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DUCKWORTH: Ugh, this is so embarrassing.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Does helping yourself necessarily help society?

 DUBNER: In case of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first.

DUCKWORTH: A million dollars to the person who can replace that metaphor with a better one.


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DUBNER: Angela, there’s a magazine that comes out once a year, that I love, from the New York Times Magazine, which I happen to have worked at. My favorite issue is a year-end one called “The Lives They Lived,” which looks back at interesting people who have died in the previous year.

DUCKWORTH: I’ve seen that.

DUBNER: We actually created that special issue when I was an editor there. So, I was involved in it. And it was really fun to look back at all the people who had died in the previous year and not just commission pieces on the most famous, or the most influential, or whatnot, but really the most interesting. Tangent upon a tangent — we originally called it not “The Lives They Lived,” but “Lives Well Lived,” which, I think, ended up being a little too saccharine for our taste.

DUCKWORTH: Hm. I like it, though. You know, “life well lived” — it’s very Aristotelian: “eudaimonia,” the good life

DUBNER: The problem was that “lives well lived,” that phrase kind of excluded scoundrels.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, do you include scoundrels?

DUBNER: Well, you want to have the latitude to include people whose lives were not, quote, “well lived.” In fact — I may be misremembering this — I think I wrote a piece once about a young guy who was driving on a rural road in Maine and hit Stephen King with his car, and almost killed Stephen King.

DUCKWORTH: I’ve read Stephen King’s side of that in the book — what is it — like, On Writing?

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. He was reading a book, because Stephen King reads while walking, even down the sidewalk in New York. And this guy almost killed him. And then, not that many years later, that guy died. And I had already written a piece about Stephen King, and I spent some time up in Maine with him, but then I think I wrote this “Lives They Lived” piece on the guy who hit Stephen King and then died shortly after.


DUBNER: Anyway, there was one piece in this year’s issue about a fellow named Rennie Davis, who was one of the so-called “Chicago Seven.” So, for anybody who doesn’t remember the Chicago Seven, they were the activists and intellectuals who assembled, famously, in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And they were protesting not only the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but also what they saw as basically the U.S. government’s inhumane treatment of its own citizenry.


DUBNER: But not long after that dramatic appearance in Chicago, Rennie Davis — one of this group — he essentially abandoned that mission. And the Times Magazine piece in this special “Lives They Lived” issue — it was written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis — and here’s how he put it: “Activism, Rennie Davis now believed, had failed to fix a broken country. The new solution to war, poverty, racism, was spiritual enlightenment.” And so this guy, Rennie Davis — Chicago Seven member — began following this young Indian guru. And he set off on a life of meditation, and self-enlightenment, and trying to build what he called a “new humanity” movement. Now, he had been incredibly popular as an activist, calling out the sins of the U.S. government, and these people who had supported Rennie Davis now felt totally abandoned and ticked off. They ridiculed him. There was a socialist newspaper called Workers’ Power, which argued that Rennie Davis had, quote, “learned the wrong lesson and decided that politics doesn’t work. So, if you can’t change the world, change yourself.”

DUCKWORTH: And that’s what he means by spiritual enlightenment?

DUBNER: I think that’s basically right. He felt that he should improve himself, and it would radiate into the world and maybe be more powerful than politics and policy. But when I read that sentence: “He decided that politics doesn’t work. So, if you can’t change the world, change yourself,” I have to tell you, Angie, it hit me right between the eyes. That writer had put into words something that I’ve been feeling for years about this— I guess you’d call it a “high-end self-improvement movement,” which you and I are arguably a part of.

DUCKWORTH: We are right there in the eye of the storm, are we not?

DUBNER: That’s a question for debate, but I think the work that you’ve done as a researcher and as a writer with Grit, and some of the work that we’ve done with Freakonomics and Freakonomics Radio — some of it is pointed in that direction. And it’s this idea that, if you focus on your own goals — your own grit, and work habits, and your interpersonal relationships — you are inevitably having a good effect on the larger world as well.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Help yourself to help others.

DUBNER: In case of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first.

DUCKWORTH: A million dollars to the person who can replace that metaphor with a better one. A billion dollars, actually.

