DUCKWORTH: Do I have any advice about a class action suit, with the three-toed sloths of the world?
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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 sloth really a sin, or is it a virtue?
DUCKWORTH: People feel like they’re at war, but they’re not at war with some other enemy outside of themselves. They’re at war with the self who doesn’t want to get off the couch.
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DUBNER: Are you feeling fairly sinful today? Or at least receptive to speaking of sin?
DUCKWORTH: I’m feeling pretty virtuous today, Stephen, but you know —.
DUBNER: Oh, that makes one of us. Okay. All right, so listeners may remember that a few episodes ago we previewed, essentially, our desire to do a series on the seven deadly sins. We should say, these seven deadly sins — I mean, this is a phrase that most of us know, and it comes from the Catholic Church — and the list has been adapted over the years. Some sins were added to the list. Some sins fell off the list. Sometimes sins were combined.
DUCKWORTH: And they’re not in the Bible. You know, there’s no passage in the Old Testament. There’s no passage in the New Testament.
DUBNER: Right. The list doesn’t exist as such in the Old Testament, or Torah, or any of the Jewish writings. But all the sins certainly do, because they’re human. And we should say, they certainly existed long before there was a Jewish religion or any other religions. So, there is a list of sins that the Catholic Church likes to maintain, and we’re not going to really deal with that directly. And in fact, here’s how heretical we are being. We’re not even going to discuss them in the order in which they’re typically rendered. And we’ve chosen as the first one, I think, maybe a favorite of yours and mine. And that is — do you want a drum roll? Sloth.
DUBNER: God, I love the sloth. So Angela, we’ve got a question here from a listener that I thought might be a fantastic way into a discussion about sloth. The listener is named Yoni Buckman, and Yoni writes to say, “What strategies can we use to differentiate between the, quote, ‘sin,’” end quote, “of sloth and other similar behaviors that might be virtuous, like patience, deliberateness, caution, equanimity. I tend to think of sloth,” Yoni writes, “either as laziness or inaction, and the image of the animal the sloth brings to mind the idea of being slow moving. But sometimes these behaviors might be more useful than sinful.” Yoni writes, “I often think of the Navy SEAL phrase, ‘Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.’” So Angie, Yoni here wants to know how to differentiate between sinful sloth and let’s call it a deliberate, smooth, patient approach, which I think most of us would consider virtuous. So, where do we start?
DUCKWORTH: Let’s begin by saying, I think Yoni is right to distinguish between sloth in the sense of, “gosh, I should really get off this couch and go work out, but I don’t feel like it,” or — I think there’s not a human being alive who hasn’t procrastinated. Like, “I should really get started on X, Y, or Z, but before that I’ll do A, B, or C.” So, I think the idea that sloth is something that’s, on balance, bad — we could talk about exceptions to that — is right, and that’s not the same thing as being thoughtful or reflective. So, think about system one and system two, a distinction in judgment and reasoning that our good friend — wait for it — Danny Kahneman has made. Cheers.
DUBNER: Can I just jump in for a moment to say, we have been having fun toasting to those whose names come up quite often on the show — Danny Kahneman — who else is it? Marty Seligman. I think, Carol Dweck. Ellen Langer. And a few people have written to say, you know, that’s cruel if one doesn’t drink — if one is an alcoholic or has alcoholic tendencies. I very much empathize with that. I don’t mean to exacerbate or put it in anybody’s faces, but can I just say, toasting is a delightful thing to do. And I’d like to propose that this is an alcoholic or non-alcoholic toast, if I may be so bold. Although, I’ve also been told that if someone is drinking alcohol and toasts you and you’ve got water in your hand, that you can’t do that, because that would be very bad luck.
DUCKWORTH: I know what you’re talking about, Stephen, because I never toast people with an alcoholic drink. I don’t think, I have finished a complete serving of alcohol since I had a big keg party in my house, and I was 18.
DUBNER: Maybe not, but just last week when I was with you, you were doing so much cocaine. I could not believe it.
DUCKWORTH: That’s totally different.
DUBNER: For the record, that is also not true. I’ve never seen you jaywalk, even.
DUCKWORTH: So we were talking about one and system two, yes?
