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DUBNER: Do you have any mind tricks, please? 

*      *      *

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 “laziness” a false concept? 

DUCKWORTH: Sometimes a dog really did eat your homework, okay? 

Also: why do we feel so uncomfortable spending time alone in public places? 

DUCKWORTH: “Tickets? How many?”

DUBNER: [Puts on a pathetic-sounding voice.] Just one, please, sir! 

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, a question from a listener named Susan Kemp — at least that’s the name she’s using to write to us under. 

Angela DUCKWORTH: Could be a pseudonym. 

DUBNER: Might be Angela Duckworth, for all we know. Quote, “Susan Kemp” has this to ask, “Do you think laziness is really a thing?” She writes, “For the last year, I’ve been debating if laziness is real, or just some concept we created in order to, I don’t know, Protestant-guilt-trip ourselves into doing things.” I like Susan already. “Say someone doesn’t do their homework, maybe they have an undiagnosed sleep disorder or are chronically sleep-deprived and that’s why they can’t focus. Maybe their diet is off, so they’re tired. Maybe they’re just tired because school starts at 7:30 a.m. and science says that is stupid.” Actually, I think science says that early school start is bad for some people, but not others. There are different chronotypes, yes? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, in general though, adolescents tend to be later risers. So, the science would say that starting school for most high-school students at 7:30 is dumb. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, she’s right on that. I’m wrong on that. She continues. “Maybe they live in a poor socio-economic situation where there’s either a lot of noise at home or not a stable place to work, et cetera. Maybe their peers don’t value education. Even if they opt for video games, isn’t that more like dopamines are addictive, rather than pure laziness? So, I thought I would ask,” she writes. Angela. I find this to be an amazingly interesting question. What’s the answer? 

DUCKWORTH: I love Susan Kemp’s question. I think that it depends on what you mean by laziness. If she is asking, do I think laziness is really a thing or a Protestant guilt trip —. 

DUBNER: There’s no way you’re going to say that laziness isn’t real. You’re the grit lady.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, when we call somebody lazy, what do you think we really mean? I think it means that we don’t think they’re eager to put in the work. What we observe is they’re not working, and we are inferring, or assuming, that they don’t want to put in the work. And then, she’s listing all these other reasons that could account for the same behavior. Maybe they can’t put in the work. Maybe circumstances are conspiring against them. There’s a judgment that we’re passing on someone when we call them lazy that is about their motivation. About the will to do something. Do you think that that’s what we mean when we use the word like, “you lazy bum,” or whatever we say derogatorily? 

DUBNER: My gut response is no. I personally think that laziness is a thing, because I’m very familiar with it.  

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean by that? What does “lazy” mean to you? 

DUBNER: What I mean by that is: there are things that I feel I should do, there are even things I would like to do, but right now, at this moment, it’s a little easier, and a little more satisfying, to sit on the couch and turn on the football game. And that feels lazy. Now, I think she makes many, many, many good points about the reasons why, for instance, a high-schooler would not be doing well at school. All of her observations were in that rather narrow, or specific, situation of, let’s say, a teenager doesn’t want to do their homework. So, maybe we should consider a little bit more broadly — besides the teenager not doing homework and me wanting to watch some football, we can broaden it. 

DUCKWORTH: We can broaden beyond that. But first, I want to just honor and acknowledge that feeling that you’ve had, — like, you feel lazy. And by the way, I didn’t say it wasn’t a thing. I just said it depends on what we mean by laziness. 

DUBNER: Do you want to tell me I’m not lazy? Because I respect you, and I’ll feel better about myself if you say that’s true. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I just want to define terms. I know what you mean to “feel lazy.” I recently felt lazy on a full Saturday. And I know that sounds like, of course, it’s Saturday — but usually, on a Saturday, I get a workout in. 

