DUCKWORTH: “What the hell are you doing here?”
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What does your level of punctuality say about you?
DUBNER: It’s an early-arriving arms race.
Also: what does your name say about your personal history?
DUBNER: Smith might’ve meant you came from a family of blacksmiths.
DUCKWORTH: I’m married to a Duckworth. Is that like duck farmers?
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DUBNER: Angela, a listener named Kaylin has written with a question, and I cannot wait to see how you answer this question.
DUCKWORTH: I cannot wait to see what Kaylin’s question was.
DUBNER: It feels like a very Angie question in that it seems like a problem you would not have.
DUBNER: Kaylin writes to say, “Hi, NSQ. I volunteer with a compost drop-off program, and usually the hours are 8 a.m. to 12 noon, but sometimes we extend to 1 p.m. Whether the drop-off ends at noon or 1 p.m., I’ve noticed that people — often the same ones — will come running at the very last minute to drop off. When drop-off ends at noon, they come running at 11:55 a.m., but when it ends at 1 p.m., they come running at 12:55 p.m. Why not just arrive at 11:55 a.m. and save yourself the stress when the drop-off ends at 1 p.m.?” First of all, I’m getting confused about how people even know that it ends at noon or 1 p.m.
DUCKWORTH: I was thinking that.
DUBNER: That seems like a lot of trouble to keep track of.
DUCKWORTH: Piece of advice there for the compost drop-off program: You should probably keep your hours the same. But, anyway, that’s not the question.
DUBNER: Here’s the question from Kaylin: “Why do people always seem to wait until the last minute to accomplish a chore, or task, or project?” So, let’s just start there. Why do people always seem to wait to the last minute? Are we just talking about procrastination here, or is it something else?
DUCKWORTH: Well, Stephen, you said that I wouldn’t have a lot in common here, and I want to tell you —.
DUBNER: No, no, no, no.
DUCKWORTH: Not only am I pro-composting, but also, I am one of those people who comes in at the last minute.
DUBNER: You are such a punctual, planning person.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t come late to things that are important, but let me give you an example. So, I don’t actually have a compost drop-off place, because that’s not how our composting works, but I do go to yoga classes. And you’re supposed to come to yoga 15 minutes early. You have to come in, sign in, roll out your mat, and get centered. And I am invariably the last person.
DUBNER: Is getting centered a physical thing or an emotional thing?
DUCKWORTH: No, no, no. It’s all in the mind, Stephen. But I am that last person. I’m always the annoying person where everybody else has to move their mats around to accommodate the geometry of my mat now having to fit in.
DUBNER: That surprises me, because even though I know you might want to time-maximize and not waste seven minutes centering yourself that you could be doing something else—.
DUCKWORTH: I could answer 25 emails in that time.
DUBNER: But you’re also, I think — or I thought — a very considerate person. And we all know it’s a little bit disrespectful to come at the last minute, because, yeah, other people have to get disrupted and interrupted.
DUCKWORTH: I think I’m at the edge, Stephen. I think I’m just, like, a millisecond before being inconsiderate, because I don’t come late, I frequently resolve to myself that I’ll come a little early. So, I love this question. It allows me to think about why people, in general, do this, but it also allows me to introspect a little bit about why I do this.
DUBNER: That’s good. And I’m glad that you have something in common with these problem composters. On the other hand, I do wonder if I’m bringing the question to the wrong person.
DUCKWORTH: Well, it could be. Maybe we should be asking you, Stephen. Are you an 11:55 a.m. — or I guess 12:55 p.m. — composter, depending on when the hours end?
DUBNER: Well, I am not great at keeping track of things when the times on those things constantly change. So, I would probably quit composting if they were sometimes closing at noon and sometimes 1 p.m. But I will say this. I am not sympathetic to the late arrivers. I’m with Kaylin. I think my father once said when I was young — and it probably would have come, ideally, in a thick Yiddish accent — even though my father didn’t have a thick Yiddish accent — but it probably would have sounded something like, “Better to be early one hour than to be five minutes late.” So yeah, I do have it kind of baked into my soul not to be late.
