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 DUBNER: I meant dead in their soul. I didn’t mean physically dead.

DUCKWORTH: Oh yes. Air quotes, “dead.”

*      *      *

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 big is your moral circle?

DUBNER: Just me. That’s all I care about!

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from an Irene Lee that I’m going to read to you. “Hi, Stephen and Angela. I was in painting class yesterday. A woman said, ‘The world is burning. Here we are painting.’ I think it’s true, but I don’t know what I can do to help worldly issues like the war, climate, inequality, oppression, and many more problems. So, what do you think of that woman’s words?”

DUBNER: What do I think of that woman’s words? I certainly understand the impulse to feel helpless, to feel overwhelmed by negativity. I do think of at least two avenues to push back on. So, one would be: I personally do think that it should be a moral imperative, really, for each of us to move forward as productively as we each can in the world — for yourself, for your family and community, but for the world at large too. I mean, if you think about human innovation and ideas that have made all of us more prosperous and more civilized, honestly, over the millennia, I shudder to think what would have happened had the people involved in all those innovations just thrown up their hands and said, “Yeah, well you know, there are wildfires, there are brutal dictators, there are mysterious diseases, why bother?” But the other thing is: if you look at the overall global measures of, human prosperity versus human suffering over the last few hundred years, the data are just overwhelmingly positive.

DUCKWORTH: This is, like, the Steven Pinker hypothesis, yes?

DUBNER: Yes. Pinker wrote a book about it. I think he did a really good job summarizing it. But there are a lot of people who’ve been writing about this. They tend to get drowned out by the doomsayers, though. And if it’s anything I’ve learned over the past 10, 20 years about prediction, it’s that most predictions about the future are A) wrong. And most predictions about the future that people pay attention to are incredibly dire. If you go back and read predictions 100 years ago, 200 years ago about the fate of humankind, the fate of the planet, it is so incredibly, despairingly dark. You know, one easy example is population. When the global population hit a billion, which was probably, I don’t even know when that was, mid-to-late 1800s, maybe? Something like that. All the smart money said we are on a path to total —.

DUCKWORTH: Starvation.

DUBNER: Right. “There’s no way we can even produce enough food to feed two billion people.” Now, here we are going on eight billion people, and we have so much food. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who individually don’t get enough food, but it’s not for the lack of supply.

DUCKWORTH: It’s more distribution.

DUBNER: It’s distribution caused, essentially, by usually economic and governmental dysfunction.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Political instability, and corruption, and so forth, but the point is that we are not, as a species, starving because there are too many of us.

DUBNER: Yeah. And we keep getting better at stuff like growing food. I mean, you see how good we humans generally have gotten over the years at doing the things that are important to us. If you look at the rate of global child mortality in the year 1800, about 40 percent of children died in the first five years of life. Now that number is, I think, gosh, it’s —.

DUCKWORTH: Less than 1 percent.

DUBNER: No, I don’t think it’s that low. But it’s fallen by multiple multiples. If you look at literacy — this is a good one. In the year 1800, maybe 15 percent of the globe was literate. Now it’s probably 85 percent. Even if you look at poverty, the share of people living in extreme poverty has fallen and fallen, fallen. Now, to be fair, just because the percentage shrinks doesn’t mean a number isn’t still large, because the population is growing. But like I said, if you read history, the predictions are always terrible — whether it’s about population, famine, violence, et cetera.

DUCKWORTH: You want to say, in the macro, things are getting better, not worse.

DUBNER: Well, short answer, yes, but, I mean, long answer is I do understand. I mean, look, we’re surrounded by bad news, but one of the reasons we’re surrounded by bad news is because once we solve problem A, we focus on problems B, C, and D.

DUCKWORTH: It’s human nature to focus on the next problem.

DUBNER: And I would argue that’s a great thing. If we felt complacency, we would be a really crappy species.

DUCKWORTH: It’s adaptive to, like, disproportionately focus on what’s wrong and not necessarily to dwell on what’s right.

DUBNER: And so, you know, one could say to the friend in painting class that the best thing you can do — rather than quit the painting class because it is all meaningless — is you can find a way to keep contributing in whatever way you know how to the continuing advancement of all these measures of prosperity that have been improving, whether you work in education, or medicine, or academia, or media, engineering, government, you name it, keep working to seek out, and flesh out, and distribute ideas that lead to more health and happiness for more people. That’s one way to look at it.

