My guest today, Dan Gilbert, is a Harvard psychologist, author of the blockbuster bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, and co-writer and host of the P.B.S. television series This Emotional Life.
GILBERT: I do suspect that many, many people would be much happier if they did less, better.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Dan Gilbert and I have followed remarkably similar career paths. We both had lots of early success in academics, leading to a bestselling popular book, which opened up all sorts of opportunities. And once we had a taste of these nonacademic activities, traditional academics no longer seemed so inspiring. But we’re also different in one notable way. Dan is one of the most irrepressibly positive, enthusiastic, and jovial people you will ever meet. And me — oh, you know me. I’m just me.
LEVITT: So, at the end of last year, we put together a podcast episode that captured the highlights and the lowlights of the podcast in 2021. And as part of that, I had to pick the single best idea that I had heard from a guest in the entire year. And I suspect that it will surprise you — especially since you weren’t even a guest on the show in 2021 — that it’s one of your ideas that won the prize.
GILBERT: Well, I’m absolutely delighted that other people are talking about my ideas and saving me the trouble of doing it.
LEVITT: The idea is what you call the “end of history illusion.” And our friend, economist Sendhil Mullainathan, described it. So, could you explain that idea to listeners — from the mouth of the creator?
GILBERT: I should of course add that the real creator of this idea was my collaborator Jordi Quoidbach. The “end of history illusion” is a very simple idea, which is that people tend to believe that they will change in the future less than they actually do. Almost all of us have this sense that development is this process that’s brought us to this point. We’ve now become our actual selves. And from here on out, there will be wrinkles and pounds, but we’ll basically be who we’ve always been. And what we discovered in our research was that when people look back, they say, “Wow, have I changed a lot in the last 10 years, but I don’t expect to change much in the next 10 years.” That sounds probably like a teenager to you, and it is. But it’s also true of people in their fifties and sixties and older.
LEVITT: Yeah. And how do you know that they do change in the next 10 years?
GILBERT: First of all, you get one group of people and you ask them how much they’re going to change in the next 10. And another group who are 10 years older and ask them how much they did change in the last 10. Those numbers don’t match. Now you might ask, “How do you know the second number is the true number? I mean, isn’t it just possible that people are misremembering?” Actually, it doesn’t seem very likely for a couple of reasons. First, some of the things people are being asked are things that are pretty hard to misremember: “Do you have the same best friend today that you had in the year 2012?” They’re not being asked simply, “How gregarious were you?” “How fastidious were you?” They’re not being just asked about their traits. They’re being asked facts about their lives — things that are hard to misremember. Second, the MacArthur network has a marvelous database that shows how much adult personality actually does change at each phase of life. And guess what? The recollections of our subjects lined up very nicely with the magnitude of real change that we see in other populations. All of this leads us to think that the people who are making the mistake are the people who are expecting to change little, not the people who are reporting that they changed quite a lot.
LEVITT: So, what I love about this idea is No. 1, at least for me, it’s absolutely without a doubt true. As soon as you say it, I know that it has described me my entire life. Number two, I was completely unaware of the fact. I had come across the idea in your book Stumbling on Happiness and then managed to completely forget it in the interceding 10 years. So, that when Sendhil brought it up, it was as if it was completely new to me. That’s how little I understood it. But now that I’ve actually paused and thought about it, it’s become very salient in my life. I make choices all the time, and, since I started thinking about the “end of history illusion,” I make those choices just a little bit differently. And that’s — to me — a big deal! To actually take an idea from research and immediately put it in your life, and a year later still be using it in your life — that’s not very often that happens to me.
GILBERT: Well, you’re one of the rare people who actually seems to learn from data. Most of us don’t. We just continue to go with our intuition. But you’re exactly right. We depend on being the same person from now until eternity. And we make a lot of choices based on the idea that our preferences and desires and traits and relationships will be stable. And a lot of those choices are made without nearly enough allowance for uncertainty. Not nearly enough hedge. You know, we did a study in that paper where we asked people how much they would pay for concert tickets to see the artist who was their favorite current singer, but would be playing in 10 years. And they said, “Oh, we’ll pay a lot of money.” But if you ask them how much they would pay to see the artist they loved the most 10 years ago perform today — it’s half that.
LEVITT: That’s interesting.
GILBERT: And what that tells you is that you’re not going to really want to pay as much to see Taylor Swift 10 years from now as —
LEVITT: Hey, don’t say that. Taylor Swift’s going to be my favorite artist 10 years from now. What it does suggest is that Taylor Swift should be trying to sell concert tickets for 10 years from now today. She should be trying to lock in the revenues today. She’ll only get half as much if she doesn’t do it.
GILBERT: Leave it to an economist to think of the best way to parlay that finding. Good for you.
