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DUCKWORTH: This is really fun. Yay. Go.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: when is family estrangement healthy?

DUCKWORTH: This isn’t working out. Do you want this clock radio? Because if you don’t, I’m taking it. 

Also: What does it mean to have a “good” personality?

DUCKWORTH: You, by the way, would be called an ambivert, Stephen.

DUBNER: Sounds a lot like a pervert, which I’m not crazy about. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s about family, and it’s about whether getting divorced from your family — “estrangement” — is that ever the right thing to do, the healthy thing to do? 

DUBNER: So, I find this question very interesting because I’ve thought about estrangement a lot. In fact, I’ve been trying for five years to do a good Freakonomics Radio episode on estrangement. 

DUCKWORTH: Why have you been trying? And why haven’t you been able to? 

DUBNER: Well, I’ve been trying because I think it is one of many under-examined elements of life that has all kinds of implications — financial, familial, obviously, emotional. And I wondered about it because it turned out that I had quite a few friends who had deep estrangements within their families. Either they were estranged from a parent, or from a sibling, or one of their parents was estranged from another family member. And I realized that I had grown up in a bubble. 

DUCKWORTH: Of non-estrangement. 

DUBNER: Well, yes, non-estrangement, but because of estrangement. That may not make sense, so I’ll explain a little bit. My bubble was mom, dad — although not for long, he died when I was a kid — and seven siblings; there were eight of us. And we all got along pretty well. There was certainly nothing like an estrangement then, and is not to this day. But what I didn’t know as a kid was that, a generation back, both my mother and my father had serious estrangements within their families, mostly having to do with their religious peregrinations. So, my father’s family totally cut him off, and my mother’s family, there were a number of quasi- or complete estrangements there. And so I realized that, “Oh my goodness, this is a force that deeply affects individuals, certainly, and then family.” 

So, here’s a little bit of data. I really can’t tell how reliable this is. There’s a nationally representative survey in Britain commissioned by an organization called Stand Alone, whose mission statement is, “supporting people that are estranged.” So plainly they’ve got a horse in the race. But their survey, done in 2014, found that eight percent of roughly 2,000 British adults who’d been surveyed said that they had cut off a family member. Which translates to about five million people. So I think it’s a much bigger and, like I said, more unexamined issue than you’d think. Which got me to thinking what if there were a model — you know, to draft off of, I believe it wasGwyneth Paltrow— conscious uncoupling from your family, could be the norm? Would that be better? To say, “Look, we are biologically entwined, I really appreciate the genes, but I’m out of here.”

DUCKWORTH: Thanks for the DNA. See ya. Because, obviously, we have, for the most part anyway, accepted divorce as something which is, in some cases, not only okay, but more desirable than the alternative of staying married. But estrangement in the context of family, look, you’re talking to somebody who was raised in a Chinese family where it was — I want to say implicit, but I almost want to say explicit — that you never get emancipated from or, separate — Actually “emancipate” is an interesting turn of phrase to use. 

I remember learning aboutConfucius, and Confucius had the idea that at the core of all moral behavior was family because, as I think Confucius put it, “You want to kill your brother, but you can’t.” And so, this idea that you could decide to reject your family and move on, because it’s better for you and better for them — I have to say, it really rubs me the wrong way. I don’t want to defend that response, but it’s visceral. I’m like, “Who cares if you hate your family? They’re your family!” 

DUBNER: So, interestingly,Cain plainly did not subscribe to Confucian theology, right? 


DUBNER: And that might be an argument for estrangement. Like, if they could have both just, “Look, let’s go our own ways.” 

DUCKWORTH: “This isn’t working out. Do you want this clock radio? Because if you don’t, I’m taking it.” Yeah. It could have been a very different parable. But I think there’s some logic to being pre-committed, if you will, to an arrangement where you don’t think you can wiggle your way out. 

DUBNER: I would also, however, distinguish between the role in the family and the generation. So, I think you and I would agree, and I think most people would agree, that if you are a parent, and your societally-defined and accepted role is to raise children from birth until at least they’re capable of being independent, and you decide you don’t want to do that anymore, we consider that to be an act of bad faith. I cannot argue with that. I agree. That is an act of bad faith. If you are, however, a child or a sibling and you decide at a certain point, you know what, this family — not for me. 

DUCKWORTH: Peace out. 