DUCKWORTH: Sure. But you were making, I think, a more provocative point. I mean, I now have this mental image of you with an easel, and a brush in your hand, and a cup of mint tea. You turn to the woman who said, “The world is burning — here we are painting.” And you say, “Not only Steven Pinker, but others have pointed out that the macro trends suggest that the world certainly isn’t burning anymore than it used to be. And if you look at the data, the world is burning less!” Maybe with the exception of climate, by the way.

DUBNER: So, I mean, if “the world is burning” is meant to be a concern for climate change per se, I think that’s the topic that we should talk about. The fact that we now are able to cast so much attention on concerns about pollution and climate change is itself a byproduct of prosperity.

DUCKWORTH: Of prosperity and peace, right? That we can worry about the future of the planet is, in a way, a luxury good. We’re not ourselves, in the moment, suffering so much that we can only deal with our more primitive needs.

DUBNER: Right. But I think that even if climate change is your one and only concern, what I would argue is that just as everything in life has some benefits and some costs, I think pessimism has its costs, because if you’re overly pessimistic, even if you’re right, your odds of actually working towards something that’s an improvement just shrinks, and shrinks, and shrinks — if you assume you can’t improve things. It’s interesting. Here’s an example that came to mind recently. So, the recent breakthrough in nuclear fusion — which was, you know, decades in the making — it got mostly a yawn from the community of concerned environmentalists who were convinced that only wind power and solar power can save us. There was a paper, not long ago, in Environmental Education Research by Maria Ojala. It’s called “Hope and Climate Change: the Importance of Hope for Environmental Engagement Among Young People.” And it made the point that a lot of young people think that climate change is very, very important, but that they’re also extraordinarily pessimistic about it. And what does that lead one to do? I would argue it leads you to throw up your hands and say, “we’re all screwed,” or to be unrealistic about the different varieties of solutions that might work. And so, that’s why I note that this fusion breakthrough — which, gosh, if you’re interested in clean energy, if you’re interested in safe governance, if you’re interested in prosperity, generally — it’s really good news. And yet, it was surprising to me how little enthusiasm it garnered from the pessimistic corners of the movement. That’s what I point to as a cost.

DUCKWORTH: Right, but I don’t think this woman in painting class is advocating for a pessimistic point of view. It’s clear to me from the context of Irene’s email is that the woman who says the “world is burning, here we are painting” is being self-critical — is kind of asking if she shouldn’t be doing more. So, to me, this bigger question of, like: how much should we care about all the things that are not immediate, pressing, urgent problems for ourselves, and our immediate kin, and, you know, friendship group, I guess, I think that’s a great question. I mean, I remember having conversations with —  oh God, get out your shot class — Marty Seligman. I can’t help that he was my advisor! I can’t help that many of my conversations were with Marty Seligman when he was advising my Ph.D and then afterwards, because I’m in the same department. So, it’s not my fault! Anyway, Marty liked to bring up this idea of the “moral circle.” You know, how big is our moral circle? Is it very, very narrow? Like, I only care about my own children, my husband, my best friend? Or is it very wide? Like, do you care about all of humanity? At the time, I may have thought that Marty came up with the idea of the moral circle.

DUBNER: Socrates, maybe?

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s actually Peter Singer. I’m sure philosophers have thought, you know, generally about this, but Peter Singer — the ethicist and philosopher, I think, at Princeton — speaks about, you know, widening our moral circle. And there is some more recent work on this by a former postdoc of mine who we’ve spoken about before in conversation. His name is Peter Meindl. And he is a co-author on a paper called “Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces in the Moral Circle: Competing Constraints on Moral Learning.” And I do think this gets to Irene’s question and this conversation in painting class, because at the broadest and most encompassing level, your moral circle could include literally all things, animate and inanimate. You know, one layer in, it’s like, “Oh, I only care about living things,” right? “Inanimate objects, you’re on your own!” And then, if you go narrower, you can say, like, “Well, I only care about mammals.” And you refuse to eat, you know, mammals. But then, you know, people might have an even more narrow moral circle and say, like, “I do eat meat, but what I really care about is all human beings.” And, by the way, we’re still pretty broad there — if you’re going to care about, like, eight billion human beings, the vast majority of whom have no connection to you directly and you’ll never meet. Then, let’s go one circle in from that. You might only care about human beings who live in your country. You might go even more narrow and say, like, “I only care about human beings in my local community, right? Like, “Stephen only cares about New Yorkers. Angela only cares about Philadelphians.”

