KONNIKOVA: Look at that. Look at this. It’s a tiger. Wait, no, not it’s a tiger. It’s just a breaking news alert. What is this breaking news alert? Oh, the breaking news alert is about Kim Kardashian.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
KONNIKOVA: I’m Maria Konnikova.
DUCKWORTH + KONNIKOVA: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How do you get someone to change their behavior?
DUCKWORTH: I recycled my can of Diet Pepsi and now I’ve checked off “Be a good environmental citizen” for the day.
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KONNIKOVA: Angela, for the last few years, we’ve all spent time sitting at home as Covid has been raging and thinking about all of the different ways that the public has been receiving messages — from the government, from the WHO, from all of these public health organizations — about what we’re supposed to be doing, how we’re supposed to be doing it and this is something that we should be paying attention to because people are changing the way they talk about it, they are changing the language about it, they are changing the thinking about it. And along with that, they’re changing how they’re communicating to the public. And some of these communication decisions — you know, should you mask? What about vaccines? — it’s really made me think about that classic social psychology work of Richard Thaler about nudges And what’s actually the best way to make good decisions? Is it the nudge route? Or is it something else?
DUCKWORTH: Just to set the stage here, I think it’s important to say what nudges are. So nudges, as I understand them, are these changes in the environment in which people make decisions that gently encourage them to make decisions that are good for them and that they probably in some way want to make. And whatever you do, however you change that environment for the decision maker, you have to preserve their autonomy. It’s still a freely-made choice. So taxes are not nudges. Incentives are not nudges. Fines are not nudges. Mandates are not nudges. But putting the water at eye level and hiding the soda behind the counter, that’s a nudge. It’s funny that you mentioned Richard Thaler and social psychology in the same sentence. As we both know, he won the Nobel Prize. I think it was in 2016, somewhere around then. I often think of it as a win for psychology. I think of like Danny Kahneman and Herb Simon. There were these people who won the Nobel Prize in economics. But when I think of them, the first word that would come to mind as describing what they do is a psychologist. I will say though, for Richard Thaler, he would probably —.
KONNIKOVA: He’d be mad at me.
DUCKWORTH: Not want to be identified as a psychologist. I have recently been slightly fascinated with the biography of Richard Thaler for a variety of reasons. I was thinking kind of broadly about what you were just asking about Maria, like what is the best way to make good decisions? And I was thinking about how much the environment, the situation we’re in — you know, where the soda is or where it’s not. What the box is that’s already checked off for us on some form when we’re on a website — like how much that really bosses us around and how little autonomy and free will we may have and why we resist that notion. So anyway, I’m down this rabbit hole looking at all this nudge stuff, and I come across Richard Thaler’s bio on the Nobel Prize website. This is a rabbit hole that you could spend like the rest of your life in. Have you seen — do you even know that the Nobel Prize maintains a reasonably awesome website for like all of the people who have won the Nobel Prize, I think, ever?
KONNIKOVA: I do know that, but only because I’m obsessed with Nobel Prize lectures. I actually love reading people’s acceptance lectures and their Nobel Prize addresses. So that’s what I go on the website for.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, why are you obsessed with them?
KONNIKOVA: Because these are brilliant people and they often have something really interesting to say. Now, I will say that I’m not equally obsessed with all Nobel prizes, so I usually go to the literature ones and I read those because they usually have a lot to say about the state of humanity. But I think that there is just amazing material there. And also I’m just weird. So that’s the other part of it.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s a really excellent way to be weird, and I haven’t read a single Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, but I have read a number of them in economics, which is probably the closest thing to psychology, since they don’t have an actual Nobel Prize in any of the social sciences except for economics. So his story and how he became an economist and not a psychologist, I think two paths diverged in a yellow wood. And there he, the weary traveler, stood and looked down one as far as he could to where it bent in the undergrowth. And he took the economic path, but I think he could have actually as easily become a psychologist. He was certainly interested in both as an undergraduate. And then I think maybe did end up majoring in economics, maybe thinking it was also like, the more practical of the two métiers. But he’s such a great psychologist. I think that was, in a way, like the perfect way to describe him because, like Danny Kahneman and some other pretty impressive Nobel Laureate types, I think his intuitions about how people make decisions and how they sometimes make bad ones — honestly, that’s why he did win the Nobel Prize, for developing the discipline of behavioral economics, right? Human decision making under conditions of scarcity, like the way we do it in real life with emotion and shortcuts and our susceptibility to what everybody else is doing, etc. So anyway, I’ve been down that rabbit hole, and I think this is a good rabbit hole to be in now that we’re coming out of a pandemic, but also I think there’s another reason why all of this — you know, nudging, is it good? Is it bad? What’s beyond nudging? I think there’s another reason that’s not even the pandemic. I mean, if you look historically at how the world is changing, there have been arguments made, and I’m starting to feel pretty sympathetic to them, that we have created temptations like Häagen-Dazs ice cream and online betting apps, and the Kardashians, even —.