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I respect your father’s commitment to earliness. And by the way many high-achievers — I’m thinking, in particular, of this article on Olympic swimmers that a colleague of mine named Dan Chambliss, a sociologist, wrote — many of them will embrace the “five minutes early is on time” principle, for all kinds of interesting psychological reasons. It not only allows you to be “centered” mentally before whatever’s about to happen — whether it’s swim practice, or yoga, or — I’m not sure how much mindfulness you need for composting — but allows you to really just be there and not be a frazzled, frenzied mess. But the reason I think that this behavior persists is that you are trying to squeeze in things, you’re trying to maximize what you can do with your time. And so, it’s not entirely irrational to say, “Look, I’m going to put this off until I have to do it.” I also think there might be some amount of procrastination there. It’s certainly the case that I keep resolving to come earlier to things like yoga. So, that suggests to me that this isn’t just an optimization strategy and that I should probably interrogate a little more my tardiness.
DUBNER: I think those are both good points. Let’s take them one at a time. Optimizing your time would be the first one. The second one would be something along the lines of procrastinating. So, yeah, I could imagine, especially in the case of the compost drop-off, that you’re not only optimizing time, but you’re prioritizing. You are probably considering dropping off compost as a relatively low-priority event.
DUCKWORTH: Cover your ears, composters. But it may not be the most important thing you get done today.
DUBNER: So, it makes sense to leave it to last. And if you don’t get to it, then you don’t get to it. You could think of that as — did you ever learn the inverted-pyramid model of newspaper writing? Basically, you want all the important stuff at the top. And then, you think of it as an inverted pyramid, where the further down you get into the piece, the less consequential the information is. And this was especially applicable in the old days when publishing was very space-determined. Articles had to be a certain number of inches. And if you thought you had 12 inches, but at the last minute, a bigger ad came in, or a breaking news piece came in, and you had eight inches, the way editing was done was to just take off the last four inches. And so, you wanted your writers to write in a style where the least important stuff came at the end. And therefore, you could just cut it off. So, these five-of arrivers at the composting facility, maybe they had tasks that they considered more important. And they figured, if I get to it, great. And if not, then it’s no great loss.
DUCKWORTH: That goes perfectly well with the Olympic swimmer, because what that says is: “I’ve decided to make practice the most important thing. And I will not be late. I will be early.” I think that’s true for me, probably, about yoga too, that it’s not the most important thing that I’m going to get done. By the way, at this yoga studio, if you come late, you actually can’t disrupt everyone. They just shut the door. So, I guess I was willing to live with that risk.
DUBNER: So, Kaylin’s tardy composters are perhaps — at least some of them, optimizing for higher-priority tasks. That’s, let’s say, an optimistic assumption or an “optimizing” assumption. What about the other one, though? You mentioned procrastination. If you see this pattern of people coming at the last minute all the time, is that procrastination? Or is that more like what your people call “the planning fallacy”?
DUCKWORTH: Well, procrastination has an intuitive definition, right? It’s putting things off that you, in retrospect or upon reflection, think you shouldn’t have put off. The planning fallacy is different and a little less widely known. I think it was Danny Kahneman, the psychologist and behavioral economist, who coined the term “planning fallacy.”
DUBNER: I think, with Amos Tversky, if I’m not mistaken.
DUCKWORTH: Ah. You’re exactly right. So, Tversky and Kahneman said that the planning fallacy is what happens when you fail to anticipate how long, or how effortful, or how complicated, a task will be. Let’s use the example that Danny Kahneman often uses. Say you’re renovating your kitchen, and you think it’s going to take two months and $20,000. It’s going to take probably $40,000 and at least twice the amount of time. The consistent reality is that it will more likely take double the amount of time, if not more. And so, the fact that we make the mistake is not all that remarkable. The fact that we consistently and repeatedly make the mistake is interesting.