DUBNER: Let’s say, it’s two siblings who’ve never gotten long. Let’s say, one of them has been really cruel to the other. And what I’m describing is a very common dynamic. I think it’s worth looking at the situation and saying, “You know what? What do we share? We share some genes, and we share some memories. And some of them may be good, but a lot of them may be bad. And therefore, I think it’s probably not a bad idea for me to go to my side of the planet, and you to go to yours.” I think that it would be a better option than what actually happens, which is, through a combination of anger, potentially violence, inertia, lack of communication, we end up with a lot of frozen hatred.

DUCKWORTH: Of course, I agree, right? If it’s a corrosive, abusive relationship.

DUBNER: You can’t agree; I’m disagreeing with you. You can’t agree with my disagreement. 

DUCKWORTH: Why not? I’m evolving, even as we speak. Look, it’s happening. But I guess it’s just that, at the extremes, yes, you should separate. There’s a psychologist in my department namedSara Jaffee, and she’s done research on this idea that two parents in the home are always best versus maybe it’s okay if one skips town and leaves. And the finding was that it is actually better for the child if their father leaves if they are anti-social. 

DUBNER: The bad parent goes away.

DUCKWORTH: So that would be at least one example where estrangement is net-positive, at least for the children, who are arguably the most important. So, I get the whole Gwyneth Paltrow conscious-uncoupling thing. But I think the reason why, again, it feels wrong to me to just be so cavalier about it is that, as human beings, we kind of need that magnetic pull back to the nuclear family, in a sense. That fact that there is this unconditionality to those relationships, I think, is so important. 

DUBNER: I would like to revisit your point about Chinese family loyalty and Confucian familial loyalty. Are you aware of the — I believe it was the 2013 law passed in China called the “Elderly Rights Law.” 

DUCKWORTH: Is this the law where you have to take care of your parents? 

DUBNER: You have to visit your parents. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh right. Because it’s long been law, I believe, that you have to take care of them. Which is not the case in the United States. Right? That’s why they don’t have an elaborate Social Security and nursing home system. 

DUBNER: So, it is interesting to me that in many cultures, maybe most, historically, grown children care for the parents. That’s the way it worked. 

DUCKWORTH: All around the world, for most of history. Thinking about aging parents is a really good boundary case here. So we all agree that if there’s a toxic relationship, yes, of course, separation is the right thing to do. But, for many of us, as our parents age, it’s not fun to be taking care of them. And should we also eject conveniently those relationships that are a drag? In the last six years of my dad’s life, he was really at a very low level of functioning. He was a quadriplegic. He was suffering from very late-stage Parkinson’s. He had multiple falls. Nothing brought me back to his bedside except for duty and obligation. 


DUCKWORTH: There was nothing other than that. And I guess the trouble I’m having with some of these boundary cases is that I don’t think that we want to say that families are the same as friendships. 

DUBNER: You could imagine, however, that not everyone hasAngela Duckworth‘s sense of duty and obligation toward their parents. But, I will say this — economists have actually thought about this very issue of being an aging parent and wanting to have your kids visit you. 

DUCKWORTH: Is this going to be incentives? 

DUBNER: Well, all right. So, check this out. Years ago, three economists,Doug Bernheim,AndreiShleifer, andLarry Summers empirically looked at familial loyalty in one’s later years. They used data from a U.S. government longitudinal study. And they showed that an elderly parent in a retirement home is more likely to be visited by their grown children if those children are expecting a sizable inheritance. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, it is incentives. 

DUBNER: Okay, but then wait. Wait, wait, wait. You might say, “Well, could it be that the offspring of wealthy families are maybe just more caring toward their elderly parents?” — in which case, you would expect an only child of wealthy parents to be especially dutiful. But the data show no increase in retirement-home visits if a wealthy family has only one grown child. There needs to be at least two, which suggests that the visits increase because of competition between siblings for the parents’ estate. That’s the conclusion that economists would reach. So, if you want to guarantee smooth, long-lasting relations with your kids, you can either have a bunch of money or pretend you do to make sure they keep coming around. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you for that practical tip about strengthening my bonds with my two girls. But I do wonder whether the Confucian idea of duty and family obligation submit to the laws of economics. I mean, maybe they do. Maybe everything does. But they feel to me to actually pull in different directions. For example, in my mother’s family, there were about 13 kids. I say “about,” because nobody can keep track, actually. 

