DUBNER: You are free to clench your buttocks. I didn’t mean to say you’re not allowed to.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Are there any benefits to pessimism?
DUCKWORTH: Imagine the very, very, very worst scenario. “The building burns down. No one ever talks to me again.”
Also: Is public speaking a skill that you can learn?
DUBNER: I do know people who’ve done Toastmasters. It doesn’t seem to make them good public speakers, but it does make them very willing and able to speak.
* * *
Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, I’d like to ask you a question today sent in by a listener named Ben.
Angela DUCKWORTH: All right.
DUBNER: And this is about something that I feel we’ve discussed on the show at least once or twice, which is the power of optimism. I think it’s safe to say that you and I are both, all things considered, optimistic people.
DUBNER: So, in a way, Ben’s question is a challenge to that, which I like. He writes, “How do you square the benefits of optimism with the harsh realities that might make any reasonable person a pessimist?” So, look, I think this is a great question on a couple of levels. I think we should unpeel it by first asking about the supposed benefits of optimism, as Ben puts it. Why don’t you first tell us what the literature has to say about that?
DUCKWORTH: So, optimism can be defined in different ways, but the way that it is often defined is the tendency to look for and be, in a way, biased by information that things are going to get better and that you can make them better. And the benefits are enormous, and I want to say ubiquitous — just in the sense that, when you think about all the possible life outcomes, like doing well at work, making more money, living longer, having more friends, being happier, these are all correlates of optimism.
DUBNER: So, first of all, I have to say, your claim about the benefits of optimism sounds really enthusiastic, like optimistically enthusiastic.
DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, it sounds like an optimist.
DUBNER: You say they are enormous and ubiquitous. But when I look into the literature, which you know much better than I, here’s one paper I see: “Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in two epidemiologic cohorts of men and women.” So that sounds good. But then, I read a little bit of it. It makes the claim that optimistic people have reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with their less-optimistic peers.
But to me, this sounds like potentially a classic example of correlation without causality. It could be that the same behaviors that result in, or drive, optimism also result in, or drive, healthy behaviors. It could be that healthier people have more reason to be optimistic because they’re healthy.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The causal arrow could go the other way. Like, wow, your life is great. No wonder you’re an optimist!
DUBNER: So, persuade me that some of those correlates, for some of the outcomes of optimism, get into the causal.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. And let me also say, Stephen, that when I say “enormous,” I mean—
DUBNER: You can’t take back “enormous.” You said it.
DUCKWORTH: I might need to take back “enormous.”
DUBNER: Are you going to take back “ubiquitous” then, too?
DUCKWORTH: No, I’m going to go with “ubiquitous.” Let’s leave that one. But listeners should know that nothing predicts anything with truly ginormous or enormous effect, because life is complicated, right? So, relatively speaking, these effects are really impressive, but I don’t want to exaggerate too much there. Okay. So, first, let me just say you’re right. Correlation is not causation.
DUBNER: Can you just say that again?
DUCKWORTH: Look, you have a point. How’s that? I’m going to back down from that too. It’s quite obvious that the causal arrow could go the opposite way. You’re having a great life, therefore you’re optimistic. It’s also possible that some third variable, like being rich or something, drives it.
But here is some evidence to suggest that the causal arrow is also from optimism to outcomes. One example is that when you look at the relationship between optimism and health outcomes, one reason that we think that this is really optimists doing something differently is that, when you actually measure how physically active they choose to be, what they eat, whether they smoke, it turns out that optimists tend to engage in healthy behaviors.
DUBNER: So, optimism can drive behaviors that have better health outcomes.
DUCKWORTH: That’s still correlational evidence, by the way. It’s just that it’s a little more of a satisfying story.
DUBNER: It is satisfying. And one can imagine the mechanism by which that’s true. One can say, “If I feel like the activity that I do is going to have a real result, like I feel optimistic about my leverage there, then I’m probably more likely to do it,” as opposed to, “Eh, I can do this all day long. It’s not going to help.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Like, “My life is terrible and it’s not going to change. I’ll just stay in bed and smoke this cigarette.”
