Search the Site

Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Has my perspective changed, or have my standards lowered?

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Is it better to invest in your strengths or improve on your weaknesses?

DUCKWORTH: You might think, “I’m really funny.” But then other people might say, “Eh —” 

Also: Why do we like and dislike the things that we like and dislike?

DUCKWORTH: For two years, I had the exact same lunch. 

DUBNER: On purpose? 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, this is a classic question from a listener. It’s an essential question, I would argue.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, shoot. What is it? 

DUBNER: Did I build it up too much? 

DUCKWORTH: I know! I’m kind of like, no question can live up to this introduction, but I want to know what it is. 

DUBNER: So, this is from Emily Ward, who lives in Richmond, Virginia. “Should we capitalize on our strengths or work on our weaknesses?” 

DUCKWORTH: This is a great question. 

DUBNER: Is that not the universe in one question? 

DUCKWORTH: It is the universe in one question, and it’s a question I’ve been thinking about since the first day of graduate school, because when I went to repurpose myself as a psychologist, I discovered that my adviser, Marty Seligman, was the founder of positive psychology. And I say that I “discovered” that after signing up to be his graduate student because I literally didn’t know that’s his whole shtick. 

DUBNER: You thought he was a plumber? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I knew he was a psychologist, but I didn’t know that he was trying to revolutionize psychology by getting people to think about their strengths, and happiness, and not focus on weaknesses. So, Marty had an expression of our highest strengths as being our “signature strengths.” So, for example, I might be high in — actually, I know this empirically.

DUBNER: I just heard “I might be high” and I stopped listening. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Please don’t edit me inappropriately. I know what my strengths are, according to this questionnaire that Marty developed with another psychologist named Chris Peterson. It was called the “Values in Action” questionnaire, shortened to “the V.I.A,” — acronyms, I know you love those. So, the V.I.A. has 24 different strengths that we might all have some of, but there’s a rank ordering. And the five that were highest for you, he called these your signature strengths. I haven’t taken the V.I.A. in a while, but I’m fairly sure I rank highly in perseverance, not surprisingly. And I think I was high in generosity. I know I was very low in appreciation for beauty. And anyway, the idea here is: when I live my life, to Emily’s question, should I be racing my strengths, versus looking at the very bottom of the 24 and saying, “Woo. Appreciation of beauty. I should remediate that.” 

DUBNER: Sorry, what-ing your strengths? 

DUCKWORTH: Racing your strengths. 

DUBNER: Raising? 

DUCKWORTH: Racing. R-A-C-I-N-G. Racing. Like, race car. Like, zoooom. 

DUBNER: I just don’t understand. What does that mean, “racing?” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I guess I’m giving you only half of a phrase. There is this sports phrase: “Race your strengths and train your weaknesses.” But the idea is, if you have a strength like social intelligence, or curiosity or whatever, you should race that. Do a job that requires your signature strengths. Find ways to make that your “core competency,” if you use management speak. 

DUBNER: You know, economists have a very particular view of this question — have been thinking about it for at least a few hundred years. David Ricardo, the British economist from the 19th century, talked about comparative advantage and specialization.

DUCKWORTH: And that would say race your signature strengths, right? Comparative advantage is all about doing one thing really well and then trading for everything else. 

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. His argument was that’s why trade is good. So if you’re from a northern country where it’s cold, and you raise a lot of sheep, and you have a lot of wool, you can get really good at that. But you probably shouldn’t be growing oranges or grapes for wine. And you should let that happen somewhere else. And then you trade for it, and it makes everybody better. There’s similar arguments for specialization. Let’s say I want to hire someone to fix my car. I want someone who’s spent a lot of time and invested a lot of knowledge in doing that, not someone that’s more convenient, like my neighbor who likes to tinker a little bit with cars. But maybe my neighbor is a really good accountant. And I’d rather have that neighbor do my taxes than the auto mechanic. So, my question to you as a psychologist is, how should one think about that? Given the fact that there is opportunity cost in every decision we make, should one generally invest more in the things that they are already good at, or is it a good idea to really invest in things that you want to improve in? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to argue both sides of this issue. First, I need to argue Marty’s side. And Marty might even say that you can forget about your weaknesses. And the reason why he thought this was so important to bring to people’s attention is that he thought weaknesses grab our attention spontaneously. You know, somebody would come into his office in a clinical setting because they were unhappy about something. 

