Why Do We Seek Comfort in the Familiar? (Ep. 445)
In this episode of No Stupid Questions — a Freakonomics Radio Network show launched earlier this year — Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth debate why we watch, read, and eat familiar things during a crisis, and if it might in fact be better to try new things instead. Also: is a little knowledge truly as dangerous as they say?
Listen and subscribe to No Stupid Questions at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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It was nearly one year ago — on Christmas Day, 2019 — that we released a pilot episode of a show we thought might be a lot of fun to make. This was before we had any inkling that a pandemic was about to shake us all down to our foundations. After a Covid-related delay, we did launch the show, in May; we called it No Stupid Questions. It’s got a simple premise. Every week, Angela Duckworth and I ask each other one good question, and then we try to answer it; we use research when available and, if not, bluster. Angela, if you’re not familiar with her, is a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania; she’s the author of the book Grit; and she’s an excellent person to have a conversation with — even if she does win just about every argument.
Since May, she and I have debated the best way to be angry; how to handle criticism; and why stories are so much stickier than statistics. It’s kind of like Freakonomics Radio for psychology, but a little looser, a little more personal, occasionally deranged. This may just be the pandemic talking, but No Stupid Questions has definitely become one of the highlights of my week. Other people seem to agree: the show recently passed five million downloads. So, in case you don’t already listen, we’re slipping a recent episode here into the Freakonomics Radio feed. You can subscribe to No Stupid Questions wherever you get your podcasts; if you have a question you’d like us to answer on the show, we’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. And for any other questions/comments/complaints/holiday wishes/whatever, we’re at email@example.com. Hope you have a good holiday this year despite the headwinds.
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Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
Stephen DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How much is your mood driven by the media you consume?
DUCKWORTH: You’ve never seen Love, Actually?
DUBNER: I’ve heard of it.
DUCKWORTH: You’ve never seen Love, Actually?!
Also: is a little knowledge worse than complete ignorance?
DUBNER: I told them to turn right, and it should have been left.
DUCKWORTH: Oh God, you are going to Hell.
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DUBNER: Angela, I’ve got a question for you here from a listener today. Her name is Masha Ioveva. And she writes to say, “I, like most people these days, have been feeling a bit, down, tired”— I don’t mean to laugh at you, Masha — “demotivated and easily depleted, though not depressed.” So, first of all, before we get into Masha’s question, Angie, do you think most people are feeling a bit down, tired, demotivated, and depleted?
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s actually pretty good data on the fact that, yes, absolutely — people are feeling really, really tired.
DUBNER: So, Masha should not be feeling out of step with general sentiment.
DUBNER: Okay, so now we’ll get to her question. She writes, “I’m squarely in my most productive years — I’m 39 — but I’ve noticed that whenever I feel particularly tired, I turn to the comfort of familiar things: the bands I love, the books and movies I’ve already read and seen, the poetry that I love, etc. I wonder if there is existing research that explains whether that is common and also whether the need to find comfort in the familiar increases with age, and conversely, whether the desire to try out new things requires both a positive outlook on life and the physical energy to do so.” So, let’s start there. Angie, what say you to that query?
DUCKWORTH: This is such an interesting and deep question. There’s actually a lot of research on the idea of finding comfort, finding enjoyment in things that we’ve done before. So, one early finding that’s relevant here is called the “mere exposure effect.” This is the idea that merely experiencing something a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth time — the more you’re exposed to it, the more you like it, without anything really changing.
DUBNER: So, even if it’s something that prima facie you may not have thought you’d like, or maybe even didn’t like, that exposure makes you like it?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think the original psychologist is Robert Zajonc. And he would show people in his studies nonsense syllables — they didn’t really have any meaning. And the first time you see it, you probably have more of a neutral response, but then the eighth time, the ninth time, it’s like, you like it, and you like it more and more with more exposure — which is really remarkable.