DUBNER: Let’s flip it for a second and talk about what the listener, Ben, wrote in about the “harsh realities of life that would make any reasonable person a pessimist.” This calls to mind a famous-ish story called the Stockdale Paradox. Are you familiar with this?
DUCKWORTH: Just vaguely.
DUBNER: So, Admiral James Stockdale, when he was in captivity in Vietnam, I think in the famous “Hanoi Hilton” — which was not a hotel, by the way. It was a prison that the American prisoners called the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was years later asked what he had learned from that experience about dealing with helplessness and torture and imprisonment. And he said, “I can tell you who didn’t survive. It was the optimists.”
And his argument was that the optimists felt, “Oh, we’re going to be out by Christmas.” And then, Christmas would come and go, and you weren’t out. And, as he put it, they died of a broken heart, which I think is probably not exactly what happened.
DUCKWORTH: False hope.
DUBNER: Right. And that’s where I think this question is really interesting for all of us, because I think there’s a natural tendency to reach for optimism. But there should be a natural cautionary vibe against letting your optimism become delusion.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know the story very well, and I certainly never interviewed Stockdale. But I don’t know that optimism like, “I know, by Christmas everyone’s going to be vaccinated,” kind of optimism — I don’t know that that’s truly at the core of these findings. I think the best kind of optimism is, “You know what? There’s got to be something that I can do here.” It’s just that, of all the things you could pay attention to, should you pay attention to the things that you can’t control? Or should you try to pay attention to the things that you can?
DUBNER: So, couple your optimism with agency, you’re saying.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. In fact, if you want to say that optimism of the “agentic flavor” is the optimism that Angela Duckworth really likes.
DUBNER: That’s the phrase I was reaching for, right? “Optimism of the agentic flavor.”
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I thought so.
DUBNER: When I think back, it’s funny. I loved my mother very much, even though we had a lot of differences and there was a large generation gap.
DUCKWORTH: Like, cultural gap.
DUBNER: Yeah. And she was also very, very, very religious — remained so till her dying day.
DUCKWORTH: Catholic, right?
DUBNER: Yes. Started Jewish, became Catholic, got more and more Catholic as she went. And there was one particular dynamic that was really hard for me to deal with, and that was the fact that she believed so strongly in the power of prayer that it was sometimes what seemed to me at the expense of taking some bull by the horns. And while I respected her beliefs head to toe — I truly did — it would frustrate me that she didn’t have more of an “agentic flavor,” as you might put it, to her desire for good things to happen.
DUCKWORTH: Marty Seligman, my Ph.D. advisor, did discover an important difference between the kind of optimism that is, “Everything is going to work out fine,” and the optimism which is agentic. And at the core of what he discovered is that optimists, the most adaptive, agentic optimists, they always were looking for causes of their situation that they could control. And that’s just very different from, “I bet it’s going to be sunny.”
DUBNER: Yeah. I’ve come across a phrase that resonates with me, but I don’t know anything about it. But I’m guessing you do. It’s called “defensive pessimism.”
DUBNER: What can you tell us?
DUCKWORTH: So, defensive pessimism is a bit of a foil, or a challenge, to this large, large literature on optimism being good. One of the leading scholars is Julie Norem, a personality psychologist. And she defines defensive pessimism as basically a strategy that you can use to manage anxiety so you can be more productive. So, she actually thinks of defensive pessimism as a good thing. And essentially, it’s lowering your expectations. So, it’s got the emphasis on “prepare for the worst” and maybe even expect the worst.
I hated being in classes with these defensive pessimists in high school. Do you remember these kids who would just be catastrophizing about the coming calculus exam on Friday? Like, “Oh, I’m going to fail it. And then, I’m never going to get into any colleges. And then, my life will be over.” And these were invariably the kids who would get 99 percent on it. And I was like, “Shut up.”
DUBNER: So, you hated it because it was unpleasant for you, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t working for them.
DUCKWORTH: True. And in fact, I have long thought, and actually I’ve talked to Marty about this, that catastrophizing in advance is actually adaptive.