DUBNER: They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to work on their weaknesses. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. I think, in some ways, he felt like all of mental health as a profession focused on what was going wrong with people’s lives. He said, “When you’re remediating your weaknesses or you’re trying to get better at the things you’re not good at, it’s like fighting the mountain. You can climb up another step, and then you can put another foot in front of the other. But you are really going uphill in a way that you’re never going to get very far.” And its opposite would be, when you’re racing your strengths, it really is like going downhill with the way your natural grain is. 

DUBNER: And did that work as a clinical psychologist? Did his patients benefit from that advice? I could imagine that they could say, “Well, I’m not here to get even better at something that I’m good at, because that’s not a problem for me. I’m here because of my problems.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Marty has not been in clinical practice for a while. And when I started as his graduate student, he was not seeing patients. But there has been research done by Marty and others on this idea. Like, if you tell people, “Take this questionnaire. Identify your strengths. See if you can work on applying these strengths even more and in creative ways in your everyday life. Does that help?” So that’s one way of answering the question. 

DUBNER: This survey, we should say — you’re answering these questions about yourself. So you might be wrong. You might not be as good at the things that you say you are, and you might be better at the things that you think you’re bad at. 

DUCKWORTH: Like sense of humor. You might think, “I’m really funny.” But then other people might say, “Well, eh —” 

DUBNER: That was funny. You got my funny vote. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. That’s actually one of my lowest ones, by the way. 

DUBNER: Really? See, I think that proves the survey is wrong.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Ah, touché. Okay, but anyway, the data are mixed. First of all, there are very few true, high-quality, random-assignment controlled trials where you actually try to get people to use their signature strengths more. But there are some studies that suggest there’s a benefit. You’re happier. Maybe you do a little bit better with your work. I do want to say something that is from the clinical literature that is much more recent than Marty’s declaration 20 years ago that we should work on our strengths. And that comes from Tim Beck, who is really the founder, you could argue, of cognitive therapy, which is the foundation of most modern psychotherapy. Tim Beck is nearly a century old, and spent his whole life working with people who are anxious or depressed, schizophrenic, you know, really serious mental illness. He realized that when you have somebody who’s really suffering, you should look at their strengths. He uses the example of a severe schizophrenic who was in so much suffering and so much dysfunction. But when this schizophrenic was able to go to a restaurant and order food, he seemed to come alive. And the clinician who was with him on one of these field trips out of the mental hospital into a fast-food restaurant, when he discovered this, that led to a conversation where the schizophrenic patient revealed that he really liked food, and he really enjoyed the fantasy of maybe even being involved in the restaurant industry in some way. And the happy ending to that story is that that therapist, instead of trying to work on the delusions and the hallucinations, held on to that little glimmer of positive functioning and eventually got that schizophrenic patient to get a job in a cafeteria — I guess, probably the cafeteria of the mental health institution. And it was like a different person, and this person was much higher-functioning. So I think that the logic that working on strengths is better, more efficient than weaknesses, it holds some water. 

DUBNER: So in light of this question — one thing that always struck me as nuts about school is [it’s] the only time in your life when you are forced to do everything and to try to be good at everything. 

DUCKWORTH: Grade point average, right?  

DUBNER: I mean, even before you get to G.P.A., when you’re four years old, you have to be good at art. You have to be good at phys ed. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, right. The tambourine. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Well, everybody’s good at the tambourine. But, you know, I’ve known so many kids who are like, “I love blank.” The blank could be art, it could be science. “Why do I have to spend 85 percent of my time doing the other blanks?” 

DUCKWORTH: Right. I mean, they’re not very strengths-focused, you could argue. 

DUBNER: They’re not! 

DUCKWORTH: And maybe if you take your argument to an extreme, if a five-year-old says, “I like fingerpainting, and I like snacks and gym, but reading and math, not so much.” There’s a reason why we enforce some amount of even distribution across what we consider to be foundational subjects.