LEVITT: But where I feel the impact of the idea is in terms of openness to new investment. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve got this feeling: “Well, it’s too late to start something new. It’s too late to invest in a new path. Because I am basically who I am and it’s too hard to change.” Maybe it’s even a bastardization of your idea, but that’s how I’ve found it very useful. Is a willingness to seek out new experiences and to invest in ways that my gut tells me, “No, no, it’s too late. You’ve stopped changing. The return on investment’s too low these days.”
GILBERT: Well, I think that’s a very wise use of the idea. But, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re not crazy to think that you’re changing less now than you once did. The rate of change does slow. It just doesn’t slow as much as we anticipate. So, you’re right to think, you know, I’m probably not going to change as much between 50 and 60 as I did between 20 and 30. You’re just wrong to say you’re not going to change at all. I just turned 64 and somebody asked me, “What’s it like?” I said, “It’s like a whole new puberty.”
LEVITT: So, I’m curious whether you even consider this “end of history illusion” one of your good ideas. Or is that one of your stinkers? I mean, maybe you’ve got something much better that you think should maybe be in the running for the 2022-version of the prize now that you’re actually here. What ideas have you been the most excited about over your life?
GILBERT: Well, it’s like asking about grandchildren. All my ideas are wonderful and the best one is the one I’m working on right now. The further back I go in history, the more lame all of those ideas seem to me.
LEVITT: Have you named that bias? Because that’s got to be a bias too.
GILBERT: Oh, I think we have a collaboration. (laughs) I’ll be glad to tell you about the idea I’m working on right now, with my collaborator Adam Mastroianni. We’re working — and by coincidence, the word “illusion” is also in this title — on something we’re calling the “illusion of moral decline.” As far as we can tell — research data goes back roughly a hundred years — we have good survey data on public opinion. What we find is that in every single year that people have been asked, they say that morality — and by that they mean kindness, generosity, trustworthiness — the basic morality of other people has declined precipitously in the very recent past.
LEVITT: Wow, we’re really in trouble. A hundred years of decline — we are really in a mess.
GILBERT: Exactly. Shouldn’t we be in the basement by now? You are correctly guessing ahead that as far as we can tell, there is no evidence that morality has declined. Because here’s the cute idea. When survey researchers ask people, “Has morality declined in the last X years?” They say, “Oh, boy, yes, it has.” But when they ask them to rate the level of current morality, it is identical in 2022 to 2000 to 1980 to 1950 to 1937. In other words, imagine that you had data showing that everybody said it’s getting colder. And yet, when you say, “What’s the temperature?” They say, “70.”
LEVITT: The data on crime do support that as well. That even during this period in the ‘90s, when crime was plunging, in general, when you ask people what was happening to crime, they were unaware of that. They were missing the fact that crime was going from the highest rates that it had ever been to rates that were like the 1950s or the early 1960s. Perhaps that’s another angle on what you’re doing, where you have really good data on the facts on one dimension and also they do ask people — I think Gallup asks people all the time about how bad crime is, and they always say it’s getting worse, I believe.
GILBERT: Yeah, there’s no doubt. And my colleague Steve Pinker has now written several books convincingly arguing, at least convincingly I think, that on most parameters, the world is getting better. But we weren’t asking people about crime or genocide or warfare. We were asking them about how nice the people they encounter in their everyday lives have been. And there are no data on everyday niceness.
GILBERT: And so, we have to infer them from the fact that everybody says, “Yeah, everybody around me is reasonably nice.” Regardless of what year you ask them in. “But gosh, they’re not nearly as nice as they used to be.” By the way, people in our studies exempt everyone in their personal world from this trend. When they say people are getting less moral, they mean “those guys out there. Other people, not the people we know.”
LEVITT: And how about themselves? Are people asked whether they themselves have gotten less nice? Or, they don’t even bother to ask that, because they already know the answer?
GILBERT: Well, we have never asked that question because I think it’s pretty obvious that when you think your friends and your family have, in fact, become nicer, you’re not going to exempt yourself. So, my assumption is people believe that their own morality is staying even, or even increasing. You might ask, “Okay, if everybody thinks morality’s going down, is it because less-moral generations are replacing more moral generations? Or is it because individuals themselves are changing over time?” And the answer, it turns out, is people think it’s both.
GILBERT: They think part of the decline of morality is that all of us are just getting worse as we age, but they also think millennials are worse than boomers, and boomers are worse than the silent generation, et cetera.
LEVITT: So, I also loved your experiments, in which people were asked to sit in a room by themselves and do nothing. Could you talk about those experiments?
GILBERT: Well, it is basically the easiest task you can assign subjects in an experiment. This is an experiment, largely the product of my longtime collaborator, Tim Wilson, at the University of Virginia. Tim and I were very interested in why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. We put people in a room with a shock machine and they got to feel the shocks. So, they could find out that they were pretty intense and they hurt. And we even asked them how much money they would pay to avoid being shocked. And they were willing to pay a reasonable amount of money.
LEVITT: How much would you pay to avoid the shock?