DUBNER: That’s the best day to work, because people aren’t sending you emails. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly! No meetings. I’m just cranking. So, I, on this particular Saturday, remember lounging around. I picked up the newspaper. I opened it to a random section — not the section I thought was going to be the section I would enjoy. I just, like, opened and started reading random articles. And then, somehow, the day passed, and I went to my bed thinking, like, “What a lazy day.” So, I want to honor, and acknowledge, and say that there’s a reality to feeling lazy. You’ve felt it. I’ve felt it. Most people have felt lazy. So, it has to be real and a thing in that we “feel lazy” sometimes. It’s also possibly true that, defined as “not really willing to put in the work” must be true of people sometimes. If I want to say, “Hey, this math assignment that my daughter didn’t do, she was too lazy to do — of course it’s possible that she wasn’t willing to put in the work.”

DUBNER: It’s possible. But just because it’s a thing. 

DUCKWORTH: Doesn’t mean it’s always the thing. 

DUBNER: Exactly. So, again, I think Susan raises really good points. It’s interesting — her question reminded me of the controversy over this speech that George W. Bush gave to the N.A.A.C.P. And he was talking about wanting to increase Black students’ achievement. The phrase he used that became the source of the controversy was “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And some people pushed back on that, saying it was a racist understanding of Black students. And I think what he was saying was, you set a standard and expect people to get to it, and other people were saying, well, there might be some other factors to consider here. And I think that’s what Susan is doing here — is calling attention to a lot of potential confounding factors that we may lump in as, quote, “laziness,” but often wouldn’t be. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, yeah. And that speech, which I don’t know well, but, he didn’t talk about laziness in particular. Right? 

DUBNER: No. But I think there were some who thought that the subtext was, “Hey, come on, if you just try a little bit harder, you’ll do better.” “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” That’s why it was called bigotry, not the soft uplift of having, you know, high —. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. And whose expectations, by the way?

DUBNER: Exactly. 

DUCKWORTH: So, here’s something I have read and I do know well. There’s a research literature on the fundamental attribution error and our tendency to — and I hesitate here, only because I don’t think we always make this error — but we can sometimes infer that somebody didn’t want to do something: didn’t want to put in the work. Right? You didn’t do your homework? Didn’t care enough to put in the assignment work. But really, there are circumstances that are situational, and that are not your own motivated behavior, that are at the source. So, sometimes a dog really did eat your homework, okay? 

DUBNER: Not often, we should say. 

DUCKWORTH: Dogs have so many other things to eat. 

DUBNER: In my experience as a dog owner, I tried to feed them many things —. 

DUCKWORTH: We should just put homework in front of the dog and see if they ever eat it.

DUBNER: If you smear the homework in some liver treats, then I find that the homework is much more readily eaten. Can you imagine smearing your homework with liver treats hoping your dog will eat it, and the dog doesn’t eat it, and then you have to bring it in and turn in your liver-smelling homework? 

DUCKWORTH: Plus, it’s probably just not good for the dog to be eating any of this. But we digress. Anyways, my point is that we can sometimes err [pronounces as “ur”] — or often, maybe. 

DUBNER: Did you say “ur”? 

DUCKWORTH: Err. [Again mispronounces.] Like, E-R-R. 

DUBNER: “Ur” like the old city in Iraq? Babylonia? Wherever? 

DUCKWORTH: No. “Err” [Another mispronunciation.] as in to commit an error. 

DUBNER: Err. Oh, we can err. To “ur” is human? 

DUCKWORTH: Did I mispronounce that? 

DUBNER: It’s a South Jersey-alternate pronunciation. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, “to err.” Well, if Susan can make Protestant-guilt-trip into a verb, I can mispronounce err. [Mispronounces again.] But anyway, my point is we can infer a certain motive for a behavior that we observe, and we can be wrong. And then, the question would be what are all the instances in which somebody doesn’t put in effort and we may have been wrong. Like, circumstances beyond their control, or there’s another thing that’s not laziness, and that’s just not wanting to do it. So, I would say of my coffee-cup-leaving-on-the-counter daughter, like, “Oh, you’re so lazy.” And my husband, actually — Jason pointed out, she doesn’t want to put the coffee cup in the sink. She’s not too lazy. She just thinks it’s dumb. 