DUBNER: Yeah, system one system and system two. Yes.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So my point is that in this distinction between thinking fast, using system one, using heuristics, rules of thumb, but often making mental errors when coming to judgments about, you know, what stock to pick or what decision to make. That’s system one in Danny Kahneman’s — and other scientists’ — language. System two is on balance more favorable if you have the time for it, which is, you know, you get out a piece of paper and a pencil and you think about pros and cons and you really methodically look at all the evidence. So here’s a case where being slow shouldn’t be confused with being slothful. I mean, being slow and reflective in your judgment and your thinking through of big decisions like buying a house or whatever is not the same thing as being, well, let’s use a more contemporary word, like lazy, right?
DUBNER: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: We all have felt this kind of like, self-hatred for the times where we knew in the moment that being slothful, being lazy was, was just not going to be the best thing to do, to cave to that. We know like we should get off the couch or we should get started with our work, for example.
DUBNER: I think this conversation is already pointing to a deeply salient fact, which is that the concept of seven deadly sins is probably wildly outdated.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Totally.
DUBNER: And I would say for at least two reasons that I can think of off the top of my head. No. 1, it is church doctrine essentially, and many people don’t subscribe to church doctrine. Modern norms change, but also just language changes. Here, let me give you a little bit of background on the seven deadly sins or what were sometimes called the evil thoughts. So sloth, what we call sloth, which by the way was previously known as the Greek, I believe it’s pronounced, acedia. And acedia It does —.
DUCKWORTH: Sounds pretty good.
DUBNER: It does sound like, I’d like an acedia smoothie, please, with some chia seeds sprinkled on top. So sloth, we think about as laziness today, but there’s an Arizona State University English professor, Richard Newhauser, who edited The Seven Deadly Sins: From Communities to Individuals. He writes that the concept originally meant “a lack of care for performing spiritual duties.” So I think it’s important that we distinguish between what one may think of as the canonical Catholic version of sloth and the modern version of sloth, as sort of laziness or whatnot, because plainly there’s a big, big, big difference.
DUCKWORTH: I can update that with the data that I’ve collected with my collaborators on the modern seven deadly sins. When you ask people nowadays “What problems do you have in self-control?” There are two things that I would consider modern-day sloth problems that come up again and again in every focus group we’ve ever done. One is sloth for work, and that is typically procrastination.
DUCKWORTH: There’s also a smaller number of people who talk about starting something, so they got that part right, but then they quit in the middle. Like it gets hard or they don’t have the stamina. I think the sloth for work is something that we’ve all experienced.
DUBNER: Oh, but you much less than the rest of us.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And I’m going to, going to, tell you about my own sloth scores, on the survey that we developed in a moment. But just let me say there’s another set of questions that we ask about sloth on this survey that is about sloth for exercise. Something that it’s hard to believe that in the fourth century or the 13th century, whatever, that people would have to go out and like exercise because I don’t know, maybe I have the wrong view of history, but it seemed to me life was hard and you had to walk everywhere and get water from the well or whatever. At least now in 2023, people have this problem of being physically inactive.
DUBNER: And I was thinking actually that one of the reasons behind the ancient warning against sloth may have been the fact that many, many, many people led lives of brutally hard physical work, often bordering on or fully involved in slavery, essentially.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah.
DUBNER: So the godly prohibition against sloth in my mind could have been the way for our, you know, these days we say corporate overlords, but then it would’ve been our institutional, maybe religious overlords to say, “Hey, you’re not allowed to feel lazy. You must always prepare yourself to work very, very hard because it’s service to God,” and so on. Whereas really, “I just need to get that fort built or that pyramid built.” But if I can use a little guilt to, make you do that work, and feel like you’re a loser if you don’t, I’m going to do that too.
DUCKWORTH: So I am sure that you’re at least partly, if not largely right. I think what’s interesting about self-control, and I’m talking about modern times that people feel like they’re at war, but they’re not at war with some other enemy outside of themselves. They’re at war with the self who doesn’t want to get off the couch.