GILBERT: You know, if I were an economist, that’s the thing I would remember. But the point is they didn’t enjoy the shocks. They would even be willing to pay some amount of money — it doesn’t even matter how much — to avoid them. Because what comes next flies in the face of that declaration. Which is, when they’re in a room alone — no phone, no wristwatch, no books — and they’re just asked to sit and entertain themselves with their own thoughts. But they’re told that if they want, they can certainly shock themselves. Guess what happens? The majority of men and a healthy number of women, do so.
LEVITT: How long are they in this room?
GILBERT: 37 years. No, no. Of course not. It’s on the order of 15 — you could do it standing on your head. At least you think you could, but most people find it so aversive to have no stimulation whatsoever that they’re even willing to experience a little pain and play with that. Just to have something to feel.
LEVITT: Did people tend to deliver many shocks? Or they would just do an occasional shock? Do you remember what the pattern of shocking was?
GILBERT: I don’t remember but I think we’re missing the point. The point is that here’s something bad that you should want to avoid. And within just a few minutes of the horror of being alone in your own mind, you’re willing to take some amount of something that’s painful. It almost doesn’t matter if it was a large amount or a small amount. It shouldn’t be any amount. Because 20 minutes ago you would have paid not to do it.
LEVITT: So, I think this is an amazing study. The only possible counterargument I could see someone making is that — do people do strange things in psychology experiments? I only participated in one psychology experiment. It was as an undergrad at Harvard. And I signed up for some experiment with some grad student. And it involved meeting him at a playground near the Harvard campus. I got there at the anointed time and he didn’t show up. And, in any normal circumstance, I would’ve left. But I said, “Wait a second. This is a psychology experiment. He’s probably watching me wondering what I’m going to do and how long I’m going to stay. So, I’m going to sit this one out.” So, I waited about an hour and then finally I gave up and I went home. And I called him — he said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot we were supposed to do the experiment. Will you come again tomorrow and do it?” To which I thought, “Oh, this is a psychology experiment. He didn’t really forget to come. He’s just testing me.” To which point I said, “I can’t take this anymore.” And I bowed out of the experiment. So, I doubt it does have anything to do with it. But it’s always in the back of my mind in these lab experiments is to what extent are people doing strange things they wouldn’t do otherwise.
GILBERT: Well, this is always on our minds too when we design experiments we call these things “demand characteristics.” And we work very hard to minimize them in experiments. But in the end, people know they’re being studied. But I guess I would say two things to you. One, do you think it makes you look really good to an experimenter to shock yourself? When just a few minutes ago, you said you wouldn’t? It doesn’t seem like it’s really the best impression management strategy, if that’s indeed what it is. The second thing is: these data fit very nicely with all the other data we’ve collected. Lots of it, people in their everyday lives. People don’t want to be alone with their thoughts. Most people just find it very aversive. They can be trained to find it appetitive by being given little lessons in how to structure their thought. How to think. “Here’s some things you could think about.” As if the average person doesn’t realize they could close their eyes and play a baseball game. Or imagine their upcoming vacation. Or go back through their last conversation with their grandparents. There’s a whole world of things you can do with your mind. But at least at present, in the year 2022, people don’t seem to be capable of this. They’re looking for external stimulation and they find it aversive to not have any.
LEVITT: I wish we could go back in time and do this experiment in 1975 when there were four T.V. stations and there was no internet, no cell phones. We would have suffered horribly back in those days if we weren’t able to be alone with our thoughts. Do you think is a — very much a product of modern technology?
GILBERT: Well, you’re sure right that you say I wish I could go back. So, none of us are going to be able to give a databased answer to your question. But my intuition is yours. Let’s go back a little further. You think of a family living in a small log cabin in the middle of Montana, going through the winter, barely going outside. They’re in one room. There’s no T.V. There might be a Bible. Who knows if anybody can read. Oh my gosh, there’s nothing to do. And yet, as far as we can tell, there are no reports of people killing themselves out of boredom. So, my guess is people were — once upon a time — much better at closing their eyes and entertaining themselves, than we are today in a world that’s just so full of entertainment that we barely have a chance to close our eyes. I think imagination is a remarkable capacity. And that in all past generations it was required. Very little imagination is required to live in the 21st century.
LEVITT: I guest-lectured in your introductory psychology class at Harvard during the Covid lockdown. And it was a rare chance for me to peek in on how other professors structure their classes. And I was stunned really by the amount of effort and positive energy you brought to teaching. I showed up in your Zoom room and you’ve taken the time to specially decorate your background in honor of the class. And you curate a playlist of music for the course, each song chosen to compliment the lecture. And it was not a small class. How many students were in that class?
LEVITT: 400. And as far as I could tell, you seem to know every student. And when a student would come to ask me a question, you would say something special about each one of them. And it was so extreme that I actually vowed that I was going to do better. And the moment came, and I couldn’t do it. It was too much work. And I’m just curious. Why do you teach like that?