DUBNER: I have read that the planning fallacy is, to some degree, and in some cases, a result of optimism. That you are optimistic that you can complete something in a certain box of time, even, in fact, when you can’t. So, do we know anything about whether people who have been measured to be more optimistic are worse at planning fallacy than, let’s say, pessimists, who might not be as much fun to be around as optimists, but maybe they’re much better at planning and therefore don’t fall prey to the fallacy?
DUCKWORTH: I do know that there has been empirical research tying the planning fallacy to optimism in a very specific way, because optimism means different things to different researchers, but in particular, focusing on a positive version of the future. Basically, you make a mental movie of what’s going to happen, and it’s a best-case scenario. So, that optimistic, future-oriented bias may explain — or at least explain a lot of — the planning fallacy. Say, for example, you say, “Hey, I think we should swap out our gas stove for induction. And at the same time, what the heck, let’s tear out these cabinets.” So, you start looking through the IKEA website. And you have a mental movie of what this is going to be like. And you’re like, “Oh, we’re going to hire a contractor. And then, we’re going to buy this stove. And this is going to happen.” And that mental movie is certainly one of the movies that could happen, that might happen. The problem is there are 99 other movies. Like, the contractor turned out to be a complete flake. We had to actually move to a second contractor. They were out of the stove. IKEA doesn’t have any cabinets left. It’s a pandemic, after all. And I think the challenge is that when we forecast the future, we are very likely forecasting one possible future, and a rosy one at that.
DUBNER: I am looking at this list from an article called “How to Stop Being Late” by Ellen Hendriksen, published in Psychology Today. Most of the tips are pretty common sense, but I think a few of them could be helpful. For instance, beware, quote, “one more thing” — that little thing you add that you kind of treat as if it takes a phantom amount of time, like zero time.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I’m so bad at this.
DUBNER: Give me an example.
DUCKWORTH: Well, the yoga thing. I know damn well how long it takes me to get on my shoes, get my mat, and of course run — because I never have time to walk — to the yoga studio. And I think to myself, “Yeah, but I can probably answer these next three emails. I have 45 seconds, after all.” So, I do think the “one more thing” is part of my problem.
DUBNER: Here’s one last tip: “transfer your biggest morning headache to the night before.” So, I have to say, this resonates for me, because this is something I try to do, but I often fail to do. I find that if I have an interview that I need to prepare for, that’s in the morning, I don’t really want to do it at night, because I’m afraid that all the preparation will leak out of my brain while I’m sleeping.
DUCKWORTH: Especially if you sleep on your side.
DUBNER: But I do like to at least give it a really good, hard look the night before, so that in the morning, I’m on my way. So, maybe for the composting people — if any of Kaylin’s enemies are listening to this — let’s imagine that you bought 50 pumpkins to decorate your house for Halloween and/or Thanksgiving. And they’re all rotting now. And you think the right thing to do is to bring them to the composting center. Maybe what you should do is you should put all the stinky, rotten pumpkins in your car the night before. And therefore, you’re also creating a commitment device, because now you’ll really want to get them out of the car and into the composting center. So, two birds, one pumpkin.
DUCKWORTH: Two birds, one pumpkin. I will say this, that I really like about where you’re going, and that’s about intentionality. And by the way, sleep and memory researchers would add that, because there is this mental rehearsal that you do while you’re sleeping, it turns out, that probably does actually help in terms of —. Yeah. There’s some stuff going on between the ears when we are sleeping. And that is one of the reasons why it’s very, very hard to learn when you are sleep-deprived. The brain needs sleep to consolidate memories. But I think intentionality is the most important thing that you picked up on. You know, what would I like my life to be like? Do I want to get to yoga one minute before the class? I think if I reflect upon my competing priorities it might be that I say, “Yeah, I’m good. That’s fine.”
DUBNER: I am curious, in the era of the Zoom call, when do you habitually show up? You’ve told us that you’re often last minute for yoga, but compared to others on Zoom calls, do you tend to be early, right on time, or a bit late?