DUBNER: I hope we have some takers. But here’s the thing, I’m starting to wonder if this self-enlightenment, this self-help, this self-improvement, is really more of a self-deception. I’m wondering if, instead of all of us trying to optimize ourselves — instead of supporting what I think of sometimes as this “self-help porn” movement of podcasts and books — that we should all spend more time optimizing the opportunity set for as many people as possible. Especially people who don’t have the resources or the inclination to pursue this high-end self-help. You think about the notion of trickle-down economics that President Ronald Reagan practiced, and a lot of liberals dismissed that as unrealistic and even cruel — like, “What do you expect — that good economic outcomes will just trickle down from the rich people to the poor?”

DUCKWORTH: The thinnest of rationalizations.

DUBNER: But I’m wondering, are we engaging in, and supporting, trickle-down self-improvement? And if so, is it any better than trickle-down economics?

DUCKWORTH: I am not the person to comment on trickle down economics. I do, though, see that there is a tension here between helping yourself — inward-directed improvement, like, “How happy am I? Am I taking care of myself? Am I sleeping enough?” — there is a contrast, a tension, between that inward focus and outward, structural change like: change the government, change the laws. I think we should start with the tension, and then see if we can resolve it. Like, I talk to people and they’re like, “Why do you study grit? Why don’t you study structural inequality, or racism, or poverty?” Like, I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a politician. What psychologists do is study the individual. The individual’s motivation, the individual’s emotion, the individual’s behavior. Sociologists study the group. Anthropologists study culture. So, it’s kind of just not my trade.

DUBNER: Yeah, but at the risk of insulting my good friend, Angela Duckworth, let me just say, that sounds a bit of a cop-out, for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that you’re really contradicting your own actions to some degree, because while you consider yourself a psychologist who essentially studies the self, the fact is you helped launch this massive project with a bunch of other academics called Behavior Change for Good. And this was an incredibly ambitious, wide-ranging project. I mean, it’s in the title there: “Behavior Change for Good.” You’re trying to understand and encourage behavior changes across the population that will improve society at large — yes, one by one, individual by individual, but it’s not about the self, entirely.

DUCKWORTH: Well, not about the self, but I think when people are impatient or even angry that there’s talk about, again, grit, growth mindset, agency, individual psychological stuff, I think what they’re annoyed about is that seems to be stealing attention from things that are really external to the individual. I’ve talked to people that are, like, literally mad at me for bringing up psychology. Often, frankly, they are my sociology friends. Like, I’ll send around an article about an intervention that improved life outcomes for middle-school students who learned to say “no” to drugs and to communicate better, and I’m sometimes astonished, honestly, at how angry that can make people. Like, “Why are you talking about fixing these kids? You have to fix society!”

DUBNER: You know, the reason I brought this question to you today is in part because I’ve been looking back lately at Freakonomics Radio, because we’ve been at it, we’re about to hit our 500th episode.


DUBNER: There are these round numbers that are pretty much meaningless, except they make you assess the past.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Research shows. Fives and zeros, right, at the end number make you reflect.

DUBNER: It is true. And there’s a reason things are priced 4.99 and 19.99 instead of five and 20, and so on. And I’d notice that, even before COVID, but especially during COVID, we have done a lot more episodes on fairly serious policy questions — whether it’s about voting, poverty, minimum wage, et cetera, et cetera. We used to do more quirky, sometimes cute, and often personal-ish stories about how people could optimize their lives as opposed to optimize policy. And I was wondering why I had changed my focus — to some degree, not entirely. I was thinking, partly it was maybe COVID that made some of those other stories feel a little bit less relevant, somehow? And I believe this transcends whatever political and cultural divisions we may have, because I believe that progressives and conservatives, young people and old people, whatever — I do feel a common human sentiment is that we want to not only succeed and thrive for ourselves, and our families, and our friends — if not to necessarily help others do the same, at least help create an environment where anybody can. I really think that most people do want to live in a world where it’s not that they’re just fat and happy and everyone else is miserable. But it seems that we’re in an era right now, whether it’s politically, or economically, or socially, where it’s not at all obvious what the average person can do to create a rising tide that lifts a lot of boats. And therefore, there is this frustration, and I don’t really know how to respond to that.

DUCKWORTH: So, I think there are two different questions. One is: should I work on society at large — things that are outside of the individual — or should I work on the individual? That’s one tension: sociology versus psychology. And then there’s another tension, which is like: should I care about other people, or should I care about myself?


DUCKWORTH: I guess they’re related, but I think they’re different. I was thinking more about sociology versus psychology. Like, assume that you’re completely altruistic. This is not about you. It’s just about how to help humanity. And now, you have the question of: Should you work on structural problems, or should you work on individual agency and individual psychology?