DUBNER: And I’m guessing he points to other examples in her life where she is not lazy at all. 

DUCKWORTH: He immediately pointed out that my daughter can’t be lazy because she works so incredibly hard at things that she does care about, like her academics. She really loves what she’s studying in college, and she’s the opposite of lazy. So, I think that we can be wrong about why people do what they do. We can underestimate the effect of situational factors that are invisible to us, but real to that person. And sometimes, we infer an unwillingness to put in the work when the goal itself has no value for the person. And that’s not laziness. It’s something, but it’s not laziness. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you this: are gritty people ever, or often, lazy? 

DUCKWORTH: I think gritty people could be called lazy, or assumed to be lazy, about all of the many, many, many, many, many things that that gritty person doesn’t care about. But, yeah, in fact, I think that’s part of the secret of grit is to actually be really lazy about all the things that you’re not doing. 

DUBNER: But I guess one reason not to be, quote, “lazy” — and I realize we’re going to have issues around that definition as long as we talk about this topic — but one reason to not be lazy is so that you don’t get locked into what could be bad habits. I think of, for instance — you remember the research paper about what happened when there was some kind of partial transit strike, I believe, in the London tube? There were certain lines that were shut down. And so, commuters had to try different ways of getting places. 

DUCKWORTH: And five percent of commuters, I think, found a more efficient route. 

DUBNER: Exactly. There was some optimization to be done there that they never would have done had they stayed locked in their habit — had they not been prodded out. So, don’t you think that you could argue that, if you’re a little bit less lazy, you could expose yourself to more options, a larger choice set. Everything you read, everything you think about, every person you interact with, could make you better off. And that alone would be a reason to prod yourself out of laziness. 

DUCKWORTH: To get the energy of activation up enough to try something new, learn something. Yeah, but let me make the counterargument. I have supervised many students — and I have been the student who was so eager-beaver, so industrious, that, in fact, I fell into inefficient habits. And I have had students who don’t mind putting in the extra six hours of work to transcribe the notes from one document into another document by hand. And that can be a route to total inefficiency also. So, sometimes laziness can save you from that, because it’s the lazy student who says, “There’s got to be a faster way. Oh, right. Copy-paste.” And so, maybe there is no rule about when laziness is good or bad. But I do think that introspecting about why it is that you don’t want to do something on a Saturday, or why somebody else doesn’t want to move the coffee cup four feet to the sink, is always useful. When I thought about that Saturday, and I said to my husband, “Oh my God, I haven’t had a lazy bout that lasted, you know, a full 12 hours in memory. What is going on?” He said, “I think you’re exhausted.” And pointed out to me that I hadn’t been sleeping well. So, that’s actually useful. I think the Protestant-guilt-trip thing is interesting, because I think it is better to understand why you don’t want to do something than to immediately just feel guilty about it. 

DUBNER: So, that all makes sense. And I think there’s a lot of argument, or a lot of ammunition even, to Susan’s challenging of the people that we tend to call lazy — especially when there are people who are not in our circle, who are not in our generation, or not in our cohort in some way. I understand that it can be too broad a complaint. That said, if I happen to feel, on a given day, what I would call lazy, like, there are things again that I need to do, I want to do — I want to do something for someone else that would mean a lot to them, but I can’t really motivate myself to do it. Do you have any mind tricks, please? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that in the circumstances when you think everyone will be better off if you do the thing that you don’t really feel like doing, the way to get this to work is not to use “ought” and “should.” It’s actually to turn it into a “want” — if you can make it somehow enjoyable. Say, for example, you don’t really want to write thank-you notes, but you feel like you ought to. Doubling the “ought” isn’t as good as just making it somehow more pleasurable. 

DUBNER: And how do you do that? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you could play music. You could make somebody in your family do them with you. 

DUBNER: You could add secret codes that are vulgar. 