DUCKWORTH: There is a sense in which all of the seven deadly sins are battles that we fight within our own minds. And I’m going to argue that, there are ways to get out of your mind, get out of your head in order to win these battles. But Thomas Schelling, the 2005 Nobel Laureate in economics, he won his Nobel Prize, for game theory he was a smoker himself. And for I think seven years, he served on this special commission of scientists who were trying to understand how to get people to quit smoking. He had this fascination with self-control because he himself struggled with it. And then he brought his game theorizing to the problem, and he said the way to win the battle of self-command, as he put it, is that you have to think about it as a game between your present self and your future self. And you have to play tricks on the self that you’re going to be when you’re going to cave into temptation. But right now your motivation is at a high.
DUBNER: Right. So to create commitment devices of some sort, for instance.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. He was a huge fan and practitioner of these commitment devices. Like, okay, right now I don’t think I should smoke. So right now, I’m going to throw out all these cigarettes. Right now, I feel like I should eat healthy. So right now, I’m going to put fruit out on the table and I’m going to remove all the junk food from my house. So basically with sloth, you can imagine that historically it was propaganda, right?
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Like to get I guess slaves and the oppressed to work harder, but I think it is a modern day self-command problem.
DUBNER: I think the point you’re raising is incredibly important obviously, but also interesting to me, and it makes me want to ask you a little bit more about your project. So this whole appetite for doing this series on the seven deadly sins came up because of a new book that you were working on and we discussed it a little bit, so we don’t need to go over the whole thing again. But I would like a quick refresher because I want to know when you’re talking about self-control, you were talking about how many people who exhibit a high level of self-control in certain areas of their life don’t exhibit a high level of self-control in other areas. I’m really curious to know when you created the survey that you’re now talking about, when you use the same words like “sloth” and “lust” and “greed” and so on that the church elders did, did you think about or account for the fact that we perceive these so differently now than the way they were perceived, you know, 1,500 years ago and that they are often now a battle between ourselves versus between ourself and someone else?
DUCKWORTH: When we developed this survey that we affectionately call the “Seven Deadly Sins Survey,” like in the lab, right? We did not look at historical literature. Honestly, I had a Wikipedia level appreciation for them. So I was like, “Oh yeah, seven deadly sins. I’ve heard of those. I’m Catholic.” But I was really actually looking at the transcripts and the quotes from people that we would just talk to in the development of the survey when we asked them to tell us about self-control or failures of self-control in their everyday lives. By the way, fun fact, when you ask people to talk about self-control, they almost always talk about failures. And we just use their language, right? So, you know, people talked about procrastinating. Well, there’s an item on the survey, “I procrastinate.” People talked about just basically, you know, not working out. So there’s an item on the scale, “I avoid physical exercise.”
DUBNER: So first of all, all our listeners are free to and even encouraged to go take the very same survey we’re talking about. Correct?
DUCKWORTH: That is correct and I want to just get a little bit of credit here, because we had this academic survey and it was in a portal that was really ugly and cumbersome and I thought, let’s make a really elegant, quick version of the Seven Deadly Sins Survey. And we made this little report at the end, so you actually get your own profile of the seven deadly sins and at the very end you get to see a graph of the seven deadly sins profiles averaged across all the No Stupid Questions listeners.
DUBNER: Amazing. Okay, so this survey is linked in the show notes of this episode. It’s also on the No Stupid Questions website. The survey itself is hosted on a University of Pennsylvania site. And we should just say you are not collecting these data for research, right?
DUCKWORTH: I am not collecting it for research. I’ve already collected data on this survey and we’ve already published it.
DUBNER: I mean, we may discuss some of the results later in the series, but again, we’re not identifying anyone — I mean, it’s anonymous, I assume, correct?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, it’s anonymous and, really it’s just in two minutes or maybe less as it were, like a seven deadly sins selfie of where I have no problem at all being virtuous and those areas where I really struggle. And, we all have an intuition about that yeah, in some occasions I lack self-control and others I don’t. But I will tell you that taking the survey for myself, there were items on the survey where I thought to myself like, What? Like, who would do that?
DUBNER: Give me an example of one of those things that made you say, “What the what.”
