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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: This is going to work out great! 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

 Today on the show: Why do we love to root for underdogs? 

DUCKWORTH: Dubner, I got to tell you, you don’t have what it takes. 

DUBNER: You’re right, coach. I’m leaving now. 

Also: Angela and Stephen wonder whether it would be better to answer one question each week instead of two. 

DUBNER Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.

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DUBNER: Angela, we have an email here from one Christen Calloway from Chicago, who writes to say, “I was reading the morning newsletter from The New York Times this morning, and it features the results of a new kind of poll. The author of the newsletter says, ‘Nothing produced a more positive response from poll respondents than hearing that a political candidate was a small business owner. It offered a bigger lift than any political position or demographic feature, and it was popular across Black, Latino, and white respondents.’” Christen goes on to say, “I have been working in the tech industry for a long time, and a few companies I’ve worked for loved helping small businesses. I work for a Fortune 100 company now, and they, too, love helping small businesses. I love small businesses,” she writes. “Everyone I know loves small businesses. We all want to support small businesses and really appreciate them. So, here’s my question. Why does everybody love small businesses and small business owners? Is there something psychological to that? Is the love of small business universal and not just American?”

DUCKWORTH: Fascinating. The flip side of this, by the way, is that people do not love big businesses. 

DUBNER: No, they don’t. So, I think what her question is really about is: Why do we root for underdogs?

DUCKWORTH: I think that is the question. There’s a little research on this. When you ask people, “Hey, there’s this hypothetical match. It’s a soccer match. Do you want to vote for the favored team, or do you want to vote for the team that is expected to lose?” And a disproportionate number of people will want to root for the underdog. 

DUBNER: I have to say, I very much identify with that. I love underdogs and rooting for them, but I’ve never really thought about why. And if you think about it, it’s kind of crazy, because wouldn’t you want to root for the winners?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, don’t you want to bask in the reflected glory of the winners? I don’t think people rooting for underdogs necessarily means that they like to lose. What seems like irrationality, when you actually break it down, there is usually a “why.” If you are rooting for the dominant team and they win, it’s great, but it hasn’t violated expectations. 

DUBNER: The payoff is not that large, necessarily. It’s like investing in I.B.M. in 1958. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it’s kind of boring to win, because it was expected. But when you win unexpectedly, all these lovely parts of the brain seem to light up. I think you could say, like, “Hey, if I root for the underdog and they win, then I really get to enjoy the fruits of the victory.”

DUBNER: And the fact is, you don’t really pay that much for rooting for an underdog when they lose, because they were expected to lose anyway. So, it doesn’t really cost you that much. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Exactly. So, on one hand, you win big, and then on the other hand, it’s kind of neutral. I don’t think that’s the only thing that’s going on, though. I think about this with movies, too. Very often, I think the hero or the heroine is an underdog — somebody who is not expected by their family history, or by some other plot feature, to prevail — but they do. And I think that we identify more with the underdogs for the simple statistical fact that most of us are underdogs. Like, we’re not Beyoncé, okay? We are not Jay-Z. We are not at the very top of a pyramid. We’re somewhere in the masses below. And so, of course, we’re going to identify more with that sort of character than we will with the unusually successful one.

DUBNER: I think also, however, you’ve identified that there can be a resentment against the big or the successful. And, in fact, when I looked at the newsletter that prompted this question, there’s actually a nuance that makes the result maybe a little bit less surprising than it appeared. Here, I’ll read a little bit more from the newsletter. It said, “This morning, a creative new poll exploring these issues,” — and the issues were what kind of political candidate is most attractive to voters — the newsletter continues, “It asks working-class respondents, defined as people without a bachelor’s degree, to choose between two hypothetical candidates.” So, it may be a little bit less surprising that that demographic would opt in favor of the small-business candidate, right? That a lower-income, or maybe more working-class, person would identify with a small business much more than big business. If that’s the case though, is that, do you think, a philosophical identification? Is it mirroring? In other words, “That small-business person is more like me than a big-business person.” Is it familiarity, perhaps? “I know the person who runs the shop down the street versus, I don’t know, Larry Page, who runs Google?”