DUBNER: Uh-huh.

DUCKWORTH: But maybe you’re more asking: should we be prosocially-oriented or personally-oriented?

DUBNER: Well, as always, you’ve taken a kind of shallow question and deepened it really nicely. I think both tracks are really relevant. And, look, for the sake of this conversation and for the sake of our listeners, I think it’s probably best to talk on both tracks, because some people may wish to pursue one over the other.

DUCKWORTH: So, which one should we take first, Stephen: me versus they, or inside versus outside?

DUBNER: Let’s do the inside versus outside. We’ll start with the big and maybe work our way back to the small.

DUCKWORTH: You know, when I was a teacher in my 20s, I was teaching, among other places, in New York City public schools. And when you close that classroom door and you’re, like, staring at these kids, you don’t think about zoning ordinances and— and legislation. You also aren’t, in the moment, thinking about how cruel it is the way public school funding works — you know, systematically advantages the advantaged. It’s like the most regressive school funding that you could have. What you’re doing is you’re looking at these girls and boys, and you’re trying to help them that day. And I think, in a way, this internal versus external — like, “Should I be trying to get my kids to have more confidence and figure out how best to teach them? Or should I be thinking about structural things that loom larger in their lives? But they’re not inside my classroom.” Maybe it was all those years of teaching that inclined me not to think so much about the structural things that, for me, it was not obvious how I was going to change. Like, I do not know how to change the history of school funding in the United States that goes with ZIP code. You know, when I was in high school, I read Candide. Did you read Candide by Voltaire?

DUBNER: “Let us go cultivate our garden.”

DUCKWORTH: Yes! “We must cultivate our garden” was this kind of, like, “Well, the world is complicated, and there’s all this stupidity, and there’s politics, and there’s almost nothing stupider than politics. And people fighting each other over small things, not for the greater good.” And, even as a junior in high school, I was like, “Oh, you have to cultivate your own garden. Don’t try to do things that you can’t change, even though you know that they should be changed. Like, grow some lettuce, you know, like, pull the weeds.” So, I feel like I had the same attitude as a teacher. And for better or worse, and I guess I could be criticized for this —  I am criticized for this — I just find it more useful to focus on something that I can change. And maybe like this guy Rennie Davis, I’m kind of at a loss for how to change these structural things, which I agree are bigger.

DUBNER: Well, I think it’s such a spectrum we’re talking about here, because I think it would be very easy for me to make the argument that you are having a big impact.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I don’t know how much impact I’m having.

DUBNER: Well, I could make the argument that you are, but part of my challenge to that argument is: Is it mostly high-status people, for instance, who read a book like Grit in order to help themselves become a little higher-status? Is the research that you’re doing around kids and education — is it having the impact that you would like it to have versus what might be a much broader impact of a larger commercial or policy initiative? It’s one of the reasons, Angie, I’ve always liked journalism, which is the idea that you have a lot of leverage. One person writes something, and a thousand can read it. Now there’s obviously a lot of leverage in other realms — in politics and policy, in business and commerce. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg has a lot of leverage. But even in those areas, I think self-interest is often trumping the common interest. And I’m not so naive as to think self-interest should either be diminished or that’s it’s even a bad thing.

DUCKWORTH: So, now you’re talking about the second thing: should I work on my own life and make my life better, or should I try to make other people’s lives better, right?

DUBNER: Yes, except I wouldn’t want to make it binary. I’m not suggesting that everyone within the sound of our voices, including ourselves, should give up all the things that we love to do, even if they are purely for self-interest, because that’s an important part of human life. And one could argue that without that sort of motivation and incentive, that people wouldn’t do a lot of the things that do benefit a lot of other people. So, I don’t mean to kill off those incentives. It’s more about balancing selfish pursuits, and how one should think about that balance.

DUCKWORTH: Do you know about the Schwartz Values Survey?

DUBNER: I feel I have heard those three words from your mouth.