DUCKWORTH: Well, actually for the sloth items, since that’s the topic of conversation here, I think I answered “never” for all them, right? So, for the work items, right? There are three items on this abbreviated version of the survey for our listeners: “I procrastinate.” Yeah. Never. “I quit when I’m frustrated.” I mean, I might be kidding myself, but approximately never. “I avoid hard work.” Absolutely never. So I remember taking these and thinking like, Wow, I think maybe something’s wrong with me, but no, no, no. For exercise, I think it’s less extreme. But, you know, “I avoid physical exercise.” I probably said “never” for that.
DUBNER: Wow. You are like a combination of a quantum computer and a Sherman tank or something. You’re just unstoppable.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, look, the scale has other items, which I do struggle with, but just on sloth, I got I think close to the lowest possible score.
DUBNER: All right, so I’m looking at my result, which is not the same as your result, even on the sloth question. But, I just want to see where your bars line up. So my result, basically there are two bars. There’s a bar for work and there’s a bar for exercise, and then the scale is minimally impulsive, is what it’s called, and maximally impulsive. Describe why you called it impulsive.
DUCKWORTH: Well, the opposite of being self-controlled is being impulsive in the following specific sense: When we do things where we feel later, oh gosh, that wasn’t the right thing, and in fact, sometimes even in the moment, we have some awareness that we’re doing something that is like self-sabotage, right? That we’re undermining our future wellbeing by maximizing our present wellbeing. There is an impulsivity to it because impulsivity is, you know, doing something quickly now that’s gratifying as opposed to doing something more reflective that might not be so fun. And typically it’s in that sort of like, I’m-not-thinking-I’m-just-acting frame of mind where we commit these, I guess you could call it a sin, right?
DUBNER: Yeah. I don’t know if I would want to call it a sin personally.
DUCKWORTH: I know, sin is kind of like, a little judgey.
DUBNER: Kind of heavy. Kind of heavy. Yep.
DUCKWORTH: A lot judgey.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this though. So when you’re looking at your results from sloth, you’re seeing basically zero bars that your work and your exercise —
DUCKWORTH: Well, no, I had a, “I don’t walk as much as I should.” I’ve had a little bit of a problem with that, very recently, just because of this book.
DUBNER: Right. But that’s the best humble brag ever. Like I don’t walk as much as I could because I’m working so hard on my book.
DUCKWORTH: I know it sounds horrible. I can’t even listen to myself saying these things.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen’s a bit more slothful than Angela.
DUBNER: Will I avoid that problem, and hope that it goes away, or just hope that the solution comes filtering down somehow from the heavens? Sure.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about sloth.
DUBNER: I would like to share my scores.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, please.
DUBNER: I know a lot of people who seem to think that I am super, super, super productive and un-slothy.
DUCKWORTH: I think of you that way.
DUBNER: Right. I kind of tend to think of myself that way as well, but I answered these questions as honestly as I could to the best of my ability, and when it came to the work sloth category, I am about five on a scale of 10 in terms of maximally impulsive.
DUCKWORTH: So you are doing what? Are you procrastinating?
DUBNER: I do a little bit of everything. I mean, if I have a really hard piece of writing or reading, sure, I’ll procrastinate. Absolutely. If I have, let’s say a problem to solve, whether it’s an intellectual problem, an idea I kind of can’t work out, or maybe it’s a personnel problem or a structural process problem, will I avoid that problem, and hope that it goes away, or just hope that the solution comes filtering down somehow from the heavens? Sure.
DUCKWORTH: Right, from on high?
DUBNER: I think I’m pretty average really. I do get a lot done but it does not come without effort and it’s not like a habit that I’ve perfected. So yeah, I’m about five out of 10 on the maximally impulsive bar for work in sloth. And on the exercise one, I’m actually lower. I’m actually more like just two and a half or three, which surprises me — like I hate to exercise. I really hate it. But I have found a variety of ways to, in a sort of Thomas Schelling-like way, commit myself to getting it done.