DUCKWORTH: I am never as early as Danny Kahneman. Sometimes I’d log in earlier and earlier, just to see if he’s there. And he is! I’m like, “What the hell are you doing here?”
DUBNER: It’s an early-arriving arms race, then. Do you think he sleeps over in the Zoom room?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know if he ever goes off Zoom. I don’t get it, Stephen. It’s a mystery.
DUBNER: Do you think he wrote about the planning fallacy simply as a commitment device for himself so that he would always have to be early?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, it really is striking. And I haven’t talked to Danny enough about this, but I think it says a lot about him. He puts the time that other people are taking to talk to him as pretty high up in his priorities, and maybe I’m undervaluing it. I am the sort of person who, if we have a two o’clock call, I consider that two o’clock and 55 seconds is still two o’clock. That’s my general M.O., but I’m striving toward the Danny Kahneman asymptote of, you know, earlier is better. I will say this. The thing that has probably been the most helpful in terms of reforming my borderline — and even sometimes late — behavior is that I have a lab. And in my lab, there are young people. And in my lab, I say to the young people, “You have to come at least two minutes or three minutes early. First of all, you own the Zoom room. Second of all, God forbid you come in after Danny Kahneman.” So, now that I’ve said that out loud, there is something in psychology called the “saying is believing” effect, where what you affirm, you follow through on, because you don’t like the dissonance between saying one thing and doing another. So, that more than anything has helped me reform. I’m not at Danny Kahneman level yet, but I don’t think I’m horrible.
DUBNER: One last question for you on the yoga dilemma. How close to the yoga studio do you live? And before you answer, I am going to make an assumption based on a little bit of data. But my assumption is going to be, you live quite close to the yoga studio. Am I right or wrong?
DUCKWORTH: Very good, Stephen. I do live quite close to the yoga studio. Blocks.
DUBNER: So, the reason I ask this question — and I don’t know if there’s any good academic research on this — but I’ve often thought that when you live close to your destination, you’re more likely to be late, which seems a little counterintuitive, because if you live right around the corner from school, or work, or your church, or whatever, you’d think you’d always be on time. There’s no travel hassle. There’s no delays. But I will tell you, when something is close by, I’m more likely to be late. And I just wondered about it for years. Then, we received an email from a Freakonomics reader. This was a few years ago. We published this on the Freakonomics blog. And I’d love to run this past you and see what you think. This was a young reader in India. Her name was Abiya. And she wrote to say, “I’m a 21-year-old girl from Pune, India who is on the brink of a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. As a kid, I was always interested in how things work and why people do the things they do. So, I decided to analyze something I’ve seen, noticed, and been a part of, but never really given that much thought to: the relation between distance between your home and place of work and the probability of being late. So,” she writes, “My college class has 53 students. All of them live in Pune — either with their families, in rented apartments as paying guests, or at the hostel. Of these, 26, or 49 percent, live near — within a radius of seven kilometers — and 27, or 51 percent, live far.” So, roughly half and half. “Of those who live near,” she writes, “17 own a car, or motorcycle, or scooter, and thus have their independent mode of transport. The other nine in the near group rely on public transport.”
DUCKWORTH: This is impressive.
DUBNER: It was impressive. So, as she began to analyze these data, she writes, “Conventional wisdom dictates that those who live near and have their own modes of transport should reach college earlier than those who live far and have no modes of transport. But my data, which I noted on three regular weekdays and averaged out, betrayed this.” “As it turned out,” she writes, “18 people were late. Of those, 12 — or 67 percent — lived near and only six — 33 percent — lived far.”
DUCKWORTH: Exactly the opposite of what you might think.
DUBNER: Exactly the opposite of what you might think. “Of those in the near latecomers, 10 owned their own mode of transport out of the 12, and two had to rely on public transport. So,” she concludes, “As it turns out, people who live near to college come late. And of those, students who were in control of their own mode of transport were even more late.”