DUBNER: It is remarkable. It’s an interesting question to me, too, because, in a way, it’s obvious why we would do this.
DUCKWORTH: Why do you think that is?
DUBNER: Well, because if you’re feeling uncomfortable, you would seek out the opposite, which is comfort.
DUCKWORTH: And the familiar is more comfortable, almost by definition, than the novel.
DUBNER: You’re right. I guess I was connecting familiar and comfort in a way that maybe isn’t obvious, but to me it felt obvious. But on the other hand, you could also imagine that during tough or unsettling times, you’d want to stir things up — to read, or watch, or explore new ideas that might help you get into a new frame and take your mind off what’s distressing. So, I can see both sides. But I have to say I totally identify with Masha, and I do the same. I’m curious if you do, Angela.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, I, like most human beings in times of stress, tend to seek the familiar and the comfortable and the lower risk. Love, Actually probably is the greatest film that’s ever been made. And every time I see it — and I can’t even tell you how many times because it’s been so many — I feel comforted. It’s like a warm cinematographic hug.
DUBNER: Is it a rom-com?
DUCKWORTH: What?! You’ve never seen Love, Actually?
DUBNER: I’ve heard of it.
DUCKWORTH: You’ve never seen Love, Actually?!
DUBNER: I don’t see a lot of movies. Maybe that’s why I’m so uncomfortable.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Exactly. Well look, the gist of Love, Actually — it’s several intersecting love stories.
DUBNER: You had me at intersecting.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, that says a lot. And each of them has this aspect which is bittersweet and kind of humorous. But the thing about this movie is you know what’s going to happen. You know that you love what’s going to happen. And instead of that making it a diminished experience, it’s almost better the umpteenth time. I don’t know if this is just a pandemic coping mechanism, actually, I think there is good research that suggests that’s pretty universal.
So, some would argue that emotions like fear, and also emotions like sadness, get us to withdraw a little bit to that which we know is going to work. And conversely, happiness and safety and contentment tend to get us to be a little more venturesome. It’s called “broaden-and-build theory.” This is work of Barbara Fredrickson and others. So, I think we’re all in a kind of state of uncertainty that makes us want to retract a little bit, even if you’re right, Stephen — sometimes trying something new might be exactly what we need.
DUBNER: Can you tell me a little bit about this broaden-and-build theory, which I’ve never heard of?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, while we know why we have fear — like if we didn’t have fear, we’d get eaten by a tiger — and we also know why we have the cousin of fear, anxiety — like, “Oh, I’m anxious about this test,” or “I’m anxious about this thing that’s going to happen, so I prepare for it more.” All of the negative emotions had been cataloged and understood in terms of their evolutionary function for survival.
So, Barbara Fredrickson is a psychologist who wondered well, “Why is it across culture that we have certain positive emotions like happiness, like contentment, like surprise, like awe, and so forth?” And that led to broaden-and-build theory, which she spent the rest of her long and storied career studying, which is basically the idea that when we experience these positive emotions, they are a sign and a signal that things are going well — and therefore now is the time to broaden and build, so invest for the future, etc.
DUBNER: Interesting. Make hay while the sun shines emotionally and cognitively. I really appreciate the name broaden-and-build because again, for me personally, it resonates — I’d never heard it, but as we’re talking about Masha’s question and the fact that you and I, and probably a lot of other people, as the evidence shows, seek comfort when things are feeling unsettled, I was trying to think of the opposite, because Masha also asked about that. She said, “Does the desire to try out new things require a positive outlook on life and the physical energy to do so?” I feel that I need to be mentally and physically strong to seek out new information or adventure.