GILBERT: I would say that the reason I put so much time and effort into my teaching is because I’m lazy. And lazy people don’t like to work. Somewhere very early on in life, right around the time I dropped out of high school, I think, I decided I never want to work again. All I want to do is play. And what I discovered is that to the extent that you put your whole self into almost any task — even if it’s washing the dishes — it stops being work and it starts becoming play. I wonder if I can wash the dishes by holding them in my right hand and scrubbing with my left hand. Is it faster if I do it that way? Is there an interesting way to stack them so that they dry faster rather than slower? Anything that you are creative and playful with is a joy. So, I have to teach. It’s part of my job. I could go into the classroom and spend 10, 15 hours a week doing drudgery. Or I could spend double that amount of time having the time of my life. And so, I do. The short answer to your question is putting your entire self into things turns it into joy. And lazy people like to have more joy than work.
LEVITT: So, you were the first person I’ve ever heard say so succinctly this idea that a 100% focus is associated with joy, no matter what the task. It’s implicit in a lot of, like, Eastern philosophies of enlightenment and stuff like that. I think you’re probably right. And yet in my own life, I don’t do very much of that. What is wrong with me that’s not wrong with you? How did you figure this out?
GILBERT: Well, I probably have a talent you don’t. Which is, I can say “No.” I can say, “No” very easily. I say, “No,” to almost everything. My guess is you say, “No,” a lot, but you say, “Yes,” too much. And as a result, you have seven different things you’d like to put yourself fully into, but you can only put one-seventh of yourself in, because you said, “Yes,” to all of them. So, early on, when I decided I want everything I do to be a joy, I realized I would only be able to do very few things. So, I just say, “No,” to just about everything. And “Yes,” to just enough that I can constantly be putting my whole self into the teaching or into an article. I mean, I’ve published a quarter of the articles most of my colleagues at my stage of career have published. Because I write very few articles. Because I’m not going to write one that isn’t just as beautifully written and as smart as I can possibly be at that moment. Because that brings me joy. And I’m lazy. I like joy.
LEVITT: I always ask my guests when they come on to give advice. I think I just heard you give advice — although, you didn’t frame it as advice — which is maybe the single most important thing anyone can do is to learn how to say, “No,” and to say, “No,” much more often.
GILBERT: Well, I’m loath to give advice because I’m telling you what worked for me. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it works for anybody else. But I do suspect that many, many people would be much happier if they did less, better. Publish fewer papers and make them better papers. For God’s sake, publish one paper and make it a great paper. Not only will you be happier, but the world will be happier without all the crappy papers you didn’t publish. Reading this one that you put your heart and soul into, and everybody can tell you did because it’s just such a pleasure. Don’t you think the world would be better with fewer books that were better books? Fewer X that are better X? I’m not sure what you could substitute for X that wouldn’t be true.
LEVITT: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. And I have gotten better at saying, “No,” but as you described my life — seven things that I do, each of them pretty poorly. That’s exactly how many things I’m trying to do in my life, which is seven. And it’s probably four too many. And I’ve yet to figure out how to get from seven down to three.
GILBERT: Yeah, I bet you’re not trying very hard because you’re very good with math. And I know you can go from seven to three very easily. My guess is that when somebody says, “Steve, I’ve got this idea for a project.” You go, “Wow, that would be really fun.” And this is what we call “affective forecasting.” You’re imagining how great it will be to do the project. And we know from a lifetime of research that there’s a whole bunch of things you’re not imagining. Particularly how it will impinge on all the other things you already said, “Yes,” to.
LEVITT: Yeah, absolutely.
GILBERT: Classic error.
LEVITT: Now, I know that you just said you don’t like to give advice, but you wrote one paper, which I loved, which was all about advice. And the title was “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.” So, what’s the gist of that argument?
GILBERT: Well, we know — mainly through the work of economists — that there is a declining marginal utility of money. Which is a fancy way of saying the first dollar makes you really happy and every dollar afterwards makes you a little less happy than the one before it, until at some point it would take a huge amount of dollars to budge your happiness a measurable amount.
GILBERT: The question is: why? Is this just an inherent property of money? Is money like pancakes? After the 10th one the 11th just isn’t going to be good because you’re full? I don’t think so. Money is actually the capacity to do anything you want. So, if, in fact, you’re getting less and less pleasure out of money as you earn more of it, one possibility is you’re doing the wrong things with it. And, in fact, we know that people with a reasonable amount of money do the wrong things. They continue to do the kinds of things that bought them happiness when they had little amount of money.
LEVITT: Okay What should people do with money?
GILBERT: Well, if you said, “Look, first of all, that could fill a book,” and it does, in fact. The two co-authors of that paper, Mike Norton and Liz Dunn wrote a book based on our paper, called Happy Money. So, they do give a long answer to that question. But in a word, I’d say social relationships. We are the single most social species on this planet. And it is no wonder that the source of most of our happiness is our relationships with other people. But how many people do you know who when they get a big salary boost say, “I’m going to use this to buy myself more time with my wife.” “I’m going to use this money to have a weekly party for my friends.” No. They use that money to put themselves in a position to earn even more of it. They buy material goods. Which tend to stop bringing you happiness fairly quickly after you buy them, which is why you have to keep upgrading them. If somebody said, “Give me your advice,” I’d say, “Look, invest in your social relationships. They’re a better predictor of your happiness than your wealth, than your health, than your age, than your gender, than almost anything else.”