DUCKWORTH: I think those would all be good, completely speculative possibilities. All of those things might be at play. I have noted, when my husband and I are, you know, in need of buying something, he is always encouraging me to buy it from a small business. I do a lot of Amazon one-click shopping, and my husband’s always like, “But we could go down the street to the Joseph Fox—” and I was like, “And put in an order?” 

DUBNER: Go down the street to the what? Sorry?

DUCKWORTH: The Joseph Fox Bookstore. That’s a small business in Philadelphia where we have a running tab. We try to go there for all of our literary needs. And I’m sorry to say that the Joseph Fox Bookstore doesn’t always have all of the titles that I’m interested in purchasing. 

DUBNER: And you can’t buy from there in your pajamas and slippers, presumably.

DUCKWORTH: Not at four in the morning, either. But my husband is adamant and really, really, really doesn’t want to buy anything off of the internet from larger businesses that we can buy from local business owners.

DUBNER: And that’s because why? Because he fears that the very presence of the Goliath will ultimately kill the Davids, and that the Davids provide some value that are irreplaceable? Is that his big reason? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I wondered about the psychology of this. And I wondered whether he, himself, identified more as a David than a Goliath — and it wasn’t even that complicated. Jason says that he wants to live in the kind of neighborhood where there are small businesses, because they enrich our lives. And he pointed out that if he and I, and a lot of other people, go to one-click shopping for all of our needs, then we’re going to be living in a neighborhood with nothing. Like, nowhere to buy a gallon of milk, nowhere to buy a book. And, indeed, that’s something to consider, and I do some one-click shopping nevertheless, but I do try to shop locally.

DUBNER: So, do you feel conflicted a bit? Do you ever, for instance, obscure or hide your Amazon behavior from Jason? Do you ask Amazon to deliver packages in Joseph Fox Bookstore bags so that you can pretend that you’re not violating your marital oath toward independent bookstores?

DUCKWORTH: I haven’t gone to covert one-click shopping. Maybe I should feel a little guiltier than I do. I feel like I’m on the noble side of the ledger because I’m making any effort at all.

DUBNER: You know, In the beginning, Amazon was seen as a threat to independent bookstores, but they were also seen, even by a lot of people in publishing, as like, “Whoa, here’s a company that could be selling anything, and they’re selling books. That is awesome.” And then, the perception began to change quite rapidly. I saw the same arc with Google. Back in the day when Google started, it was this little, quirky search engine. Feisty little startup, by a couple of kids, computer scientists from Stanford. And I remember when The New York Times, where I was working at the time, installed the Google search engine on its computers. And we were all, “Oh, what’s this little box? What can do with it? Oh, they’re a search company. They’re so cute. They don’t do anything except help us to do our jobs better.” And so the coverage of Google in The New York Times in the early years was absolutely evangelistic. And then, you could see it begin to change, because Google became, in some ways, a big threat to The New York Times. They started as a David, and they became a Goliath. 

DUCKWORTH: And a Goliath that The New York Times used to be.

DUBNER: Exactly. 

DUCKWORTH: I have to say, I do not have this kind of anti-big-business feeling. I really don’t.

DUBNER: Yeah. You don’t seem like a big underdog rooter to me. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s interesting that in my research, I find that there are a lot of people who are really gritty who have an underdog identity. I mean, Tom Brady is famously somebody who — I mean, who is more of an overdog than Tom Brady? Right? 

DUBNER: But he still treats himself like an underdog who was not drafted in a high round, who was not athletic enough.

DUCKWORTH: Chip on your shoulder, like, something to prove. And I think, in a way, there’s probably some metacognitive trickery going on, because you know you’re not the underdog. You know you’ve won almost a countless number of Super Bowl rings, but you also know that it’s effective. So, I have some appreciation for underdog mentality. At Wharton, where I have an appointment, there’s a professor whom I adore, his name is Samir Nurmohamed. He came to Wharton with this research program on underdogs. One of the things that he’s done in the field is to define what it is to have these underdog expectations, and when we have them. So, I’ll refer to his research here when I say that underdog expectations are essentially the perception that other people view us as unlikely to succeed. And his discovery is that they motivate us, especially when we want to prove another person wrong and we think there’s some question about their credibility. Say, for example, a coach says to you, “Dubner, I got to tell you, you don’t have what it takes.” 