KONNIKOVA: I love that the Kardashians go right after online betting apps.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I was going to say — it either sounds far-fetched or you know exactly where I’m going — but like, I think there are these kind of exaggerations of things that we naturally pay attention to or find pleasurable or find ourselves drawn to, like exaggerations that never existed in nature before. And these stimuli, these creations of ours, these human inventions get us into trouble. Like I love Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
KONNIKOVA: It’s delicious.
DUCKWORTH: It’s the best ice cream. Don’t you think it’s the best one?
KONNIKOVA: I think it really is the best mass-produced packaged ice cream. Absolutely. I love their strawberry and I love their dulce de leche. Those are my favorites. What about yours?
DUCKWORTH: Cookies and cream, because they don’t put the actual inside white part of the Oreo into it.
KONNIKOVA: Yes, which gross. You just want the cookies.
DUCKWORTH: It’s gross and it’s even grosser when it’s frozen. But I do think there’s this idea — that, again, I’m not the first or the only one to notice — that we’ve created temptations, we have wrought creations that didn’t exist 100 or 200 years ago, in some cases, not even 50 years ago. We should — and not should, but like, need to — spend a lot of our energy now on the behavior change part of the equation because left to our own instincts, we’re going to save too little, we’re going to get in trouble in like a million different ways. So, I don’t know, I think the Nobel Prize was appropriately bestowed on Richard Thaler for saying, “Hey, we’ve gotta think about decision makers as being human. Doesn’t mean they’re stupid, it just means they’re human.” Especially because we seem to constantly be creating things that make natural or like unreflective decision making, unaided decision making — essentially we get in trouble.
KONNIKOVA: You’re absolutely right. I do think that there’s a lot to be said about the modern world hijacking the attentional systems of our brain. There was some work that I read over a decade ago — but it’s stayed with me because I think it’s just become more and more true — about what happens to the default mode network of the brain in a modern environment. And normally that’s the part of our brain that’s activated when we are just not doing anything, right? And we are constantly just scanning the environment for potential threats. You know, what’s going to kill us? What’s wrong?
DUCKWORTH: The default mode of the brain is scanning for threats? Is that right?
KONNIKOVA: Exactly. Scanning for threats, scanning the environment, just trying to see what is going on out there? That’s what the brain is doing when it’s not doing anything.
DUCKWORTH: Isn’t the default network for daydreaming and, like, free association?
KONNIKOVA: Yes. That’s what also happens. Yep. All of these things are true.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. We’re busy when we’re in default mode.