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with psychologist Dan Gilbert. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Dan’s time living on a school bus.
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LEVEY: Hey Steve.
LEVITT: Hello, Morgan.
LEVEY: Okay So, now is the time when we answer a listener question and our listener Witold had an idea he proposed about getting the incentives of big pharma to align with society’s health. So, his idea is, what if big pharma was taxed at a variable rate within a specific time range with a tax percent being inversely correlated to health outcomes in the society. For example, the more successful treatment outcomes on a national level in a given period of time, the lower the tax rate on pharma profits. Conversely, the more messed up people are, the higher the tax on profits. What do you think of Witold’s idea?
LEVITT: So, I’m totally in favor of the idea of linking societal outcomes to what firms do. But the big problem in this setting is that there’s so many different inputs into health outcomes. So, sure, pharmaceutical companies are one of them, but what about doctors and hospitals? What about fast-food restaurants and eating lots of sugar? What about people’s choices about exercise? So, this is this complicated issue where — sure, you could give pharma strong incentives, but the fundamental problem is when you have a complex outcome and there are many different inputs, you really can’t put too strong of incentives on any one of those inputs.
LEVEY: But what if we reframed his idea? Is there any aspect of the healthcare industry that you think this could apply to?
LEVITT: Well, there’s something called “value-based care,” which is becoming more and more popular, which is actually a spin on what Witold is talking about. So, this is the case where healthcare providers are compensated, not on a fee-per-service basis, but rather on the outcomes of their patients. So, in a fee-for-service setting, you always worry that healthcare providers are going to do too many procedures. They get paid every time they do something. So, they might do too much. They might do things that don’t actually provide any benefit to the patient. So, by switching over to a value-based care system, you hope that you are doing a better job of aligning the incentives of the healthcare provider and the patient, because now both the healthcare provider and the patient are trying to get healthy outcomes.
LEVEY: So, Steve, are you saying that the fee-for-service care is based on quantity of services while the value-based care is based on quality of service?
LEVITT: That is a nice way to put it, although I don’t think exactly right, because it’s not necessarily the quality of the service. So, look, quantity I understand. “The more people I cut open, the more money I get.” Quality I would think of as, “Well, when I cut them open, do I do a good job?” And I think value-based care is partly on quality, but it’s partly on trying to incentivize a whole different set of activities. So, instead of thinking about cutting people open, value-based care wants healthcare providers to think, “What can I do to make sure I never have to cut anyone open? So, how can I get people to do preventative measures? How do I change the lifestyle of my patients so that I just don’t need so much hospital care?” And in many ways, I think it’s designed to be more holistic, to think, not just about healthcare as a way of fixing problems, but how do I get people to live healthy lifestyles?
LEVEY: Thanks for writing in Witold. We loved your idea. If you have an idea or a question for us, our email addresses email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
I’ve only met Dan Gilbert a few times in person, but those conversations have had a remarkably outsized impact on my life. I’m curious to find out whether Dan even remembers these conversations that are so etched in my mind. But first, I know that Dan followed a very nontraditional path early in life, and I suspect he’s got some interesting stories to tell about what he did before he became a psychologist.
LEVITT: So, people have had a chance to hear you talk. And I’m sure if they built an image of you and how you got to be where you are, and the actual path you took to where you are is so absurdly different than people would imagine. Can you tell me about what you were doing when you were 17 years old?
GILBERT: I think by that you mean people assume that if you are a professor at Harvard University, you must have been raised a certain way, in a certain milieu, and been a track star, and gotten top scores in high school. They can’t imagine that you were a lazy, long-haired kid who didn’t really want to spend much time in school. Would rather roll a joint, sit by Lake Michigan, and read Eastern philosophy. But that was me. I was basically a good-for-nothing. (But curious. I liked to read and I liked to write and I liked to draw and I liked to play my guitar. I just didn’t like — and this continues to the present day — I just didn’t like working. I didn’t like doing things that other people made me do. I just wanted to have fun. So, I dropped out of high school.
LEVITT: How far did you make it in high school?
GILBERT: I was starting to drop out my junior year. Starting to not attend classes, and finally the school and I made our divorce official somewhere in my senior year.
LEVITT: And then, so what did you do after you had dropped out? How did you spend your time?
GILBERT: My friends and I bought a big 72-passenger school bus. I grew up in Chicago, and we bought this old derelict school bus and ripped out all the seats and put in bunk beds and a wood-burning stove. Painted it DayGlo colors. And I think the side said, “Blessed be, magical starship.” Look, this was 1971, something like that. And we just started driving. And we just drove around America, meeting people, having adventures.