DUBNER: “You’re right, coach. I’m leaving now.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, see, this is the thing. If you think the coach knows what they’re doing, you’re like, “Oh, that’s terrible. I guess I’ll pack up.” But if you have some reason to question their credibility, then it can double or triple your motivation. 

DUBNER: I have to say, when I feel in my life that people have underestimated me or degraded my chances of succeeding, I take it in a hundred percent silently — I tend to not respond at all, because I don’t want to give them any satisfaction, but I definitely use it as motivation. And I know in the sports realm particularly, I think almost every athlete I’ve ever known has done some form of that. 

DUCKWORTH: Intentionally, right? 

DUBNER: Yeah, absolutely. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, when Katy Milkman and I were told that we should apply for this $100 million prize — the MacArthur Foundation was giving this historic award out to, like, any team around the world to solve an urgent social problem — at first, I had very little interest. What really got me motivated was when I was told how difficult it would be. I was like, “Oh, Harvard’s applying. Oh, even the United Nations might be applying.” 

DUBNER: And that got your competitive juices flowing. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. People were like, “It’s probably not worth applying, because why would they pick you?” And I was like, “Oh, now I’m in the game.” 

DUBNER: So, that’s interesting because that’s in a zero-sum scenario, right? There could only be one winner. 

DUCKWORTH: Our year there was just one winner. It was Sesame Street for doing programming for Syrian refugee children, which, by the way, it’s pretty hard to argue against. 

DUBNER: I could argue against it if you’re competing against Angela Duckworth, dammit. So, that’s a zero-sum situation. But you could imagine where there’s a group of 10 people, it’s possible for all of them to do much better than someone is assuming that they’re going to do. So, in that case, underdog motivation might be a purely good thing for all those people, don’t you think?

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I think underdog motivation is pretty terrific, even in zero-sum situations, in part because people do often underestimate themselves and others. And unlocking that potential through this particular motivational trickery — you know, great.

DUBNER: I think that is totally true, except for the people who overestimate themselves. Because I think there’s a lot of that going on, too. There’s a lot of people, I think, who assume that they should win, or prosper, because they are who they are. 

DUCKWORTH: Or they overestimate their own ability. Optimistic bias, et cetera. Yeah, absolutely. That is clearly the case. But so often, I don’t know, maybe this is from being a former high school teacher, there is such a danger of counting yourself out, and having a bad day, and thinking you don’t deserve to be somewhere. So, we can be overconfident, but I see a lot of under-confidence, too.

DUBNER: So, Christen wondered how strong this effect was in America versus elsewhere. I do see here an interview with two historians, Ed Ayers from University of Richmond and Brian Balogh from the University of Virginia. And they make some really interesting points about the American embrace of underdog-ness, particularly in the political realm. So, Ayers said, “I think ever since 13 scrappy colonies went up against the largest empire in the world, America has been pretty fond of the underdog. And the American dream,” he says, “is that everybody has a chance. And if you find that the underdogs don’t have a chance, it sort of pokes holes in that dream.” I find that to be an interesting argument. Doesn’t totally persuade me that the rest of the world doesn’t love underdogs, but it’s interesting. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s the thing I was wondering about. I am sure every country can point to some underdog moment in their narrative. 

DUBNER: Yeah. The other historian, Balogh, made this point: He said, “We have people like Harry S. Truman, who really came from an impoverished background, was pretty unsuccessful himself in his business, and absolutely was not expected to win in the election.” Now, we should say: The vast majority of American presidents have come from families where they did have some significant advantage. But he goes on to make a point about Donald Trump. He says, “On the other hand, we have people like Donald Trump, who has styled himself as an underdog.” I’m not sure I would take “underdog” as the best word there, maybe “outsider”? But he makes the point that those who voted for Trump came from counties that are essentially underrepresented in America’s economy. I think most political observers and political scientists have noted that one of Trump’s great accomplishments was to tap into that sentiment that really hadn’t been addressed by most politicians before. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m not sure whether the underrepresented are the same as the underdogs, but there’s obviously something there. In a way, I think Trump was the underdog. I don’t know that he was expected to win, right? And he did. 