DUCKWORTH: I love this, because I think it gets to the sort of “one more thing.” I am guessing that these people who are like, “I’ll just hop in the car. It’s so close,” you’re more prone to these optimistic predictions. Again, it is possible that you’ll hop in the car, there won’t be any traffic, there won’t be any problems, but then you have failed to anticipate the 99 scenarios, many of which are not nearly as positive as that one. It might also explain, if not excuse, my somewhat “on the brink” yoga behavior. And when I said the name of the game here is intentionality, if we consistently make the planning fallacy, I think there are two things that you can do. One is, you can look at distributional data. In other words: if you’re going to, for example, renovate your kitchen, before you come to your own estimate of how much it’s going to cost and how time-consuming it’s going to be with your own general contractor, etc., just Google. Look at how long it takes other people to complete their kitchens, etc. You can do this for most tasks, but people don’t bother to. Danny Kahneman points out that we don’t tend to think statistically on our own, but we can force ourselves to. And the other bit of advice is to try to remember other things that you’ve done that are somewhat similar, and how they turned out, and what your original projections were, and where you may have gotten things completely wrong in terms of being overly optimistic. Regardless, I think that intentionality, plus some amount of this perspective-taking, it may not be a cure, but I do think it might help us.
DUBNER: That sounds like some really useful advice. Whether Kaylin’s composters will heed is another matter. I will say this. The evidence from Abiya in Pune, India does suggest that for Kaylin, the best thing to do, rather than worry about people showing up at the last minute, is maybe they should move the composting center very, very, very far away from everybody.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the significance of a person’s name.
DUCKWORTH: It’s Daniel Craig Duckworth. Or Angela, whichever you prefer.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from an Alex, and I’m going to read it to you. Alex writes, “My kindergarten-age daughter and I are in the process of joining the Girl Scouts. Over the summer. We were briefly connected with a troop outside our town. The names of the leaders in this troop are Lauren, Erin, Erin, and Lauren. For a reason unrelated to the names of these trip leaders, some local parents and I decided to form a new troop in town. I volunteered to be a co-leader with another parent whose name is Lauren. There are a disproportionate number of people with the first name Alex in my social circle. A particularly weird example is that I’m not the first bass player named Alex in my rock band, the lead singer of which has the middle name Alexander whose significant other is also named Alex. My question is this: does a person’s name predispose them to seek certain jobs or participate in certain activities or social circles? Thank you for your consideration, Alex. P.S.: I also play in a different band with two other people named Loryn and Erin. So, perhaps the issue is that the universe has willed me to be surrounded by people with these names.”
DUBNER: Interesting. We’ve discussed on this show, in passing at least, the notion of an aptonym — this idea that your name fits your occupation, or I guess it could be a hobby.
DUCKWORTH: And you had these really good examples, but I can’t remember any of them.
DUBNER: Well, the raciest one was about a man who was, I believe, arrested for masturbating in a public restroom, and his name was Limberhand.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes. Who could forget Limberhand? Oh, right! And then I got to tell you about my gynecologist named Dr. Breast.
DUBNER: My favorite aptonym of all time, which I may have mentioned before, was a woman who was a fact-checker at a magazine and her name was Paige Worthy, which is pretty great, because she has to make sure that what she reads is indeed worthy of being printed on a page. That said, the reason these things stand out is because they are fairly rare, and I would argue almost entirely coincidental. You know, there are those people who make an argument that your name has a causal relationship with what you end up doing, but it’s a pretty weak argument overall.
DUCKWORTH: That can’t be a big effect.
DUBNER: There was a paper some years back. It was called, “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions.” And it makes the argument that when, for instance, a person named Dennis becomes a dentist, it’s not a total coincidence. But the effect is, as you can imagine, fairly small. I think that most of us who’ve looked at some form of data around names and destiny would agree that there isn’t a whole lot of relationship between name and destiny. All of this said, if you go back a few centuries, your name did often indicate something about you. It might’ve been a place name. It might’ve been a physical attribute. But a lot of them were about occupation. So, there were people called Taylor because they were tailors. Smith might’ve meant you came from a family of blacksmiths.
DUCKWORTH: I’m married to a Duckworth. Is that like duck farmers?
