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DUBNER: I’d be sitting in a mud hut, and then there’d be a viking ride up and he’d put a hatchet through my skull.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: How does praise affect the human psyche? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, God, you guys are just so great. Love ya. 

Also: How do you measure psychological trauma? 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t immediately start drinking. 

DUBNER: Too late.

*      *      *

Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have been wondering about praise lately. I’m teaching undergraduates, and at the end of every class, I have them rate me on a scale from zero, total waste of my time, to 10. 

Stephen J. DUBNER: Can I just say I’m glad you include zero? Because scales of one to 10 feel dishonest. 

DUCKWORTH: Dishonest? What do you mean? Why? 

DUBNER: It’s like, what if I think you’re worse than one? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you want to give people the full range to express themselves. 

DUBNER: I would rarely grade someone a total zero. But there is a phrase “total zero.” 

DUCKWORTH: The reason I have it zero to 10 is because it’s very clear that a zero is bad. A one, you’re like, “Yeah, you’re number one!” So, zero to 10. Zero — awful, awful. Okay. So, I tell my students this is in the spirit of kaizen, which is Japanese for continuous improvement. I tell them that real experts crave negative feedback to hone their weaknesses and get better. 

But honestly, what I really want is for the kids to give me a 10 every time, and to be praised, and be told that there’s nothing more that I could possibly do to improve my teaching or anything else about me. So, I guess my question is: Should I be asking for advice on what I can do better? Should I be asking for what I really want, which is praise? And in general, how do you feel about this pretty loaded topic?  

DUBNER: So, first of all, I really appreciate your bringing your problem to me today, Dr. Duckworth. I’d encourage you to open up like this more often about your own failings. I think it’s very good for you. 

I’m a little surprised that your question took the turn it did. Your question wasn’t so much which method is “better,” but whether you should be asking people to tell you what you’re already doing well. Which at first blush, honestly, sounded a bit insecure, like you’re fishing for compliments. But as I think about it now, I actually think that’s what a lot of us want to hear, but won’t come out and say it.  

DUCKWORTH: “Please praise me unconditionally.”

DUBNER: Well, if not “Please praise me unconditionally,” “Please tell me that this thing that I’m doing, that I’ve thought about a lot, that I’ve worked hard at, that I’ve practiced, or maybe none of those, but whatever — I just want you to tell me I’m great.” 

We all remember what it’s like to be a child. And if you were lucky enough to have a family where you felt secure and loved unconditionally, that is an incredibly powerful feeling. Part of that feeling was praise just for being you. But then, as you move on in the world, you get used to having that feeling much less. And it’s hard for me to imagine that the appetite for that goes away. But also, I do think that it is useful to hear what others think you’re doing well.  

DUCKWORTH: There’s real information there, right? This is not just motivation, but information. I was reading a paper the other day about performance reviews, and it was a random assignment experiment. Psychologists in one condition just had this company run their performance reviews like companies always run their performance reviews, which, of course, is setting goals for the next year, about what you could do better, which is not praise. It’s really criticism. 

And in the treatment condition, in the condition that was being tested to see if it was better than that, the feedback was actually praising things that had gone well. It comes out of this tradition that’s called appreciative inquiry, where you decidedly focus on the positive. It’s not only motivational, but I think it is informational. Sometimes we don’t realize the things that we’re doing that are good. And maybe even if we are really carefully listening, when someone doesn’t praise the things that we thought were good, maybe we take something from that, too.  

DUBNER: I hear you, and I’ve read literature to that effect also. And we should say, there are many different realms in life. So, praising versus critiquing in sport is different than it is in education, is different than it is in—

DUCKWORTH: A family. 

DUBNER: Exactly. I’m guessing there are people who are better at giving criticism than praise, and vice versa. And I’m guessing there are people who are better at receiving criticism than praise, and vice versa. So I don’t mean to totally dodge your question, but I think it’s a lot more complicated.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, here is one dimension that has been studied, which is beginners versus experts. And this research asks the question, is it different if you’re at the beginning of an endeavor than when you’re well into it and pretty good, whether you are receptive to positive feedback or negative feedback? And the findings of a series of experiments suggests that at the beginning of an endeavor, you need a lot of positive feedback. You do need a lot of praise because your confidence is a little shaky and you haven’t committed yet. Imagine at the very, very beginning of your journalism career, if all you got was critical, negative feedback.  