DUBNER: He certainly was the underdog as a political candidate. But this newsletter was asking people whether the political candidate they would prefer would be a small business person versus not. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. What’s the line between small and, say, medium business? 

DUBNER: So, it’s interesting. I looked this up. There is a thing called the U.S. Small Business Administration. What classifies you as a small business will vary from industry to industry. So, for full-service restaurants, for example, if your revenue is under $8 million a year, you are considered a small business. For a department store, if you have under 500 employees, you are considered a small business. 

DUCKWORTH: Whoa, that’s a lot of employees. 

DUBNER: But check this one out. For radio networks, if your annual revenue is under $35 million, you are considered a small business. 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we should run for office. This is going to work out great! 

DUBNER: I think we could win pretty much election we would run for. You could take your pick of all the elected offices in all the land.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I can’t think of anyone who’d be worse in elected office than me. 

DUBNER: Oh, you’re talking to him. Come on. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, we’re going to have to race to the bottom here, because I think that sometimes, underdog psychology is great, because it unleashes your potential, doubles your motivation. And sometimes you probably shouldn’t be a dog in the fight at all. And I think with elected politics, as advantageous as our small-business-administration identity could be, Stephen, that’s a fight that I have no desire to be in.

DUBNER: Can I just say, I know you don’t want to run for anything, but I would love to have a president with insomnia. 

DUCKWORTH: I do have that! 

DUBNER: Because I feel like I’m getting a lot for my money. You’re going to be awake, like, 22 hours a day, solving problems, taking names, kicking butt. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, come on. Let’s get her into office immediately. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate whether the podcast needs an upgrade. 

DUBNER: “Would you rather have two hamburgers or one steak?” 

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have been thinking about a change. 

DUBNER: We’re going to do this show in French? 

DUCKWORTH: Oui, c’est vrai, on va faire le show en français. Stephen, I’ve been thinking that, ever since we started this show about, I guess, a year and a half ago, it’s had these two acts. And I’ve observed that these two questions generally have nothing to do with each other. Have you made this observation? 


DUCKWORTH: So, I was recently talking to my husband, Jason, about his pretty loyal listenership to No Stupid Questions. He did point out to me, though, that by the time he’s done listening to the second question, he’s usually completely forgotten what the first question was. So, I have a question for you today, which is: Should we think about having only one question in each episode?

DUBNER: Oh, my goodness. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a big one. 

DUBNER: It is truly an existential question. I do know that the show has gotten longer. 

DUCKWORTH: Have we? Oh, my gosh. We’ve gotten, like, fat? We have muffin-top? 

DUBNER: I mean, we have no shortage of things to say, you and I. A lot of people do exercise when they listen to episodes, and I’ve had people say that they’ve had to run, like, an extra half mile as our show has gotten longer. I’ll tell you, when we first started thinking about this show, I liked the notion of it being short and sweet, because Freakonomics Radio is this big, baggy monster. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s the longer workout. That’s your intense gym day.

DUBNER: I mean, truth be told the average Freakonomics Radio episode these days is not that much longer than the average — .

DUCKWORTH: How long is it?

DUBNER: I would say average is probably in the 47-minute range. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s what it’s always been, right? For Freakonomics

DUBNER: No, it started much shorter. It’s gotten a little chubby over the years too, because — I think part of the problem is the ambitions of that show got larger. We used to not do episodes like, “Let’s make a show about the state of child poverty and what the U.S. is doing about it.” It used to be more like, you know, “Why don’t sports teams advertise on their jerseys?” Like, a smaller, less monumental question. With this show, I conceived of it originally as short and sweet. But also, more, I generally think, is better for the listener. But then you get into this idea of, you know, too much of a good thing. 