DUCKWORTH: So, Shalom Schwartz — the project was: what are the core values that are universal across culture, across countries, even across history? And Shalom came up with a list of ten. There’s a couple of them that he would argue are the self-transcendent values: “benevolence” — caring about your family, your friends, people —  and “universalism,” which is caring about humanity — caring about equity and fairness in a more abstract sense. And at the opposite pole, there are these self-enhancing values. And they are things like “power,” or “personal achievement,” or “hedonism.” And then, there were other values that are more about openness to change versus being conservative or traditional, but let’s just take that self-transcendent versus self-enhancing dimension — that dichotomy. The reason why they’re on two ends of the spectrum is that he finds that they’re not very correlated. But it is possible — like, I look at my own values — I had to rank them recently, because I gave it as a homework assignment in my class. “Like: rank your 10 Schwartz values.” And I do all the homework assignments that my students do. And when I did this, in a moment of honesty, first of all, I put “achievement” first. I was like, “Ugh, this is so embarrassing.” But, honestly, look at my life — I have to say, it’s revealed preference. My second one was “benevolence.” So, one is self-enhancing. The other one is self-transcendent. But like, if I teach really well, if I just kill it in my class, I feel like a winner. And I also feel extraordinarily prosocial. There’s so many ways that we can do both.

DUBNER: I think about that when I’m trying to ask whether I’m spending my time on this planet well. You know, my chosen profession, which I’ll be honest, I enjoy a great deal. And then I think, “Well, do I try to justify it a little bit more by pretending it’s more prosocial than it is?” So, for instance, on Freakonomics Radio, we did an episode years ago on — I’m guessing, you know who Al Roth is, correct?


DUBNER: Al Roth is this really interesting and lovely guy who was a high school dropout, and then kind of wandered around a bit, went back to college, got a Ph.D. But Al Roth has done a lot of really interesting work in economics for which he won a Nobel. And one big one — the one that he’s most famous for — is coming up with a better system to encourage and match kidney donors and kidney recipients. As most people probably know, this is a really big problem. Many more people are in need of a kidney than there are kidneys available for donation. So, we did a Freakonomics Radio episode on his work. And the idea is that if you give as a non-directed donor — as opposed to give to someone in particular — you can trigger a chain of other non-directed donors.


DUBNER: Imagine that you needed a kidney transplant, but your husband and no one else in your family was a match for you. But they’re all willing to give a kidney. Well, if they’re all willing to give a non-directed donation — meaning it’s directed to anyone who needs it, but it won’t go to you, because we know you’re not a match — once that kidney enters the pool, then you become eligible for a non-directed donation, and therefore, you become much more likely to receive a kidney and to live longer. So, that’s an amazingly efficient way to deal with this problem. And after we ran this episode, we heard from a listener who decided that he was going to give a non-directed kidney and that this would hopefully trigger a chain of further donation. And we interviewed him for a fund-raising episode we were doing for the public radio station where we were making our show at the time. And that episode, in turn, triggered a bunch more non-directed kidney donations.


DUBNER: I cling to those episodes, sometimes, to think about how — yes, the work I’m doing isn’t just for me, it isn’t just fun, it isn’t just an exercise of my own curiosity — even though it is mostly those things — it has some pro-social benefit. But in terms of all the hours and years that I’ve put into this, I don’t know, maybe I’m having zero positive effect on the world. Maybe I’m having negative effect on the world. So, I go back to poor Rennie Davis, who had all these acolytes, who thought that he was fixing the world, and then he just said, “Nope. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t work. I’m just going to work on myself.” Who am I to say that he’s wrong for saying that?

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela tells Stephen that the famous Maslow hierarchy of needs isn’t what we think it is:

DUBNER: Is he breaking into university bookstores and crossing out the old pyramid and pasting in a new one?

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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about self-improvement, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the topic. We asked listeners to send us voice memos about whether it’s more important to optimize yourself or to optimize the world around you. Here’s what you said:

Elieen FINGERMAN: When I heard the subject, it brought to mind one of my favorite quotes by E.B. White. It goes as follows, “I rise in the morning. Torn between a desire to improve or save the world and a desire to enjoy or savor the world.”

Joel SCHNEIDER: I live by the axiom that it is easier — and I would argue better — to put shoes on your own feet than it is to carpet the entire world. We should be the change that we wish to see in the world.

Russ YOUNG: While I do think that there’s wisdom in the adage — the biblical adage — of removing the plank from your own eye before you remove the speck from someone else’s eye, I also think that it’s something that kind of needs to be in tandem. You’ve got to get at least some of your own affairs in order before you can help anybody else. But at the same time, if you wait to get all of your affairs in order, then you’re never going to help anybody. If you’re struggling with something, maybe taking the focus off of yourself for a little bit and helping someone else can be very beneficial to you. Definitely, you need to start by making sure you’re on firm footing. But you’ve got to help other people, and that’s probably the best way to help yourself.