DUCKWORTH: Backhanded compliments. There are all kinds of things you could do to make your thank-you note. But actually, my own daughters — who I always tried to get them to write thank-you notes. And I used a lot of “ought” and “should.” It was actually not that that made them get down to it. They actually find it more fun to — what I find incredibly inefficient — but hand make the thank-you notes. It takes four times as long, but actually it makes it more into a “want,” because that’s enjoyable for them.

DUBNER: That’s awesome. Our solution to that was to allow thank-you emails.  

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s legit. I think even a thank-you text.  

DUBNER: Well, that’s the most you’re ever going to get from anyone in my family. I’m just saying. 

DUCKWORTH: I will take it with great appreciation, because something beats nothing by an infinite amount.

DUBNER: “Something beats nothing by an infinite amount.” Did you make that up? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Do you like it? 

DUBNER: It’s a great quote. 

DUCKWORTH: I hope I’m not plagiarizing it off of someone, but I think I made it up.

DUBNER: It’s really wonderful. I want one more quote from you today to end this episode about laziness. Okay? So, here’s a couple of quotes about laziness that I thought you might enjoy. Kobe Bryant apparently once said — one never really knows if anybody has ever said anything, because quotes are so amorphous and ephemeral. But Kobe Bryant apparently once said, “I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.” Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics entrepreneur, reportedly once said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” I don’t think she’d say that today. So, what will Angela Duckworth’s most enduring quote about laziness be? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh. I’m not going to do it for you, Stephen. You know why?  

DUBNER: You’re too lazy to make up a quote about laziness. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, it’s much easier to have, like, a pithy little quote that’s kind of non-introspective. You know — Ben Franklin, “Laziness makes every work difficult.” Okay. Great. But — I am asking people, “When you feel lazy, ask why.” But that’s not a pithy quote. It’s like a fortune cookie. 

DUBNER: I think that’s pretty pithy. It’s also a question. I find the best quotes are questions. “When you feel lazy —” Wait, what was it again? 

DUCKWORTH: See, it’s not that pithy. “When you feel lazy, ask why.” 

DUBNER: Oh, it wasn’t a question either. 

DUCKWORTH: Maybe if I can figure out a word that starts with “L”? Like, “when you feel lazy, ask —” and then, if it’s starting with an “L”. 

DUBNER: “Ask not what your lazy can do for you.” No that won’t work.

DUCKWORTH: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but why you’re still on the couch.”

DUBNER: Ask not what your couch can do for you. All right. Well, we’ll work on it. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, you know, unless we’re not too lazy. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela contrast the feeling of being lonely with the experience of being alone. 

DUBNER: Maybe we need, like, a hat that says, “I’m alone, but not lonely.” 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, a lot of people are uncomfortable being alone in public. They feel the world is looking at them and kind of judging them to be a loser for being alone. And this seems especially prominent among adolescents, although not just them. So, I, as someone who really enjoys being alone and thinks it can be really good for you — in moderation at least — I’m curious, do you have any advice for people to feel better about being alone in public? 

DUCKWORTH: So, you mean like at a restaurant, for example, right? 

DUBNER: Restaurant, museum, movie — [pre-pandemic] — movie, in a weird way, is sort of easier because you’re sitting in the dark most of the time. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, while you’re there. But maybe just that moment when they’re like, “Tickets? How many?” And you say, “One.” 

DUBNER: [Puts on a pathetic-sounding voice.] Just one, please, sir!  But maybe restaurant is the most prominent example. 

DUCKWORTH: I think restaurant is the canonical — you know, like, “Table for one, please.” Isn’t there some Saturday Night Live sketch where they noisily take away the other setting and there’s this spotlight on you. I mean, I think that the reason why the restaurant scene, where you’re eating by yourself and you feel like everybody’s looking at you, is so emotional to think about is that people in a restaurant are with their friends or their family. And the implication would be that you don’t have friends or people who care about you. I think that’s the trigger that it’s really hitting. Do you agree with that? 

DUBNER: I think that’s exactly right. 