If I’m feeling depleted, or maybe a little unconfident, it’s really hard for me to jump into work that’s difficult or a task that’s really difficult. And as I’ve gotten older and gotten more experienced with this, I say to myself, “If I try to do it now, I’m going to fail. So, let me wait until I’m in the right frame of mind, where I’ve got the confidence and the cognitive focus to be successful.” So, the question then is, how can we cheat? How can we give ourselves the appetite to challenge ourselves, or to get beyond the comfortable, maybe even if it involves tricking ourselves a little bit? Because if Masha is correct, there are a lot of people out there right now who are just reverting to the most comfortable stuff. And, it sounds like, feeling a little bit bad about it.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m going to go out on a limb, and say something which is not directly supported by research, but I think research would be in agreement with it anyway, which is, if you think about the stage of life where people are most risk-taking and most novelty-seeking, it is not our age, Stephen — it’s teenagers. Teenagers are like, I’ve never eaten that. Let me try it. I’ve never done that. Let me try it.
DUBNER: I’ve never driven a car off a cliff before. That should be fun.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Let me try it! They sometimes do stupid things, but really the idea is that again, from an evolutionary perspective, the reason why adolescent mammals — and this includes non-human mammals like rats — they demonstrate this heightened exploratory risk-taking behavior as they’re rounding the bend from childhood to adulthood, because it’s adaptive. Because one thing you do when you do that is you learn. And I think that is actually why novelty-seeking decreases over the lifetime, because there aren’t as many years left to make it pay off. So, young people are in learning mode. And they’re a little bit more in novelty-seeking and risk-taking mode. And though we don’t want to drive cars off cliffs at any age, I do think we could channel our inner teenager.
DUBNER: Agree. Just think of all the opportunity cost of decreasing that novelty-seeking. So, as you were talking about the rats, I was thinking about the research by Robert Sapolsky about novelty-seeking and age.
DUCKWORTH: I know Robert Sapolsky. The Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers guy at Stanford, right?
DUBNER: Yeah. Sapolsky is technically a neuroscientist, but he describes himself as a half neurobiologist, half primatologist, because he spent a lot of time with primates. So, Masha, I want to remind listeners, is 39 years old. Sapolsky argues that, yes, we get less open to novelty as we get older. So, what’s older? Is Masha old yet? Are you and I old? Is 25 old? So, he once worked up a survey. It was scientific-ish, let’s call it.
DUBNER: And it looked at people’s preferences in food, music, and so on. And here’s what he found out. He found that basically, if you are not listening to a certain style of music by the time you’re 28 or so, 95 percent chance that you’re never going to. By age 35, he says, if you’re not eating sushi, 95 percent chance you never will. In other words, these windows of openness to novelty close. But then, the thing that floored me, Sapolsky said, if you take a lab rat and you look at when in its life it is willing to try a novel type of food, and it’s exactly the same curve as the human’s. And he’s seen that in primates as well.
So, I get that there’s an evolutionary explanation for this, but as with many evolutionary explanations that I would argue we seem to have superseded or outlived, wouldn’t it be nice for me, and you, and Masha to be able to turn off that default setting and embrace more novelty even when we’re feeling unadventurous?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m guessing that Sapolsky would support what I’m about to say, which is that, there’s an exploration-exploitation trade off. The idea is that an animal, at any given point in time and also at any given point in its life course, has a decision to make about how much to explore new things or exploit the things that they already know. So, for example, if a bird is in a certain patch, are they supposed to explore a new patch, because maybe the patch is better, or should they just exploit this patch, because they’re at least some seeds here?
So, I think if we understand that over the course of life, we tend to explore less and less as we reach our 40s, 50s, 60s, because, it makes more sense to exploit. We already have more knowledge about the world, about the good patches, the bad patches, and we have less time to make use of the new knowledge. But a lot of our evolutionary heritage was about avoiding getting eaten, avoiding dying at a really tragically early age before you reproduce. And, by almost any metric, where we’re in the safest time in history, and we’re also living a ridiculously long time compared to our forebears.
DUBNER: And what are we doing with all that time?
DUCKWORTH: We should basically be living like teenagers.