DUBNER: He was the guy in the village square who was handling the scale that weighed the ducks and the geese. And they were always saying to him, “Hey, what’s this duck worth?”
DUCKWORTH: What’s Dubner?
DUBNER: Dubner is a place name. It would have been Doobner and that comes from a city in what’s now Ukraine called Dubno. When the Jews got kicked out of that part of the Ukraine and pushed up into what is now Poland, a lot of them took that last name. And then, you know, there’s those lineage names, like Jorgensen, son of Jorgen, right? Simonson, son of Simon.
DUCKWORTH: How sustainable is this strategy? Because then isn’t it like Ericksonson and then Ericksonsonson? Or did they use notation, like Erickson to the fourth, or something?
DUBNER: Like squared, cubed, right? That would make sense. But anyway, those are last names. What Alex is asking about is first names.
DUCKWORTH: And also there’s nothing to do with Girl Scouts that I know about that has anything to do with “Lauren” and “Erin,” and nothing to do with rock bands that has to do with “Alex.” So, we’re not talking about aptonyms.
DUBNER: It has to do with where she was born and when she was born. So, does a person’s name predispose you to participate in certain activities or social circles? I would say, sort of — by which I mean that the key here is that naming patterns have a strong socio-economic component. One example that we highlighted in Freakonomics, in our first book, was about how in America, especially in the last 50 to 100 years, new names tend to be adopted by higher-income families who see them as kind of interesting and maybe classy. But then, they get adopted by the rest of us, and they get passed down and down until they get so popular that high-income families don’t want those names anymore. So, if you go back 30, 40, 50 years ago, and you think about a handful of girls’ names — Tiffany, Brittany, Ashley — those were high-income names. Then, they got popular in the middle. Then, they got popular at the bottom, by which point the middle and the high end had totally jumped off. So, I think the name is much less destiny, and it’s more of an indicator of who you are, what kind of family you come from, what your parents thought, because after all, they’re the ones that named you. But what I think Alex’s question really gets at is that when you have a lot of similarly named people in your social circle, it probably means you tend to hang out with a lot of people who are quite similar to you in terms of ethnic and socioeconomic background —
DUCKWORTH: And age, right? You know, how many people are named “Gertrude” today?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Because sadly, all the Gertrudes, you know, they don’t live forever.
DUBNER: Now, Angela, let’s look you up.
DUCKWORTH: Ooh, I love this. This is like when you get your license plate — you know, when you’re in a gift shop and they have your name, like, let’s look for Angela.
DUBNER: If I were to guess, I would guess that when you were little, you would find your name in the gift shop.
DUCKWORTH: I was pretty good at finding my name on the $4.99 faux, small license plate.
DUBNER: And my guess is that if you go into that same shop today, if that same shop exists, and they sell $30 tiny license plates, I’m going to guess your name is not on there.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, because it’s like now becoming an old-person name?
DUBNER: Yeah. So, the Social Security Administration keeps a really nice database on names. It’s super fun to play with. What year were you born? 1970? So, check this out! I did not know this. Angela, you were the — one, two, three, four, five — sixth most popular girl’s name in 1970.
DUBNER: It went: Jennifer, Lisa, Kimberly, Michelle, Amy, Angela, Melissa, Tammy, Mary, and Tracy. Now, if anything I said about how names have moved through American society over the past 50 years or so is true, one would think that you probably don’t encounter a lot of little girls these days named Jennifer, Lisa, Kimberly, Michelle, Amy, Angela, Melissa, Tammy, Mary, and Tracy.
DUCKWORTH: So what are the new names?
DUBNER: Let’s see. If I look at the current top girls’ names — oh, so this is what you would call “schwa city.”
DUCKWORTH: A lot of schwas? This is like high-school English. Remind me what schwa is.