DUBNER: Even I can’t argue for a 100 percent syllabus of snacks and gym. But still, there is this notion that the education system, as it’s now configured, does a good job of hammering the psyches of young people with the notion that there are a lot of things that they’re not good at. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, because if you are just going to take the bald fact that, in your life, you’re going to do something, but not everything, then it must be that most of your day is irrelevant. And forcing people to do things that are not things that they’re interested in for the majority of their day, obviously, there’s a downside. And my daughter actually told me that she was going to be valedictorian, and then she bombed the volleyball exam in gym class. 

DUBNER: No! There’s a volleyball exam? 

DUCKWORTH: She went to that kind of school, yes. I don’t even know what you would ask about volleyball. It seems pretty straightforward to me. 

DUBNER: What is the role of the libero? 

DUCKWORTH: Is that a volleyball question? 

DUBNER: I think so.

DUCKWORTH: See, the fall from the tree is not far. 

DUBNER: I got a C-minus on my volleyball exam.

DUCKWORTH: She got a B-plus, but it was enough to lose valedictorian. 

DUBNER: We had a farming exam in my school. 

DUCKWORTH: See, that I think could actually be useful, it depends. 

DUBNER: Do the rows go horizontally or vertically? Well, it depends on the sun. 

DUCKWORTH: Depends on where you’re standing. Oh. There’s that too. So, anyway, my point is that, should her calculus grade as a future math major be averaged together with her gym grade? Apparently, for your G.P.A., yes. So, anyway, there’s a lot to complain about in terms of the inability to match what we want to do with what we’re doing. 

DUBNER: Okay, so you’ve made a strong argument in favor of working on the strengths. Now, give us the flip side. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. So, there is an argument to be made for remediating your weaknesses. First advocate for this, I would say, would be Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s work on expertise, as you well know, Stephen, was all about people improving and improving to get just a little bit better every day, whether they were swimmers or chess players or mathematicians. And Ericsson would say that, very often, what was being worked on was a relative weakness. And I say “relative,” meaning that if you’re Usain Bolt, you’re already pretty good at running, but do you work on the fact that you’re already a strong starter in the 100 meter? Do you just lean into that and work on that more? Or do you work on something else? Actually, I got that wrong, by the way. Usain Bolt is a relatively slow starter. So I think he disproportionately needed to work on getting faster at the very beginning because he always finished really strong. 

DUBNER: He has to unfold himself because —

DUCKWORTH: He’s so big, actually. 

DUBNER: Right. But when you’re describing Anders Ericsson’s research, he was mostly, or maybe even exclusively, studying elites. Elite performers, elite musicians, surgeons, computer scientists, athletes and so on. And I just think when we ask this question about what’s better, to work on strengths and weaknesses, the first question has to be, “well, what’s the goal?” In other words, what’s the domain that we’re talking about? Because let’s say I’m a pretty good home cook, and, you know, maybe I should try to become really good. But what I’m really bad at is listening to other people.” Now, the rewards are different. The incentives are different. So what would you advise in that case? 

DUCKWORTH: You are pointing out something which is a little bit less about experts versus beginners and more about choosing versus training. I think you should choose things that are easy, and then you should work hard on the parts of it that you’re not good at. So, in my undergraduate teaching, I always tell my students, “Choose easy, then work hard.” They are two stages, right? So maybe we should choose our hobbies and our jobs and everything else based on our strengths. But then you need to train your weaknesses within it. So, once you’ve decided, “I want to be a great home cook,” or “I want to run the 100 meter,” then you’re in the training phase where you have to actually remediate weaknesses. So I think it’s a both-and, but it’s a two-stage problem. 

DUBNER: Right. I also think that for someone like Emily, or anyone thinking about, like, “Well, I’m pretty decent at this hobby or this kind of relationship, but I’m really bad at the other” — one way to trick yourself into wanting to embrace the thing you’re bad at is to know that you’re going to improve so much faster in the thing that you’re bad at. Because there’s diminishing returns in any investment, and if I’m a really good musician or cook or athlete, think about how hard you have to work to get 1 percent better. Whereas if you’re crap at something, the first 10 hours, you get 30 percent better just like that. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s an interesting proposition, because I could argue the opposite. So you’re saying that, look, if you’re terrible at something, you’re going to get so much out of practice because you’re at the beginning of the learning curve and you don’t have diminishing marginal returns working against you. But when Marty said that expression, “When you are working on your weaknesses, you’re fighting the mountain,” you have to ask the question why those are your weaknesses in the first place. 