DUBNER: We should be buying really fast cars. Maybe put a parachute on it if you want to play it safe, and drive them off cliffs. We should be doing that today.
DUCKWORTH: I love that you keep going to the car driving off the cliff.
DUBNER: Just because I really like Thelma & Louise. So, Angela and Masha, there is one last idea I’d like to share with you on the notion of comfort. This will take a minute. So, bear with me, but I happen to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which for people who don’t follow American sports, they are an American football team. They play in the N.F.L. And their head coach is named Mike Tomlin. And he practices what strikes me as a very unusual blend of football philosophy and life philosophy. So, even though he’s coaching professional athletes, many of whom are quite high-paid and quite high-status, he really considers himself a teacher — that his job is to help players improve their physical game and win, but also their mental and cognitive selves.
He recently made a statement about seeking comfort that I found so interesting. So, the Steelers had just beaten their biggest rival, the Baltimore Ravens. And afterward, Tomlin said, “I thought it was far from perfect, but I thought collectively our guys did not blink. No one sought comfort.” And then someone asked him, “What are you talking about? What does ‘sought comfort’ mean?” And he said, “Things that people do under duress, that when given the opportunity to look back at it, they wish they hadn’t, to lessen their roles when things get tough. That’s one of the things we openly talk about. Don’t minimize your role when things are tough, have ownership over what’s transpiring. Don’t blame others, don’t state problems. Let’s openly talk about solutions as opposed to stating the obvious.” So, Angela and Masha, I’m guessing neither of you will ever play in the N.F.L., nor will I. But I do find this advice intriguing and inspiring. And I hope you will find it not comforting, but useful.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re saying that instead of doing what Masha is doing, which is turning to the bands she loves, the books and movies she’s already seen or read, the poetry that she loves, that this is like a more stoic kind of like, just be uncomfortable. It’s 2020. Stand tall.
DUBNER: Yeah. Learn to frame comfort as an old default that doesn’t lead you to anywhere bigger, or more productive, or more fruitful. You want to be the brave person, who even in difficult circumstances, is looking for the causes of that difficulty and trying to find ways to get through it, as opposed to retreating. Look, I realize it’s a football scenario. This is not advice that is going to work in every situation. But I found that incredibly, I thought, insightful and personally inspiring. Your mileage certainly may vary.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I’m kind of landing on different strokes for different folks. I guess the football coach locker room — you know, “it’s time to be uncomfortable, it’s that kind of year” — might work for some people. And there are other people who are like, “No, I’m going to reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” And I don’t know that there’s anything more right about either of those approaches as long as this isn’t getting in the way of the rest of your life.
DUBNER: Understood. And I don’t want to block off the comfort route for anybody, but it sounded to me like Masha wrote because she wants to circumvent the comfortable route. She writes, “I wonder if whether the desire to try out new things requires both a positive outlook on life and the physical energy to do so.” And I think what Coach Mike Tomlin is saying to her is, “No, it doesn’t. It requires you to give yourself a kick in the butt and to use the strength of your mind to reframe the challenge and to not retreat to the comfortable.”
DUCKWORTH: Well look, here’s where I would land. This is such an incredibly hard time. If upon reflection you think, “You know what, it probably would be good for me to do something a little different” — fine. If you want to retreat into macaroni-and-cheese land and reread the novels you read when you were 17, you have my permission.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question for you from Eamon Colvin, one of our listeners. It goes like this: Is a little knowledge worse than complete ignorance?
DUBNER: I can see why you’re asking this question to me, and not the other way around. The most famous version of this idea, at least as far as I know, comes from the British writer and satirist Alexander Pope, who in his Essay on Criticism wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. There, shallow drafts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.” So, plainly cautionary tale — a little bit of knowledge is potentially dangerous. But a lot of knowledge can also be a dangerous thing.
DUBNER: So, let me explain. Are you familiar with the concept of ultracrepidarianism, by chance?
DUCKWORTH: I am not.