DUBNER: A schwa, I think, is just the “uh” — the soft sound — like, at the end of a name like Olivia. But the top 10 baby girl names of 2020 are Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, Sophia, Amelia, Isabella, Mia, Evelyn, and Harper. No Angelas, no Amys, no Michelles, and so on. So, I would say that Alex — in noticing all her Alexes and all her Laurens — is seeing a generational trend happening before her eyes, and it probably means that she’s hanging out with a bunch of people — I don’t mean this to sound pejorative — who are kind of similar-ish to her. There’s so much fascinating research on it. There was a study in the Journal of Labor Economics — this goes back to 2009 — by Mahmood Arai and Peter Thoursie. These are researchers in Sweden, both at Stockholm University. And they were looking at what happens when an immigrant — or the offspring of an immigrant — from an Asian, or African, or Slavic country would move to Sweden and have their surname from those countries, and whether they were perhaps discriminated against. And the way they wanted to measure that was to look at the people from those countries who had actually adopted a Swedish-sounding surname. They write, “There is a substantial increase in annual earnings after a name change, no effects on earnings prior to a name change, and no positive general effects of a new name for other groups that renounced a foreign name. Based on these findings, we argue that these effects are due to a name change as a response to discrimination.” So, that’s compelling, I think you would agree.
DUCKWORTH: I would definitely agree with that. I mean, you could ask the question: is there something else that’s really going on? You didn’t exactly randomly assign people. But it’s still very provocative. I was just watching this Broadway play called The Lehman Trilogy, which I highly recommend. It was about the founding of Lehman Brothers. And the three original brothers who founded it — actually the first brother who came over to the United States, at Ellis Island, the agent there couldn’t pronounce his name. I don’t remember what the first name was, but it was not Lehman. And then, after they had enough of an interchange, he was like, “You know what? I’ll take this other one.”
DUBNER: This Ellis Island story that we all tell, and have been told many times, I’m pretty sure that in most cases, it’s total B.S. So, as it turns out, if you go back and look at how Ellis Island operated during these years of massive immigration, they had people working there who spoke many, many languages. They had all kinds of translators. I think that if you were to talk to an expert genealogist who knows the workings of Ellis Island, they would tell you that most of these stories are told by ancestors who are a little bit, I don’t want to say ashamed, but a little bit maybe second-guessing having shortened or taken a more American-sounding name, because the matter of fact is: You are traveling with official documents in order to get in the country and your name was written there in full.
DUCKWORTH: Also, I’ll just say, as my parents’ own story suggests, there are some languages — like, Chinese is a tonal language, there are four tones, and that doesn’t exist in English. I can’t even pronounce my mom’s real name.
DUBNER: Give it a shot.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like “Ri-ru.” Sorry, Mom. I just never learned. And her American-English name is Teresa. And my dad’s name was Ying Qiao, which again, I’m sure I got the tones wrong on that. When he came here, people couldn’t pronounce it. They certainly couldn’t even spell the English phoneticization. So, they just called him Y.K. So, there are some reasons why people change names, which have a little less to do with, like, deep reasons and more like practical ones. So, you know, what’s in a name? I don’t think I took it that seriously when Jason and I were naming our two daughters. I was just like, “Oh, we gotta get a name.” We named Amanda after the most recent doctor we had seen. We were like, “Oh, that’s a nice name. She seems like a good doctor. We’ll name her Amanda.” And Lucy, I think I had seen a dog named Lucy. I was like, “Oh my God, what a cute name. I am naming my daughter that.”
DUBNER: It’s good to know you put such thought and effort into your offspring. But the bottom line is: If anyone doesn’t like their name, it’s really easy to change it. I mean, I come from a family of big name-changers. Well, both my parents, when they underwent a religious conversion, they both changed their first names.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, you don’t have to change names—
DUBNER: Well, they both wanted names that more reflected their new Catholic faith. My father was named Solomon, and he took the name Paul — Paul being the famous convert in Christianity. My mother, her given name was Florence, and she took the name Veronica, which is a very meaningful name in Christianity.
DUCKWORTH: It is?
