opposite of your schoolboy experience. You didn’t need to cheat because you knew how to do trig. These are teachers who stood to benefit more. So, even though it seems like the domain of morality and character, that underneath it all — and I guess this is very Levitt, very Freakonomics — there’s a cost-benefit. I still think, though, that the people who are truly the most honest people are not making any kind of calculations. They’re not thinking, “Well, what’s the probability that I will gain? And how much will I gain?” And this is why they always say, “Character is what you do when nobody’s looking.”

DUBNER: I also think it’s important to look at not just the reason that a particular person is going to cheat in a particular circumstance, but who they are cheating against or who they are hurting. So, in sports, cheating to win is not considered bad form. 

DUCKWORTH: What?! 

DUBNER: Okay. There are different degrees of cheating. But, let’s say, if you watch a given N.F.L. play, a passing play, there is almost always a hold on an offensive lineman that is rarely called. So, that is a form of cheating. Every receiver that tries to get free of a cornerback is trying to push off. Every cornerback is trying to grab the jersey. Cheating in the service of winning in sport is generally not considered bad form. 

However, if in sport, you cheat to lose — if you throw a game, if you fix a match, like the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, or the famous C.C.N.Y. basketball team, I think it was in 1951 or something — if you do that, you will be forever consigned to a deep circle of sporting hell. In team sports, you’re expected to push your advantage as far as you absolutely can. And if you don’t go at least a little bit over the line — Mark Grace, a baseball player, once reportedly said, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” So there, you are trying to win. And it’s a zero-sum game. That’s really different than, let’s say, your kids or my kids sitting now in online classes. So, here’s my question to you as a professor. Who’s winning, who’s losing in that circumstance? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to leave aside this question of whether cheating is almost expected in the spirit of competition, because that just sounds very wrong to me. Then again, I’ve never really played a sport. So, what do I know? Answering your question directly though, who stands to gain and who stands to lose? I guess who stands to gain when you cheat on a test is pretty clear — you, because you get a better grade. Who stands to lose? I guess some people probably cheat and think nobody stands to lose, right? Because you’re not directly injuring another person — just that you got a 98 doesn’t mean that they got a 72. You could get a 98, and they could get a 98. 

DUBNER: But do you accept that reasoning? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that, for sure, there is some cost in the sense that there’s an erosion of trust, and there is always some comparison. So the fact that you inflated your score to a 98 now makes the other person’s grades not as worthwhile. But honestly, Stephen, I think it’s beside the point. This is the difference between utilitarian and deontological morality. 

The utilitarians would say, “Let’s add up the costs and the benefits. Let’s multiply them and their probabilities. Maybe sometimes cheating comes out as the right thing to do. Maybe sometimes it comes out as the wrong thing to do. Let’s see what the math says.” And deontological reasoning says that there are certain things that on principle are wrong and thou shalt never do them. And I don’t want to hear about cost and benefits. And I have to say that honesty and turning in work that you didn’t do — this to me feels very much in the realm of principle, as opposed to a utilitarian calculus. 

DUBNER: You have just beautifully described the dichotomy that makes a lot of people not like economists. Because when you look at everything through a utilitarian lens, you can lose touch with the human part of the human being. And I very much empathize with the friction between those two views. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to defend economists just for a moment. Have you heard of lexicographic preferences? 

DUBNER: I haven’t.

DUCKWORTH: You know how economists think about time preference? The discount at which you value things in the future versus today. 

DUBNER: Hyperbolic discounting and all that. 

DUCKWORTH: Hyperbolic discounting, then there’s risk preference. So, there are all these preferences — time preference, risk preference, leisure preference. Actually, those are the big three. But there is this notion in economics, not as widely known, called lexicographic preferences. These are preferences where there is no cost-benefit analysis, because there’s no amount of any good that would be traded for another. So, you could say, “How many loaves of bread would you trade for one ice cream cone?” Okay. Economists understand that. Or, “How about one ice cream cone today versus two ice cream cones in a month?” But a lexicographic preference is like, “What would you trade for your daughter, Anya?” 

DUBNER: I would say 10 ice cream cones.

DUCKWORTH: I was going to go with 20. She’s a great kid. 

DUBNER: Yeah, she is.

DUCKWORTH: So, look, economics, although maybe not the kind of classical, and the canonical, and the most widely used notions — but I think somewhere deep in the bowels of economic theory, is the possibility that there are some things that people do on principle. 

DUBNER: I guess I consider cheating just one part of the great triumvirate. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s the triumvirate? 

DUBNER: Cheating, lying, and stealing. They seem to really co-travel and often intermingle or interbreed. So, I will say, I’m not a big fan of any of them. I do think, however, that lying is perhaps the most common and forgivable, because there are a lot of small lies we tell to maintain social ties. So, you might tell me one day, “Stephen, that was a great question you asked me today,” when in fact, you think it was a garbage question. But by not offending me, we maintain our social ties, and we preserve the possibility that the next time I will ask you a good question. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how learning a new skill may affect the aging brain. 