DUCKWORTH: I think this idea that Thomas Schelling, the Nobel laureate and game theorist, the idea that, as he put it you play tricks on yourself. He was like, everyone has little tricks that they play on themselves. And then I do think in a way what you’re doing is like rigging a game. I mean, these are the things that he himself found were helpful. And by the way, he did quit smoking. He wrote the same essay over and over again, over decades. You know, they all have different names, but they’re all about self-command. My favorite title is Egonomics, or The Art of Self-Management, because economics, egonomics. But the antagonist in this narrative for Schelling was willpower. And he quotes Adam Smith. He’s like, “You know, if you go back and read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith goes on and on about just like strength of will and overpowering our weaknesses.” And Schelling thought that was silly, right? Like, why would you do that? You should just play la game with yourself.
DUBNER: I think in Smith’s defense, he was living on that edge of religiosity, permeating society so much. And I think this whole notion of willpower was a kind of transitional phase to say like, I don’t believe that my every move is ruled by God.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, it’s like free will.
DUBNER: Yeah. So, I think the two things, can coexist. I can think of a few people that you and I both know, in whom these two seemingly contradictory-ish things very much coexist. The seemingly contradictory-ish things being sloth or laziness, if you want to call it that, and extraordinarily high levels of accomplishment. I think of Richard Thaler, the economist, the University of Chicago.
DUCKWORTH: Our famously lazy Nobel laureate?
DUBNER: He loves — I shouldn’t say he loves to brag about being lazy, but when other people talk about him being lazy, he does kind of love it.
DUCKWORTH: He does talk about himself as being lazy in the first person.
DUBNER: He does. But his lazy is different from — it’s not sitting on the couch eating Cheetos, watching 12 hours of Friends. I would describe it as conserving attention and energy for things that you really care about and everything else you just say no to. So I find that to be an important component of this conversation about sloth because this idea that the opposite of sloth is hyper-productivity and that you must always be working towards some goal without considering the value of that goal, I think that’s as big a problem as sloth, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: I really, I couldn’t agree more. I think I heard this from Michael Lewis. You know, the great writer? I think he must be a friend of yours. Yes?
DUCKWORTH: Right? Wait name his, name his books. I can’t —.
DUBNER: The Big Short, The Blind Side, Moneyball, he’s written a lot of amazing non-fiction books.
DUCKWORTH: Every single one of them, brilliant. And he was backstage. And I was backstage and he was going to go on, and I remember asking him something, I think it was a favor, “Would you do this? Do you want to come talk to teachers?” Something like that. And all I recall, and again, I could have this wrong, is that —.
DUBNER: He said, “Nah, I don’t think so.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, he was something like, “You know, I do what I want to do, and I don’t waste my life doing things that I don’t want to do.” But he’s been incredibly prolific. It must be that he wants to write. So I do think there is like misguided sloth, right? Or misguided industry or so misguided avoidance of sloth.
DUBNER: You know, I think there is a conflict that we should spend a little time with our appetite for industry and accomplishment and so on. And our appreciation for not letting that appetite for productivity get out of hand or rule your life. So let me give an example. This is from Bertrand Russell, the writer and philosopher.
DUCKWORTH: I love Bertrand Russell. You know, he wrote like a hundred books?
DUBNER: He was a busy fella, but this is from an essay called “In Praise of Idleness.” He wrote, “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work. And the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. Without a considerable amount of leisure, a man is cut off from many of the best things” and he goes on to distinguish between positive idleness and negative idleness.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait. Now I need to know what is positive idleness and what is negative idleness.
DUBNER: I don’t really know. I mean, I could go deeper into this and find it —.
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Ugh, it’s too much work to figure out.”
DUBNER: But no, essentially positive idleness is like, you need to understand that whatever you do for, quote, “work” is not your entire life. And that you need to do all those things we talk about, spend time with other people, walk in nature, et cetera, et cetera. And then, you know, negative idleness is when you want to be getting something done and are not, because you don’t have the self-control to do so. I think it’s an important note that an embrace of industry and, as he puts it, this relentless belief in the virtuousness of work can be easily abused. I think we’re seeing around us in society today, a lot of response that’s very much in line with Bertrand Russell, like the whole “goblin mode” idea or “quiet quitting” idea. When economists and others talk about the possibility of a universal basic income, Andrew Yang, who’s not an economist, but he really expressed this really well.
DUCKWORTH: The presidential candidate, right? Former presidential candidate.