DUBNER: Veronica is the woman who is supposed to have given a cloth to Jesus when he was being paraded through on the way to his crucifixion. And that was then imprinted with the image of his face. Hey, I changed my name for a while. So, my childhood football hero was this guy that I just loved, who was a real Messiah figure to me. I think I’ve told you about this recurring dream I had about this football player. His name was Franco Harris. And so, I was so in love with Franco Harris in grades, maybe, four to six, that I adopted the name Franco.
DUCKWORTH: That would be like, I could walk around and be like, “It’s Daniel Craig Duckworth. Oh, sorry. Or Angela, whichever you prefer.”
DUBNER: Right. So, my point is, if Alex thinks that there are too many Alexes in her circle, she should change it. She should change it to Angela, because that’s not in fashion. And if she really wants to stand out, she could change it to Stephen.
DUCKWORTH: Or Franco Harris.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
In the first half of the show, Stephen recalls a saying that he thinks his father may have shared with him when he was growing up. “Better to be early one hour than to be five minutes late.” It sounds like Stephen’s father may have been referencing William Shakespeare’s 1602 play “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” At the end of Act II, Scene II, the character Ford has a monologue where he plots revenge against the knight Falstaff. Ford concludes by saying, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”
Later, Angela wonders about the definition of a schwa. A schwa is an unstressed, central vowel sound. As in the “a” and the end of “sofa” or the beginning of “along.” So, it’s true that the most popular names for baby girls in 2020 — Olivia, Emma, Ava, Sophia — are pretty schwa-heavy.
Also, Angela wonders about the sustainability of using “son” at the end of a last name to denote patrilineage. In certain cultures, an individual’s last name would have been created by adding the word for “son” (or “daughter”) to the first name of their father — or, on occasion, their mother. For example, Old Norse writings describe Thor, the son of the God Odin, as Thor Odinson. And Thor’s sons would then be given the last name Thorson. So, the tradition is indeed possible without any “squaring” or “cubing.”
Finally, Angela references the Broadway play “The Lehman Trilogy.” And she notes that, in the story, the oldest Lehman brother changes his German-Jewish name when a port official cannot pronounce it. This is based on a true story. Henry Lehman, born Heyum Lehmann, did actually change his name when he immigrated from Bavaria to Alabama in 1844. The exact reason behind his name change remains unclear, but it was very unlikely the doing of an immigration official. Also, Lehman would have passed through New York Harbor, but not Ellis Island, as Ellis Island did not open as an immigrant receiving center until 1892.
That’s it for the fact-check.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Eleanor Osborne is the engineer. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowdich, and Jacob Clemente. 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. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: And are all yogis bears? Or is Yogi Bear the only yogi bear?
- Daniel Chambliss, professor of sociology at Hamilton College.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- Amos Tversky, professor of behavioural sciences at Stanford University.
- Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist at Boston University.
- Mahmood Arai, professor of economics at Stockholm University.
- Peter Skogman Thoursie, professor of economics at Stockholm University.
- “How to Stop Being Late,” by Ellen Hendriksen (Psychology Today, 2021).
- “It’s a Living: Last Names That Started as Jobs,” (Merriam-Webster, 2017).
- “What Does Your Last Name Say About You?” (Ancestry, 2014).
- “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was),” by Philip Sutton (New York Public Library, 2013).
- “Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures,” by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, 1982).
- “Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings,” by Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie (Journal of Labor Economics, 2009).
- “Trading Up: Where Do Baby Names Come From?” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (Slate, 2005).
- “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions,” by Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg, and John T. Jones (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002).
- “‘Saying Is Believing’ Effects: When Sharing Reality About Something Biases Knowledge and Evaluations,” by E. Tory Higgins (Shared Cognition in Organizations, 1999).
- “Exploring the ‘Planning Fallacy’: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times,” by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994).
- “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” by Daniel F. Chambliss (Sociological Theory, 1989).
- Popular Names search tool, by the Social Security Administration.
- The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway (2021).
- “How Much Does Your Name Matter? (Rebroadcast),” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Does Living Close to Your Destination Make You Late? A Very Small Experiment,” by the Freakonomics blog (2010).