DUCKWORTH: I am always, like, “Less, less, less.” I like short sentences. 

DUBNER: Like this one. Did you like that? How about this one? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to beat you. “Yeah.” Although, that’s not really a sentence. It’s just “yeah.” But yes, I like short sentences. I like short paragraphs. I prefer shorter books to long ones. I would be a listener who would want a shorter versus a longer No Stupid Questions.

DUBNER: I hear you, but I don’t think it’s the shortness, so much, that should be the goal. I like the notion that there are two questions, because it feels a little bit like a play. There’s an act one, there’s a break — an intermission — and then there’s a second act. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah but, Stephen, we’re not connecting the two acts, right? Like, in a real play there’s act one, there’s intermission, but you don’t come back and have a completely different play. This is more like a play, and then an intermission, and then another play. 

DUBNER: You make an excellent point. And I will say this: Hamlet has five acts, which I’ve always felt was at least one or two acts too many. Truth be told, I love one-act plays. I love those Chekhov plays that are short. I love short stories, also, maybe more than novels. 

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. I did recently listen to one of our episodes. I don’t always listen because, of course, we’re here in conversation. But I also, like Jason, kind of forgot what the first conversation was by the second one. Now, maybe that doesn’t matter. Forgetting has some benefits. But I don’t really think it’s a great thing to have completely erased the memory of something that you might want to talk about at dinner or, you know, relay to a friend.

DUBNER: I guess I could imagine that a listener could get confused about what a given episode is about. Which is understandable, because it’s literally about two unrelated things. Where does this forgetting fall in terms of the primacy and recency effects that we’ve discussed on this show?

DUCKWORTH: Well, there are primacy and recency effects that are well-established in the research on memory. Primacy is: You hear lots of things in an episode, possibly you’ll remember the first things better than anything else. There’s also this research on Super Bowl ads, where there are these very expensive ad slots all throughout the Super Bowl, and you could ask the question, “What are the best slots? Should you be in the middle? Should be at the end? Or, because of primacy, maybe in the beginning?” Research is that earlier is better. So, maybe people are sort of, like, replaying them in their head throughout the rest of the game. There’s also recency effects, which are, when we have a list of things to remember, there are some cases where you would remember the last thing that you saw better. And why is that? Completely different mechanism. You’re not rehearsing it for longer. You’re actually rehearsing it for less, but it’s just, like, there in the buffer of your working memory. So, there are some advantages for being early. There’s some advantages that are different for being late. I think what’s pretty clear from the research is that there are not a lot of benefits for being in the middle. In terms of our, you know, two episodes, I guess “Act One” has a primacy benefit. “Act Two” has a recency benefit. 

DUBNER: So, you’re coming around, it sounds like, to having two? 

DUCKWORTH: No, no, no. I was just saying that there’d be some primacy and some recency, but I really think the more relevant research is actually on goal-setting and planning. Because I think a lot of things that we talk about would give people an idea for something they might do or think about differently. And the research on goal-setting and planning is, “Is it better to have two plans or one? 

DUBNER: I’m going to be an aerospace engineer. I’m going to be a cowboy. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if you can do both of them, great. But there are some research studies suggesting that when you make two different plans, you’re actually less likely to do either of them. 

DUBNER: Oh, that’s so interesting.

DUCKWORTH: And I do wonder whether you listen to something, it gives you an idea, like, “Oh, I’m going to go talk to my best friend Sue about this,” and then you keep listening and there’s the second conversation, it gives you a totally different idea to talk to somebody else about something else, and, you know, if you’re working out or not taking careful notes, you could forget. So, I’m not saying this is a clear-cut case, but I think that’s relevant research. 

DUBNER: Look at you, using science against me in your argument. I can see how, if there were just one question per episode, that we could probably discuss it in a little bit more depth and come at it at more angles — which I think both you and I would enjoy, and maybe would be better for listeners, too. On the other hand, can you persuade me of the power of one of something versus two? Because — look, I’m a simple person. I think of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What would a peanut butter and jelly sandwich be without the peanut butter or without the jelly? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. Those are complements, in the economic sense, right? Especially jelly. Who eats jelly without something else?