DUBNER: But I’d say there are a lot of people who have great interest or desire to be good at things, or just to participate in things, that they think they’re bad at. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, but I don’t want Emily to go off and just be instrumental or tactical. There’s the question of, “How do you optimize your performance? Is it better to have your strengths raced than your weaknesses trained?” But there’s a moral question here too, right? What if you are really high in strengths like grit and maybe even things like creativity or leadership? And what if you’re low in honesty or in compassion? There’s a call to remediate certain weaknesses, at least above a threshold. Do you agree with that? 

DUBNER: I do agree. That is part of the old-fashioned and sometimes currently-embraced notion of what is the completeness of a human. So I think you’re right. I mean, I think the answer to a lot of the questions we ask on this show is “it’s complicated.” 

DUCKWORTH: It depends. 

DUBNER: And “it depends.” But I think that’s a good answer. Let me ask you this: Name for me what you consider a weakness of yours at this stage of your life that you think you probably should work on, but because you’ve embraced the notion of the signature-strengths idea, you probably crossed it off. Could we possibly resuscitate something you’d like to be good at or be better at? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I know anger management is a weakness, but we’ve discussed that. And I think that’s obviously something I should remediate. And I know that, and I’m working on it. I think love of art and appreciation of beauty — in the V.I.A. questionnaire, it’s literally called “appreciation of beauty” — it’s really low down. I don’t appreciate music. I really don’t think I have an aesthetic sense that’s evolved in the way that I should have, because my mom’s an artist. 

DUBNER: You know, you could be an economist with that lack of appreciation of all aesthetics. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you think so? 

DUBNER: I do. I do. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela help a listener dissect his mysterious new affinity for smooth jazz. 

DUBNER: “If smooth jazz made me that happy, I would be willing to listen to smooth jazz.”

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a question here I’d like to read you from a certain Will from Washington, Illinois. And he writes, “Dear ‘No Stupid Questions,’ I used to make fun of smooth jazz. I would listen to it as a joke or to be ironic. Now I genuinely enjoy it.” 

DUBNER: Will, Will, Will. 

DUCKWORTH: “To be fair, smooth jazz has led me to even more musical genres, such as jazz fusion, which I enjoy more, but I still have a soft spot for smooth jazz. It is not a total joke anymore. I guess my question is, why do people end up genuinely enjoying the things they would ridicule initially? Has my perspective changed? Have my standards lowered? Thank you for reading my message. Sincerely, Will.”

DUBNER: I love this question. I love Will. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know. I immediately love Will. 

DUBNER: I love, especially, the two choices. “Has my perspective changed or have my standards lowered?”

DUCKWORTH: He’s either evolved or devolved. We’re just not sure which. 

DUBNER: So, let’s strip it back a bit further and let me ask you a larger question, which is: why do we like and dislike the things that we like and dislike? What do we know about that? 

DUCKWORTH: We know very little about that. And by the way, Stephen, not only did I have to think about the psychological science of preferences, I had to Google “smooth jazz” when we got this letter. Did you already know what smooth jazz was? 

DUBNER: I have had my experiences with smooth jazz. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Have you played it? 

DUBNER: Nope. Never played it. Once, in the 11th grade, I was tasked with hiring the band for a dance. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh no! You hired a smooth-jazz ensemble? 

DUBNER: I really failed. I don’t remember whether it was out of sloth or incompetence. And I think I was supposed to go somewhere to see these bands or hear tapes. I plainly didn’t do my homework. 

DUCKWORTH: No, you didn’t. 

DUBNER: Hired this band, and they weren’t quite smooth jazz. They were rough jazz. They were bad. 

DUCKWORTH: Just bad jazz. 

DUBNER: I love jazz. I don’t love smooth jazz, personally, but I’ll never forget, there was this one kid who — we weren’t particularly close friends, but we were friendly. And I was standing there at the dance, and it was just a total disaster, and it was all my fault. And he came up to me and he said, “So, I guess you’d call this, like, classical jazz.” 