DUCKWORTH: And I think that there’s two layers of this. Loneliness is one of the most negative emotions. And for me, personally, I think, of all the negative emotions you could feel, like terror, I think loneliness is the worst for me. So, I can certainly appreciate why people wouldn’t want to experience loneliness, and they don’t want to be perceived as being alone. You don’t want to be judged as somebody who doesn’t have connections to other people. But you also don’t want to experience it. So, it’s a double whammy of badness. 

DUBNER: I’m curious for you why loneliness is the worst emotion. Was it driven by experiences of it? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, nobody likes being lonely, but why do I really, really, really want to avoid it? You know, I’m not sure. I do remember the discovery of it, though. So, my husband Jason was in the habit of going to see his best friend who lives in Toronto. And he would go every Thanksgiving pretty much right after dinner was cleared. And he would spend the next two or three days of this long weekend with his friend in Canada. And, I guess, partly it’s because — I don’t know if they celebrate Thanksgiving there. Maybe they don’t. It just seemed like a particularly clever time to go. But, in retrospect, of course, it was the worst time to go. And there was this one Thanksgiving where our kids were young, but, like, old enough to really look forward to playing with their cousins. And so, I was on a train platform. I had just dropped them off at their grandmother’s house with the cousins that they were looking forward to seeing being there.

DUBNER: You were going to a casino or something? Where were you going?

DUCKWORTH: Well, no. Here’s the thing. I didn’t have anywhere! I went home. I was cold. It was dark. And the train was late. And then, the train finally came, and turns out I was on the opposite side of the platform. So I had to, like, cross over and wait again. And I was really, really feeling sorry for myself. And I think it was that night that I discovered that like, “Wow, I really hate being lonely.” We can all think of plenty of times when we don’t want to be with other people, but Thanksgiving or even traveling to a place of great beauty — there’s something really, really sad about not being able to share. Do you feel the same way? That there’s nothing worse than feeling lonely? 

DUBNER: I guess I mostly do. I do think that loneliness is a little bit misunderstood, generally. We’ve talked about it on Freakonomics Radio a bit, and I think that it’s become a bigger blanket than maybe it should be. 

DUCKWORTH: You mean, people are using the term “lonely” when they mean something else?

DUBNER: Well, I think there’s a bit of a confusion between preferences and emotions. And a lot of people who are alone are not lonely, and a lot of people who are with other people can still be lonely. For instance, a lot more people live alone now than they used to, including young people. And that’s been used as an indicator, or a signal, by some people, that — “Look how fractured and lonely our society is that people want to live alone.” Whereas, in fact, if you’ve ever lived with a bunch of siblings in a room, or a bunch of roommates, you could imagine that living alone is actually an amazing opportunity. And, in fact, people who live alone tend to participate a lot with people outside their home in doing things in a way that people who maybe live with other people don’t do. So, I think there’s conflation going on with the choice to spend time alone. I spend almost all of my days pretty close to alone, working, and I love it. But then, I love, love, love getting home to my family. All of one or the other would not work for me. So, I see what you’re saying. I do feel that loneliness is an almost crippling emotion when you have it. It really feels like you are alone in the world. You just need to be acknowledged. That is a terrible feeling. That said, I think that because we know that’s a terrible feeling, we’re maybe quick to ascribe it to others when they’re not feeling that. 

DUCKWORTH: Like, if you see someone dining solo in a restaurant, you might think, like, “Oh, they’re so lonely. How horrible.” And they might not feel any of those things. 

DUBNER: Exactly. But because it’s such a common response, I think it makes people unwilling to be alone. And, I would say, as with anything in life, when there are costs, there can be benefits, too. So, you know, I don’t choose to travel alone. I don’t think I’ve ever really just gotten on a plane or a train by myself, to just go somewhere. But I’ve done a ton of traveling by myself because of work. And I don’t necessarily look forward to it. But, I will say this: over the years, I’ve had lot of experiences and conversations I never would have had — whether it’s just eating alone in a restaurant in some foreign city or just going exploring. So, there is that upside. 