DUCKWORTH: After you do a Sudoku puzzle, pretty much nobody’s life is better.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Hey, Angela

DUCKWORTH: Hi, Stephen

DUBNER: I’ve been reading a book that you might love, or you might hate, and I would like to find out which one.  

DUCKWORTH: All right. I’m intrigued. 

DUBNER: The author is Tom Vanderbilt. The book is called Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. Now, I should say, Vanderbilt is a nonfiction author. He’s not a scientist. And in the book, he pursues a number of new activities himself: chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling. But the larger argument is that — here’s a quote: “Skill learning,” he writes, “is like high-intensity interval training for your brain.” So, even at a relatively advanced age like ours, Angela, or even much older, that’s the argument. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m advanced.

DUBNER: And at first glance, you’d think it’s hard to argue against this idea generally of continuing to take up new hobbies, sports, whatever. But I am curious to know what Madam Grit has to say about this. Because in a way, the constant pursuit of new activities may come at the expense of that one big gritty pursuit. 

DUCKWORTH: Now, Stephen, I know this sounds a little bit like I’m trying to keep up with the Joneses, but I have received a copy of this book by Tom Vanderbilt. And what does Madam Grit have to say about this? I mean, our intuitions are that our ability to learn really diminishes considerably as we march on through our middle age. His point is that you’re never too old to learn and to maybe learn more than you think. 

DUBNER: So, tell us what you can about brains and plasticity. Is it true that adult brains are much less plastic than younger brains? And if so, what are the ramifications? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not a neuroscientist. 

DUBNER: Come on. You can do it.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not! Did you know that I have, actually, an undergraduate and master’s degree in neurobiology and neuroscience, respectively? 

DUBNER: Did you know that I did know that? 

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know that you did know.  

DUBNER: I don’t know which fact is more surprising, that you have a neuroscience degree or that I know that you have one. I think mine is certainly more impressive than yours. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, there you go. Touché. And these are degrees that I acquired decades ago. So, everything I learned is out of date. But I read a lot about it. And Alison Gopnik has written, for example, about plasticity and learning over the life course. And she points out that, yes, in many contexts, children learn faster, whereas adults seem to be less able to update their knowledge or acquire some new skill. I think the important thing, though, is if you understand why that is, then you might be able to change that. It’s not necessarily inevitable that we learn less as we get older. But there’s actually inhibitory neurotransmitters, according to Gopnik, that actually interfere with plasticity. And these are more likely to be released as we get older. And so, if you understand that, that opens the possibility of actually interrupting that change. 

DUBNER: I’ve read that you can interrupt those inhibitors with — I don’t know what to call it — thought exercise, but it may be easier with chemicals. Caffeine essentially performs that task. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think in general, the way brain chemistry works is that there’s a set of neurotransmitters that do X, but then there’s a set of neurotransmitters which inhibit those neurotransmitters. So, there’s often the possibility that you can counter whatever the process is going on by then inhibiting the process itself. And I think, maybe even more than pharmacological ways of enhancing brain plasticity, we should try to understand why it is that as we mature, there may have been this programmed change. 

The general argument has a lot of appeal to me logically, which is that we are, at the beginning of life, creatures who don’t know a lot. So, we are in exploration mode. And it serves us well to update our beliefs and to change our synapses, etc. As we acquire knowledge and skill, then, of course, there is some downside to just erasing what we know and starting over. And in fact, we have an advantage to exploit the knowledge and skills that we already have. So, this is often called the exploration-exploitation trade-off. And the calculus of this changes as we go from young to old. 

DUBNER: That makes a lot of sense. In fact, there’s something in the Vanderbilt book that plays to that exploration-exploitation dynamic. I got to be thinking about: what’s the difference between a productive beginner and a dilettante? And that’s why I wanted to bring this question to you, because you can imagine that you flit from new activity to new activity without developing any expertise in one, or even enjoyment in one, and maybe not staying with things long enough to even understand how the learning process works. 

But then, I thought, well, you could argue the opposite. You could say there’s potentially a snowball effect, that more learning leads to more learning, and you learn how to learn better. And at one point, Vanderbilt includes a comparison that I love. It’s attributed to the mathematician Richard Hamming, who was describing the difference between engineers and scientists. And it’s really a division between exploration and execution, or, as you call it, exploration and exploitation. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I like execution better. Let’s change all the language of all evolutionary psychology. 

DUBNER: It’s funny you say that, because “exploitation” has always carried a little bit of a negative for me.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, a little bit? A lot a bit. It sounds terrible. Oh, my gosh. We’ve just edited and updated evolutionary psych. That’s great.  