That was, respectively: Eileen Fingerman, Joel Schneider, and Russ Young. The vast majority of the messages that we received argued that it’s more important to optimize oneself than to optimize society — so, thanks to everyone for providing Angela with some ammo to fight back against those sociologist bullies. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about self-improvement versus societal improvement.

DUCKWORTH: I am sure there are plenty of people — including, maybe, Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth — who have a mirage of, like, “Oh, of course, we’re helping people through our work. Of course, this podcast is helping people,” but really that’s just a thin veneer. Really, we just want to do it. We just want to, like, hang out, talk to each other.

DUBNER: And is there anything wrong with that? That’s really my question.

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think honesty is good. So, like, to extent that there is a deception there — of self or others — I think that’s bad. How bad? I don’t know. I don’t think we should be executed for it, but another reason why honesty is good is that it can get you to a better answer. So, if we stare at ourselves in the mirror, and we’re like, “Hey, let’s be honest. This thing isn’t really a mitzvah. It’s not like we’re helping the world be a better place. We’re just having fun.” And if I can just say that more honestly, and I still want to do it — great. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I do think that when you want to help people in a sustainable way — when I was in my 20s, I had a very, like, “martyr” view towards how to help the world. And it’s like: the more pain, the better. I just picked the community service activity that would be the most depressing. I visited the Cantabrigia Nursing Home every week. And I visited these two women. One had Alzheimer’s and literally forgot me every time. The other one was dying of liver cancer, and I was visiting these two patients, because nobody else visited them. Then, one of the women passed away, and the other one, her dementia got so bad we were not able to communicate at all. After a year of that, I was like, “Oh, great. What other painful thing can I do?” But, as I got older, I kind of finally figured out that martyrdom — it’s really not a sustainable strategy.

DUBNER: It wasn’t sustainable, or it wasn’t desirable? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, both. Because, I think that if you can find something that’s good for other people, at least a little bit — like, if you can do something like be a teacher, or a doctor, or frankly, even like a sales rep or whateve,r but you do your job and somebody else’s life is a little better — I think that’s both sustainable and desirable, because you’re going to be good at it.

DUBNER: If I recall correctly, Erich Fromm, the German psychoanalyst from roughly a century ago, didn’t he write about this struggle between the self and society? 

DUCKWORTH: He was a humanist, and he famously talked about self-actualization — those may not be exactly his words, but Maslow, who was also a humanist, used that term. Like, self-actualization, that’s our task in life.

DUBNER: When I look at the Maslow pyramid, the hierarchy of needs — I remember the first time I saw that in whatever grade that is you study it — you have to have your needs met: your safety, your food, love, and dah-dah-dah, then self-actualization. I used to think, “Wow, it would be so cool to be even within binocular-distance of the top of that pyramid and be in a place to pursue self-actualization,” because the environment in which I grew up, we were much more concerned with satisfying the more basic fundamentals of having enough money for housing, and food, and all that stuff. And now I have those things. I’m kind of living in the self-actualization part of that pyramid. And I think one of the challenges, or one of the ironies, of that is one thing that self-actualizing does is makes you question: Does self-actualizing really belong at the top of that pyramid? Shouldn’t it be societal-actualizing? Now, I realize that that was an individual hierarchy of needs, but still, it does make me wonder. 

DUCKWORTH: Two fun facts about Maslow. One is: Maslow never drew a pyramid. So, we have all of these Google images of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and they’re all pyramids, usually multicolored ones. And Maslow never drew a pyramid. He just talked about needs that were basic. He did refer to a hierarchy. But, anyway, I just want to say that he didn’t have quite the strict interpretation.

DUBNER: Was it because he was bad at drawing?  

DUCKWORTH: I’m not sure, but here’s the more relevant fun fact. Maslow didn’t have “self-actualization” at the top of the hierarchy.  

DUBNER: Get out of here!

DUCKWORTH: This is a big one. Wait for it. It was self-transcendence.  


DUCKWORTH: Self-transcendence was actually above self-actualization.  

DUBNER: And what is the difference between self-transcendence and self-actualization?

DUCKWORTH: I think self-actualization was— And by the way, it’s more poetry than prose, but I’ll give you my interpretation.  I think self-actualization is living your best life, being your best self — whatever it is. You know, if you are a woodworker, being the best woodworker that you can be; if you are a friend, being the best friend that you can be. Self-transcendence is trying to work towards other people’s wellbeing. So, really it’s about “self” versus “other.” But I don’t think it’s either/ or. It’s just, like, once you have achieved excellence in your own life, then you can reach for this even greater and higher need, which is like: with all of that excellence, now pursue the interest of others. Self-actualization is looking inside to be the best person you can be. Self-transcendence is your attention, your energy, is other-directed. 