DUBNER: Well, that could be a useful signal, then, that you’re in the wrong place.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, fair. That doesn’t mean necessarily that we should praise everybody at the beginning so that they stay in it, because maybe they need to exit out. But from a motivational perspective, when you have not yet gotten your sea legs, it’s very hard to get pushed around like that. Now, the experts tend to actually benefit from the opposite, which is a lot of critical, negative feedback. And there, it’s not just information, but it’s also motivational because you realize that there’s more distance that you need to go. 

DUBNER: I also just think that, look, criticism varies a lot in how useful it is, depending, again, on the realm. For instance, if you critique my worldview, or the way that I interact with people, that may be close to impossible to change. So that critique is not very useful, and I will resent you. If, however, you critique something specific and actionable — if I’m trying to learn to code, or try to play a sport, or master some kind of technique, that’s useful. And I want to know what I’m doing wrong. I think a lot of this comes down to: how correctable is the thing that you are critiquing? And I think there’s a lot of gray area. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s something I keep doing. But it’s wrong. And it’s along the lines of what you were saying. So, I often will say things to a student, or even my own kids, which is about who they are. Sometimes it’s positive: “You’re such a great writer.” “You’re a really intuitive psychologist.” I say that to my graduate students, not to my kids. That’s about the person, right? Oh, and by the way, on the negative side, just fully candid here, sometimes I say, “You’re a poor planner.” “You’re a disorganized person.” 

DUBNER: You don’t say that you do something poorly. You say that you are the poor thing. “You’re a poor planner,” not, “You have a hard time planning well.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So it’s person-directed. 

DUBNER: “You are a s***** person,” not, “You’re a person who does s***** things,” you’re saying.  

DUCKWORTH: Yes. It’s dramatically more helpful, and I wish I did it more, to focus on the actual behavior that we’re talking about. But I think my tendency to go to the person — praise the person, criticize the person — it’s very ego-threatening. Even when it’s praise, I think you’re building somebody up for a fall. 

DUBNER: Sure. And I know that in your field, your hero/mentor, Carol Dweck, has written about how praising a child’s intellect can undermine their work ethic. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, Mueller and Dweck, ’98. In this series of studies, what happens is that kids are doing these puzzles. And the researchers give them, in the sequence of the puzzles they’re doing, a set of nearly impossible puzzles to solve. And the question is, after doing these failure tasks, when they’re given puzzles that are not so hard, how hard will they try? How well will they do? 

And the finding is that if you praise kids at the beginning of this experiment for being really smart, those are the kids who give up more. If you praise kids instead for working really hard on the puzzles, then they’re a little more resilient and they try harder, especially after failure experiences. I’m not saying you should never tell your kids that they’re smart. But we should be mindful of the dark underbelly of such praise. It’s not just about intelligence. 

I think anytime we’re talking to our kids about some quality they have as an individual, the praise that is more useful is more about the process, the actual thing they did. So, with my daughter Lucy, when she works on her college essays, instead of looking at her, beaming, and saying, “God, Lucy, you’re such a great writer,” I should say things that are really specific: “Oh, God, Lucy, just love that opening sentence of the first paragraph.” 

The sturdy finding from social science, when it comes to feedback, is that process-directed as opposed to person-directed feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, is usually more helpful. But I keep doing it. And I actually don’t even know why I keep slipping up to that, “You’re a great intuitive psychologist,” “Oh, God, you’re such a terrible planner.” Why do I keep doing it when I know I should be talking about the process?  

DUBNER: If you look back at the first time you started doing and saying those kinds of things, were you patterning your behavior on someone else? 

DUCKWORTH: Now you’re psychoanalyzing me, which I like, actually. I do think that maybe one of the reasons why I keep gravitating back to what I know is suboptimal feedback is that, first of all, when I am praised as a person, it may set me up for fragility later. But it does feel so damn good. “Oh, you’re such a good speaker,” “You’re a great writer.” 

DUBNER: And what do you say when they say that to you? 