DUCKWORTH: I do know that there’s research showing that striking up a conversation with a stranger — people mispredict how enjoyable that will be. The research suggests that when you do that, you’re really happy, actually, on average, or you’re glad you did it. But when you ask people, hypothetically, do they think they’re going to be better off at the end of an airplane ride if they’ve talked to the person, people don’t think that. They mispredict. 

DUBNER: Right. There are benefits to thinking on your own, to exploring the world alone, to putting yourself in situations that you wouldn’t if you’re with your prefabricated conversation partners. And so, I think that there’s a real under-appreciation of navigating the world alone sometimes. But I feel what presses against that is this perception that if we see someone who is alone, we make them feel bad about it. So, maybe there’s, you know, a mechanism. Maybe we need, like, a hat that says, “I’m alone, but not lonely.” 

DUCKWORTH: So, when we are out in public and we are fine — one of the great general truths about how we’re perceived by others is that we tend to overestimate how much anybody really cares at all anyway. 

DUBNER: This is the spotlight effect?

DUCKWORTH: The spotlight effect. Exactly. We assume everybody’s looking at us, but no, they’re looking at something which is more interesting to them, which is themselves. And they’re worrying about how other people are perceiving them. I think that is a general truth about social cognition. 

DUBNER: When I first read about the spotlight effect years ago, I thought, “Oh, that is  such a great thing to think about when I’m alone.” Because you think people are paying attention to me, and the fact is that nobody gives a crap about you. So yeah, that helped me. But I also just wonder if there are coping mechanisms. Like, should people who are eating alone in a restaurant, and want to signal to the world that they are happy, should they fake-laugh uproariously every few minutes to just show what a great time they’re having? 

DUCKWORTH: Should they slap their knee? Well, the most obvious advice to give, given the spotlight effect, is just to not worry about it at all, right? Just do whatever you want to do, because nobody cares. But I’ll tell you one thing not to do, which is don’t talk on your cell phone when other people are around and you are not with anyone else physically. 

DUBNER: Why not? 

DUCKWORTH: One reason is that — and this insight goes back more than a decade to a study that was so clever. There are people who are either listening to a staged conversation on a mobile phone — and you can only hear the half, and you can’t hear what the other person is saying — or the full conversation. And the question is, which is more annoying? You could argue, not knowing how the data come out, that hearing the full conversation is twice as annoying because you have two things that you are being distracted by. 

DUBNER: But it’s the other way around, right? 

DUCKWORTH: It is. And better scientists than me, certainly on this topic, like Dan Gilbert, have speculated that the reason why half a conversation is twice as bad, or any way worse than the full conversation, is that we are constantly trying to figure out: well, what was the other half? You can’t just habituate to it, and it doesn’t become white noise the way if you’re sitting in a coffee shop you can kind of tune out everything.

DUBNER: It’s more distracting because you’re having to fill in the other side. 

DUCKWORTH: And you never quite know what’s going to happen. You thought the conversation was going one way, but it’s going another. So, you can never really habituate to it. 

DUBNER: So, you’re saying that, if you’re sitting alone occupying yourself by talking on the phone, people are going to judge even more harshly? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, don’t you feel bad? Like, have you ever been scolded for being on a cellphone? 

DUBNER: I get very easily annoyed by other people’s cell phone conversations for exactly the reason that you just discussed, which is that your brain can’t help but try to fill in. In fact, I used to do — well, I shouldn’t say what I used to do. 

DUCKWORTH: You should absolutely say what you used to do. 

DUBNER: Look, it’s very immature, silly. Somebody else did this later — professionally, made videos of it that were very funny, and I’m sure can still be found — which is, you sit next to them with your phone and you pretend that you’re on the other side of their conversation. So, there’s a stranger that said, “Well, did you remember to defrost the meat?” And I would say, like, “Well, I took the meat out like half an hour ago, but it’s still a little bit hard.” 

DUCKWORTH: You did not. 

DUBNER: I did, yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: Really? That is bold.

DUBNER: You know, I got this from my mom. When she saw people doing things that she thought were, you know —. 

DUCKWORTH: You take it upon yourself to police them. 