DUBNER: Because you see the bad outcome and scare yourself into working harder.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. “I have a big talk. It’s going to go horribly. I better prepare.” Now, one of the reasons why people get depressed is they tend to catastrophize, but it’s usually about the things that have already happened. So, it’s like, “Oh, God, that talk was horrible.” And then, there’s nothing you can do.
DUBNER: Right. And most of us don’t have the ability to control the past.
DUCKWORTH: Correct. Speaking for myself, I have not yet been able to.
DUBNER: I don’t know. You’re pretty gritty. You never know.
DUCKWORTH: I’m not that agentic.
DUBNER: Let me ask you about your work in grit. So, if I understand it correctly, the power of grit, or the belief in grit, certainly incorporates optimism, at least of the agentic variety—
DUBNER: That you can conquer, you can proceed, you can grow, etc., because you are going to keep at it in a productive way. But here’s what I want to know. And this gets back to the listener’s question. Is optimism really that useful if the deck is really stacked against you? Which it is for many, many, many people in the world.
So, convince me that the style of grit that you espouse isn’t a luxury good, that it’s something that you can afford to reach for only if a lot of the things in your life and family and world are already going pretty well. Reaching for the top of Maslow’s pyramid, right, the self-actualization at the top, you can really only do that when you’ve got all the more foundational needs, the physiological and safety and belongingness needs — if you’ve got that met, you can go for the top. So, persuade me that grit and optimism aren’t that.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know whether grit is merely a luxury good. And to your point, Stephen, I’ve only really studied grit in situations where there are lots of opportunities to make a better lot for yourself or to do something. West Point, the National Spelling Bee, big companies with sales forces — those are all places where there is a lot that you can control and there is a lot that you can do.
DUBNER: And people have already succeeded a lot by the time they get to the arena where you’re interrogating them.
DUCKWORTH: That, too. Now, just yesterday, I was on the phone with a social worker in Romania. And she had reached out with essentially this question. She was like, “I don’t know if you know anything about the circumstances of children in my country. But when I tell you that there is lack of advantage and no opportunity — like zero— to get educated, or even to have enough to eat.” And she said, “What lesson could there possibly be in Grit for these young people?”
DUBNER: So what did you tell her?
DUCKWORTH: So, this is why I wanted to talk to her. I said, “It sounds to me that what you’re talking about are structural problems. And I think the only real solutions to structural problems are structural solutions.”
DUBNER: Oh, I have to say, that’s a disappointing answer from you. Since you’re such an optimist, I expected you to say, “Those are structural problems. And yes, they do require structural solutions, but—”
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, the “but” was hers. So, this is what I said. I was like, “Look, the circumstances you are describing are truly horrific. And I don’t want to give you some pat little speech about having a growth mindset because it would seem to ignore the vastly more important factors here.” She interrupted me. And she said, “But there have to be some things that psychologically you could do in those situations.”
And I would say this. If you are in that situation, and many of these structural things are simply outside of your control, then there is the question of: what do you do when you cannot yet change those structural things? And there, I can’t think of anything better than trying to find things that you can control and trying to, for example, control your reaction to things, even if you cannot control the things.
DUBNER: Well, now you’re talking less about agency and more about coping strategies. Is that true?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, although, there’s some overlap there. One of the most important things that you learn in therapy is that you have agency over your own responses, your own feelings and thoughts and what you do. And I hesitate to paraphrase Viktor Frankl — the psychiatrist who was in concentration camps and out of that experience wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and developed a whole therapy based on his experience — but I do think that that was the sort of agency and meaning that he was asking people to take, not that you could control what was going to happen to you, but you could control your response to it.
DUBNER: That’s a good point. But what you’re saying now does make me think that we should think about, if not quite the upside of pessimism, something close to that. I saw another paper — this is from a while ago, 1996— by a researcher named E.C. Chang. It found that Asian-Americans were significantly more pessimistic than Caucasian-Americans, but they were not significantly less optimistic.
So, it’s interesting because we’ve been talking about an either/or. And plainly it’s not that. You can have some measure of one and a different measure of the other. And it says that, while pessimism is negatively associated with problem-solving for Caucasian-Americans, it was positively associated with the use of coping strategies for Asian-Americans.