DUCKWORTH: I usually awkwardly say thank you. I think I’m just so distracted by the warm glow that I’m feeling. Now, I think that’s partly why I praise other people in that way. I know it will make them immediately feel good. The problem, of course, being later when they have a more fragile self-concept because, oh, God forbid I now show Angela my writing, and I’m now not the good writer that she thought. But in the short term, it feels good. 

In terms of when I say unhelpfully, “You’re a disorganized person,” on the negative side, why do I do that? Because I don’t like the way that feels when people tell me things like that. I do that when I’m arguing with my husband, too. In the heat of an argument, I do not do the psychologically wise thing, which is to hone in on the very specific elements of our disagreement. I make broad-sweeping judgments.  

DUBNER: Give me an example where you know what you should say, and then what you actually do say. 

DUCKWORTH: So, Christmas a few years ago, Jason and I got into a Chernobyl-level— It was catastrophic. We had this terrible argument. It was right before we were going on vacation for a week and a half. 

DUBNER: Were you going to Chernobyl by any chance? 

DUCKWORTH: We may as well have. I, to this day, can never remember where we went. I think I have a repressed— 

DUBNER: Maybe Grenoble? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. But it was a terrible argument where he had gone out Christmas shopping, and we had this series of miscommunications. I thought he was coming home. He kept thinking that it was okay. By the time he came home, it was dark out. I had been waiting all day for him to be back. I thought it was family time. I had moved around my work stuff to make sure that I had this day. 

And I can’t recall exactly what I said, but I am sure I didn’t focus on specific behaviors like, “Oh, when you didn’t answer my voicemail.” I think I must have said things like, “You’re an inconsiderate person. You are a tone-deaf human being.” It was reflexive. It was not productive because then, of course, the other person can only do the natural response to being attacked, which is to be defensive.  

DUBNER: May I ask you, if it’s not too probe-y — we’ve talked, or you’ve talked, on this show a good bit about your parents, your mother and your father individually and in concert, especially as it relates to life or personal ideas or lessons. But then, when we talk about your professional work as an academic and a researcher and so on, you primarily talk about your academic influences, someone like Carol Dweck. Do you think that the way that you think about issues like this, praise versus critique in a professional setting, do you think that that’s perhaps more heavily informed by your familial upbringing than you had considered before?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I really feel like I’m on the couch here, Stephen. I think that all of us are so deeply influenced by our parents. To make my father proud was not an easy thing. And I wanted my dad’s praise like a five-year-old wants an ice cream cone. So I’m sure I’ve been motivated by that. I think the thing that we would like to do, though, as we think about these monumental influences that our parents must have had on us, is to not necessarily just carry on, though, that legacy. 

DUBNER: There are a lot of things that we intuitively or circumstantially do and carry on, as you said, that we often don’t even notice, and there’s good reason to break those underlying habits. But it’s curious to me because you have such a high level of self-awareness on so many dimensions, and yet, I do start to wonder a little bit if you’ve connected as many of your dots as you’ve connected of other people’s dots. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We’re all another chapter in a story that started before us. And that story was our parents’ story and then their parents’. I think about my interest in achievement. And it’s because my father was really interested in achievement. Why was my father so interested in achievement? Because his father was really interested in achievement. So there’s got to be a line to be drawn there. My desire for praise is partly a universal need that we all have and partly probably some legacy of wanting to receive those rare accolades from my dad.  

DUBNER: So, praise is useful for a lot of people, it makes us feel good, it might convey information, it might lead to better outcomes, etc. 

DUCKWORTH: Especially when it’s about specifics. 

DUBNER: Exactly. But we also don’t want to dismiss critique because you need to know your weaknesses in order to grow and improve. I think about this with golf all the time. Because—  

DUCKWORTH: Because you think about golf all the time.

DUBNER: Well, that’s exactly right. That is true. I remember there’s one teaching pro that I took a couple lessons with. There were two things that happened with him that I had opposite responses to. And one was praise, and one was— It wasn’t quite critique, but it was realistic. And it was about technique. The praise thing, he said, “Okay, let’s just see a swing.” And I’d hit a few balls. And he said, “Wow, you’ve got a really coordinated, athletic swing. You should be pretty good.” 

And my thought was, “Yeah, but I’m not. I’m not a good golfer. So, for you to praise something like that feels somewhere between pandering and irrelevant. But most of all, it’s not going to lead to improvement because if I’m coordinated and athletic and I’m still a bad golfer, then that’s plainly my failure.” I didn’t know what to do with it. 