KONNIKOVA: Exactly, we can be daydreaming if there are no threats, but we’re also constantly scanning, which is why we’re able to assimilate so much information from so many different things because we’re kind of looking at the entire environment, if that makes sense. So both what you’re saying is true, it’s daydreaming, but also the scanning the environment, that’s part of it, to make sure that the environment is safe for daydreaming. But when you’re in the modern environment and you’re constantly getting, you know, pings on your phone, I mean, it’s just a total s**t show for the brain. It’s a disaster because all of these things are like, “Ooh, ooh, look at me, look at me.” And that’s the way we’re wired. We’re then wired to start paying attention and to say, “Oh, wow. Look at that. Look at this. It’s a tiger. Wait, no, not it’s a tiger. It’s just a breaking news alert. What is this breaking news alert? Oh, the breaking news alert is about Kim Kardashian. I don’t think that’s breaking news, New York Times. Why are you pushing this to my phone?” But that’s exactly what keeps happening over and over and over again. And our brains just get fried and our decision-making capabilities get fried. And it’s not new. It’s not like all of a sudden human beings found it difficult to make good decisions. This has always been the case, but it’s become increasingly difficult. It’s like if you’re trying to diet and you are in an environment where all that’s available is just fruit and vegetables, that’s it. There’s just nothing else. You’re on a farm and that’s all you have access to. It’s going to be much easier for you to follow your diet than if you are in a supermarket and everything’s available and someone says, “Just eat whatever you want. Make your healthy choices, but here’s the ice cream.” Your brain stays the same, but the self-control it has to exercise, the hoops it has to jump through has changed dramatically. And so yes, I’m on team non-psychologist Richard Thaler for getting the Nobel Prize in helping us understand how to deal with those environments and how to figure out, okay, so the world is turning more and more into a supermarket. What do we do now?
DUCKWORTH: So you’re on Team Nudge, I am on Team Nudge. Also on the back of our t-shirts it says “Thaler” — not because we are Thaler, but we’re pro-Thaler. I guess, one of the things that surprised me as someone who is, you know, at least I have one foot in this world. I am not an economist, I’m not even a behavioral economist, but I hang out with a lot of them. One thing that has surprised me in the last — I don’t know, I guess you could argue that since the Nobel Prize was awarded for the pioneering of this field of behavioral economics and nudges — is how much — I don’t want to call it infighting because I don’t like conflict But there is a little kerfuffle going on and some people would argue, that nudges aren’t enough, that they’re not good actually, that they might do net bad for the world, for individuals, for us collectively. I mean, I’m on Team Nudge, so I see these ripples and I’m like, “What? This is silly.” But, it’s probably a worthwhile conflict to explore. I don’t know how far removed this is for you. Have you followed any of that?
KONNIKOVA: So I followed it a little bit. I have seen some of the critiques from people who are in the decision part of psychology, like George Loewenstein, who have talked about the limitations of nudges when it comes to actual meaningful change. There’s this notion that when you’ve done something — like you’ve instated a nudge, and it’s done a little bit good — you have this action bias. You already acted, and so you’re like, “Okay, I did something. Everything’s great.”
DUCKWORTH: Right, like I recycled my can of Diet Pepsi and now I’ve checked off “Be a good environmental citizen” for the day.
KONNIKOVA: Exactly, so I’m all set. I did my good thing, I’ve contributed. And so there’s a sense that, if your good thing was a nudge, what about the fact that sometimes nudges are just easier, but they’re not necessarily the best thing for the situation, and they’re not necessarily addressing a lot of the systemic, the social-level problems that are making these things difficult. Like, it doesn’t matter how much I’m nudged to save for retirement if I’m making sub-subsistence-level wages. I’m not going to save money, not because I’m stupid, not because I don’t understand the nudge, but because I need to pay the rent and I need to feed my kids, and that’s all the money I have, so I’m not saving for retirement and screw you for making me feel bad about it. And I’m not addressing any questions like that when I’m saying, “Let’s use nudges.”
DUCKWORTH: This “s-Frame versus i-Frame debate” is I guess how George would put it. Do you know George Loewenstein?
KONNIKOVA: I’ve met him.
DUCKWORTH: He is very likable and one of the most creative scientists I’ve ever met. And I think somebody who also should share some credit for the creation of the field of behavioral economics. So, George, who pioneered, or helped pioneer, the whole field of nudges has pretty recently been a skeptic of their overall benefit. And his paper, which came out just last year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was called “The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray. ” It sounds like you know this paper, right? Because you brought up situations that could be more systemic in terms of what solutions they require versus how individual —.