DUBNER: What kind of difference do you think it would make if all the people who are currently seeking out this sort of high-end self-improvement that we began this conversation discussing would be presented with a new Maslow hierarchy with self-transcendence at the top, rather than self-actualization. Do you think just understanding the framework a little bit differently would have some significant effect? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s a very interesting question. There are people who are trying to do that. Like Scott Barry Kaufman.

 DUBNER: And is he breaking into university bookstores and crossing out the old pyramid and pasting in a new one? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, he wrote a book all about this. He’s a bit of a evangelical neo-Maslowian — trying to correct misunderstandings about Maslow. I don’t know how big his reach is. Maybe it’s a little bit bigger because we just talked about him. Yay! We helped the world! But I do think the best life is to help other people — help yourself and help others. You know, the “life well lived,” Stephen, if it were the original phrasing in that New York Times Magazine, is self-actualization in service of self-transcendence. If you look at truly happy people, and if you look at people who make the world a better place, they are the same people. And what they do is they pursue self-actualization, self-awareness, excellence, in the service of others, not the self. I think that’s kind of the resolution of this.  

DUBNER: So, in summary: We all need new pyramids that have self-transcendence at the top, instead of just self-actualization. We should consider this another case of “both/and is probably much better than either/or”. I really like your point about being honest about the amount of leverage that we actually exer,t and the amount of benefit we’re trying to spread around the world. I do wonder if this show does any good — one drop of one iota good, societally. So, how about this? If I see evidence that this show is worthwhile, even one percent improvement in some realm that’s meaningful, I’m eager to carry on for the foreseeable future, but if not, that we quit and try to do something more prosocial. You in?

DUCKWORTH: Well, you’re looking for evidence that we are doing good, but I think we should actually look for evidence that disconfirms that as well. Otherwise you’re just going to have confirmation bias. You’re going to be like, “Oh, this listener just said that we helped them.” I’m going to see if I can find evidence that we’re not helping people.  

DUBNER: Yes. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, my dear.

DUCKWORTH True. So “twue.”

DUBNER: So what do we do about that problem?  

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I have to have another conversation about that.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen recalls writing about Bryan Smith, the man known for hitting Stephen King with his van in 1999. While King is known for reading while he walks, he was not reading at the moment Smith hit him —  however, he was carrying a book. Also, Stephen did write about the incident, but not for the “The Lives They Lived” issue of The New York Times Magazine. The story was actually a part of a longer piece on Stephen King that Stephen wrote for a different issue of the magazine. But there are still quite a few, quote-unquote, “scoundrels” who have been profiled in “The Lives They Lived.” For example, Joseph Nicolosi — the clinical psychologist infamous for practicing the pseudoscience of homosexual conversion therapy — was featured in the 2017 issue. And Rosie Ruiz — the champion of the 1980 Boston Marathon who was later found to have cheated — was profiled in the 2019 issue.

Later, Angela resolutely states that anthropologists study culture. According to the American Anthropological Association, the study of culture only covers one area of anthropology. Quote, “Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archeology, and linguistic anthropology.”

Finally, Angela describes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s idea of self-transcendence as “working toward other people’s well-being.” But experts have summarized the idea as much more of a spiritual state — an individual who has reached self-transcendence experiences a sense of identity beyond the self, which may involve something more mystical than just helping others.

That’s it for the fact-check.

*      *      *

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is “zest” the key to success? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m starting to think of all things that may be the best zest test — better than the rest.  

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear about the zestiest folks in history — people with incredible energy and enthusiasm. If you can think of anyone who fits that description, email a voice memo to with the subject line “Zest.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute. Maybe we’ll include them on the show! 

No Stupid Questions is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio and is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. 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 To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: Maybe there’s an Us Weekly special, “teal dress issue” — or something like that?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, or like “best looking” — although I think that’s People.

 DUBNER: Have I been on that cover yet?

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  • Erich Fromm, German psychologist and psychoanalyst.
  • Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist and founder and director of the Center for the Science of Human Potential.
  • Abraham Maslow, professor of psychology at Brandeis University.
  • Alvin E. Roth, professor of economics at Stanford University.
  • Shalom Schwartz, professor emeritus of psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



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