DUBNER: Oh. Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer. 

DUCKWORTH: He ate jelly sandwiches? 

DUBNER: Well, they eat jam right out of the jar. 

DUCKWORTH: Did they really?

DUBNER: Uh, maybe not, but that’s how I remember it. I also eat peanut butter by itself! Now that I think about it, I do enjoy both peanut butter and jelly on their own, out of the jar.

DUCKWORTH: By themselves? You never eat jelly on its own. 


DUCKWORTH: You do not.

DUBNER: I don’t really eat dessert, because I’m not a dessert person, but sometimes after dinner I do want something a little bit sweet, and I’ll go get a jar of jam, or jelly, or perseveres, have a couple of spoonfuls. 


DUBNER: I’m making an argument against myself, though, in the two-question argument, aren’t I?

DUCKWORTH: I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but I’m just horrified. Okay, since we’re digressing, what about that menu item in diners that’s the jelly omelet? Have you ever ordered that? You know what I’m talking about? 

DUBNER: Good question. I’ve also wondered who gets the jelly omelet. All I know is it’s not me, and it’s apparently not you either.

DUCKWORTH: But I kind of want to try it. Look, my point is that peanut butter and jelly are complementary goods in the economic sense. The value of peanut butter is enhanced by the jelly, the value of jelly is enhanced by the peanut butter. 

DUBNER: Let’s look at pop music, though. 


DUBNER: Two is better than one. Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, one of the best songs from Motown: “It Takes Two.” Do you know “It Takes Two”? “One can have a dream baby, two can make that dream so real. It takes two, baby—”

DUCKWORTH: “It’s the two of us. We can make it if we try. It’s the two—” Okay. All right. Yeah. I do know that song. This is incredibly persuasive. 

DUBNER: Also, an argument against one, as Three Dog Night, I believe it was, once sang: “One is the loneliest number.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, was that Three Dog Night? Can you give me a little jingle from it, Stephen? 

DUBNER: It’s a sad song. Oh, and actually, now that I think about the lyric, it doesn’t really help my argument because it is anti-one, but I believe it’s also anti-two. It goes, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” But then, listen to this: “Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.” What does that even mean? 

DUCKWORTH: There were a lot of drugs being taken.

DUBNER: Do you know where the name Three Dog Night comes from? 

DUCKWORTH: No, I know nothing. 

DUBNER: I believe that the phrase “three dog night” refers to a night that is very cold, because when it’s chilly, you bring one dog in the bed to warm you up —.

DUCKWORTH: This cannot be what “three dog night” means. And also, I doubt that “three dog night” is itself a phrase. 

DUBNER: Okay, I think we should have a little wager on that, and Rebecca can settle. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, fact-check wager?

DUBNER: What are you willing to wager?

DUCKWORTH: Five bucks. 

DUBNER: I take it. 

DUCKWORTH: All right, here’s an argument. Declining marginal utility. 

DUBNER: Okay, coming at me with the science again.

DUCKWORTH: This is really like, “Hey, after we give people the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, do you think they would want another peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” And the answer is: Yes, but there’s less value in the second peanut butter and jelly sandwich than there was in the first.

DUBNER: I hear you. And I guess, theoretically, the quality of each question could be better if we only need to come up with one good question per episode. It’s kind of like, “Would you rather have two hamburgers or one steak?” On the other hand, I love hamburgers.

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s like: Two hamburgers or one slightly larger, but not too big, delicious cheeseburger. I’ve never really understood even the fact that there’s hamburgers without cheese. 

DUBNER: Well, it’s not kosher, just so you know. 

DUCKWORTH: Fair enough. Anyhoo, we would have to up our game, Stephen. We would have to have a “meatier,” as it were, conversation. 

DUBNER: You know, as pro-two and anti-one as I am in this context, I can think of one historical precedent that convinces me that one is way better than two. 

DUCKWORTH: What is it?