But then, when we started to work together and he gave me a lesson, he made the point that if you adjust just a couple things — if you close your grip a little bit and adjust your stance a little bit — it’s going to produce really big changes, and you’re not going to be used to it. So what happens is you’ll often be doing things the “right way,” but your outcomes will be much worse. In other words, I may have improved my grip, but all of a sudden, I’m missing the ball. And he really talked me through that and said, “It’s really important to understand that you need to build your technique and literally disregard the outcome for a substantial time.” 

And to me, that was one of the best pieces of feedback I’ve gotten. Ever since, I’ve really tried to apply it to many things, even beyond the sport or physical realm. I’m working on this improvement, and I know that I may get worse for a while before I get better. But it’s going to be fruitful in the long run. And therefore, I love talking to people, seeking out people, who can give you that kind of feedback. And that’s the feedback that I find rarest and most valuable.  

DUCKWORTH: So, not person-judgments, not necessarily outcome-praise, but process. 

DUBNER: Correct. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it is the great coach and the great teacher who is able to disproportionately focus their energy in giving feedback on the process, and not on the score, or whether you won, or you as a person. Are you athletic? Are you not athletic? And maybe the reason I don’t do that as much as I want to as a teacher is that it’s hard.  

DUBNER: It is hard. 

DUCKWORTH: If I just said to my students, “Oh, God, you guys are just so great. Love you. See you next week,” it’s easier. 

DUBNER: You have to read a lot of cues, and then you have to interpret the cues properly, and then you actually have to do what the cues suggest you should do, rather than what you think you want to. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Which is maybe why I don’t do it enough and why it’s not done enough. 

DUBNER: Or maybe why some of us just sit back and don’t ever say anything to anybody.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the economics of mental illness. 

DUCKWORTH: I feel 2020 is the…

DUBNER: It’s a long decade.

DUCKWORTH: It’s a very long decade.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Okay. Angela, I have a question here from a listener named Manya. Would you entertain this question from Manya?  

DUCKWORTH: Of course. 

DUBNER: So Manya writes that she is a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing and that she has, “been thinking about the economics of psychological trauma.” So you can see why I thought this was an interesting question. It’s got both economics and psychology, but it’s also got trauma. So she writes, “Because we didn’t have physical injuries, people like me were left out of much of the response and follow up for the past seven-plus years.” She says, “I speak and advocate for public recognition of the mental health impacts of violence, especially mass violence. It’s a tough road sometimes, but I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I and so many went through after the bombing, feeling like we were alone in our pain, which adds to the difficulty in dealing with it.” 

She writes that, “While I occasionally do see mention of psychological wounds after trauma, like the recent Beirut explosion,” she uses as an example, “it isn’t normalized as part of the response. We count the dead, the physically injured, and economic impacts. Never have I seen a press conference showing the number of people psychologically wounded, which,” she admits, “would be a guess, at best.” 

And then Manya writes that she is curious if an economic argument might actually sway people. She says that she’s seen studies that show, for example, the cost of lost work productivity when employees experience mental health issues. “And this,” she writes, “is what got me started thinking about the economics of trauma.” 

So, Angela, I found that a really interesting question because, exactly as Manya says, certain casualties, certain costs are accounted for and others just aren’t. And a lot of times it’s because they’re hard to measure. So let me start with that. This is a big question. Can you apply your big brain to this and perhaps give a useful framework for how to think about accounting for, and maybe ameliorating, psychological trauma associated with events like this? 

 DUCKWORTH: This is a much bigger question than what happens in the aftermath of a tragic event like the Boston Marathon bombing, or soldiers coming back from deployment — because mental health, inclusive of anxiety and depression and schizophrenia and many, many other problems — the bigger question is how do we account for them? Is there an argument that can be made to make these mental health issues more meaningful, more real in the public consciousness, and compensated, etc.?

DUBNER: And we should say, the argument about compensation has certainly been dealt with in the courts for years and years, with emotional suffering and so on.

DUCKWORTH: Right. The Workers’ Disability Act includes disability payments for mental health issues. I think the hesitation on the part of some parties might be, “But how do I know? I mean, in an X-ray, I know your arm is broken, but I’m worrying about faking. I’m worrying about people saying that they have mental health problems but they don’t.”  