DUCKWORTH: Well, there are findings that flip depending on what culture you’re in. For example, violating social norms is something that makes you seem a little more powerful if you are in the United States or a Western culture. So, if you break a rule, people might assume that you are more powerful or give you more power. But in collectivist societies like China, it’s the opposite. So, maybe.
But even when you look at the Norem stuff on defensive pessimism — thinking that things are going to be terrible, which leads you in adaptive ways to prepare for the worst — even when you think about that, really what seems to me like a good thing is to have some agency over some aspects of your functioning so that you don’t do what I don’t think is adaptive, which is basically not trying. Trying is good, no matter what culture you’re in.
DUBNER: All right. Let me ask you one last question, then. Let’s say that I have, in abundance, defensive pessimism, and standard-issue pessimism, and maybe even some crippling pessimism. And I say to myself, “Self, I think you need a little bit of optimism.” How can I get some?
DUCKWORTH: Well, here there is actually a big research literature. And one of the ways is to go to therapy, because the foundations of much of psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, are all about changing your self-talk from overly pessimistic, distorted thinking to more adaptive, optimistic, “Oh, surely there’s something you can do here.” Not Pollyanna, but just adaptively and accurately. Because if you really are catastrophizing, you probably are exaggerating all of the negative. So, therapy is one recommendation.
But for those who don’t want to sign up to go to a therapist or don’t feel like they need that dosage, I would say that Marty wrote a bunch of books about this. And essentially, the things that you would do in therapy are things that you could do even on your own. So, for example, when you are thinking about something in a catastrophic way, which then leads you to feel helpless, like, “How’s my new job interview going to go? It’s going to go horribly. There’s nothing I can possibly do.”
So, what Marty might say to you is, “Now, imagine the very, very, very worst scenario. Say it out loud.” You’re like, “The building burns down. No one ever talks to me again.” Then he says, “Think about the most rosy, optimistic picture.” And you’re like, “I get the job, I get promoted.” And then he says, “And now, having established the end points, what do you think the most realistic scenario is?” And I think that kind of anchoring exercise, where you force yourself to scan the entire horizon, from the most optimistic to the pessimistic — and then that enables you to be reasonable, which is a step forward.
DUBNER: That sounds a lot like one version of this very, very, very, very common saying throughout history, which is: prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and expect that you’ll get something in between.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, is that the third part of that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that. That’s the punch line.
DUBNER: It is the punch line. There are many different versions. Maya Angelou is a recent one. Benjamin Disraeli — I bet the cavemen said it, which is probably why we’re here. If they hadn’t been able to prepare for the worst, hope for the best—
DUCKWORTH: I guess so. I have to believe that our forebears were optimists or we might not be here.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why public speaking is terrifying for so many people.
DUCKWORTH: You make a joke. You try to make eye contact. They just stonily stare at you.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question on behalf of a listener named Ethan. Are you ready for it?
DUBNER: I’m ready.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. And I quote, “Many of my friends struggle with some form of glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. How does one overcome this fear? Is there a solution other than simple repetition? Also, is stage fright for performers any different than the fear of public speaking?”
DUBNER: Ethan sounds like he has a speech coming up of some sort.
DUCKWORTH: “Many of my ‘friends’ struggle. Not me, my friends.”
DUBNER: Yeah. So, as I understand it, glossophobia is a kind of interesting subset of social phobia, which is the fear of any social situation, but that a lot of people with glossophobia often have no problem meeting new people or even performing in public. But speaking in public is its own thing. And honestly, I can identify with that.
DUCKWORTH: Do you have glossophobia? You have glossophilia.
DUBNER: I now don’t have a problem speaking publicly in general. But — well, there are actually two big buts. One is, it took me a long time to get comfortable with it. And two is, there are still certain circumstances whereby it’s really hard.
DUCKWORTH: Like what?
DUBNER: Well, it depends what you’re speaking about and how hard you’ve worked at having something worthwhile to say. I know that I am nervous, or most nervous, when I don’t feel I have control or mastery over what I’m going to say, or solid ideas.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t like to wing it.