KONNIKOVA: Yes. Did you like how I just slipped that in there without calling it the i-Frame and the s-Frame?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it’s very catchy. Very George. He’s also a great like writer, slash, brander. So i-Frame and s-Frame, it’s very catchy. And he’s making the basic point that when you have a problem that you address through some individual behavior, like “I recycled today,” or “I checked the box that you could charge me an extra $10 for my carbon offset credits for my flight that I’m taking to San Francisco,” that then I’m crowding out in some ways system-level, s-Frame, solutions because now I don’t really feel as much energy or motivation to, like, lobby for policies to change for how airlines manage fuel, etc. I think that’s his main claim. And he sent me this paper before it was published, I think in part because I’m in it as one of the very, very minor characters. I’m in it, I think, as one of the psychologists where he says like, “If you’re thinking about, for example, these like brief psychological interventions to support having a growth mindset about learning or being grittier, then you can crowd out attention to things like, oh, I don’t know, public school dollars going to districts that are underfunded as opposed to where rich kids live.” And I had the reaction I think that a lot of people in this space have, which is like, “Really George? Does it have to be like an either-or?” But before I get to my defensiveness, I have to say that I think he has a point. I wonder what you think. Are you convinced that when somebody recycles their Diet Pepsi can that they’re not going to vote for the senator who’s, like, supportive of certain policies?
KONNIKOVA: So I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. I do think that he has a point in that we humans are lazy. Let’s just face it, most human beings are —.
DUCKWORTH: I think all human beings have been selected for, let’s call it energy conservation, right? Like, let’s do the easy thing because that would be dumb not to.
KONNIKOVA: Yes! There you go. We conserve mental energy and physical energy. So we’re just lazy. And we also — it’s really nice when you give us an excuse to be lazy and so when you do something small like recycle — and don’t even get me started on recycling itself because we know that most of the recycling that I do, say in the city of New York, doesn’t actually do anything because the trash isn’t properly sorted and we don’t even know what happens to that recycling.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like Kabuki theater. We’re all pretending to recycle, but nothing’s actually happening.
KONNIKOVA: Yes, exactly. So we’re not actually doing anything.
DUCKWORTH: I’m convinced that happens in Philadelphia, by the way. If it’s not happening in New York, there’s no way proper recycling is happening in, as I sometimes call it, Filth-adelphia.
KONNIKOVA: That’s a good way of calling it. I’ve never heard that before.
DUCKWORTH: It’s the way Stephen affectionately calls my home city just to, you know, get me a little roused up.
KONNIKOVA: I love it. But, let’s just leave that aside and let’s pretend that my recycling is doing something tiny good, but that it’s just one small thing out of just a whole constellation of behaviors. If I now have an excuse to say “I’ve been good,” that kind of mental accounting can allow me to do all sorts of other things. And think how easy it becomes to do that sort of lazy mental accounting. I’ve done my part and nothing that I do on an individual level can really matter that much. So I’m just going to relax now and I give myself permission to relax because I have been good. So in that sense, I think that he does make a valid point. That said, I know you’re going to defend nudges, and I am also on Team Nudge. So I think that both of these things can be true. It can be true that nudges work and that nudges are a good thing. It can also be true that nudges give us permission to behave in more slovenly ways that we shouldn’t necessarily behave in, and that we need to do something about that, and that we do need to be paying attention to the systemic issues. But both of those things can coexist. It doesn’t have to be a situation where nudges now have to go out the window because we’ve realized that this other human tendency exists. Because you know what? With or without nudges, humans are going to stay lazy. So let’s at least make it slightly less bad and then go from there.
DUCKWORTH: Are you saying that, in theory, being a supporter of nudges is something that can crowd out being a supporter of systemic reforms like tax laws, etc?
KONNIKOVA: No, I don’t think so. I think that you can be both at once. I think you can support nudges and can support systemic reforms.
DUCKWORTH: So you’re allowing that under some circumstances things can crowd each other out, but in this case they don’t. It certainly doesn’t have to. It’s not inevitable, right?
KONNIKOVA: Exactly. And I also think that we can build a cleaner environment for decisions, which is what nudges try to do, but also be aware that our little bubbles aren’t necessarily representative of the world at large, and so we should also focus on trying to build a cleaner world at large, to keep that analogy going.