DUCKWORTH: What a generous kid. 

DUBNER: It was so generous. And he wasn’t a particularly generous kid. 

DUCKWORTH: It was pity. 

DUBNER: I think it was total pity. But you know what? At that point, I was so grateful for even pity, because most people were just calling me names. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, God. I can only imagine. 

DUBNER: And he was trying to give this thing that they were playing a different name. It would be like, you’ve just been in a car crash. “No, no, no. Your back isn’t broken. You’ve just got a vertebral situation.”

DUCKWORTH: Situation! Right. Well, okay. I hope this topic isn’t too painful for you. 

DUBNER: I will say this: I am a little bit familiar with smooth jazz, enough to know that people who like jazz often consider smooth jazz to be beneath them. I will also say that smooth jazz is much more popular than what we think of as, you know —

DUCKWORTH: Jazz-jazz? 

DUBNER: Jazz-jazz. 

DUCKWORTH: What makes it smooth? 

DUBNER: It’s kind of aggressively melodic. It’s instrumentally peaceful. 

DUCKWORTH: I went and listened to a little bit of it on YouTube. 

DUBNER: What’d you listen to? Kenny G is usually the first person that comes up. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if you go to YouTube and you put in “smooth jazz,” there’s all kinds of 60-minute smooth jazz things. I guess people must — I don’t know, what do they use it for? 

DUBNER: I think sex. 

DUCKWORTH: You think? 

DUBNER: Also cruises. There are smooth-jazz cruises. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. You can go on an entire cruise and listen to smooth jazz the whole time. 

DUBNER: Right. So, it sounds like Will is the kind of person who, five years ago, would not have gone on a smooth-jazz cruise, but now — 

DUCKWORTH: And now might be! 

DUBNER: And if there’s a jazz-fusion cruise, watch out— 

DUCKWORTH: He’s there.

DUBNER: Because Will is on it. But this question is really about the notion of acquired taste. We’ve talked a little bit on this program about the mere-exposure effect. Can you talk about acquired taste, and how much exposure does one need to get to like or dislike something? 

DUCKWORTH: I will begin by saying I think this is very new in science. In other words, we don’t know a lot about how people come to like jazz or whatever it is: coffee, pepperoni. You know, some people like spicy food, some people hate spicy food. And preferences, which are different from values or interests, they’re just your likes and dislikes. 

DUBNER: But are they? 

DUCKWORTH: Do you think they’re not? 

DUBNER: All I mean to say is, don’t you think our preferences are driven, perhaps subconsciously, by our values? “I want to be the kind of person who likes X music or X whatever.”

DUCKWORTH: So, it could be that, at their core, there is some common process, and that what we think is taste is actually a deeper expression of our values. So, maybe. But let’s just begin by saying that preferences, likes and dislikes, are a bit of a black box from a scientific point of view. There is this early research from decades ago on the mere-exposure effect. That is the phenomenon by which individuals begin to like more, and more, and more, something that they originally had maybe a neutral feeling. Say, a symbol. And you show it to somebody over and over and over again; they’ve never seen the symbol, but now they’ve seen it 10 times.

DUBNER: A cymbal like the kind that a drummer uses? Or a symbol like a delta sign? 

DUCKWORTH: Like a calligraphy symbol, a visual symbol. The psychologists would say an “arbitrary stimulus.” Something you literally just made up, so the person can’t have a preference about it because they’ve never seen it before. 

DUBNER: And it can’t be value-driven, plainly. 

DUCKWORTH: No, it has nothing to do with how much money you’re getting paid, or whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. It’s really an arbitrary visual stimulus. And if you show it to somebody once, twice, 10 times, 50 times, the more they see it, the more they like it. And that is called the mere-exposure effect — that merely being exposed to something can actually make you like it more. 

DUBNER: And what would the mechanism for that be? Often these explanations go back into our ancient genetic history. Would it be that you’re less fearful or worried about something with which you’re familiar? Is it as simple as that? 

DUCKWORTH: There are multiple explanations, and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One idea is that, evolutionarily speaking, that which is familiar is more likely to be safe. It’s a kind of healthy neophobia. That’s one possibility. There’s also this idea of fluency. So, the more we are exposed to something, the more we recognize it. We’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that before.” And the fluency can have a positive signal. That which we understand, we comprehend, we get — that is itself a positive state. We don’t like being confused. 