DUBNER: Yep. He ran for president and mayor of New York City, ran for a bunch of things, hasn’t yet won anything, but, he talked about how we should probably have a minimum universal income of some kind so that no one is worried about providing for themselves and their families. And then the natural response from critics is to say, “Well, if people don’t need to work an awful lot, what the heck are they going to do with themselves?” And the argument that he and many, many other people would make is, then they can really spend time being the people that they want to be. And this is not to say that a universal basic income would make anyone rich. It probably wouldn’t even cover all your costs, but it would provide a sort of safety net, below which you would not fall. But it gets immediately to this question of, is work itself, is industriousness itself, is productivity itself a virtue? And that’s really, I guess the flip side of this question about is sloth a sin? And I’m not saying I have an answer, but I find it to be an extraordinarily compelling answer. One, which a lot of Americans, I think have a hard time even thinking about because we are really caught up in a culture of productivity here, and I don’t think that’s so great.
DUCKWORTH: So let’s first distinguish between effort for productivity. I mean, work is almost literally productivity and even thinking about getting your daily physical exercise, right? These are goals that are good for us in the long run, et cetera, but it’s not the only place in our lives where we exert effort. The other one is leisure. Much of leisure activity, I think it’s sometimes called active leisure as opposed to passive leisure. Active leisure is like gardening, or for some people, believe it or not, their exercise is leisure for them. It’s a pleasurable activity. Kids building sandcastles on the beach, that takes energy and effort. So I think when you —
DUBNER: So you’re okay with gardening and sandcastles? What are you not okay with?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I just want to say that the idea that do we avoid expending energy or effort — I mean, I don’t think anybody would really argue that that’s a good life, right? I mean, my favorite definition of play — I can’t remember who it was. I think it was a philosopher who said that, the definition of play is the voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles.
DUBNER: Wow, I love that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know. It’s so good. So I guess I just want to distinguish between that kind of effort. One of my favorite thinkers on this general topic is a psychologist at University of Toronto and a friend named Mickey Inzlicht, and he’s been — obsessed would probably be the right word to describe it — obsessed with mental effort in particular, like, you know, doing Sudoku, like trying to solve hard problems. In some ways you could argue that self-control is mental effort, right? He wants to understand all the facets of mental effort, and he has pointed out that it’s not something that everyone avoids always. I mean, he watches people in coffee shops do Sudoku or crossword puzzles and he just says to himself, “Hey, they’re voluntarily working.”
DUCKWORTH: “They’re voluntarily doing something harder than just sitting there.”
DUCKWORTH: So clearly has to be a kind of complicated issue because if you ask Richard Thaler, “Why do you think laziness is so important to behavioral science and to nudges?” He would say, “Because human beings are trying not to expend excess energy.” So these things are both true, right? There is this theory called the law of least effort, which applies to all animals, including people. You know, people don’t walk two miles to get something when they can walk one. Pigeons don’t use the lever that’s really hard to press, to get the same amount of food than the one that is really easy. But at the same time, people do Sudoku and they build sandcastles well, especially when they’re young, et cetera. So, it’s a little complicated, but I don’t think anybody is arguing that a good life is a life of zero effort.
DUBNER: I love the feeling of accomplishment or achievement, especially when it’s been a hard thing, whether it’s a competition in sports, a good, hard piece of work. Honestly, if I cook for my family and I make a huge mess in the kitchen, I get incredibly satisfied afterwards cleaning up the kitchen well.
DUCKWORTH: Because it’s like a symbol of your effort, like, “Wow, look at all this mess that I made and now I’m cleaning it up,” is that what it is?
DUBNER: Well, that was more advanced than I was going to give myself credit for. I don’t know. I just get a feeling of accomplishment literally for having completed the task well. And I don’t get those corresponding good vibes from doing what are generally considered the slothy things like, an afternoon on the couch watching TV.