DUBNER: Well, your people, psychologists I mean, have eight-gazillion batteries of tests and surveys to determine someone’s state of mind and well-being. Yes? 

DUCKWORTH: We do, and most of the research on these things ends up being in some way, shape or form, self-report. Like, “How are you feeling? What are you thinking about? How functional do you feel these days?” And I think for many of us, that would be good enough. If someone says, “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I find no meaning in life. I can’t get out of bed.” Then we might say, “Okay, that person is clinically depressed.” 

There are others who might be more skeptical and say, “Yeah, but maybe they’re just saying that.” Right? But I think there’s so many reasons, at least for many people, to not say those things aloud. That, in fact, you would worry even about the opposite problem, which is people not saying the things that are happening because of stigma, or not even wanting to admit it to themselves. 

So it’s complicated. But I think that lack of visibility here, Stephen, like the lack of the X-ray, the lack of the CAT scan with objective confirmatory evidence of injury or harm, that’s what’s really tripping policymakers. 

DUBNER: So let me take a slightly different angle. What about the slippery-slope argument, which is to say, if I want benefits attached to the suffering, how do I not make that suffering a feature of my current life? How do I move beyond it? 

DUCKWORTH: Are you saying the slippery slope is that we might be— 

DUBNER: We might be encouraging people to define themselves by a deficiency that may be short-term and/or treatable. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. 

DUBNER: And if you treat it as though it’s neither, then it might become neither. 

DUCKWORTH: Like you reify it, right? 

DUBNER: That’s the word I was looking for. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think this is an area where— For example, when I said PTSD, there’s also PTG. 

DUBNER: Post-Traumatic Grooviness?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, kind of. 

DUBNER: What is the G?

DUCKWORTH: Post-traumatic growth.  

DUBNER: Ah. 

DUCKWORTH: There is research showing that in the aftermath of a traumatic stress, some people, probably not immediately, actually end up better off. They develop resources, friendships, social networks, insights into themselves, a sense of purpose. 

So many people, for example, who receive a terminal diagnosis of cancer at least will say that it really put things in perspective, and they valued their last days much more than they probably would have in any other scenario. So it’s possible, just to get back to your question, there’s some benefit actually from having been through something terrible. 

DUBNER: I think another thing that complicates it is the idea that there’s a lot of evidence showing that if you are a low-income person, a low-status person, that there’s definitely more stress in your life. So, I could imagine that this conversation could very easily grow into a broader discussion about: should everyone on Earth have a trauma score? 

So at the low end, would be, let’s say, the people who have partaken most in what’s called “white privilege.” If you’re from a family and an environment where you’ve really never encountered any of these income or bias stressors, then you’ve got potentially, at least as your baseline, a very low-trauma score. And conversely, someone who’s experienced a lot of issues has a very-high trauma score. 

And you could theoretically calculate that for every incident and scenario. And that would be, obviously, very difficult, and perhaps grotesque in some ways. And I could also imagine that this idea becomes a common element of just about any argument about any kind of reparations, right?

I’m sure you can tell us a lot more than I could about adverse childhood events and their connection to poor life outcomes, but can’t you make the broader argument that if you’re coming from a family or a community where you have a lot of disadvantages, that continues to take away from your opportunities and so on?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, the College Board, as you may know, has such an index, right? I think it’s called the Adversity Index, which is a weighted average of data, like your ZIP code, how much funding your high school had, the average SAT score in your school, how many AP classes there were. So, this is not new data, but just put together as some index of how much you’ve had to struggle against in order to accomplish things as a young person. So it’s not just a hypothetical idea. 

And as you say, the ACE questionnaire, which is an inventory of adverse events that happened during childhood — it’s typically filled out in adulthood — so it’s a retrospective recollection of the things that you had to manage, whether that was financial crises in the home or violence in the home, etc. 

So, it’s not that these metrics don’t exist at all. I think the question is: How good are they? And should we consider them for policy use? I don’t have an answer to this. I never have an answer to policy questions because they’re too hard for me. As a scientist, I can say, “I know about this finding and that finding,” but what policymakers have to do is put them all together, and weigh the pros and cons, and then come to a decision. 