DUBNER: The story of King Solomon in the Bible. Solomon was a young man when he inherited the throne from his daddy, David, and he was eager to show that he was wise — and he had his chance, according to the Bible, when these two women came to him with a dilemma. They lived in the same house, and within the space of a couple of days, they’d each had a baby boy. And the first woman told Solomon that the second woman’s baby had died and that she woke up in the middle of the night and took the living baby and swapped them. So, there’s two women, two babies — one dead, one living. What’s Solomon supposed to do? So Solomon says, “Servant, fetch me a sword. We are going to cut the living baby in half and we’ll give half to each of the women.” And the first woman begs King Solomon, “No, no, no. Please don’t do it. Just give it to the other woman.” And the second woman, however, was like, “Okay, yeah, fine. Cut it in half.” 

DUCKWORTH: “Seems fair.”

DUBNER: “Great idea, Solly.” And, so, King Solomon promptly rules in favor of the first woman, says “Give her the baby. She’s plainly the mother.” And according to the Bible, all Israel heard of the judgment, and they saw that the wisdom of God was in Solomon and he would do justice. So, how did he know who was the true mother, would you guess, Angie? 

DUCKWORTH: Because a true mother would never want their baby cut in two, just to go out on a limb there. 

DUBNER: Right, the true mother would rather give up her child than see it die. 

DUCKWORTH: Probably any woman would want to give up any child. Just saying, but I get what Solomon was going for there. 

DUBNER: To be fair, this story has been dissected by game theorists who argued that it’s not really very good as a piece of game theory, because it’s just not very believable in that way. That said, it’s a nice story. And what I take away from the story is that one living baby is way better than two halves of a dead baby. And, so, you’re calling No Stupid Questions— 

DUCKWORTH: Two halves of a dead baby? 

DUBNER: Essentially. And my feelings are a little bit hurt, but I’m going to say this: Considering the “Solomon Effect,” and I guess considering the fact that you’re a lot smarter than me — and also there’s some common sense in here, I submit to your wish. And I would suggest that maybe we take advantage of the fresh start effect that we’ve discussed on this show, and after the New Year we go to the single question format. What do you think? 

DUCKWORTH: You know what? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Why don’t we try it out, and if it’s stinky-potamus, we’ll go back to two.

DUBNER: So, this question may be the very last second question we’ll ever answer. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s going to be great, but we shall see.

DUBNER: And if not, we’ll superglue that baby right back together. 

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 quotes from a piece about America’s love for underdogs. He refers to one of the historians interviewed as Brian Balough, but the University of Virginia professor’s name is actually pronounced “Buh-LOW.”

Then, during the conversation about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Stephen recalls that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn enjoy eating jam straight out of the jar. It’s true that in the beginning of Mark Twain’s 1876 story, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Aunt Polly finds Tom hiding in a closet covered in jam. She says, quote, “It’s jam — that’s what it is. Forty times I’ve said if you didn’t let that jam alone I’d skin you.” Huckleberry Finn doesn’t appear to have quite the same affinity for the condiment, although he does briefly mention eating doughnuts and jam in Twain’s 1885 novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

Later, Angela misremembers the lyrics to Grover Washington Jr.’s 1980 hit song, “Just the Two of Us,” when she incorrectly sings “it’s the two of us.” Also, Stephen attributes the song “One” to the band Three Dog Night. It’s true that they released a version of the song in 1969, but the piece was originally written and recorded a year earlier by Harry Nilsson.

Finally, Stephen and Angela place a bet about the meaning of the phrase “three dog night.” Sorry Angela, but you owe Stephen five dollars. The phrase is actually an Australian expression for a cold evening. Actress June Fairchild supposedly suggested the name to her boyfriend Danny Hutton, the lead singer of Three Dog Night, after reading that Australian aborigines gauged the coldness of a night by the number of dogs they needed to curl up with to keep warm.

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, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, 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 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, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: There are many, many, many, many more small businesses than there are big ones, because, you know, they’re small. 

DUCKWORTH: And you can fit them all into a shoe box. 

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  • Samir Nurmohamed, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Ed Ayers, professor of history at the University of Richmond.
  • Brian Balogh, professor of history at the University of Virginia.



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