DUBNER: All right. So, ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence.
DUCKWORTH: Okay “ultracrapa” — is it crap? Like, as in “crap”?
DUBNER: No. “Crep.” It sounds made up, but it’s a real word. Ultra, U-L-T-R-A, crep, C-R-E-P, I-D-A-R-I-A-N-I-S-M.
DUCKWORTH: If you could only amass the Scrabble tiles for that word.
DUBNER: Have you ever met, perhaps, a doctor, or a lawyer, or some other very high achiever, who also feels that they know everything there is to know about the energy situation? Or climate? Or politics?
DUCKWORTH: Or tax policy.
DUCKWORTH: You know what? I am like this person. I am always giving advice about things that I really shouldn’t be giving advice about. I don’t stay in my lane enough.
DUBNER: Can you give me a “for instance”? Because I don’t feel I’ve seen that side of you.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Like, somebody will be wandering around the supermarket — not my supermarket, just the supermarket in which I also happen to be.
DUBNER: Wait, when you say “not my supermarket” — meaning you don’t own the supermarket?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t own it.
DUBNER: Can I just say, we didn’t assume that you owned a supermarket. Appreciate the distinction, but yeah, not necessary.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. All right. But look, I shouldn’t be saying anything. I don’t work there. I probably don’t know where the brownie mix is that this person’s looking for. And yet, I find myself giving directions to people who are not even asking out loud — they just look a little bit like they’re looking for something.
DUBNER: You just walk up to people and say, “Excuse me, I think I can help you with the brownies.” That’s what you do?
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know that look that people have? They’re, like, scanning the shelves with their eyes. They’ll turn their head to the left and to the right. And then that signals me that that person needs some direction.
DUBNER: And you just come in and say, “Excuse me, what are you looking for?”
DUCKWORTH: Or if they even just begin to enunciate a question, I answer it. And even when it’s not really been directed at me. I’m a little overconfident sometimes. And that’s not good.
DUBNER: What’s behind this desire to, let’s say, answer questions that you don’t know?
DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, I’m not defending myself. I’m more confessing to you, Stephen. Just so you know. I’m not bragging here.
DUBNER: I appreciate that. But you sound like you do take a perverse joy in it, however.
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s more like an overdeveloped muscle. Kind of, “Oh, wait, someone had a question about something. Surely, I have the answer to it.” And maybe this is a version of this question from Eamon. Maybe a little knowledge is what I’m cursed with.
DUBNER: So, I’m surprised you haven’t brought up yet the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is so famous that even people who know nothing about psychology are always citing it, which I guess is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect itself. But could you describe the Dunning-Kruger effect and how it applies to this conversation?
DUCKWORTH: We could run a meta study, just ask people to define the Dunning-Kruger effect. Okay, Dunning and Kruger are psychologists. I believe that David Dunning was the adviser, and his student was Kruger. But the Dunning-Kruger effect is the idea that when you have people who are all doing something, that the people who are doing the worst on that task are more likely to overestimate their ability. So, those who actually know what they’re doing are much more modest in estimating how they are relative to other people. So, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the idea that you can be unskilled and unaware that you are unskilled.
DUBNER: So, if we were to translate this to a different domain, might we say that the little professor lady in the supermarket who doesn’t work there might somehow not be as qualified as a person who does work in the supermarket to tell another shopper where something is?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Where something is, what to buy, what not to buy, These are all problems that I’ve had. Maybe because I know a little bit. I’m like, “I had that cream cheese once. I liked it.” Maybe that somehow emboldens me to offer glib advice. And I think that’s also why it’s so easy to do, because you don’t know about the complexity of all the cream cheese selections, you just say the first thing that comes to mind.