DUCKWORTH: On this question of whether nudges and supporting nudges crowds out the kind of interest that we would have as a public in more systemic reforms like laws and taxes, fines, mandates, and so forth, I think the data are mixed — or at least there’s a debate. Maybe I should say that, which is to say that George and his collaborators — and I think his co-author on this paper is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick named Nick Chater, I think they would argue that they have actually empirical data showing that people do actually make these kind of either-or choices, that they do have some kind of mental accounting — which by the way, ironically is one of Richard Thaler’s ideas, right? He came up with the whole idea that we have mental accounts for things and we have the dollars we spend on vacation, the dollars we spend on retirement, etc. So anyway, this term, mental accounting, broadly speaking, like how are we keeping track of things in our head and what counts for what category? That’s a Thaler idea, but I think what Nick Chater and George Loewenstein want to point to are data that say there is this crowding out. And then people on the other side want to point to data that say there isn’t. And I think where you and I would agree is that like, crowd-out isn’t inevitable. And I think of these extremely pro- environment guys that I dated back in the ‘90s, this is like college years for me. These were people who couldn’t care more about the planet. And I didn’t see a lot of crowd-out there, personally. Like I see them, you know, put a stack of newspapers into the recycling and then it was more like one just fed the other. Like, “now let’s go to a rally.” You know? I personally haven’t been able to answer a fundamental question, which is: If it’s possible that there’s crowd-out and sometimes there’s not, how do you get the, say, voting public to not feel like, “Oh, I’ve recycled my Diet Pepsi can, I’m done.” Like, I wonder what can be done to prevent crowd-out because we both know it can happen.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Maria and Angela discuss how to go beyond nudging.
DUCKWORTH: “What situation is this? Who am I? What does someone like me do in a situation like this?”
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Now, back to Maria and Angela’s conversation about nudges.
KONNIKOVA: Something that you were just saying about your old boyfriends prompted an idea. So you were saying they’re the types of people who would take the recycling out and then they’re going to go to a rally. So to me, that actually speaks of the psychology literature on your sense of self and who you think you are as a human being, and what kind of person you want to be, what kind of person you want to present yourself as being, who you see yourself as. So if you see yourself as someone who is not even necessarily an environmentalist or an environmental activist, but someone who cares about the world, who cares about making the world a better place, then when you do something like recycling, that should reinforce that sense of self and make you more likely to then do other things that are similar to that — that say, “Oh yes, I am a good person. I am the type of person who wants to make the world better.” So there is a lot of literature on that, that you want to behave in a way that’s consistent with that self-image. So maybe that’s one way to square those findings and to say, “Okay, well it has to go deeper.” Maybe if it’s a nudge that has nothing to do with your sense of self or who you are or decisions that you’re consciously making — like retirement when you’re just opted in, that’s different. But when it’s something that can actually be woven into your identity, you know, “I am the type of person who — dot, dot, dot —” then it might not be crowding out. Instead, it might actually make you more likely to do things that are more in the same vein.
DUCKWORTH: I like that. I like that a lot. And my understanding of identity economics is, like, yeah, that is a very common way in which people make decisions. Like, “What situation is this? Who am I? What does someone like me do in a situation like this?” And, lest I plagiarize, I have to attribute that to someone who didn’t win the Nobel Prize, but I think could have—.
KONNIKOVA: Wait. Not everyone won the Nobel Prize?
DUCKWORTH: I know, I feel like in this conversation, who didn’t win the Nobel Prize?
KONNIKOVA: I didn’t, Angela. I also have not won the Nobel Prize.
DUCKWORTH: And I have not won the Nobel Prize. Like, that’s one answer to that. But, James March, not somebody I would identify as an economist. I don’t even know what to identify him as. He was one of those true polymaths that studied many facets of human nature. But he said just as often in life we’re asking these identity questions, you know, “What situation is this? Who am I? What does someone like me do in a situation like this?” And I think if you can answer that question in the affirmative, at least toward a certain policy, that would lead you to support nudges and support boosts. So, I know you just did that on the fly, Maria, but I kind of love that. I think that’s great.
KONNIKOVA: Well, thank you for my Nobel Prize. I really appreciate it. It means a lot.
DUCKWORTH: Does that count? You’re like, “I don’t even need the Nobel Prize.”