DUBNER: And she hates everyone in New Jersey! And she hates Philadelphia too!

DUCKWORTH: I don’t hate the city of Philadelphia! I just wish there were less trash!

DUBNER: Less trash, and boorishness, and noise, and violence.

DUCKWORTH: And feces, and urine — not all of which are from dogs.

DUBNER: I think what we’re discovering is that Angela’s moral circle — it’s more like a donut. Like, she doesn’t care about anyone within a hundred miles of her, but once you get past there, it’s okay.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, but let me complete this though, Stephen, because I think some people would more clearly recognize that their moral duties don’t pertain to their local community, but to their family — maybe, like, to their friendship circle, but maybe even more narrowly, like, just your nuclear family. And then of course —.

DUBNER: Just me. That’s all I care about!

DUCKWORTH: That’s the middle of this diagram.

DUBNER: And I barely care about myself, dammit.

DUCKWORTH: Right. So, centrifugal forces, you know, the force that goes outward —  if you recall, from Physics 1, which you probably haven’t taken in a long time — but these centrifugal forces — compassion, fairness, equality — like, make you think about moral concerns that are in the outer circles. There is this values survey that’s been given across cultures and, you know, many different countries, and there are 10 values. One of the 10 values is called “universalism.” It’s basically concern for humanity in general, but there is a different and separate value called “benevolence,” and the idea is, that’s your inner moral circle — like, really caring about people that you know. So, those are the centripetal forces — like my familial attachments, my in-group loyalty, worrying about my best friend. And I think the point of this paper is that we sometimes think that, like, people differ in how wide their moral circles are. You know, some have a really broad moral circle. Some people have a very narrow one. The thing to recognize about human beings is that we have these competing forces — centrifugal and centripetal — within ourselves. We’re conflicted.

DUBNER: So, you feel like the lady in the painting class, she is a perfect exhibition of the conflict when we think about our moral circle.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure that her family’s benefiting from her being in painting class, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to say that, because if she’s taking care of herself, and she’s basically having some kind of happiness, that’s going to benefit the people in her immediate moral circle, and she’s perhaps feeling this conflict between that centripetal force pulling in and the centrifugal force, like, “Oh my gosh, the world is burning.”

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the connection between moral circles and dessert.

DUCKWORTH: In 10 minutes, I will full-on regret finishing this pint of ice cream. But that’s 10 minutes from now. Right now, this is delicious.

*      *      *

Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about how much we should focus on serious global issues.

DUBNER: So, what about you? When you think about your moral circle, other than the fact that it really is, as we said, more of a moral donut or bagel — because the people within the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas, you care for zero — how do you think about how those centripetal and centrifugal forces act on you? Are you conflicted, or do you kind of construct in your mind, “This is my moral circle, this is who I am, and this is how I’m going to deal with it?”

DUCKWORTH: I feel like almost everyone — but I’ll speak for myself — recognizes this conflict. For example, if I have a very tight focus around my nuclear family — like, “What’s going on with my kids today? What am I doing for them?” — that can come into direct conflict with, like, “Oh, I should answer this email from this high-school principal in Akron, Ohio, who really wants me to give them advice on X, Y, or Z.” And there’s a zero-sum game. The zero-sum game is time and attention. I experience this. I don’t know, on a daily basis, we’re always making these choices, these tradeoffs, and I think they very often involve the people I care about — that I know — and the people that I care about that I don’t know. I won’t say that I care about, like, all animate objects. Like, I don’t have the moral circle that some people do, by the way. It’s part of certain religions, right? I think the Jain, like, religion — to care about all living things. I don’t even have a trembling of that urge. But yeah, absolutely, people in general, I often feel that conflict. I think famously some very altruistic role models were not particularly kind to their immediate family and friends but were amazingly altruistic humans. So, people make these tradeoffs, and they differ across individuals, but they are tradeoffs we have to make within ourselves.

DUBNER: My mind, when I think about this struggle, goes to one of my favorite philosophers, someone who wrote in the 18th century.

DUCKWORTH: Is it Adam Smith?

DUBNER: It is Adam Smith. And I’m so glad that I can say the word “philosopher” and you say “Adam Smith,” as opposed to just thinking of him as the father of economics.