DUBNER: It is the very lack of knowledge that ironically leads to an assumption of knowledge.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I think if you look back to the Dunning-Kruger research on this, which, by the way, it’s an old effect, but there’s still new research being produced. And there was even a paper that came out a couple of years ago — David Dunning’s one of the co-authors — and it was called, “Overconfidence Among Beginners: Is a Little Learning a Dangerous Thing?” And what I really like about this paper is that they basically have these graphs of your confidence as you are progressing through multiple trials of tasks, and then they have your actual performance, like how good you really are, so that you can look at the gap. And there’s this kind of life course, where at the very beginning, you haven’t done this novel problem-solving task at all. You’re not overconfident.
So, it’s not the disease of total newbies to feel like, “Oh, I know everything.” But as soon as you get a little bit of fluency — they call it, “the beginner’s bubble of overconfidence” — then what happens is that you keep going — it’s just like the Alexander Pope quote. Then, you start to really see the complexity, you see the nuances, and you’re like, “Oh, wait, I don’t know.” And so, then your confidence goes down a little bit. So, I do think there isn’t this very simple linear relationship. And maybe, the important thing is to recognize that this is probably true for many things that we all do. And then to just realize that you may not know what phase you’re in.
DUBNER: While you were saying that, I had this flashback to an incident that happened when I must have been 7 or 8 years old, that I don’t think I’ve ever thought about, but it had to do with giving directions to some nuns in a car.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, is this a joke?
DUBNER: No, it’s not at all a joke.
DUCKWORTH: Three nuns drive up in a car.
DUBNER: It was two nuns.
DUCKWORTH: A Jewish boy gets out.
DUBNER: I was Catholic at the time.
DUCKWORTH: You were Catholic! Okay, yes.
DUBNER: Can I tell my own joke? Although it’s not a joke, I promise.
DUBNER: I was in our front yard at this house in the middle of nowhere where I grew up. And I just learned how to sort of give directions. I remember being incredibly excited about this skill, like I could describe how to get to the town, or to someone else’s farm, or whatever. And lo and behold, this one day, I’m out by myself in the yard there, and this car stops, and it’s two nuns. And I’m a little Catholic boy. I’m an altar boy. And it was as if it was a visitation, really. These two nuns stopping, and they wanted to ask directions, and I remember being so simultaneously proud of my ability and flustered by the fact that there was a visitation from these holy ladies, that I gave them directions as best as I could, and then the minute they drove off, I realized I got it wrong. I told them to turn right, and it should have been left.
DUCKWORTH: Oh God, you are going to Hell.
DUBNER: And that’s exactly what I thought. I am now going to Hell.
DUBNER: And I think that incident is what cured me of being you in the supermarket, because I failed at ultracrepidarianism when I was a child.
DUCKWORTH: Well, maybe there is something about getting the feedback about when you’re wrong that could cure you a little bit.
DUBNER: So, Dunning-Kruger reminds me of something that Danny Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is a line I really loved. He wrote, “Not only are we blind to the obvious, but we are blind to our blindness.” So, to extend that idea, you could say not only do we not know many things, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Or as Donald Rumsfeld once put it, for which he was mostly ridiculed, but in retrospect it looks pretty good, he said, “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns, and then there are unknown unknowns.” And then he said, “The ones we don’t know, we don’t know. And if one looks through the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” Which actually, I think, makes a lot of sense.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it’s very wise to say that there is such a thing as the unknown unknowns. You don’t know what you don’t know. The reason why that’s so pernicious is that, if you know you don’t know it, you can start to know it, but if you don’t even know what you don’t know, how do you get out of it? It’s a pit that you can’t climb out of.
DUBNER: Right. But let me get back to what I said earlier, which is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but so can a lot of knowledge. And I think a distinction to be made here is that there’s a big difference between being uninformed and being misinformed. And then there’s a difference in being unintentionally uninformed or misinformed and being intentionally uninformed or misinformed.