KONNIKOVA: All I need is your vote of confidence. And you just mentioned also boosts and not just nudges when you were talking. And I think that that’s a really interesting evolution of where this literature has gone.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, how much do you know about boosts? I want you to tell me what you know about boosts, because that is another area of recent fascination to me. And I want to know whether you have the same, like, life goal that I have, because to me, boosting people’s psychological literacy is pretty much the only thing I want to do professionally before I die.
KONNIKOVA: It’s so funny that you say that because the way that I understand boosting is to give people the requisite skills to be able to correctly analyze data in situations so that they can make good decisions. Is that accurate?
DUCKWORTH: Now a boost is like a nudge in that you’re trying to get people to make good decisions that are good for them and good for others. But I think a boost is different in that you’re trying to actually change the decision maker. You’re trying to empower the decision maker — to use a word I hate, I hate the word empower — but anyway, you’re trying to help the decision maker become wiser and smarter so that they can say to themselves, “I’m going to put the water at eye level in my own refrigerator and I’m going to hide the soda in the closet because I know how temptation works.” So I think one is more about the environment that changes for that decision to be made better, and the other is about the person changing so that all of their decisions across all of their situations in life can be better.
KONNIKOVA: Angela, is it fair to make the distinction that it’s kind of like giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish?
DUCKWORTH: Oh I like that, yeah. I guess one would be like, “Hey, over here there are fish if you want. And I’m going to put them at eye level and I’m going to make it really easy for you to have the fish. And I’m going to tell you, like, fish is so great, omega-3’s, etc.” So that would be nudges. And the boosting would be like teaching the man to fish and teaching the man to understand how awesome it is to eat fish and also understand how they’re going to really want to eat Doritos, but if you understand all of that, then you’re going to know that you should put the fish over here and the Doritos over there. But yes, I think with some adjustments, giving a man a fish versus teaching them to fish is exactly the right metaphor.
KONNIKOVA: I totally agree with that. So it seems like my idea of boosting was more or less accurate. The funny thing is one of the reasons — people ask, “You played poker for a book. Why are you still playing poker? You’re a writer. You’re a psychologist. You’re a journalist. You’re not a poker player.” I said, “Well, you know, what I found out is that poker is actually one of the best boosting mechanisms I’ve ever found because it is a way of teaching people statistical thinking correctly so that they can then understand base rates and probabilities and uncertainty and all of these things that are normally incredibly difficult for the human brain to grasp correctly when they meet them in a decision environment, and it enables them to learn to make better decisions and think better statistically.”
DUCKWORTH: That happened to you, or is that just like in general for other people?
KONNIKOVA: No, that is in general something that if you learn poker correctly, not as just a fun game, but if you actually take the time to become a good player and to understand the statistical thinking — because poker is a way of teaching you through experience, which is the way that the human brain works best, learns best, but you’re actually experiencing statistics correctly. Because if you know, “Okay, this is a situation that happens 1 percent of the time,” well, by the time you play thousands and thousands of hands, you will actually know what 1 percent feels like. And you’ll know that 1 percent is incredibly different from 2 percent, which is incredibly different from 8 percent. You’ll actually have a visceral feeling of these things. You’ll understand that recency is not the same thing as representativeness and what availability is, and all of these different biases become real. And I saw that with myself because, as a psychologist, I came into it knowing what all these biases were. I saw that I exhibited them and I saw how poker then proceeded to fix them so that I could then become a better decision maker in everyday life, which is why I’m still playing poker and why I’m still encouraging people to do it, because I think that it’s such a powerful tool for teaching people to think. And so when I started reading about boosts, I thought, “Oh wait, this kind of goes hand-in-hand with giving people the cognitive resources to know how to think about these very complex questions so that we can nudge them, but we can also give them the tools to think for themselves and to analyze information in a very, very messy environment, and in an environment where it’s difficult to see through the noise.”
DUCKWORTH: So you boosted yourself by playing poker. But you had already taken a fair amount of graduate-level statistics. So do you think that if I, for example, randomly assign the American public, you know, half of them to play poker for a year, I assume under some tutelage, right?
KONNIKOVA: Yes, you need the tutelage. You need to understand. You can’t just, like, go and press buttons.