DUBNER: No, and I also don’t like to feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Whereas, if I’m prepared, and if I have something to say, and if I have real ideas that I want to express, and I have examples of said ideas, and a sense of how I can knit that all together, the nerves diminish greatly.
So, for me at least, and I think this is probably true for many people, it’s not the speaking that’s the problem. It’s the writing. It’s the having done the work. And if you still appear nervous, even though you’ve got something very good to say, I say that’s fine because I think appearing nervous with something to say is much better than being smooth and just dishing out a bunch of B.S., which is what I see in a lot of public speaking, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I agree that content is king. But here’s the thing, Stephen. Isn’t this potentially because you’re a writer, and so, for you, it’s all about the writing and the preparation and the thinking, and less about the delivery. But maybe that’s just a Stephen-Dubner-specific motivation.
DUBNER: So, I would say yes, but no, in that what is giving a talk but a verbal form of written communication? To me, it’s all the same. I mean, the way I write for radio or the way I write if I’m writing a book chapter, if I’m writing an email, they’re all different.
But the goal is the same. The goal is to communicate to someone else something that’s in your head. And it needs to have value, and it needs to have this combination of logic and rhetoric that’s delivered in a way that people will be able to absorb it. So I don’t think it really has to do with being a writer. I do remember— I was incredibly, incredibly, painfully shy as a kid.
DUCKWORTH: Did I know that? I don’t think I knew that.
DUBNER: I don’t know. But I mean, I think a lot of people are, right? I think shyness is not uncommon in childhood.
DUCKWORTH: Shyness is not uncommon.
DUBNER: But I will say this. I was a good baseball player when I was little, so I didn’t really get nervous about playing baseball. When I was really little, I was an altar boy, because I was Catholic before I was Jewish, and after my parents were Jewish, etc., etc. And I knew every single prayer, every single ritual, every single bell ring. And there was no nerve in that. But then, when you would look back to the beginning of that activity, when you first learned it, you would be very nervous, of course. Because why? You didn’t have mastery over the content.
So, for me, speaking is something that many people don’t do very often. And therefore, it’s one of many activities that, because they’re unfamiliar, are intimidating. Since it is something that a lot of people do want to do, whether it’s give a toast at a friend’s wedding, or give a talk to your community group or to your class, I think it is really important to learn. But oh, my goodness, it is so learnable. And I think people psych themselves out by thinking it is this magical, mysterious thing that only certain people can do well. In freshman year of college, I remember I took a public speaking course.
DUCKWORTH: What? I didn’t know that either.
DUBNER: I didn’t really know how to sign up for courses that you actually wanted. And I fell into this course. But I remember the professor, and she was not much older than the students. And she was extremely energetic. And the first thing she had everybody do was she had everybody stand up. And then she says, “Okay, you’re about to give some kind of public presentation. The first thing I want you to do,” she said, “is clench your buttocks.” So, of course, everybody responds the way you would expect.
DUCKWORTH: I just did that while you said that, by the way.
DUBNER: Did you? While sitting?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m playing along here.
DUBNER: You are free to clench your buttocks while sitting. I didn’t mean to say you’re not allowed to. So, everybody kind of laughs and looks sheepish, whatever. And she explained, when most people get up to speak, they do get nervous. When they get nervous, they lose their train of thought. They start to rush. And so, one thing that’s really good to do that helps address a number of these issues is to breathe better and breathe deeply. Well, it’s hard to just tell yourself to breathe better and breathe deeply, but if you clench your buttocks when you stand up, you inevitably stand up straighter. When you stand up straighter, your lungs fill up a little bit more. And when your lungs fill up a little bit more, you inevitably breathe a little bit more deeply.
DUCKWORTH: I wonder if this is all true.
DUBNER: I think it was probably five percent true. But what it did teach me in that moment was that this thing that I dreaded was a thing that you learn.
DUCKWORTH: So, Stephen, the way you describe it, it’s like learning to drive stick shift. Like, “Well, it takes a lot of practice, but you can do it.” But a phobia is not just a reasonable fear. It’s a dysfunctional level of fear. So, why do you think some people get into this hole? Because the way you make public speaking sound is so straightforward.