So, when my mother’s family was fleeing the communists, one of the kids was left behind for an uncle and aunt who had no children. And, as we just said, in the Chinese culture your plan for retirement and for getting old is your kids. So my grandmother literally gave a kid to this uncle and aunt. And then that kid did what they had to do, which is, take care of this uncle and aunt. Now, was that just? I don’t know. But it certainly doesn’t feel to me like it’s easily explicable through the laws of economics. 

DUBNER: First of all, that’s a fascinating story. Second of all, I’m sorry your family faced that trauma. Third of all, yes. Economists can have an extraordinarily narrow view of relationships or of anything, really. But they often do look at things with such a cold eye that everyone else is afraid to look at. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. They can see farther because of that cold eye, sometimes. Or see things that other people don’t see. 

DUBNER: They can, which can make them not very popular always and can also make them not always pleasant company because they say the kind of things that many of us feel, but have the good sense to not say aloud, at least. It does make me wonder how often finances are at the center of a family estrangement. We actually did an episode of Freakonomics Radio some time back called “Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them?” One of the characters in it was a former N.F.L. player, a guy namedPhillip Buchanon, who was a very good football player from a very early age and worked really hard at it. And he told us that when he was drafted, his mom kind of demanded one million dollars. 

DUCKWORTH: Wow. Okay. 

DUBNER: Because, she said, “I raised you. I supported you. I got you to where you are.” And he didn’t buy it. And they were estranged. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, that would support the argument that when it comes to family, thinking about things in terms of reciprocity, of give and take, of financial incentives, and all that, that might be the wrong way to think about it. Right? When I hear that story, I’m like, “Ew, what kind of mother would invoice their kid?” Aren’t you supposed to always take the smaller portion and the bruised apple? 

Just like behavioral economics has shown some of the limitations of the classical economic model — we’re clearly not rational all the time, at least in the sense of having feelings that can override the calculus of cost and benefits — maybe duty and obligation in the Confucian sense are also things that make the story of human decision-making much more complex and much more difficult to model mathematically. 

DUBNER: I kind of want to take a step back and think about: What’s a family? So to me a family is two very significant things at once; it’s a biological unit, at least to some degree, and a social unit. So, of course, there’s no guarantee, or even a reason, honestly, that all families should be both. One thing that I think says a lot about what family is and isn’t is how many different people refer to non-biological families as their family. What I mean by that is, you know, this football team is a family. This office is a family. This company—

DUCKWORTH: Right, this sales team is a family! 

DUBNER: Yeah, this group. In the queer community, many people have some form of estrangement from their biological families. So they re-form a family of choice. I think many, many people are much, much, much closer to their non-biological family. So, I think that says quite a bit about the imperfection of the biological family unit as the social family unit. 

DUCKWORTH: For those who are estranged, this phenomenon of actually creating a non-biological family — and it’s not just the queer community. I mean, I have a really old friend namedAustin, and I’ve known him since I was like 19 or 20. And I have always thought of him as family. And I had to get spine surgery when I was in my late 20s. And I remember that at that time, my parents were a little slow to say, “yes” to coming out to help me in the weeks post-op. But Austin said, “Of course. I’ll fly to San Francisco from Boston.”

And I remember feeling like, this is somebody who I may or may not be in daily contact with, but like a family member, I will always do anything he asks and he will always do what I ask. And so, I think — to return to your question of “What is a family?” — a family is an enduring commitment. And you’re very lucky if those can be your biological relatives. But if you’re not so lucky, I do think that all of us probably crave some kind of unconditional, enduring commitment with at least one, but probably more than one, person in our lives. 

DUBNER: So in other words, DNA.: overrated. 


Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Do Stephen and Angela have, quote, “good personalities?” 

DUBNER: I think that might be my one defining advantage is I’m slightly less neurotic than you. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, we often talk about people as having a “good personality” or a “bad personality.” Obviously, humans have been thinking about personality for millennia. The Greeks famously thought your personality was driven by —

DUCKWORTH: The humors. 

DUBNER: Right, the bodily fluids, whichever one you had more of: blood, black bile, yellow bile, or phlegm, from which “phlegmatic” is derived. But presumably, we’ve moved, at least a little bit, past that understanding of personality. I am curious to know, does having a “good” or “bad” personality actually mean anything to psychologists who study personality? 

DUCKWORTH: This idea of good and bad personality, in a way, was antithetical to the early personality psychologists. I’m thinking about the middle of the 20th century, when researchers thought we should actually have a science of personality, and it should not have valence. It shouldn’t be about what’s good or bad. It should be non-evaluative. 