DUCKWORTH: Just playing online poker for a year is not going to boost anyone necessarily. But playing poker with some framework — that compared to the other half of the American population is randomly assigned to the condition where they have to take two courses in graduate-level statistics. Like, your guess is that at the end of the year, the boost that is poker is going to be what? Wildly more effective in improving people’s everyday decision making than two semesters of graduate-level statistics?
KONNIKOVA: Yes, absolutely. I would put my money on the poker players.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I am going to bet with you, so we’re going to have to find some — I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds a hundred percent right.” Partly because graduate students who take two semesters of statistics seem not to be able to do anything, you know, much less make a better everyday decision. That’s exactly right. When it’s on that abstract level, it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to apply it on a personal level. I actually really am serious. I want you to do this study — yes.
DUCKWORTH: Is this going to be the kind of, like, “Everybody should sleep more, exercise more, —.”
KONNIKOVA: And learn to play poker.
DUCKWORTH: And there’s no other game that you would say —.
KONNIKOVA: No. Well, maybe there are. I just, don’t know any other game in that depth. I will say that chess — Exactly. It’s a game of perfect information. And go is not it because it’s also a game of perfect information. It’s more complex strategy, but once again, perfect information. And you need a game that’s a game of imperfect information and that has enough of a skill element. So backgammon isn’t it because backgammon also is a little bit too gambling-y. But poker — and, once again, I got this, not from me, but from the person who invented game theory, who actually said, “If you want to understand statistical thinking, the way that it works in real life, you need to look at poker.” And that’s John von Neumann, father of game theory. So, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Maybe there are other games that would work as well, but I just personally can vouch for poker in a way that I can’t for other games. Maybe listeners will have other games that they know. So I’d love to hear from our listeners, if you could tell us about a time where you tried to change your behavior, what worked, what didn’t work? What was the end result? So, if you could tell us your name, where you’re from, record in a quiet place, just put your mouth up to the phone and then email your answer to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. We’ll maybe play it back on a future episode of the show, where I will also talk about why we’re going to be teaching poker to everyone.
DUCKWORTH: Maria, do I have it right that maybe your number one goal that explains your path to The New Yorker, your Ph.D., your fascination, your prescription of poker — like are you somebody who would say, “my number one goal is to boost people’s psychological literacy?” Or is it something else? I mean, you just want to express yourself and learn more about human nature? I might be projecting here, but I kind of feel like we’re cut from the same cloth.
KONNIKOVA: I don’t think you’re projecting at all. I want to make the world a place where people can think better, make better decisions, and make the world better through collectively thinking in ways that are not just more beneficial to themselves, but more beneficial to society. I do think that that is my ultimate goal. I mean, I think the world would be such a better place if people could just think critically, think well, and also be kind. Yeah, we’ll throw in.
KONNIKOVA: Let’s just throw that in.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I’ve got the t-shirt for us. Here it is. On the front it says “Team Nudge.” On the back, it says, “Team Boost.” And then — and you’re going to have to design this part — there’ll be five cards. And it will have something to do with poker. And I have nothing else to say about that because I think there are only — I think there’s five cards in a hand, right? Does that sound good?
KONNIKOVA: There’s five cards on the board when you’re playing Texas Hold’em, and you have two cards in your hand, but that’s — we’ll, we’ll figure it out.
DUCKWORTH: You’re going to teach me about that.
KONNIKOVA: We’ll do the card part after, but yes, I’m on board. I think we have our new t-shirt line. We can call them the Angela Maria Boost Poker — no, I need a better marketing name. Where’s George Loewenstein? Let’s get him on board.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. He’ll be like, “Where’s the i-Frame, s-Frame t-shirt?” Anyway, we’ll send these t-shirts to anybody who has won a Nobel Prize in the last — well, who’s alive. How’s that?