I’m thinking of the work of Dan Kahan. He’s at Yale I want to say a psychologist, but I may be wrong on that — maybe a political scientist or something. And he works with a project called the Cultural Cognition Project. And one argument that he and his colleagues have made is that when you look at the views that people hold, let’s say in the U.S., on hot-button topics — whether it’s gun control or abortion, nuclear proliferation, climate change, etc. — he and his colleagues have found that the most extreme views on these topics — on both sides of the extremities — are often held by people who are the most educated. Which is very counterintuitive, because we think one of the whole reasons for education, especially a liberal-arts education, is to come to a sort of moderate or moderated understanding.
DUCKWORTH: Or balanced, anyway. Right? A complete view.
DUBNER: Right. And I personally believe in that. I think that one of the big benefits of what people call a liberal-arts education is to learn to see a variety of inputs, and viewpoints, and possibilities that you might not know even to look for — whether they’re coming from history, or literature, psychology, whatever. But what Kahan and his colleagues have found is that the people who have the most education often hold the most extreme views, because they are smart enough to seek out evidence that confirms their views. And they have so much confidence in their own beliefs that they avoid evidence that might be contradictory.
DUCKWORTH: So, they’re just really good at confirmation bias.
DUBNER: They’re really good at confirmation bias. So, this kind of goes against the problem of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. It’s more like a lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. But that’s not quite right either. It’s more like, if you wish to exploit or abuse evidence, whether it’s a little bit of evidence or a lot, you’re probably going to do that.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe what that moral is, is just that knowing a lot does not give you ultimate protection against making ridiculous errors.
DUBNER: Yeah. So, don’t be afraid to drink from the Pierian spring. Just don’t deceive yourself into thinking it’ll help you get over the blindness to your own blindness. Because that’s, I think, a different mechanism. So, while I appreciate Eamon’s question, and I think it’s got validity and it makes a lot of sense in a world in which there is a lot of misinformation going around, I don’t think that’s the root cause of the problem.
DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s one thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Many people think that this effect is not something that applies to them, but it applies to other people. And I think really getting to blackbelt-level Dunning-Kruger, in a good way, would be to assume that it does apply to you. And here is an example that cuts very close to the bone. Remember when I called you, and I asked you for advice about starting a podcast?
DUBNER: I do.
DUCKWORTH: A few years ago, right? I said, “How hard could it be? It’s a conversation. You could buy a microphone on Amazon. Look, I found one on Amazon! It’s $9!” So, I had the idea that, having listened to, a fair number, at least 10 podcasts, having been a guest on podcasts, that I could, without a lot of trouble, make my own. And what did you say to me, Stephen?
DUBNER: I probably said something to you like, “Let’s talk about this a little bit more, because there’s a little bit more that goes into it than you might think at first blush.”
DUCKWORTH: Yes. You said versions of that. You said, “How many people listen to the average podcast?”
DUBNER: That was mean of me.
DUCKWORTH: And it was like seven. Like, including your relatives and yourself. So, I think you said lots of sobering things. And I was still confident that I could do this. And then I made a couple pilot episodes, with not you. And even when I listened to them, I was like, “This is pretty great.” And then I asked people who actually know something about podcasting to listen to these episodes. And they were like, “Meh.” And I realized that, first of all, even making those two pilot episodes was incredibly time-consuming, and hard, and not at all fun.
Basically, I was like as if I were in one of these studies where I start off and I’m like, “I don’t know,” and then I get really overconfident, and then I do it a little more and then my confidence goes down. It’s like, you see somebody wearing a button-down shirt. And you’re like, “How hard can it be? There’s some buttons, the holes, the buttons go in the holes, it’s got a collar.” And you start sewing. And as soon as you get into sewing that first shirt and you’re like, “Whoa, this is really hard.” And I guess if you kept sewing shirts, you would get better at it. But I think the cure to the Dunning-Kruger effect is experience.