So, there was an intentional search for what you could describe about a person that wasn’t, strictly speaking, good or bad. At one point, some of the early psychologists actually went through the dictionary and looked for all the adjectives that you could ever say would be used to describe someone’s character or personality. 

DUBNER: I’m guessing they found quite a few. 

DUCKWORTH: They did. They found thousands of them. And my understanding of this early research was that they struck from the list those ones that were very moral, like “honesty,” etc. So, what was left were things like talkative, quiet, orderly, etc., that didn’t have a clear evaluative dimension. But, if you look at what the end product was, after decades of research, psychologists came to a consensus that there were five families of personality traits. They’re often called “the Big Five.” 

DUBNER: Oh, sure, the Big Five. Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: And I’ll just say that I don’t know if the early researchers would find this a failure, but I think that most of these personality factors actually do have a valence. There is a good pole and a bad pole. But anyway, I’m going to do it in order of an acronym — conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion — which is CANOE. 


DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you could also do OCEAN. 

DUBNER: It sounds like something that was organized so that you could teach kids the five traits at summer camp when they’re riding in a canoe and just say, “Think conscientiousness, agreeableness —”  

DUCKWORTH: Yes. That’s right. I think CANOE or OCEAN would really actually work. 

DUBNER: Better than the order I have them in, which is EACNO. Extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness to experience. Four of the five sound like positive ones, or at least mostly desirable, but then “neuroticism.” I am curious why four are positive and one is negative, at least the way I read them.

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. So, I think agreeableness seems like, in general, more is better. Obviously, we could debate it. In general, being more conscientious is better. And in general, being more open to experience is better. So, three of these Big Five factors really seem to have a pretty clear good pole and bad pole. Extroversion, maybe not so much; there’s nothing bad about being an introvert. 

DUBNER: We’ve never actually had a whole conversation about introversion versus extroversion. We’ve danced around the edges, and I think we agree that those two are very broad brush strokes. And in fact, as exemplified by one human being, i.e., me, it’s really hard to say, because I feel like an introvert much of the time and an extrovert a lot of the other times. 

DUCKWORTH: You, by the way, would be called an ambivert, Stephen, somebody who feels like they are neither an extrovert or an introvert. 

DUBNER: Sounds a lot like a pervert, which I’m not crazy about.

DUCKWORTH:  You know, there’s something about “vert.” Yeah. But then, there is neuroticism — which if you want to make it into the positive version so it goes a little bit better, then you can call it “emotional stability.” And some psychologists prefer that term. But then, you have a real problem with the acronym. 

DUBNER: Back up. Back up. How does neuroticism become emotional stability? How are those synonyms? 

DUCKWORTH: No, antonyms. I’m just saying that you could flip the scale. So, having emotions that really swing wildly from one pole to the other, being sad and depressed a lot, being anxious and worried a lot, having anger, that’s neuroticism. And then, if you think about emotional stability, it’s just the opposite of it. So, if you wanted to make everything fit, you could just flip that, and some psychologists do that.

DUBNER: So, let’s say that these five traits are what help constitute a person’s personality, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Some psychologists would like to say the five factors, because each of these encompasses lots of traits within it. So, think of them as more like continents that contain countries. 

DUBNER: Great, okay. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, by the way, the countries contain cities. But that’s a whole other level of detail.

DUBNER: Okay. So, let’s say that we put the extremes of personality on some spectrum. And on the far side, we’ll call that, you know, beef bourguignon. And on the other far side, we’re calling that a yogurt cup. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. The continuum runs from yogurt cup to beef bourguignon? 

DUBNER: Yeah, I don’t know why.

DUCKWORTH: Do I have those two poles right? 

DUBNER: They seem pretty pole-ish to me.  

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Keep going. I’m going to try to fit this into my mind. Like what?

DUBNER: But my question is, if the spectrum of personalities runs from yogurt cup to beef bourguignon, where are you, and where am I? And how close are we to each other? 

DUCKWORTH: I think in the most fundamental ways, we’re both very high on most of the facets of Big Five conscientiousness. 

DUBNER: Including humility, plainly.

DUCKWORTH: No, that’s not really part of conscientiousness. There’s a whole other theory called the Big Six. And humility and honesty go on the sixth of that term. But anyway, we’ll talk about that in another question. But I think we’re very organized. We’re very goal-directed. We are very punctual, detail-oriented people. I think we are both very high in the aspects of openness to experience that include love of new ideas, wanting to learn, that dimension we seem pretty well-matched on. You might find that we are not quite the same level of agreeableness. 