DUBNER: Yeah, but isn’t there another component of preference formation that is about novelty? And doesn’t this work against that? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I really think that there’s got to be both processes going on. For example, if I fed you the same meal — and I’m going to use a real example here, Stephen. For two years, I had the exact same lunch. 

DUBNER: Really?! On purpose? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, it was efficient, so yes. I really ate it, like, 700 times. So, there was a food truck maybe a block away from where my lab was when I was a graduate student, and it had Chinese food. And I, basically, after a little experimentation, figured out that chicken with broccoli with almonds and a little bit of spicy sauce was pretty much the optimal order for me. And it was like $4, and it was three minutes. And so I just decided that I would eat that every day. And it got even more efficient, because the person who was running the food truck would just see me approaching from afar, and she would know to fire up the chicken with broccoli and almonds and a little bit of spicy sauce. Now, if I said to you, “Hey, Stephen, I’m going to give you the same exact lunch every day for 700 days,” tell me how you would feel about that, because that’s familiar, and that’s a lot of exposure, but you’re probably going to feel like you wanted something new for lunch. 

DUBNER: Right. So that is an encapsulation of the very paradox that goes into novelty and familiarity. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. There is a trade-off. There’s good things about both. 

DUBNER: And what made you finally eat something different? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, for one thing, I discovered that eating three pounds of Chinese food, which is the serving size of this truck, was, like, soporific. I would go to sleep in the afternoon. I mean, I exaggerate. 

DUBNER: But it took you two years to realize that it was — 


DUBNER: So what’d you eat instead? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, now I have lots of things that I eat for lunch. And I never went on to another routinized, you know, always eat-the-same-thing. 

DUBNER: And when you were in the process of learning to eat something other than broccoli, chicken, almonds and a little bit of spicy sauce, how did you determine what you liked and didn’t like? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I can’t say that I did this very systematically, or even well. I just ate random stuff for lunch. I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll go here. Oh, maybe I’ll have leftovers.” It was not a deliberate thing of, like, “Let me try to optimize my lunch experience.”

DUBNER: So you’re suggesting that your preference formation was driven by a lot of factors that don’t really have to do with your preferences, per se. They might have to do with proximity, convenience? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think that you could use my lunch experience to make inferences about lots of things, but probably not about this question, which is: if you do something over and over again, do you like it more? Because I had overwhelming weight put on efficiency and other things that have nothing to do with preferences. 

DUBNER: Right. But my guess is that Will, when he formed his initial opinion of smooth jazz, may have had something to do with a fact other than his not liking the music, per se. Maybe Will had friends who liked kinds of music that were antithetical to smooth jazz.

DUCKWORTH: By the way, do you have, like, a mental picture of these people who really are into smooth jazz? Are they all wearing cardigans? 

DUBNER: There is a New York Times article from several years ago, I want to say by Nate Chinen, about smooth-jazz cruises. And there are photographs, and they are the most lovely group of people. 

DUCKWORTH: I can only imagine. They never lose their temper. 

DUBNER: They are diverse in every way. They look so happy. And I remember reading this piece and thinking, “If smooth jazz made me that happy, I would be willing to listen to smooth jazz.” But I just don’t think I have the temperament for it. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s selection bias, Stephen. I don’t think the smooth jazz is making them happy. I think anybody who could possibly like smooth jazz was already so happy. 

DUBNER: That’s the conclusion I came to. This is what I’m saying, though. Preferences have this big mountain of inputs, including the fact that I, who know a little bit about music and used to play music, I know enough to know that the very phrase “smooth jazz” is not a phrase that one wants to get within a mile of if you consider yourself at all serious about music. So, like, Miles Davis, great. Thelonious Monk, great. That’s not smooth jazz. But Kenny G? But then there’s, like, border cases. George Benson. An amazing guitarist, but a lot of what he recorded would be considered smooth jazz. Keith Jarrett, not smooth, but peaceful and meditative.

DUCKWORTH: I have no idea who any of these people are. You could say Kermit the Frog. 

DUBNER: He is smooth. 