LEVITT: How long were you on the bus? The magic bus?
GILBERT: I think the magic bus probably lasted about a year or so. We did what hippies did in those days. If we ran out of gas, we stopped and would do odd jobs or we would ask people to give us money, because surely we were entitled to the money they had worked hard for, so we can continue getting high and driving around.
LEVITT: So, how in the world does someone get from the magic bus to a tenured professor at Harvard?
GILBERT: Yeah, how? Well, I end up in Denver, Colorado. And I decide I want to be a science fiction writer. I’ve always loved writing. I meet this girl and she’s a science fiction writer and I thought the best way to impress her would be to become a science fiction writer. That actually worked for a very short amount of time. Even though the relationship with this woman was brief, the love of writing was not. And so, I wrote science fiction stories and began to publish some of them. I decided I would join a writer’s group. Turned out there was a community college in my city. I went down to sign up for this writer’s workshop and it was closed. But it had been a very long bus ride. And so, I remember saying to the woman, “Okay, is there anything else to do Thursdays at three o’clock?” And she looks down at her list and said, “There’s a course — Introduction to Psychology still has some seats.” And I thought, “Well, all right. I guess psychology could help you be a better writer. Sign me up for that.” So, I’m telling you this in a little depth, because you can see that once this happens, it’s now just dominoes falling. Isn’t it? The path to becoming a psychology professor is pretty clear. Once you wander into this course, and somebody opens your eyes and shows you, at least for me, that there is a science of the things I’ve wondered about. All the things that philosophy and religion gave me pretend answers to these questions. There are these people called psychologists and they were doing experiments to find out real answers. I was just instantly hooked.
LEVITT: What do you think would have happened if she would have looked at that list of classes and Introduction to Economics had been the one that was Thursday at three o’clock? What do you think your life would have been like?
GILBERT: I think I’d be running this podcast and asking you questions. First of all, you’re picking an easy one because economics and psychology are the same discipline divided by a common language, to paraphrase Churchill. They’re both sciences of human behavior. The real question is what if it had been cartography? And I can imagine that with the right professor, I’d be a mapmaker. I would’ve gone, “Wow. This is amazing. Greenland’s so much smaller than I thought! Who knew?”
LEVITT: Okay, but there’s still some explaining to be done. You are a hippie who’s on a bus who is now taking introductory psychology at a community college. There’s still a little bit of distance to get to being a tenured professor at Harvard.
GILBERT: Well, the distance is great, but the trajectory is clear. It’s just a straight line. You’re interested in psychology. So, I get more interested. I take another course. I decide maybe I should actually sign up for a real university and get a degree. So, I go take the G.E.D. test as a substitute for my poor high school graduation skills. University of Colorado at Denver lets me in. I take courses. I do well. I get more and more interested. What’s the next obvious thing to do? Gosh, maybe I’ll get another degree in this. “What’s the next degree?” I asked. “Ph.D.,” they told me. Okay, sign me up for that.
LEVITT: You don’t seem like it’d be a particularly compelling Ph.D. candidate at this point. How did you get into Princeton?
GILBERT: I’d say two things. First of all, I scored well on standardized tests. And I had this kind of interesting history of having published science fiction stories in the major science fiction magazines. I probably looked more odd and interesting than repellent. But the other thing is academia has changed. There’s no way my application would be even looked at today at Princeton or Harvard or Yale or Stanford. But these were different days. Somebody there took pity on me and said, “Here’s a potential diamond in the rough. We’ve got a whole bunch of really good candidates. Let this one bozo in and see what happens to him.” So, I end up at Princeton working with probably the greatest living social psychologist, Edward E. Jones. I don’t know who he is. I don’t know anything about his research. But he seems to have taken a shine to me. And I took a shine to him, and we had a great relationship and I ended up falling in love with him and with his ideas. And he was an amazing mentor to me.
LEVITT: It would be incredibly unlikely for a student today to follow your path and to be admitted to an elite Ph.D. program. What strikes me as a fundamental problem in our educational system, is that unless people are single-minded, they’re locked out of options. Many of the most interesting students I’ve encountered have done something different. They spent some time in jail before they went back to college because they had made mistakes and now they were trying to do something different. And yet, we foreclose so much of that. I have a wish that there was more space for people who didn’t decide when they were 15 what they were going to do from the ages of 15 to 30. But there was more freedom for people to pursue, to change, to make mistakes. What do think about that?
GILBERT: Well, I think you’re right. Look, admitting people who do well on standardized tests and have gotten very good grades is probably a really good default policy. Most of your slots in a Ph.D. program, or even a university, should probably be given over to those people, but surely you should reserve some as a hedge against your own ignorance. You need to reserve some space for people who just look weird. Who don’t look like the average candidate. They started some weird organization or they went off and learned to play the oboe with their feet. All of these things we believe make an interesting community by having that kind of intellectual and experiential diversity. Maybe I would have been one of those people. I doubt it.