DUBNER: You’re a lot more patient than I am. I think you’re generally kinder than I am.

DUCKWORTH: But then I told you about my volcanic temper. 

DUBNER: You know, I’d really like you to bring that to the show. It doesn’t seem quite fair that our listeners only get the agreeable Angie. Where’s the volcanic Duckworth? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, if you are late to dinner, we could maybe make it happen. And then, on extroversion, I’m probably a little bit more extroverted, but I’m not as extroverted as you’d think. And on emotional stability/its opposite, neuroticism — 

DUBNER: I think that might be my one defining advantage is I’m slightly less neurotic than you. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m definitely more neurotic than you, but I think that we are pretty similar. 

DUBNER: What do you know about diversity of personality and how positive it is to seek out people whose personalities seem very different from your own? 

DUCKWORTH: I think you would not want to be on a show with me if I were really different from you on most of these things. The idea that if you are somebody who’s super conscientious and you might do better by hanging out with people who are really the opposite of you. Like, you were supposed to meet at 2:00. They show up at 2:45. You send them an email. They don’t reply. 

So, I use that example because you can immediately see how it might not work, right? So, I agree that diversity is both a means to many good ends and arguably an end in itself. But, I think, one of the problems with throwing people together of very different personality tendencies is that they drive each other crazy. And in general, the birds of a feather who flock together are happier than the birds who are asking why didn’t you show up on your perch on time?  

DUBNER: So, let’s assume that I — we’ll just use me as a guinea pig — that I have what most people consider a bad personality. What’s your advice to adjust that?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, first, can I ask you? When you conjure up this mental image of a bad personality, describe it to me.  

DUBNER: Okay, so I’ll stick to myself. And I’ll think of myself in all my worst moments. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. This is really fun. Yay. Go. 

DUBNER: I am impatient to the point where I get short with people and it makes them feel not so good about themselves sometimes. I am very impatient, because impatient is the characteristic that keeps coming back to me. 

DUCKWORTH: Wow, yeah, okay.

DUBNER: Do you have any pointers?  

DUCKWORTH: So, interestingly, personality change is a very 2020 topic. In other words, it’s not like it’s been solved. And for so many decades, personality psychologists made their living by just measuring personality traits and then showing how they grouped together into these Big Five factors. And then, they also spent a lot of their time showing how important they were. So, for example, when we talked about conscientiousness as one of the Big Five, it ends up being very predictive of your income, how long you’re going to live, how well you’re going to live in terms of your physical vitality. 

So now, I think, in 2020, a lot of personality psychologists are asking the question, “How would you change personality if you wanted to?” And because it’s a very current topic, I can’t say that there’s a lot known. One promising sliver of evidence is that in psychotherapy, people can sometimes manifest changes in personality. So, if you go and see a therapist, it’s been well-established that you can show differences that are sustained in your emotional stability or lack of neuroticism. But, I think that in the next few years we’re going to see some more solid research on how you could change things like impatience.  

DUBNER: Can I say, I am so impatient that I’m a little frustrated that it took you so long to say that basically you don’t know anything yet.  

DUCKWORTH: We’ve got to work on you. This is the thing, Stephen. I’m not convinced you want to be less impatient. When you ask, “How do I change?” You should first ask whether you want to change.  

DUBNER: No, I really do. I really don’t enjoy the —  

DUCKWORTH: The emotional — You have that little gnawing feeling in your stomach when you’re impatient, right? 

DUBNER: It’s a little bit like having had too much caffeine. 

DUCKWORTH: All right. There are some psychologists who think that your personality traits reflect what your deeper motives are. If you ask, why is this person so impatient? It reveals something about what you really want. And you really want to get things done. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I think the point you make is extremely astute, which is, yes, the behavior betrays a deeper motivation. So I can use that as a signal to think about what is the underlying thing that I want? And is there maybe a way to either get it differently, or maybe a way to tamp down the appetite for that thing? Maybe re-prioritize? 


DUBNER: So, let’s say that someone has a “bad personality,” in some direction, but they’re unaware of it. Does that mean that they have self-awareness issues in addition to personality issues and they could maybe kill two birds with one stone by increasing their self-awareness? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that they are different. To be somebody who is ruthless and disagreeable and lacking in humility, etc. would be a problem. But you could be aware of that problem, and that would be a huge step forward from having all of those negative personality characteristics and then not have self-awareness. 