DUCKWORTH: He is. I will say this: If I listen to Kermit the Frog sing something once, twice, three times, four times, I would probably like it more because of the mere-exposure effect, because of fluency and familiarity. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you a question. Will says that he used to hate and ridicule smooth jazz, and he came to love it. Are hate and love stemming from the same emotion in this case? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that his particular growing affinity for smooth jazz may reveal something which is not necessarily emotional. There’s a study that I read once by Paul Silvia. I love it. It’s so creative. He asks the question, how do people come to like abstract art — something that very few people would say, like, “Oh, yeah, I completely appreciate abstract art.” Certainly I wouldn’t say that. And what he did was he looked at people with all different levels of art expertise — all the way up to art experts, but all the way down to people who are like, “I know nothing.” And what he found is that people who have a lot of training in art can appreciate abstract art more. But they did that because they felt that they could understand it.  And that, to me, may reveal what’s really going on. Like, why do you like something like smooth jazz more and more? Maybe when you’re just listening to it for the first time, you’re missing all the nuances. You have just no idea how to appreciate it. And maybe it’s the same thing with other kinds of things, like opera. Like, I have no appreciation for opera, but maybe it’s because I don’t really understand opera. And if I understood it more, it would be totally different. 

DUBNER: Yeah. That makes sense. So, I do have this one further question regarding Will’s question. What share of Americans would you say have listened to jazz once in the past month? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, this sounds like something you have an actual statistic on. 

DUBNER: Let’s say Americans age 50 to 64. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, does this exclude, like, wait-time music in elevators? 

DUBNER: I’m going to assume that this means purposefully listened. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, voluntary listening of smooth jazz, or any other jazz? 

DUBNER: Any jazz. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. With jazz, I’m going to go with one in 500. 

DUBNER: No. It’s a little more than that. 13.6 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 have listened to jazz at least once in the past month, which is not very much. But if you go younger, it’s not that much less. So, ages 18 to 29, 10.5 percent listened to jazz in the past month. For all we know, maybe that does include elevators. If you look at the Nielsen year-end music U.S. report of streamed music, jazz was the 11th genre on the list. I don’t have the whole list, so there might only be 11. It makes up 0.7 percent of the total streamed music. So Will is in the 0.7. And you, Angela? You are the 99.3 percent. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know who should be insulted and who should feel complimented. 

DUBNER: I don’t think anybody should be insulted. I think everybody should embrace the heterogeneity of our tastes and preferences, and realize that if someone has totally different tastes and preferences than you, if it’s not hurting you or killing somebody, go smooth jazz. Hit the cruise. 

DUCKWORTH: I think Kermit the Frog has a song about that. 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the This Won’t Hurt a Bit. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

In the first half of the show, Angela says that Tim Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, is nearly a century old. This will no longer be true at the time of this episode’s release. No Stupid Questions would like to wish a very happy birthday to Aaron Temkin Beck — “Tim” to his friends — who turned 100 years old on Sunday, July 18th. 

Angela later shares Beck’s story of how a schizophrenic patient was able to improve his symptoms by capitalizing on his strengths and preferences. But her version of the story is slightly off. Beck explains the incident in a 2020 article for the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research. The 37-year-old patient, David, had an intense interest in preparing and serving food. With his clinical team’s support, David was able to work his way from preparing food for himself to helping other individuals with meals in his unit. During this time, his behavior became increasingly adaptive. According to the paper, after several months out of the hospital, David ultimately landed a restaurant job and no longer showed significant signs of psychosis.

Finally, Stephen says that the Nielsen Year-End Music Report for 2020 shows that jazz was ranked number 11 on the list of streamed-music genres in the U.S. This is correct. And there are, in fact, only 11 genres listed in the report. However, when it came to total album sales, jazz beat out classical, electronic, Latin, gospel and children’s music — proving that jazz lovers don’t just invest in cardigans and cruises, they also support their favorite artists. 

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger and Jacob Clemente. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. 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! 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I had never heard of Washington as a city other than D.C. Is there another Washington? I mean, other than the one apparently in Illinois? 

DUBNER: Well, I do have this thing that I recently got on my computer. It’s called Google. 

Read full Transcript




Episode Video