DUBNER: I do think there is something almost uniquely intimidating about live performance, in that you obviously can’t do it over again and that people are watching you. So, I see this a lot on our radio show. With Freakonomics Radio, we will often pre-interview guests. And we’ll even record those pre-interviews. And they’re amazing how calm and fluid and funny and relaxed they are. And then, the minute that the actual recording happens—
DUCKWORTH: They freeze up.
DUBNER: The turtle pulls his head back. So, unlike this show, where we mostly just talk live, Freakonomics Radio, we usually have, I’d say somewhere between maybe five and 10 hours of tape for each 30 minutes that ends up in the finished show because—
DUCKWORTH: You get the turtle’s head to come back out.
DUBNER: Right. So, editing is the eighth wonder of the world. So, I do think that the knowledge that what you’re saying is live and you can’t take it back is a special kind of fear. But I think people award it way too much prominence in their minds, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: They exaggerate it. Okay. So, have you heard of the Trier Social Stress Test?
DUBNER: I have not.
DUCKWORTH: I have a theory that only men name things after themselves. So, guess who came up with this social stress test? Yes, that’s right, Trier. Trier did. And he was a dude. But anyway, it is a bit of genius. It’s probably the most widely-used induction of stress. And the way it works is that you bring somebody into the lab. And usually, these experiments have as their object of inquiry not public speaking but cortisol levels, or we want to know whether this induction makes people less stressed. But the paradigm is that you bring somebody into the lab and you tell them that they have to give a short public speech.
And there’s a little bit of variation across experiments, and I believe the prompt is something like: You’ll have two minutes to summarize your whole life and do it in a way that would make people want to hire you. You have them prepare for a few minutes, and then they get up in front of a live panel of judges. And in order to make this maximally stressful, the judges are trained, unbeknownst to you, to give you basically these grim, still faces, so that, you make a joke, they don’t say anything. They don’t laugh. They don’t smile. You try to make eye contact. They just stonily stare at you without any kind of feeling of reciprocity.
And it is a reliable stress inducer for all the reasons that you just said. It’s live. You’re being judged by other people. Now, in your mind, you’ve probably exaggerated things all out of proportion. Like, you think that if it goes badly, these people are going to be ruminating about it all day instead of just moving on to lunch without a thought.
DUBNER: The spotlight effect.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The spotlight effect is, I’m sure, operational here. When I first learned about the Trier Social Stress Test, I was like, “I would love to do that task. That sounds so fun.” It’s like, okay. Ready? Roll the cameras.
DUBNER: So, you’re not the person to give advice to Ethan, is what you’re saying. “Ethan, just get up there and do it. Embrace the moment! It’s awesome.” There is one other thing Ethan asked, though, Angela. He said, “Is stage fright for performers any different than the fear of public speaking? If so, why?” I do think that’s a different thing.
DUCKWORTH: Could you just say what it is?
DUBNER: So, most of what I know about stage fright comes from the song by The Band called “Stage Fright.” Do you know the song, Angela?
DUCKWORTH: No. And I didn’t know there was a band called—
DUBNER: Yeah, there’s a band called The Band. And one of their best songs is called “Stage Fright.” Here, I’m going to play the key part. Could you make out those lyrics or not quite?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. When he got to the end, he wanted to start it all over again.
DUBNER: Right. So, I think stage fright is this double-edged sword. It’s a fear of performing coupled with a great need to perform. And I think that’s different than the fear of public speaking, but I think it drives a lot of people.
DUCKWORTH: But actually, if I take my own glossophilia as a counterpoint and see what I can learn from that, I think it might be that, in an ambiguous situation where you’re not sure how the audience is reacting, my assumption always is that they are loving it.
DUBNER: That’s the optimist in you.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Probably so.
DUBNER: So, there are all these different techniques and strategies for dealing with this. As I’m sure you know, cognitive behavioral therapy is thought to be a good way to address fear of public speaking.