LEVITT: Do you remember when we first met?
GILBERT: We met in I think it was probably 2005 or 6. We were both in Oxford, England.
LEVITT: I had thought we had met once before that — standing around a baggage carousel. Did we go to Colombia or Mexico City possibly together?
GILBERT: Could we have been in Pueblo at the City of Ideas Conference together?
LEVITT: Yes. I think that’s where we actually met. And the reason I remember it is because I am 100% anti-social. I have organized my entire life out of never talking to a stranger. And indeed, when I get into a situation, I try to figure out how not to talk to strangers. And so, what I remember is there was this baggage carousel, and there were two or three Americans clearly at this baggage carousel, because we had been on the same flight, heading to the same thing. And I remember with horror thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to have to talk to this other American.” And you of course are yourself — and you are gregarious and outgoing. And I think you marched right over to me and began talking. And you were so charming and interesting that I thought to myself, “Wow, that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I shouldn’t live in desperate fear of talking to strangers.” I need to be open. And in many ways, I would say this podcast is the ultimate evolution of that conversation we had in which I now have committed myself to talk to strangers all the time. Not because I like to talk to strangers, but because you were one of the first positive experiences I ever had in talking to a stranger.
GILBERT: By the way, the experience that you’re describing is now substantiated by some lovely research by your own colleague, Nick Epley. In Chicago he randomly assigns people to speak to strangers while they’re commuting. And they all think what you thought at the baggage carousel, which is, “Oh, God. This’ll be awful.: And then afterwards they report, “This was wonderful.” They get a big boost in their happiness. People enjoy social interaction much more than they anticipate they will.
LEVITT: So, about four months ago, in the dead of winter in Chicago, my nanny asked me if I had seen her jacket, because her jacket had disappeared. I said “No, I have no idea.” And as we looked around, I noticed also that some boots were gone and as I looked more carefully, I realized that there was a different jacket hanging up on the hanger that wasn’t one of our family’s. And it was cold. And there was a set of shoes in the lineup of shoes that were not familiar. And so, we were all standing around, completely confused about what had happened when the front door opened and a homeless woman walked into our house, wearing my nanny’s jacket and my wife’s boots. She had come into our house, which had been unlocked. She had taken our stuff, including our car keys, and she had proceeded to go and sit in the car and warm up. I have no idea why she came back. I presume she came back to steal more stuff, but as it happened, I asked her if I could have the coat and the shoes back. And I said I would help her. And she gave me back the coat and shoes and we ended up talking — her name was Jasmine — we ended up talking for 15 or 20 minutes, and we gave her a bunch of stuff. Probably not as much as we should have, and gave her some money and what not, and I remember this as one of the most positive things that has happened over the course of the last six months. We ended up talking for a long time about her kids and her kids had been taken away and she had a drug addiction and all these things. Anyway, so consistent with what Nick Epley found: I have enormous fear of interactions with strangers. And yet, many of my most positive memories involve strangers.
GILBERT: And yet, if you’re like most people, you will tell stories just like that one. And then you will fail to incorporate this lesson into your own life. You go to Starbucks. And there’s a perfectly nice stranger standing there also waiting in line. And you will not say something like, “Can you believe how bad the Cubs are this year?” You won’t do it because you’ll think, “I’m Steve Levitt, and I don’t like to talk to people.” The question is: Why do you have to keep learning this lesson over and over again in life? Why don’t we seem to get wise about it from our own interactions?
LEVITT: So, I hope you don’t mind if I read out loud your response, when I invited you to come be a guest on this podcast. You wrote: “I normally turn down invitations to be on podcasts because truth be told after 20 years in the public eye, I’m just tired of hearing myself talk. Like every academic, I know I’ve always wanted more. More publications, more honors, more attention, and so on. But then one day, a few years ago, I realized I had what I needed. The banquet had been wonderful, but now I was full. Aren’t we supposed to get full? If so, why is everyone else I know always so hungry, no matter how much they eat? Anyway, the point of this ramble is that I’m saying yes to your kind invitation because I like talking to you. The fact that you want to record our conversation and play it to the world is irrelevant to me.” I never really thought about it but I’m pretty full too! And I feel guilty about it when so many others are still so hungry.
GILBERT: It makes you wonder if maybe you’ve done something wrong. At least it does to me. I don’t know many people at my stage of life who can say they’re full. But I’m not sure I know many who would even recognize when they’re full. And that’s what kind of worries me. Might you be full and not know it? A good friend of mine, just a brilliant person; so accomplished, asked me once, he said, “What percentage of all the things you want to accomplish in life have you accomplished so far? Without missing a beat, I said, “172.” It’s so far beyond anything I ever imagined or desired that I’m done. Then the conversation turned to him and of course his answer was something like 80%. And the question was: how he would know when he hit a hundred and would he? And I think the answer is no. Success puts you on a treadmill and you just keep running and you keep craving more. Beeause there’s always something more you could accomplish. There’s something in the back of my mind that says, “You should know when enough is enough.” And certainly the kinds of accomplishments I’ve had so far, I have enough of. I don’t need any more applause. I really have loved it. I appreciate it. But I’m done. I’ve had enough. I don’t feel the need to tell everybody what I think about everything anymore. I do a lot of writing that I’ll never publish. Because I don’t care that anybody reads it. I’m working out problems for myself in my head. Am I sick? Is this a disease? I’m not sure that this is advice for anybody. There might be something wrong with me.