DUBNER: Well, tell all your fellow psychologists that they can thank me for this change in vocabulary.  

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to shout it from the mountaintops.

DUBNER: So, anyway, Richard Hamming says, as quoted in Tom Vanderbilt’s book, “In science, if you know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. In engineering, if you don’t know what you are doing, you should not be doing it.” Engineers are trained to build, fix, create systems, and so on. And you better believe that we want them to be pretty close to errorless. 

Scientists, however, are the explorers. People like you — you’re out there poking things into people’s psyches to figure out what we don’t know yet. And that balance is what’s intoxicating for anyone, really. And that’s why I was excited about this notion of adult learning, even if it’s going toward skills that are really nothing more than a hobby. Because in learning something as simple as a hobby, you may gather a different way of looking at the world that may pay off in much larger ways. 

DUCKWORTH: I had a conversation with David Epstein, the former writer for Sports Illustrated 

DUBNER: You’re going to talk about Range now, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Correct. And I think in a way, you could argue that Range is a counterpoint to Grit, because he talks a lot about the benefits of doing lots of things, and having multiple interests, and not committing or specializing too early to any one thing, and also, even after you have specialized, the benefits of cross-fertilization — of having a hobby, for example, that could provide inspiration for your main vocation. 

And I read Range. And I talked to David. And I think actually he raises good points. I think we actually violently agree, even though it seems superficially that we might not. When you look at the lifetime of a true expert, they don’t start off as really small four-year-old experts. There’s actually a period in their life where they’re doing a lot of sampling and exploration. The thing that has to happen at some point, though — and I don’t think David Epstein would disagree — is that, I just don’t think you can get excellent at anything without some extended, dedicated practice. 

DUBNER: I guess the question then to ask of, let’s say, adult beginners in particular, if you’re choosing to take up skill, after skill, after skill — what’s the purpose? Are you doing it just to fill in time, just to entertain yourself? Are you doing something that will make other people happy? My mom was a serial adult beginner toward the end of her life when all the kids were raised. I was the last one at home, but she was constantly traipsing off to some local community center or community college to learn calligraphy, and then flower arranging, and then tap dancing. 

DUCKWORTH: Why? What was her purpose? 

DUBNER: I think she would say that it was a combination of pure self-fulfillment — she really, really enjoyed these things. She really enjoyed mastery. She was someone who had mastered a lot of things over the course of her life.  

DUCKWORTH: Or she enjoyed maybe learning, right? Because “mastery” in the sense of, “Oh, now I’m the world’s best.” Maybe not, if she’s trying lots of things. But she liked the learning curve.  

DUBNER: Well, I’m using mastery with a very lowercase “m.” Not “the world’s best.”

DUCKWORTH: Or mastering, like getting better. 

DUBNER: Sure. I don’t know if she enjoyed the learning so much. I think she enjoyed the feel of the accomplishment. And she liked putting that accomplishment to use for other purposes. For instance, when she learned how to arrange flowers. You get that green piece of foamy stuff, and you learn how to stick things in at angles, and then wrap it in some foil or paper. So, once she learned that, she would pick a bunch of flowers, dry them out, arrange them, wrap them up, and then deliver them to old housebound people. Calligraphy, she would do the same thing. She would learn to write this beautiful calligraphy, then write these nice notes to people. 

DUCKWORTH: So much better than Sudoku, right? After you do a Sudoku puzzle, pretty much nobody’s life is better. 

DUBNER: Can you imagine doing Sudoku in beautiful calligraphy, though? How much of a win-win is that? 

DUCKWORTH: And then, gifting it to an elderly neighbor! I’m sure they would love it. It sounds like your mother was motivated to do things where she could learn something new, and get better at it, and that there would be some product of it that would have some use and, in particular, maybe a use to other people.  

DUBNER: Not always though. She did learn tap dancing in her 60s. My mom was a ballerina, so she was a very, very good dancer. 

DUCKWORTH: I did not know that. Very cool.  

DUBNER: True. She was a ballerina, and a nurse, and a Jew. And then, she became a Catholic farmer in upstate New York and learned everything there was to know about raising a boatload of free-range kids, and farming, and on, and on. So, she was a lifelong learner. 

DUCKWORTH: My mother is still alive. She’s 85. And she has recently learned how to poach pears. She’s really, really excited that she has learned this new skill and has just been poaching one pear after the other. And I do think that it is a wonderful thing to be 85, or however old you are, and to try something that’s cognitively new, and challenging in some ways, and you couldn’t do it before, and now you can. And maybe even as just a bonus, the brain seems to benefit from that kind of exercise. 

DUBNER: So, is there any evidence that picking up these new hobbies and pursuits, that it does actually improve your cognitive function? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. This claim that doing novel, cognitively-demanding tasks keeps the brain supple and spry — there is empirical evidence about that. And what’s interesting is that, it’s not just any old activity. The research suggests that, for example, social activities, which may be great in other ways, don’t provide the same benefit. 