There’s something called exposure therapy, which is basically you build your way up to public speaking by little things like reading a piece of a newspaper article in front of a friend first, and then you make a toast at a party, or you join Toastmasters. I have to say, I do know people who’ve done Toastmasters. It doesn’t seem to make them good public speakers, but it does make them very willing and able to speak.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that could be a net negative for society.
DUBNER: No comment. But then, there’s another technique called anxiety reappraisal, which sounds like a joke, but people swear by it. This is something studied by Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School. It’s basically a cognitive trick that boils down to: you tell yourself that when you feel nervous, that it’s actually not nerves, you’re just excited about what you’re about to do.
So, look, all of these techniques — I don’t mean to disparage any of them, and I’m guessing there’s at least some value in many of them. But I do feel that they often overlook what I think is most important about public speaking, and that’s the content.
DUCKWORTH: I also want to say this about exposure therapy. The reason why exposure therapy is one of the great triumphs of psychotherapy — and it is, Stephen. One of the only things that can truly get cured is phobia: phobia for public speaking, phobia of open spaces, phobia for snakes. And you can’t say that about obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can’t say that about schizophrenia. You can’t say that about depression.
So, the great triumph is that when a phobic is phobic, of public speaking or anything else, the little tide pool that they find themselves spinning in is avoidance. And when you avoid public speaking because you’re terrified of it, you never unlearn the fear. And so, this insight — that if you could expose people to small, but then progressively larger doses — that, to me, is enormously useful. And it’s only been around for 50 years. And for most of humanity’s history, therefore, we haven’t been able to help people overcome severe, debilitating fears.
DUBNER: I think that makes sense. And I think of a parallel of people when they buy a home, there are so many strange economic behaviors around it.
DUCKWORTH: I just did this. So I’m really excited to hear this list.
DUBNER: Oh, congratulations. So, you may have done it “right.” But people have a really hard time making a series of rational decisions. Everything from picking the right home that they really want to — there are a lot of things about price where you think you want to pay one price, then you find something is much cheaper or more expensive and you tell yourself a different story about price. Then there’s the mortgage and how we assess that.
So, when you think about all the reasons why buying a house is stressful and difficult, there’s an obvious one, which is it’s the single biggest purchase most people will make in their lives. But a big part of it is: we don’t know how to do it. It’s a really rare event. Think about if you never went to the grocery store. That would be a little bit overwhelming. It’s like, wait, there’s all the fruits and vegetables on this one wall. And then, what do I do? I put it in a cart. I just pick what I want?
DUCKWORTH: Why is there all that candy by the register?
DUBNER: And then, I’ve got to get in line. But how do I get it into my home? But because we do it all the time, it becomes familiar. I think public speaking is weirdly a little bit closer to buying a house than buying groceries.
DUCKWORTH: Right. It’s like that toast at the wedding. You’re like, what? I don’t do this for a living. So, either we get people to do it more or we get them to do it less?
DUBNER: You know, I think if we were in the market of looking for silver linings to Covid, which, why not? Because there’s enough crap linings to Covid. The average American has probably been on about 20 times as many video calls in the last several months as they were in the previous several months.
And so we’ve all gotten a little bit more practiced at, like — even though it’s across the screen — learning how to tell our story, learning how not to talk too much, learning how to maintain eye contact, even though it’s not a real eye—
DUCKWORTH: Camera contact.
DUBNER: understanding feedback, using feedback to improve, especially if you’re having the same kind of call again and again where you’re having to tell the same kind of story, or sales call, or family catch-up, whatever.
And so, maybe a slight, slight silver lining of Covid will have been that we all become slightly better public speakers so that, when we can all go back out in public, we will all be awesome. And glossophobia will be a thing of the past.
DUCKWORTH: So, Stephen, maybe being on Zoom all day makes you a better public speaker because it’s more reps, more practice. But I think there are many people for whom being on Zoom actually probably enhances their fear; they’re speaking without any audience cues.
DUBNER: Mm-hmm. If people are muted.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you just said “mm-hmm.” And that made me feel like you are possibly listening to me. But I teach at a university level. And, by necessity, my students are mostly muted, unless you have a question or something. And so I’m just speaking into silence. And then most of them have their cameras on because I ask them to.