DUCKWORTH: Well, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

DUBNER: Yeah. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote about this — you know, “all of China” was the example he gave. He wrote, “Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake. And let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe who had no sort of connection with that part of the world would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity.” The implication is that, “Yeah, okay, that sounds rough, but um, it’s not me, it’s not my circle.”

DUCKWORTH: Doesn’t he have a quote there about, like, your “little finger”?

DUBNER: That’s what I remember too. I’m not finding it right now, but I seem to remember something about like —.

DUCKWORTH: “If, for 10,000 men in China —.”

DUBNER: “If half my pinky got chopped off, that would cause me much more distress.”

DUCKWORTH: Right. And if that were the choice, I would pick my pinky.

DUBNER: Exactly. But then, you know, a parallel piece of that argument that people often attribute to Smith wrongly, I think, is this notion of self-interest. Self-interest was something that he wrote a bit about in his later book, The Wealth of Nations. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes about our self-concern in a way that I think would help modern people look at it in a different light. Let me read a little chunk. This is a very, very famous piece of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.” In other words, of course we’re selfish. We are animals, but we also have within us an inherent drive to care about other people. And I think that is the friction when I hear the question from Irene that just about all of us feel all the time: “Do I deserve to feel good about this tiny, irrelevant thing in my life when there are so many other people who are suffering of a totally different category?” There was an interesting example of this recently at the World Cup — maybe a quarter final or semi-final — there was an American journalist named Grant Wahl who died in the stadium.

DUCKWORTH: During the game?

DUBNER: He collapsed at least during the game. And it turns out that he died very young — I think he was 49 — of an aortic aneurysm. And he was very well-known in the soccer-journalism community. He’s an American. He’s been writing about soccer for Sports Illustrated and elsewhere for a lot of years. And another long-time soccer journalist who’s also just an excellent writer and thinker named Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times, he was discussing this very question of like, what should we care about? And he was describing how the match was going on. It was the Netherlands, which is Kuper’s home country. He lives, I think, in Paris now, but he considers the Dutch team kind of his home team. Now, he’s a journalist. He’s not just there as a fan. But he understood that this guy, Grant Wahl, whom he knew and respected a great deal, had just collapsed within eyesight. And he was torn between: where are my eyes going to go — to the match in the World Cup in front of me or to Grant Wahl? And he said that he pretty much ended up watching the game, and he later learned that his colleague and friend had died. He ended up writing a column about this for the Financial Times, which is where I read about this. A colleague of his expressed that, you know, we shouldn’t even really be watching this World Cup. And this had to do with the host country Qatar that many people feel very conflicted about. It’s a country that bought the World Cup through bribery.

DUCKWORTH: I did not know that either.

DUBNER: You know, FIFA, the group that administers international football is a notoriously corrupt organization. So anyway, Qatar is famous for a lack of what we consider basic human rights. They were famous for not being very humane toward the workers who came in to build the stadiums. They’re considered extremely anti-gay. And so, one thing that happened was that Grant Wahl, the American journalist who died, had showed up — I’m not sure if it was at a match, or a press concert, or something — wearing a rainbow shirt. So, he was trying to call attention to the more substantive issues around soccer, even though they’re there to watch soccer.

DUCKWORTH: Right. The broader human issues.

DUBNER: And then, this guy dies. Now, interestingly, his death, having made it clear that he was against the way that Qatar carried itself, started to fuel a sort of conspiracy that, “Oh, he’s maybe been murdered for speaking out.” So, it became a very complicated and dark moment that this guy, Simon Kuper talked out in this Financial Times column about, like, “What the heck are we doing here watching soccer when there are all these levels of sadness, dysfunction, hatred, et cetera.” And his conclusion was: there are costs, which we’ve just discussed, and there are also benefits. The benefit is that the World Cup — as bizarre, as dysfunctional, as corrupt as it can be — is this global event that brings joy to literally billions of people. So, is that enough of a benefit to put up with all the cost? That’s a really hard question to answer, but if you focus only on the horror and the negative, which we humans are really good at doing, and which our media is fantastic at doing, that we can totally forget that there’s another side of the ledger. And on the other side of the ledger is the joy of being alive, the joy of having friends, the joy of trying to contribute to society in some way, large or small. And that’s why I would say to Irene and to her friend in painting class — “Yeah, paint! Enjoy it. Have a great time with your friends, and then use your frustration and your sense of helplessness to drive you to do something that’s going to have some kind of positive impact on the world, as small as it may be.”