DUBNER: So, when we’re told about all this brain exercise stuff, we’re supposed to do, as we age: puzzles, and riddles, and games. Useful, yes? Or just fun? 

DUCKWORTH: There is actually mixed evidence on some of those apps or websites that you can go to to train your brain. But I think more generally, if you talk about like, is the brain use-it-or-lose-it? Is cognitive functioning use-it-or-lose-it? The more we do something, the more we are able to do that something? The research says yes. 

DUBNER: I’ve also seen research arguing that the more formal education you have when you’re younger, the stronger your cognitive function is in your later years. Is that true? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. That is true. This is, if I’m thinking of the same paper, work by Elliot Tucker-Drob. And the finding is that education is good for cognitive functioning later. So, the more education you get, that pays off as you’re aging. However, it’s not because it forestalls decline. It’s more that you just get this higher level of functioning. So, you have more of a reserve in a way. So, if you look at the curves, education gives you a boost, which you get to more or less keep, but you don’t forestall decline, per se.  

DUBNER: And what do you say to someone who, let’s say, didn’t finish high school or didn’t finish college, and they hit 50, and they’re like, “I really want to learn X, Y, Z.” Are they going to feel at a handicap for that? And if so, how do you overcome?  

DUCKWORTH: I think, really, no matter how old you are, the only relevant comparison is you and yourself anyway. So, yeah! Go sign up for some class at the local community college or download some app to learn a new language. 

DUBNER: I’m so glad you brought that up. A question I try to ask myself more and more these days is, compared to what? Because, if you have the wrong denominator, then you’re asking the wrong question. So, if I’m thinking about what do I want to do to improve/grow/broaden myself, comparing myself to someone who’s got four advanced degrees is a waste of time.  

DUCKWORTH: I think Stephen 2021 should be comparing himself with Stephen 2020. 

DUBNER: I’m much taller for one. I’ll tell you that.

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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.

First, we have a fact-check to last week’s fact-check. I noted that Swedish parents are entitled to 240 days of paternal leave each — or 480 days total — but that they are required to take a minimum of 90 days, regardless of gender. This is not entirely correct. Ninety days are earmarked for each parent, but they’re not required. If someone decides not to take them, those 90 days just disappear entirely from that parent’s 240 total, but the remaining 150 days are still transferable to the other parent. So, if a father chooses not to take any time off, a mother could still take her 240 days plus his remaining 150 days for a total of 390 days of maternity leave.

In today’s episode, during the discussion about cheating in sports, Stephen references two infamous scandals: the 1919 Chicago Black Sox and the 1951 City College of New York basketball team. As a self-identified non-sports person, I was unfamiliar with both events, and I figured some listeners were as well. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for a payout of around $100,000 from a gambling syndicate — hence the dark nickname, “the Black Sox.” In the later scandal, 32 basketball players from seven colleges admitted to taking bribes between 1947 and 1950 — also from gamblers — to fix 86 games in 17 states. The crimes came to light after Manhattan College center Junius Kellogg, the school’s first black scholarship athlete, informed his coach that he had been offered a $1,000 bribe to shave points off of a game against DePaul. 

In the discussion about how neurotransmitters affect brain plasticity, Stephen says he read that plasticity might be aided by chemicals like caffeine. According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Mike Kahana, “Caffeine has not been shown to consistently improve cognitive function; the literature is full of studies showing non-effects, negative effects and positive effects, usually of very small effect sizes.” However, when it comes to cognitive decline, “Scientists have begun to use electrical stimulation as a tool to therapeutically modulate brain function and behavior. Already, brain stimulation has proven to be an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy; with more sophisticated algorithms, scientists have obtained preliminary evidence indicating that brain stimulation could boost memory, and a group at the University of Pennsylvania is pursuing the development of stimulation-based therapies that could be used to treat memory loss associated with brain injury and neural degeneration.” 

Finally, Stephen refers to the form used as a base to structure flower arrangements as, “green, foamy stuff.” The material he’s thinking of is actually wet floral foam, also known as an oasis. The product was invented in Kent, Ohio, in 1954 by V.L. Smithers, founder of the floristry company Smithers-Oasis. In addition to structuring arrangements, the oasis absorbs water and prolongs the life of the flowers that it supports. The company currently sells nearly 400 different sizes and shapes of oases that allow users to build arrangements in the shape of hearts, spheres, and even the word “mom.”

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, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. 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 @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@freakonomics.com. 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! 

DUBNER: There is one cheater at the golf club where I play. And they haven’t kicked him out.

DUCKWORTH: Mmm. I’ve done that in miniature golf. Like, moved it from under the windmill.

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