DUBNER: Listen, the vast majority of the time, their first response is obviously, “Who’s this jerk?” And their second response is, “Oh, yeah, no wonder. I’m sitting here yelling into a public place.” So, what about you? Are you uncomfortable eating — let’s say it’s on campus. You know, you’re a big shot. You are a professor. People know who you are. But on this day, for some reason, you find yourself needing to eat in a public place alone. How do you feel about it? And what do you do about it? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, gosh. It has literally never happened to me. 

DUBNER: It’s interesting how well you do at avoiding it, though. 

DUCKWORTH: If I were eating alone — I mean, it does happen to me. Not on campus, because I would just go pick something up and go back to my desk. But if I were seen eating alone, would it make me feel bad? Without, kind of, an alibi, as it were. Like, if you’re traveling, you’re like, “Well, of course I’m alone.” If I had a full meal in a restaurant that people recognized who I was, I probably would feel like people would be wondering, like “Why is she eating alone?” And then that would make me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Yeah. 

DUBNER: And now that you’ve put yourself in that position of thinking, what would you do to feel less bad that they are thinking that about you? Would you make a phone call against your earlier advice? 

DUCKWORTH: No, I would not. I wouldn’t make a phone call. What would I do?

DUBNER: I think you would never go to a restaurant alone ever is what you would do. You would never put yourself in this position.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s why I’m so at a loss. I think, the spotlight of attention that we think is on us — beyond just, like, realizing it’s not, I would try to put the spotlight of my attention on something else. 

DUBNER: Oh. You’d look at all the other people eating alone and say, “What a bunch of losers they are.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. You know, beyond that one thing I said, which is like, get over it, right? Nobody cares. I mean, I think that is my best advice.

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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.

Angela thinks that she came up with the quote: “Something beats nothing by an infinite amount,” but she wasn’t entirely sure. She does get credit for that specific wording, but she may have been subconsciously influenced by Little Richard’s 1967 song A Little Bit of Something, parentheses, (Beats a Whole Lot of Nothing). Or perhaps she had heard Jean Knight’s song A Little Bit of Something, parentheses, (Is Better Than a Whole Lot of Nothing) that came on her 1971 album Mr. Big Stuff.  

Later, Angela references a Saturday Night Life sketch where a lone diner sits pathetically while a waiter removes the other setting. There is no such scene that I could locate. There are, however, many other famous sketches about dining alone. Mitchell and Webb have a video where David Mitchell desperately tries to convince the other people in the restaurant that he does, in fact, have friends. There’s also the Food Dudes commercial parody from Season 45 of Saturday Night Live, which advertises three mannequins, or “food dudes,” to create the illusion that you’re eating with other people. And then, there’s the famous Pizza Order sketch from Key & Peele, where one man ordering several pizzas gets into trouble when he pretends that he’s sharing the large order with an entire party. 

Angela also wonders if Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. They do — but Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday of October, while Americans celebrate a month and a half later, on the fourth Thursday of November. Actually, Canadian Thanksgiving became a national affair in 1859, four years earlier than American Thanksgiving, which became a holiday when Abraham Lincoln set the precedent for celebration after the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Finally, Stephen says that a comedian shared his particular affinity for filling in loud strangers’ cell phone conversations. That comic is Gregory Benson. He shares his videos on YouTube under the handle of his production company, MediocreFilms. Benson refers to this particular prank as “cell phone crashing.” His videos have millions of views and include cell phone crashing in the airport, on the beach, at DisneyLand, and many additional locations. We’ll link to a couple of our favorites in the show notes. 

That’s it for the fact-check.

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

DUCKWORTH: The advice from that research would be: strike up a conversation. You know, I read that study and I was like, I still don’t want to be talked to. I was not convinced. 

Correction: April 12, 2021

During the episode, Angela mentions a sketch about loneliness that Rebecca wasn’t able to locate. It turns out, the scene is from the 1984 movie The Lonely Guy, starring Steve Martin. You can watch the clip here. Thank you to the listeners who wrote in and let us know the origin of the scene!

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