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you to pretend to be a policy person for just another—  

DUCKWORTH: Let me ask you to answer some policy questions anyway. 

DUBNER: Just for one more minute. So, considering that the causes of trauma are usually, if not obvious, identifiable. Let’s say that you had a trillion units of something — dollars, hours, resources to spend. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. 

DUBNER: Would those units be better spent on trauma indexing, really measuring different people, finding out how much trauma they have, what were the causes and so on? Or would they be better spent on trauma mitigation? Let’s go after what we know to be the root causes of these trauma. 

In other words, look, the listener wrote in about an event that was unpredicted and the act of an individual. It wasn’t something that society had done, right? This was an attack. So it’s hard to account for everything in life, obviously. But a lot of what I think we are talking about now are basically societal circumstances. 

So what I’m asking is, is this conversation we’re having useless? Should we not bother to think about measuring and identifying and categorizing this trauma? And should we instead take that trillion units of something and say, “We know what’s causing these adverse childhood events. Let’s focus on them as opposed to focusing on the aftermath, which is the trauma.”  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m absolutely going to vote for devoting resources to the prevention.  

DUBNER: Phew! 

DUCKWORTH: This is a test to see if I’m alive, right?  

DUBNER: My thumb was very on the scale. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think the indexing, the measuring, the careful study of things after they’ve happened — of course, you need a little bit of that, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of allostatic load, but that was all about indexing, and understanding what are the aftereffects of stress. 

DUBNER: Tell me more about allostatic load, please. 

DUCKWORTH: Much of the work is from Bruce McEwen. Of course, many, many, many scientists now study allostatic load, but Bruce McEwen— 

DUBNER: Can I just play that back to you: “Of course, many, many, many, many scientists now study allostatic load.” I would have said that sentence except for the “of course” part. But that’s just the difference between you and me. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, but the term actually has, I think, entered popular awareness. Bruce McEwen passed away not long ago, but he was at the Rockefeller Institute. And what he discovered was that all of us human beings have this process of allostasis, which is the process of adapting to stress. And this is how we have through generations of evolution learned to have the fight or flight response. It preserves our longevity to have adrenaline coursing through our veins at the threat of a predator, etc. 

The problem comes when there are chronic stressors that never go away. So, you’re not being chased for 10 minutes and then everything’s fine again. You’re living with poverty, or you’re feeling marginalized in society because of the color of your skin or your class. And allostatic load has a biological cost. Essentially, it’s wear and tear on your immune system, on your cardiovascular system, and it’s because these fight or flight responses, and the coursing adrenalin, and all of the chemicals that are released everywhere are okay in the short term, and definitely not okay in the long term. 

So, it’s great that some of society’s resources went to the Rockefeller Institute, to scientists like Bruce McEwen, to index adversity, to measure things that happen after trauma, so that we could understand what to do about it, maybe eventually. We want people to be on as level and firm ground as possible in life. Otherwise there really is a really chronic psychological erosion almost, when you feel this lack of agency because no matter what you do, you can’t get anywhere. 

DUBNER: All right, Angela, in conclusion, let me ask you a question about trauma and society. What do you think about the collective societal trauma being accrued during the Covid-19 pandemic?  

DUCKWORTH: So, one thing is guaranteed, which is that not everyone is responding in the same way. George Bonanno, who is a psychologist who specializes in trauma and resilience, would say that we may be overestimating the proportion of the population who is going to have long-term harm psychologically. And I say that because in his research, he finds that the most common response to trauma is actually resilience, maintaining a remarkably stable level of functioning despite awful life circumstances. 

This is not to say that George Bonanno doesn’t believe in post-traumatic stress disorder or in mental health problems. It’s just to point out that more than you would think are going to actually be fine. While we’re all experiencing this, it’s hard to remember those facts and figures, right? Because I feel like 2020 is the—  

DUBNER: It’s a long decade. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a very long decade. It’s rough for everyone. And certainly it’s rougher for some than others. But anyway, I do think that human beings as a species are remarkably resilient in the sense that George Bonanno means. 

DUBNER: Let’s say in the George Bonanno study, you find yourself in the minority that doesn’t have, or can’t create, that resilience. And let’s assume that resilience is an attainable goal, or at least there’s a large spectrum and you can move yourself from low to middle. You are Mrs. Grit. Can you give us any advice for developing resilience across the board for a society-wide trauma like Covid-19?  