DUBNER: So, is there a way to get to the blackbelt-level of Dunning-Kruger without all that experience? Because, you know, that takes a lot of time. And also it’d be nice for people to be good before they’re super, super, super experienced.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you were quoting Danny Kahneman. And if you asked Danny Kahneman, does reading his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, make you into a less-biased, better thinker?
DUBNER: I’m guessing the answer is no.
DUCKWORTH: No. He doesn’t think actually that reading his book will protect you from all the biases that he writes about in his book. I do think, though, he has something positive to say, which is that after you read the book, you can kind of build systems. So, maybe not the individual overcoming their own biases and blind spots, but that a system could be put in place, with checks and balances, and devil’s advocates on committees and so forth, that would protect against some of these things.
So, that would be a Danny Kahneman answer, which I think would be, “Well, not easily.” Or maybe, “No. You can’t overcome the Dunning-Kruger problem, on your own at least.” But Dunning himself actually did have advice about that, he said, now that you know about the Dunning-Kruger effect, what you ought to do is to be your own devil’s advocate. You could think, how could I be wrong here? What do I not know? And what are assumptions that I’m making that feel really true, but should be questioned?
DUBNER: So, to answer Eamon’s original question, “Is a little information worse than complete ignorance?” It sounds like you and I are not in favor of complete ignorance, correct?
DUCKWORTH: Nope. I’m going to vote thumbs down on complete ignorance — with a caveat on a little bit of knowledge.
DUBNER: Right. We’re also going to say that a lot of information is generally better than a little information, correct?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. More information is better than less information.
DUBNER: But the biggest caveat of all, whether it is complete ignorance, a little information, or a lot of information, doesn’t protect you from being overconfident and wrong. Right? That’s really the moral of the story.
DUCKWORTH: I think the moral of the story is, you don’t know whether you have a little bit of information or a lot of information, and you might think you have a lot of information, but you just have a little bit.
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Stephen references the work of Dan Kahan and his research on education levels and views of hot-button issues, but can’t remember whether the scholar is a psychologist or a political scientist. Kahan is a Yale professor of law and psychology, but he’s a lawyer, not a psychologist. Kahan is well known for his theory of cultural cognition — the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities.
Late, during the discussion about the Dunning-Kruger effect, Angela recalls a conversation that she had years ago with Stephen about starting her own podcast, and she remembers Stephen telling her that the average show gets about seven downloads. It’s actually a few more than that. According to a 2016 publication from the podcast-hosting platform Libsyn, the median number of downloads for a podcast episode is around 150 per month. Obviously, that’s not ideal if your goal is to reach a wide audience, but according to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 150 is the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable relationships. So theoretically, if you reached that median number of downloads, you could have a social relationship with every single one of your listeners. That’s it for the fact-check.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, and James Foster. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Angela Duckworth, co-host of No Stupid Questions and author of Grit.
- “Some of Us Have More Time to Sleep. So Why Are We So Tired?” by Jenna Jonaitis (The Washington Post, 2020).
- “Tomlin on Comfort, Adjustments, Teaching,” by Bob Labriola (Steelers.com, 2020).
- “How to Change Your Mind (Ep. 379),” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Overconfidence Among Beginners: Is a Little Learning a Dangerous Thing?” by Carmen Sanchez and David Dunning (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018).
- “Individuals with Greater Science Literacy and Education Have More Polarized Beliefs on Controversial Science Topics,” by Caitlin Drummond and Baruch Fischhoff (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017).
- “Rumsfeld’s Knowns and Unknowns: The Intellectual History of a Quip,” by David A. Graham (The Atlantic, 2014).
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (2013).
- “The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” by Barbara Fredrickson (The Royal Society of Publishing: Philosophical Transactions, 2004).
- Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, by Robert Sapolsky (2004).
- “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” by Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999).
- “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure,” by Robert Zajonc (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Monograph Supplement, 1968).
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (1943).
- “An Essay on Criticism,” by Alexander Pope (1711).
- “Mere-exposure effect,” by the APA Dictionary of Psychology.