DUCKWORTH: I agree with you. I don’t know that I would’ve ended the sentence that way. Like, “Let your sense of helplessness and pessimism spur you on to do something.” Now several generations after Adam Smith, economists, but also behavioral scientists documented this hyperbolic-discounting curve. In general, this discounting that economists study is, like, “me now” versus “me later.” And the “hyperbolic” part — for those of us who don’t recall exactly what a hyperbola looks like from, like, 11th or 12th grade math — it’s, like, a very, very steep curve where it goes down really fast, and then it starts to go down at a much slower rate. But that first drop off is like, “whew.” It’s like a rollercoaster. It’s like, “boom.” You’re, like, just in free fall. And that describes how we weigh the consequences to our future self. It explains why we do stupid things — things where we know, like, in 10 minutes we’re going to regret eating all of the ice cream in this pint. It’s not even in 10 years. It’s like, “In 10 minutes, I will full-on regret finishing this pint of ice cream. But that’s 10 minutes from now. Right now, this is delicious.” So, that’s temporal hyperbolic discounting. But what scientists have also established is that we do this socially. So, there’s a hyperbolic-discount curve for how much other people matter to us as a function of our social distance. So, when I paint this picture of moral circles — you know, there’s my two daughters and my husband, and then there’s my mother and my best friend, and now we’re getting to, like, people that I work with — one thing to wrestle with, and I think Adam Smith was wrestling with it, and I think Irene and her friend in painting class are wrestling with it, is at some level we recognize that, like, when somebody is socially distant from us — you know, it’s our friend’s friend. My husband just came back from a shiva. It’s, like, his father’s friend’s grandfather. You know, how much does that matter to my husband?

DUBNER: Wait. His “father’s friend’s grandfather” must be, like, 1,800 years old.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, sorry. Right. I must have that wrong. Let’s see. Jason’s father’s friend’s father. I think that’s right. Anyway, the point is this is, like, three degrees of social separation. And, you know, it’s very hard to really feel something for them. So, this hyperbolic discounting — this very steep discounting, like, “yeah, I don’t care that much” — as a function of your distance from me socially, it makes us feel uncomfortable. At some level, we know that we shouldn’t care about our little pinky more than 10,000 human beings, but it is both true: like, paint, take care of yourself, take care of the people that you love —.

DUBNER: Take care of your pinky.

DUCKWORTH: Take care of your pinky. Paint with your pinky. But the fact that there is this hyperbolic discounting for people who are far away from us, we know kind of upon reflection that they must matter as much as the people who are close to us. So, I think that’s what Adam Smith is wrestling with. I think that’s what Irene and her friend are wrestling with. Also, I want to say something about Dan Batson.


DUCKWORTH: You may not speak of Dan Batson!

DUBNER: How many times have I told you!

DUCKWORTH: This is a professor. He’s emeritus now at University of Kansas, and his career has really been about the psychology of altruism and the famous “Good Samaritan study,” which is quite well-known in Psych 1 classes at least. For those who don’t have Psych 1 under the belt or just forgot, this study where seminary students — so, they’re good people —.