DUCKWORTH: You know Stephen I also want to bring up this meta-analysis that was done. It was in 2015. So this is a meta-analysis by Louis Tay, a good friend. He’s at Purdue University. His co-authors are Lauren Kuykendall and Vincent Ng, and it’s called “Leisure Engagement and Subjective Wellbeing: A Meta-Analysis.” So the question here is what, according to all the research that’s been done, up to 2015, is the relationship between leisure, how correlated is that with being a happy person? What they did was aggregate lots of data, including experimental studies that randomly assign people to doing leisure or not doing leisure. And the data are really convincing that there is a really strong relationship, that basically happiness and enjoying yourself through these non-productive activities, it’s really, you know, maybe obvious to some, but not to others. So if anybody wants an excuse to go and have little fun and not work all the time, you can cite this meta-analysis from 2015.
DUBNER: All right. Here’s what I’d really like to know from listeners. You’ve heard us talk about the virtue of industry. You’ve heard Angela talk about her unbelievably low sloth rankings, but I want to know if you can make a good argument that sloth is maybe more virtue than sin. So tell us the ways in which you are opposite from Angela Duckworth and still are a happy, productive person. Make a voice memo. Use your phone. Go to a nice, quiet place. Put your mouth right on the phone. Make your short recording, tell us your name, all that, and email it to us at NSQ@freakonomics.com. So Angela, let me ask you about this. The animal, the sloth, do you think the sloth — yeah.
DUCKWORTH: The slowest animal in the world?
DUBNER: Do you think that they have grounds for a lawsuit that they’ve been branded as an emblem, a maligned, deeply maligned — I wonder if they could claim slander and or libel against us, humans, for using them as an example of the lack of industriousness and so on. And let’s remember our listener, Yoni Buckman, wrote in originally to talk about, how do you separate the seeming virtues of deliberateness and thoughtfulness and so on from what’s considered slothfulness. So do you have any final insights into that distinction?
DUCKWORTH: Do I have any advice about a class action suit, with the three-toed sloths of the world?
DUBNER: Well, you’re plainly anti-sloth. You just are. I don’t mean the animal.
DUCKWORTH: I am, but I do want to come out and say that little critter, have you ever seen an image of a sloth? I haven’t seen one in person.
DUBNER: I’ve never seen one in person, but I’ve seen hundreds of pictures. I seek them out. They’re adorable. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: They’re adorable.
DUBNER: They just hang. They hang around.
DUCKWORTH: They just hang. They really do. And I think they sleep like almost all day. Yeah, you think that they’re going to take all of the heat and the blame for being so un-industrious. Maybe that’s why they’re so slow, because the burden that we’ve put on them.
DUBNER: Yeah. The universe needs to stay in balance. If the sloth was moving as fast as Angela Duckworth, the earth would probably spin off its axis and just float into space.
DUCKWORTH: I think that sounds exactly right, Stephen. I think that’s right.
DUBNER: Right? Sounds scientific, doesn’t it?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it sounds very scientific-ish.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure. Rebecca Lee Douglas is on parental leave. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
Early in the episode, Angela refers to a definition of play, but she can’t remember the name of the philosopher who came up with it. That was Bernard Suits, who said in his book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, that game play, in particular, is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
Then, Angela mispronounces the name of one of the authors of the paper “Leisure Engagement and Subjective Wellbeing: A Meta-Analysis.” The author’s name is Lauren KIRK-en-doll.
Later, Angela calls the three-toed sloth the slowest animal in the world. As we noted in our recent episode on temptation, the three-toed sloth is actually the slowest mammal, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, PBS, and National Geographic. There’s some dispute over which animal is the slowest on Earth. Another extremely slow organism is the sea anemone, which has a recorded pace of one centimeter per hour. There are many other slow animals, including the sea star and the Galápagos tortoise.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on last week’s episode on birthdays:
Victoria ATKINSON: Hi Stephen and Angela. My name’s Victoria. In primary school, after we had duly stood before our classmates to receive their rendition of the birthday song, the teacher would knock on our backs the number of years old we were, while everyone chanted the numbers. And I was so sensitive as a child that I cried the night before my birthday because I had spent the whole previous year dreading a repeat of this ordeal. Pretty sure this ritual has fallen out of favor now, along with getting the birch for wrong answers. So instead, every year on my sons’ birthday, I write them a letter. It’s usually just a snapshot of who they are in that developmental moment and what I love and enjoy about them. I think it is a gift a lot more so than pummeling on the back. That’s for sure.