LEVITT: Interestingly, this podcast is something I can only do because I’m full. For 30 years, I single-mindedly — almost with an addictive sort of focus — tried to produce knowledge. I had to. It was my job to have ideas, to write these ideas down, to break ground. And what has been very liberating for me is I no longer have any illusion that I will create ideas. I want to learn. I want to become a consumer of ideas. I didn’t read for pleasure for 30 years. What I love about this podcast is: I don’t want to embarrass myself. So, before I talk to you, I want to really learn about you and what you’ve thought about. And I never spent any time doing that, even though it’s something I know I enjoy and I loved to do when I was young. And it just got crowded out. So, one of the beauties for me of being full is that this is an activity that I can only enjoy because I’ve sated that other desire.
GILBERT: So, that means your desires were sateable. That is, you didn’t have an infinite amount of desire. And yet, I think most of the academics we know have infinite appetite for success, adulation. Why are we able to say, “Okay, that was nice. Thanks. I’m done. I don’t need more of that. Give it to someone else.” I guess you’re not going to answer my question.
LEVITT: No, I’m not going to. Now, I’m sure you don’t remember, but we actually had a conversation — very similar to this one — over beers, at least a decade ago, where you and I both wondered in a puzzled way, what we should do next. I think we had both had so much academic success and then we had tasted celebrity. And we were both at loose ends. We didn’t know what we could do next that would be fulfilling. And I asked you, “If you could have anything, what would you want?” And you said something like, “My perfect life will be to move to a Caribbean island and make love to my wife once a day. And what I do for the rest of the day doesn’t even matter.” Does that sound like something you would say?
GILBERT: It does sound like something I say. And remarkably, it’s exactly what I would tell you today. But, I’m a little older, so maybe three times a week.
LEVITT: So, I don’t want to keep giving you credit. I keep referring back to conversations we had decades ago and saying they had a big impact on me. But truthfully, after you said that to me, that all you wanted to do is move to the Caribbean island and make love to your wife, I kept on thinking about that. And how different your dreams were from the dreams that I had. And, I honestly think that was part of the reason that I got divorced a year or two after this conversation. I actually hadn’t thought about the fact that you could be married to someone for 20 or 25 years and think that the best thing that could happen would be to just spend more time doing nothing but being with that person. And it shocked me a little bit. And it made me want more. So, you’ve spurred me to make decisions. Important ones. For better or for worse.
GILBERT: If I had any idea how impressionable you were, I would have just shut up. Because, Steve, I just say stuff. I mean, you can’t really bank on it. I just say what’s on my mind at the moment. I’m teasing. It sounds like you’re crediting a lot of revelations to somebody who happened to walk by and open their mouth at the right time. And they are not mine. They’re yours.
After we finished this interview, Dan asked me, “Do people really want to hear about our midlife crises? And when we first met?” And I thought about it, and I said, “I actually have no idea.” When you host a podcast, you just don’t get good feedback about what people really like, and really dislike. But I would love more feedback, both positive and negative. So, how about this? If you feel inspired, drop us an email and just tell us what are the two or three things you like best about the podcast, and what are the two or three — or four or five things you’d want to change about the podcast? That way, maybe we can start delivering something that’s a whole lot better. If you want more of Dan Gilbert, I highly recommend his P.B.S. series This Emotional Life. I just watched it and I loved it so much that I’m watching it again; this time with my wife and kids.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
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GILBERT: Are you trying to sell me this podcast?
LEVITT: I would love to share it. I would love to go 50-50 on this podcast with you.
- Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- “What the Data Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Crime in the United States,” by John Gramlich (Pew Research Center, 2020).
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Stephen Pinker (2018).
- “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder (Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014).
- “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” by Timothy D. Wilson, David A. Reinhard, Erin C. Westgate, Daniel T. Gilbert, Nicole Ellerbeck, Cheryl Hahn, Casey L. Brown, and Adi Shaked (Science, 2013).
- “The End of History Illusion,” by Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson (Science, 2013).
- Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn (2013).
- “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be,” by John Tierney (The New York Times, 2013).
- “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right,” by Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson (Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011).
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Dan Gilbert (2006).
- “Affective Forecasting,” by Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2003).
- “Crime,” (Gallup).
- “Who Gives the Worst Advice?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Am I Boring You?” by Freakonomics Radio (2015).
- “How to Make a Smart TV Ad,” by Freakonomics Radio (2015).
- This Emotional Life, by Daniel Gilbert (2010)
- Value-Based Programs, (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services).