DUBNER: This was at Princeton, maybe?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think it was done at Princeton Theological Seminary. And he has these seminarians in different conditions. Like, some of them are supposed to be writing a sermon about the Good Samaritan parable — about helping strangers, and the conceit, or the setup, of this Good Samaritan study is that: the seminarians, in between their destination and where they are is somebody who’s, like, homeless, and in a doorway, and clearly needing help — almost exactly out of the Bible, right? And the seminary students, whether they stop or not has, like, nothing to do with, like, their scores on personality tests and their valuing of being moral people. It has a lot to do with whether they’re in a hurry or not. So, if you’ve told the seminarian that they’re, like, late for some appointment where they’re supposed to actually now deliver the speech — well, they step right over this stranger in distress. So, that’s the famous Dan Batson. That was a very early study, and I actually corresponded with him a little bit by email, because I wanted to understand the study a little better. And he pointed out a couple things. One is that, you know, the fact that these seminary students hurried over the body of a stranger who needed help wasn’t just to say that people are callous or, like, it doesn’t matter that we have moral principles. Who you were trying to help was just a different person in your head. Like, you were just trying to be thoughtful and considerate of the person who was waiting for you, and you didn’t want to be late for them. In a way, you could argue this is a moral-circle thing. Like, there’s a human being that’s close in your moral circle, somebody that you know, you’re going to see them. Then, there’s this, like, more distant person, a stranger. It’s not that these seminarians were, like, awful people, but the person who they were trying to help may have been a different person than the person that they were stepping over. That was one of his points. But then, another point is: other-oriented emotion, where we are feeling sympathy with other people for their suffering, he calls this empathic emotion really the root of altruism. Like, the fact that Irene can care about poverty or oppression that doesn’t touch her life at all is actually a beautiful thing that is the bedrock of us being truly good people and altruistic. When you know that somebody else is suffering, you don’t have to feel their suffering — like, to know that somebody’s hungry, you don’t have to, like, feel hunger yourself, but it does seem like a wonderful human thing that we do, that we can feel bad that that person is in a bad situation and that that motivates a very selfless, other-oriented behavior, which is helping other people. So, the take home, I think, for Irene and her friend in painting class is that they are experiencing some of these tensions that moral people experience. They are experiencing some of this empathic response, and they’re feeling a little torn about how altruistic to be.

DUBNER: Right, and if they weren’t feeling that they would be —.

DUCKWORTH: Horrible.

DUBNER: Kind of dead. Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Or just terrible, right? They don’t have to be dead.

DUBNER: Well, I meant dead in their soul. I didn’t mean physically dead.

DUCKWORTH: Oh yes. Air quotes, “dead.”

DUBNER: So, I have a question I want to ask you, but let me ask the listeners first the same question, which is, if what we’re talking about here is some stew of potential hypocrisy, and helplessness, and pessimism, name a thing that you do to combat that. That’s what I would like our listeners to tell us. Send us a voice memo. Just use your phone. Record it in a nice, quiet place. And tell us one thing that you do, or maybe even better, have done successfully, to combat this sort of feeling of helplessness-slash-pessimism-slash-potential-hypocrisy. And send it to and we may play it on a future show. So, I’ve asked the listeners to tell us, but Angie, I want to hear from you too, because you seem — and not just because you are a practitioner of the field of positive psychology, literally — but you seem temperamentally destined to not get caught too much in this sort of treadmill of concern about, “Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be experiencing joy when so many other people are experiencing sadness, frustration, danger, violence, hunger, etc.” So, do you have any advice?

DUCKWORTH: Well, Stephen, I know I have told you this story before. I’m going to tell it to you again, because it’s true, and it’s exactly what I think about when I think about combating the sense of helplessness that one can have when considering all of the problems in the world. I remember reading in French class — I think it was junior year — and Dr. Roland had assigned Candide by Voltaire. And I hated it, by the way. I was just like, “Oh my God, I hate this book.” But at the end, Voltaire, the author says, “Il faut cultiver son jardin” — “You have to cultivate your garden.” And the idea is that the world is a complex, sometimes evil place. It can be overwhelming, actually, to really ponder, like, all the things that are going wrong — even if, Stephen, as you point out, macro trends suggest things are getting better, but it still can be overwhelming to ponder all the things that are wrong that, in theory, you could do something about. And the moral of the story, at least as I interpreted it as a high-school junior, was, there’s what you can’t do, and there’s what you can do, and the things that you can do, just do, and don’t be paralyzed. So, for me, I have my garden — like, read these articles on hyperbolic discounting, explain them to other people, and maybe they can live their life a little differently. And I know it’s not, like, you know, the whole world, but it’s my garden. And I remember coming back to that memory of French class and Dr. Roland getting to the end of that book I hated. But that one little gem of wisdom: “Cultivate your garden, paint your painting, you know, make a good tuna sandwich, like, be nice to one person today.” I think, honestly, if you were just able to do that, maybe, collectively, we would help the world not be such a bad place.

DUBNER: So, first of all, it always comes back to a sandwich. There’s never an answer that doesn’t include a sandwich.

DUCKWORTH: I think Voltaire was really talking about sandwiches.