DUCKWORTH: You know, I’m actually going to quote my uncle Ken Duckworth, uncle by marriage, because he is the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So, like the nation’s psychiatrist. And I asked him to boil down therapy, like “all therapy is,” just give it to me in a bumper sticker. And he said, “all right, three things.” 

DUBNER: I’m writing. 

DUCKWORTH: Notice it. That is, notice when you’re feeling sad, anxious, worried. Sit with it. Put it in perspective. The “sit with it” means don’t immediately start drinking.  

DUBNER: Too late, sorry.  

DUCKWORTH: You’re like the kid who doesn’t read all the instructions. Noticing — really understanding — how you’re feeling, and being okay with not being okay, I think that is not easy for everyone. I think what Ken has found as a psychiatrist is that many people end up getting into more hot water by the coping mechanisms they have for the first trauma or insult. Like, “Oh, I’m really nervous.” And then you start eating too much. And now you have two problems. And the second one might even be bigger than the first one. 

So, being able to sit with discomfort and being okay to pause. And then, putting in perspective is taking 10 or 20 steps back and really trying to see the bigger picture. For example, every morning, I really do try to think of things that have gone well, because otherwise I just get myopically focused on the 10 problems I haven’t solved and the 14 problems that happened yesterday that are really bothering me. 

So, I have frequently thought back to those three things that Ken says during this pandemic. I’ve tried to notice when I don’t feel good, and I’ve tried to notice when I feel fine. I sit with discomfort, and I try not to do things that are immediately going to get me into more trouble. And then I try to put it in perspective. 

DUBNER: For me, “put it in perspective” is particularly appealing. I try to do that when I’m experiencing some difficulties that seem large. If I’m having trouble with a piece of work, I say, “Well if this were a thousand years ago and I was then who I am now, I’d be sitting in a mud hut, and then there’d be a viking ride up on his horse and he’d put a hatchet through my skull.” So this is way better than that. 

DUCKWORTH: Here’s another little thing. Have you ever seen The Powers of Ten video by the Eames, the designers? You see this couple, and they’re on the Boston Common, and then the camera goes up, and every time the camera steps back, it’s like an exponential increase in distance. And finally, you’re in the Milky Way looking at this tiny, tiny dot of light, which might be planet Earth. 

And actually, I have a friend who watches movies about the stars and constellations when she’s really stressed out just to literally put things in perspective. And yeah, whether you’re using time travel or watching Carl Sagan documentaries, it is useful to gaze outside of one’s own navel because, usually, we find that our problems are a little bit smaller than they seem. 

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

Early on in the episode, Stephen references the phrase “total zero,” which does not seem to be an actual colloquialism. You can purchase a Red Bull Total Zero — a zero-calorie version of the highly caffeinated energy drink. There’s also “absolute zero” — the lowest temperature that is theoretically possible, or -459.67*F. But “total zero” as a measurement for performance does not appear to be a regularly-used phrase. That’s not to say that if you referred to a friend or colleague as “total zero” that they wouldn’t still be totally insulted. 

Later, Angela says that one of the roadblocks to understanding and measuring mental illness is a lack of physiological evidence. While it’s true that we can’t yet diagnose depression and anxiety like we can broken arms, neuroimaging researchers are developing M.R.I.s to measure brain structure, activity and chemical composition, and to better understand the neural representation of different psychiatric disorders. It’s possible that in the future, technologies like artificial intelligence and multimodality imaging will allow for more concrete diagnoses at the biological level. 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, James Foster and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern Emma Tyrell 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 nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela mention a study or an expert 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! 

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DUBNER: That’s what I dislike about what is very popular in some circles, which is known as the praise sandwich.

DUCKWORTH: It goes by other, more colorful names.

DUBNER: Oh, like what? Is it a blank — a poop sandwich? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, thank you. 

DUBNER: Ah, Gotcha. 

Read full Transcript

Sources

  • Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Bruce McEwen, former neuroscientist at the Rockefeller University.
  • George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University.
  • Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Resources

Extras

  • Power of Ten, by Eames (1977). *Angela says that Powers of Ten begins with an image of Boston, but the 1977 film actually starts with a depiction of a Chicago lakefront.

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