But I think often, when people don’t have cameras on, then you just have no visual or auditory feedback from the audience. And that’s essentially a version of the Trier Social Stress Test where you are speaking without affirmation. And I can imagine that that might have, I don’t want to say debilitating, but not-so-great effects on people’s love of, and skill for, public speaking.
DUBNER: On the other hand, let’s say that what you just said is a true and powerful factor, that people are speaking a lot publicly, quasi-publicly on Zoom now. Then, when the world is freed, people go back out, they will be so used to getting such minimal feedback—
DUCKWORTH: That they’ll just start singing arias in the town square.
DUBNER: Yeah, that when they get just a little bit, it’s going to be so invigorating that they’ll be the best public speakers ever.
DUCKWORTH: So, are we expecting, then, that the wedding toasts in 2021 and 2022 are just going to be vastly better?
DUBNER: The best ever.
DUCKWORTH: The best wedding toasts ever. Well, look, you’ve set up your own hypothesis and prediction. I’m going to hold you to it. We’ll just have to figure out how to go to all those weddings.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen recalls his college professor’s assertion that clenching your butt helps to fill your lungs with air. Clenching these muscles is actually pretty common advice for public speaking — not necessarily because it deepens breathing patterns, but because it helps stabilize shakiness that often comes with nerves.
Later, Angela says that she has a theory that only men name things after themselves, and she cites the Trier Social Stress Test as an example. Men have certainly named quite a few things after themselves throughout history. To name just a few: Adolphe Sax created the saxophone, John Landis Mason patented the Mason jar, and thoracic surgeon Henry Judah Heimlich invented the Heimlich maneuver. However, the Trier Social Stress Test doesn’t fit the bill. The test for psychobiological stress was developed in the early 1990s by Clemens Kirschbaum and his colleagues at the University of Trier in the Germany city of Trier. And while it is certainly more difficult to find women inventors who name things after themselves, there are a few ladies that bust Angela’s theory. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is named by its creators Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. That’s it for the fact-check.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster and Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Can I just ask, who’s more optimistic, a rat or a dog?
DUCKWORTH: Dog, obviously. Actually, I don’t know many rats, but I know a lot of dogs.
DUBNER: Familiarity bias right there.
DUCKWORTH: I’ve got to get to know some more rats.
- Admiral James Stockdale, Medal of Honor recipient.
- Marty Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Julie Norem, professor of psychology at Wellesley College.
- Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
- The Band, rock band.
- Alison Wood Brooks, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
- “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” by Saul McLeod (Simply Psychology, 2020).
- “A Simple Exercise to Help Stay Calm in the Face of Coronavirus Uncertainty,” by Michele W. Berger (Penn Today, 2020).
- “Optimism Is Associated With Exceptional Longevity in Two Epidemiologic Cohorts of Men and Women,” by Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky (PNAS, 2019).
- “How Do I Get Over My Fear of Public Speaking?,” by Arlin Cuncic (VeryWell Mind, 2019).
- The Stockdale Paradox (JimCollins.com, 2017).
- “What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?” by the American Psychological Association (2017).
- “Can Three Words Turn Anxiety Into Success?,” by Olga Khazan (The Atlantic, 2016).
- “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth (TED Talks, 2013).
- “The Spotlight Effect,” by Nathan A Heflick (Psychology Today, 2011).
- “Evidence for the Cultural Specificity of Pessimism in Asians vs Caucasians: A Test of a General Negativity Hypothesis,” by Edward C. Chang (Personality and Individual Differences, 1996).
- “The ‘Trier Social Stress Test’ — A Tool for Investigating Psychobiological Stress Responses in a Laboratory Setting,” by C. Kirschbaum, K. M. Pirke, D. H. Hellhammer (Neuropsychobiology, 1993)
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin Seligman (1991).
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (1969)
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946).
- The Wondrous Tale Of Alroy V2: The Rise Of Iskander, by Benjamin Disraeli.
- Defensive Pessimism Questionnaire (Wellesley College).