DUBNER: Tuna sandwiches. Secondly, I am as pro cultivating one’s own garden as can be. But I would just add that there are maybe one or two external factors that I think can really help, which is: remember that most predictions throughout history have been garbage, and also just remember how much and how viscerally we all respond to negative news, and if you pay too much attention to that, you can easily convince yourself that, “Yeah, there is absolutely nothing you can do that is positive and fruitful.” And I would say that for every human on earth there is something fruitful and productive to do. And of course it can be incredibly hard to fight through the feelings of helplessness and caring about the things that you can’t address directly, but there are some things you can address directly. Maybe it’s your garden, maybe it’s your job, maybe it’s your family.

DUCKWORTH Maybe it’s your painting.

DUBNER: Maybe it’s your painting. So, paint a better painting, friend of Irene, and then we’ll talk.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen says that he thinks the global population reached one billion in the mid-to-late 19th century. In fact, this milestone occurred in 1804. According to recent data from the United Nations, the world’s population reached eight billion as of November 15, 2022 and is expected to reach nine billion by approximately 2037.

Stephen also says that in the year 1800, approximately 40 percent of children died within the first five years of life. And Angela believes that today, that number is less than 1 percent. When it comes to the United States specifically, Stephen wasn’t far off. In 1800, about 46 percent of children did not make it to their fifth birthday. And Angela was correct: Today, that number is approximately 0.7 percent. The average is higher globally. According to the World Health Organization, about 3.7 percent of children around the world die before they reach the age of 5.

Later, Stephen and Angela struggle to recall a quotation from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments about how a European man would react to hearing news that a great number of people in China had died in an earthquake. The passage they were thinking of reads as follows: “The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on our recent episode on crying. We asked listeners to tell us about the last time they teared up. Here’s what you said:

James CAMPBELL: I remember very clearly the last time I cried. It was June 5th of last year. At about 4 p.m., I was sitting with friends at a gay bar, and I saw on a news report that it was the 40th anniversary of the identification of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Having been H.I.V. positive for 38 years, I started to cry, quietly, but I couldn’t stop. Although nobody knew what was going on in my head, I felt completely supported by my friends and the staff and incredibly grateful to be one who has survived.

Rebecca KOCH: I like to consider myself a bit of a recreational crier. And a few years ago, I became curious about my crying tendencies. So, I started to keep a log of each time I cry and what causes it. According to the data, 68.4 percent of my logged crying instances had a negative cause, and 31.6 had a positive cause. The last time I cried for a positive reason, according to the log, was because I saw the video of a toddler who’s really good at skiing, and the last time I cried for a negative reason was when I was browsing and thinking about all of the cats who are waiting to get adopted.

Kristinia LUKE: Hi, Stephen and Angela. This is Kristina Luke from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Stephen, your description of tearing up over the fiddle music at the end of the Adam Smith episode spoke so deeply to me. All my life, I’ve been what I call a “weird crier.” I never cry from physical pain, rarely from overwhelm or sadness, but I’m often embarrassingly moved to tears by the oddest things. My quirkiest cry trigger is probably rounds of applause. I don’t know why, but whenever a crowd starts clapping, the floodgates open. It happens very often in response to music, as you’ve described as well. Music and applause, like at the theater? Forget it. I was blubbering at Disney on Ice. I’m also a notorious empathic crier. I tear up whenever I see another person having an intense emotional reaction, whether it’s in real life or not. It makes it super awkward for me to attend funerals for people I don’t know very well, because the second I see the pain on another person’s face, it’s as if it’s my own, and I have a true physical reaction. It’s actually becoming a running joke in my family who all hand over tissues, pointing and laughing at my sobbing face whenever there’s a sad moment in a movie where people start clapping. I’m not sure what it all means, but thanks for making me feel like less of a weirdo.

That was, respectively: Jaes Campbell, Rebecca Koch, and Kristinia Luke. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear how you deal with feelings of helplessness about the enormity of the world’s problems. Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela answer a listener’s question about why he finds it impossible to work on airplanes.

DUBNER: If you wear over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, which you must, if you’re going to travel —.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Then you can pantomime, like, “I can’t hear you!”

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. 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 follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: Don’t you have any other f***** stories, Angela?


DUBNER: You’ve got to read more books.

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  • Daniel Batson, professor emeritus of social psychology at the University of Kansas.
  • Peter Meindl, chair for honor and character assessment at United States Military Academy West Point.
  • Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.
  • Adam Smith, 18th-century economist and moral philosopher.
  • Voltaire, 18th-century writer, historian, and philosopher.



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