Jill STRUZYNKSI: Hi, Stephen and Angela. Cupcakes — way better than cakes. It’s got the right cake to, frosting ratio. You can put one on a plate and the boogery kid can blow all over it and then eat it himself. And all the rest of them are nice and hygienic for everybody else.
Paul LUKAS: I have a great birthday ritual. When I was 8 or 9 years old, we had some sort of outdoor activity plan for my birthday, but it rained and I was pretty inconsolable. So my father, thinking quickly, said, “Oh, don’t you know, rain on your birthday? That’s a sign of good luck in the year to come,” which was a really sweet lie that he made up on the spot, and it made me feel better at that moment. And then it rained again the following year on my birthday, and the year after that. And in the ensuing about 50 years, almost every year on my birthday, except a couple of times it snowed and one time it hailed, which seemed like, you know, a sign of even better luck. So that’s something I look forward to every year and I think of my father who’s no longer with us. And, I don’t know that everybody can necessarily, duplicate that kind of meteorological birthday connection, but it’s something that works for me.
That was, respectively, Victoria Atkinson, Jill Struzynksi, and Paul Lukas. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear why you think sloth can be a virtue. 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 time on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss ultra-processed foods.
DUBNER: I just need to order some Popeyes right now so that it arrives during this conversation, because your just talking about this literally had my mouth watering, no joke.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research from Rebecca Lee Douglas. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: He has a great mustache.
DUBNER: Fantastically shaped, really bushy like a 1976 Los Angeles hedge mustache, I’d say.
- Michael Inzlicht, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- Lauren Kuykendall, professor of industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University.
- Michael Lewis, author and journalist.
- Richard Newhauser, professor of English and Medieval studies at Arizona State University.
- Vincent Ng, professor of assistant professor industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Houston.
- Bertrand Russell, 20th-century British philosopher and mathematician.
- Thomas Schelling, Nobel laureate economist and professor of foreign policy, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control University of Maryland, College Park.
- Adam Smith, 18th-century Scottish economist and moral philosopher.
- Bernard Suits, professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo.
- Louis Tay, professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Purdue University.
- Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago.
- Andrew Yang, former candidate for U.S. President and Mayor of New York City.
- Seven Deadly Sins Survey, by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued,” by Michael Inzlicht, Amitai Shenhav, and Christopher Y. Olivola (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2018).
- “Why a Nobel Prize Winner’s ‘Single Best Quality’ May Be That He’s Lazy,” by Kathleen Elkins (Make It, 2017).
- “It’s Official: Three-Toed Sloths Are the Slowest Mammals on Earth,” by Eduardo Garcia (Scientific American, 2016).
- “Chapter 18: Domain Specificity in Self-Control,” by Angela Lee Duckworth and Eli Tsukayama (Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology, 2015).
- “Leisure Engagement and Subjective Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis,” by Lauren Kuykendall, Louis Tay, and Vincent Ng (Psychological Bulletin, 2015).
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (2011).
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler (2008).
- The Seven Deadly Sins: From Communities to Individuals, by Richard Newhauser (2007).
- “A Nobel Winner Can Help You Keep Your Resolutions,” by Virginia Postrel (The New York Times, 2005).
- “Least Effort and the Origins of Scaling in Human Language,” by Ramon Ferrer i Cancho and Ricard V. Solé (PNAS, 2003).
- The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, by Bernard Suits (1978).
- “Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management,” by Thomas C. Schelling (The American Economic Review, 1978).
- “In Praise of Idleness,” by Bertrand Russell (Harper’s Magazine, 1932).
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith (1759).
- “The Etymology of Sloths’ Names,” by the Sloth Conservation Foundation.
- “Why Is It So Hard to Resist Temptation?” by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Is Laziness Real?” by No Stupid Questions (2021).
- “All You Need Is Nudge,” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “Andrew Yang Is Not Giving Up on Politics — or the U.S. — Yet,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Why Is Richard Thaler Such a ****ing Optimist?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Why Is This Man Running for President? (Update)” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “People Aren’t Dumb. The World Is Hard,” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis (2010).
- The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (2006).
- Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis (2003).