KONNIKOVA: Yes, and we will ask the commission to consider giving us a joint Nobel Prize for the creation of this wonderful campaign, which I think would actually be incredibly effective.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with help from our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. In the first half of the episode, Angela says that Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in 2016. He actually won it in 2017. Later, Maria says we don’t know what happens to recycling in New York City. In fact, we do. Much of it ends up in landfills — New York sends more than 83 percent of its total waste stream to landfills, including a lot of recyclable and compostable material. Some waste also ends up in incinerators, like the Covanta Essex plant in New Jersey. Finally, Angela says that she doesn’t know how she would identify James March’s title. His Stanford University obituary describes him as a “professor of education, business and humanities.” That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on performing under pressure:
Jacob WILLIAMS: Hey, what’s up? It’s Jacob Williams. I’m a comedian in New York City and the No Stupid Questions episode about freezing under pressure reminded me of when I was 23 and I went on America’s Got Talent. I made it to the fourth round, but I remember I kind of visualized winning the next round without actually preparing as much for what to do if there was a tough crowd. And so I ended up having a rough set in front of millions of people, and it was definitely a learning experience in terms of trying to be more in the moment.
Chris LEMMING: Hi, this is Chris Lemming from Indianapolis. I play ukulele as a hobby and recently challenged myself to play at the open mic night at the Brown County Ukulele Festival. I prepared a song, I signed up with confidence. I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking. But once I was alone on the stage with lights in my face, all of a sudden I thought, holy s**t, what am I doing? My throat got tight, my hands were shaking, and then I thought, Wait. I know this song. I know how it starts. I should just start playing it. So I did, and then I was able to keep things moving along from there. It was a poorer performance than I was hoping for, but about halfway through the audience started singing along and that felt amazing. So it was way scarier than I thought it would be, but it was also way better.
Mattie GALE: This is Mattie. I’m in Denver, Colorado and you asked for voice recordings of stories of when you’ve choked and the thing that came immediately to my mind was all the times I’ve recorded one of these and made mistakes and felt like I sounded stupid or got tongue tied just like that, and then had to record it over again. So I decided I’m just going do it in one take and I’m going to send it to you and I’m going to be happy about it. So thank you very much. Love the show.
That was, respectively, Jacob Williams, Chris Lemming, and Mattie Gale. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about a time when you tried to change your behavior. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Maria and Angela talk about the true essence of fun.
KONNIKOVA: So if they learned well, do you know what they would get? They would get tickled.
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 The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research help from Joseph Fridman and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. 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 NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I was like, “I’m calling you Thaler because I never know whether you want to be called Richard or Dick.” And he was like, “Call me Richard.”
- Nick Chater, professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick.
- Danny Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
- James March, professor of education, business, and humanities at Stanford University.
- John Von Neumann, 20th-century mathematician and founder of game theory.
- Herbert Simon, professor of political science at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago.
- “Conspiracy Theory: On Certain Misconceptions About the Uses of Behavioral Science in Government,” by Cass R. Sunstein (SSRN, 2023).
- “The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray,” by Nick Chater and George Loewenstein (SSRN, 2022).
- “7 Reasons Recycling Isn’t Working in New York City,” by Anne Barnard (The New York Times, 2020).
- “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking,” by Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos (Harvard Business Review, 2018).
- “Nudging and Boosting: Steering or Empowering Good Decisions,” by Ralph Hertwig and Till Grüne-Yanoff (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2017).
- “On Organizing: An Interview With James G. March,” by Jiyang Dong, James March, and Maciej Workiewicz (Journal of Organization Design, 2017).
- Nobel Prize Biographical, by Richard Thaler (2017).
- “Dynamic Functional Connectivity of the Default Mode Network Tracks Daydreaming,” by Aaron Kucyi and Karen D. Davis (NeuroImage, 2014).
- “The Brain’s Default Network and its Adaptive Role in Internal Mentation,” by Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna (Neuroscientist, 2012).
- “Is ‘Nudging’ Really Enough?” by Jonah Lehrer (The Wall Street Journal, 2011).
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008).
- “Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice,” by Richard Thaler (Marketing Science, 1985).
- “Are We All Addicted to Ultra-Processed Foods?” by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Why Is Richard Thaler Such a ****ing Optimist?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “All You Need Is Nudge,” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “Daniel Kahneman on Why Our Judgment is Flawed — and What to Do About It,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “How to Make Your Own Luck,” by Freakonomics Radio (2020).
- “Does Doing Good Give You License to Be Bad?” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “People Aren’t Dumb. The World Is Hard,” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Big Returns from Thinking Small,” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- “How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution,” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- “The White House Gets Into the Nudge Business,” by Freakonomics Radio (2016).