And I think, Stephen, if I am not mistaken, our first interview, I guess, on Freakonomics, you got me somehow to reveal my theory of human behavior change that I had no data for. So, I was probably not supposed to say it. I said that self-awareness was the very beginning of all positive change. So, I think if you can say ,”Hey, I’ve got a few things that I don’t really like about myself. I could have some ambivalence about them, but I can recognize that these are not great aspects of me.” I think that, itself, is a huge step toward being better. 

DUBNER: We’ve talked before about behavior change on a societal level when it comes to healthcare, and education, and financial literacy, and saving, and things like that. And we do see a lot of evidence that it is really hard to change. What would you say is the most valuable insight that your science has produced in the last, let’s say, half-century, that enables people who truly do want to change behavior, to harness maybe some element of this personality science that we’re talking about, to actually do that? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to pick the insight that Aaron Beck had. And that is that a lot of the things that people want to change are their emotions. I wish I weren’t angry all the time. I wish I weren’t so depressed. I wish I weren’t so anxious. It’s not the only thing you could want to change. But a lot of people are looking to change that. 

And Aaron Beck’s insight was the foundation of cognitive therapy, which is that if you want to change your feelings, you have to change your thoughts. And I think that’s a non-intuitive thing because you think that you just go and change your feeling. Like, just try not to worry. Try not to be anxious. But you have to ask what thoughts are leading me to be anxious and to worry? Or what thoughts are leading me to be sad? And then, his technique was really to argue yourself out of it using reason, to examine the thoughts and seeing for yourself whether some of these are really not reasonable thoughts. 

So, I think cognitive therapy has been a revolutionary change. When that happened, therapy moved from, “Let’s spend thousands of hours talking about your childhood,” to “Let’s spend eight weeks giving you some practice and some coaching on how to examine your thoughts and how to productively debate yourself.” 

DUBNER: And what share of, let’s say, modern American humans who would benefit from such engagement have actually participated in such engagement? 

DUCKWORTH: I do know this — a smaller share than needed. So, that’s been studied, that the number of people who qualify for a diagnosis for something that could absolutely benefit from cognitive therapy — so, depression, anxiety, lots of other mental-health issues. Only a fraction of people, in this country and also around the world, are doing it. 

But I would also say this. When I was growing up, the idea that you would even talk about your emotions, or ask the question of where your emotions came from, or think that these things were skills, emotion regulation — it was not at all the case. And that was in the 80s. That’s not that long ago. And I think your kids, my kids, just the idea that they would talk out things and try to figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, that’s not therapy, but that’s therapeutic. It seems like an advance. I think it’s a massive leap forward. 

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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 and Angela discuss the Chinese Protection of Rights and Interests of Elderly People law, enacted in 2013, which says that children must visit their parents often — although what “often” entails is not specified. Before 2013, the importance of filial piety was ingrained in Chinese culture through tradition, rather than law. This value is perhaps exemplified by Yuan Dynasty scholar Guo Jujing’s book, The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety. The work includes a story of an exemplary son born to a couple too poor to afford a mosquito net, and so the son would sit shirtless by his parents’ bed, allowing the mosquitoes to bite him so that his parents could rest peacefully. This book was temporarily banned during the Chinese Cultural Revolution as the government emphasized loyalty to the Communist party over loyalty to one’s family. But it was modernized and republished in 2012, with new suggestions for keeping parents happy, including teaching them how to use the internet and purchasing healthcare for them. 

Angela also assumes that filial loyalty laws do not exist in the United States. But laws requiring adult children to support their needy parents actually do exist in 26 states, plus Puerto Rico, although enforcement of this legislation tends to be rare.

Finally, even though N.F.L. player Philip Buchanon did not give his mother the one million dollars she asked for, and even though he and his mother were no longer speaking — at least when Stephen last interviewed him — Buchanon did say that he bought his mother a house and a car. Not a million-dollar house, but a house. Because, well, because she’s his mom. 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, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern Emma Tyrell for her help with this episode. 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 share it with And if you heard Stephen or Angela refer to something that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what pre-ghosting is. Like, you just don’t reply to them at all. Did we just lose Stephen? 

DUBNER: No. I‘m doing it so you could experience how it felt.

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