My guest today, Walt Hickey, calls himself a data journalist. That’s not a job title I’ve ever heard of, but I like the sound of it.
HICKEY: I think it requires you to be a little bit more clever. But I tell you what — the results are just really rewarding.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
I talk a lot about the importance of data science, how we need to be teaching it in schools, how the future belongs to those who can extract insights from data. But a point that doesn’t get made nearly enough is that in the hands of the right person, data can also be fun. Walt Hickey has an incredible talent for making data feel fun — and maybe even cool.
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LEVITT: There are not many applied math majors who end up as journalists, especially journalists who write about culture and politics. Would the college age version of yourself be surprised by where life has taken you?
HICKEY: I think he’d be delighted. I always enjoyed math. I think it was a really fun challenge a lot of the time. You know, I majored in applied math with a focus in probability and statistics, and I managed to graduate at a very exciting time for data journalism in particular. And yeah, I don’t know. You get to meet your heroes. You get to do some cool stuff. You get to break some news with it. I think he would have been thrilled.
LEVITT: And so your first job was with Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, is that right?
HICKEY: No, I was an intern at Business Insider and then Nate was starting up the new version of FiveThirtyEight under ESPN and poached me to do their culture stuff.
LEVITT: I had David Epstein on the show a couple years back. He’s written some great books like Range and The Sports Gene. And he went from a master’s degree in environmental sciences to working for Sports Illustrated. And he marveled at the power that a little STEM thinking brought to him. He was a totally average scientist by his own description. And he was an absolutely extraordinary scientific genius among his peers as a sports reporter. And he’s been exploiting that comparative advantage ever since.
HICKEY: Yeah, I think that having some sort of edge and some sort of different angle on traditional reporting is really gratifying. Data journalism isn’t a complete revolution. Like, we still call people. We still hit up the government and ask them, is this correct? We still chase down sources. It just starts from a different point of view. The example that I always give is that, you know, in a traditional reporting, if you want to report about an intersection that’s dangerous, you’ll talk to the business owners in the area, some of the residents of the area, maybe you’ll call the town and then you’d wait until the town tells you the statistics for that particular intersection. In data journalism, you just make a list of every intersection in town, figure out which is the most dangerous, and write that story. And so it’s just an inverted way of going about it. But I think that it just kind of allows you to see the world through a different perspective that I think is good for the industry as a whole.
LEVITT: So I’ve heard you quoted as saying, “My job has all the benefits of journalism and all the downsides of actual work.” What did you mean by that?
HICKEY: I mean, it is a real challenge to do data analysis and really data collection. The thing that intimidates the heck out of people is sometimes the amount that you need to wrangle with, the amount of data that you need to collect. You know, I wrote a book about pop culture and I’ve always been excited by the people who get to the story before I do because, invariably, there’s somebody who had a really good idea, who had time on their hands, who was down to get into the muck, and could watch every episode of Friends before I could. And so there’s a barrier to entry to it, yes, but the barrier can be subverted by being really driven about it or having a very good idea about it. And as I was doing this book in particular, you know, you do have to make your own luck in a way that I think sometimes you don’t have to in other forms of journalism or even data journalism. Because just finding the information and the data that underscores what you’re going for can just be a little bit of schlep that other folks don’t necessarily have to go for.
LEVITT: And what do you mean when you say make your own luck? You mean with the hard work of digging for data sources other people don’t have? Or crossing your fingers and hoping that when you put all of this time into the data, it actually says something somewhat interesting that people might want to read about?
HICKEY: More the first than the second, but definitely some of the second in there. If you want to write a data story about economics, we have an entire department of our federal government, the Department of Labor, that produces volumes of statistics. The Department of Commerce, these folks just output a ton of information that you can use as the underscore for your economic perspective, right? If you want to write about politics, we know where the polls live. If you want to write about sports, we have decades, in some cases centuries, of history when it comes to sports statistics. Whereas with movies, you know, we have an internet movie database, but it’s not really a database, right? It’s not structured like a database. It’s not queryable like a database. And so if you want to do cool stuff, you often need to find ways around the impediments of the data that we don’t have. And so that might involve relying on scientific techniques and looking at what’s going on in the state of the art when it comes to how we understand how people feel when they watch things and how we can measure that. It can come in the form of executing a fairly large scrape of the internet. It requires you to be a little bit more clever when it comes to how you track this stuff down. But I tell you what — the results are just really rewarding.
LEVITT: I definitely realized in my own academic career, my biggest advantage over other people is that I was always looking for new and different data. And it helps to know what your own advantage is and then to build off of that and make the most of it. So you talked about the benefits of journalism, and I want to give you a great example. Every football fan dreams of what it would be like to be an N.F.L. quarterback. And you didn’t actually get to play in the N.F.L., but for a story that you were reporting, you did somehow convince EA Sports to build Walt Hickey into the Madden N.F.L. video game, avatar and all. How did you finagle that?
HICKEY: That was a heist. I was real proud of that one. I worked on that story with my friend and colleague from FiveThirtyEight, Neil Payne. It came about how a lot of stories did, which is just, you know, you will get into animated discussions perhaps with your friends in bars like, okay, how long do you think that you could last on an N.F.L. field? Just you being a normal schlubby guy like I was. And Neil and I were both really interested in the game Madden because Madden — it’s a phenomenon. It’s been going on for decades at this point. They’ve figured out ways to not only categorize and quantify player ability, but actually execute this compelling simulation and build basically digital avatars for hundreds of players within the National Football League. And so our quest became, number one, we want to understand how this works. How are these ratings being built? What are they looking at? Let’s go inside this game. And that’s really what Neil carried through with it. And then I was like, well, I’d like to settle my bet. I’d like to figure out exactly what would happen if a normal schlub was in the National Football League. And so I, looking around for a normal schlub, found a mirror and decided that, hey, perhaps I ought to do the Combine and see exactly what my score would be. You know, I was 25, I did a little crew in college, but I wouldn’t call myself an athlete necessarily. And so I did that.
LEVITT: Wait, well you say you did that, but a lot of people could call up EA Sports and say, “Hey, this is my dream,” and they wouldn’t write back in the email. But it’s really interesting that they bit on it.
HICKEY: They were so down. We got to work with this guy who’s now very famous, particularly because of his role in this. His name is Donny Moore. And, essentially, they were just thrilled that somebody was actually peeling back this layer. They put so much work into basically running their own independent scouting operation. And they put out a game every year, and the games have different receptions year in, year out, and there’s always arguments of, “Oh, was this player adequately rated or not?” And I think that they were just happy to come out of the shadows. They were happy to say, like, “Here’s why that guy’s a 99 overall and he’s a 97 overall.” One really thrilling part about this job is that you get to talk to people who think a lot about how you quantify this kind of stuff so that they can understand a thing better — so that they can understand how this dynamic system of 22 different complex players on a field, in a simulation, down after down, reflects reality enough that you have this verisimilitude. And I think that they’re largely accomplished at doing so. It was an ambitious pitch and it definitely helped that FiveThirtyEight was owned by ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, and that there was a line of communication between these two companies because in Madden, when you play it, you’ll hear announcers in the background. And that requires some licensing deal that is above my pay grade. And as a result, there was like a red phone connecting Madden with ESPN and we asked the person who was near the phone to please do us a real solid on this one. And we got it done.
LEVITT: So physically, you are built like an N.F.L. quarterback. When you did this evaluation, you were in your mid 20s, 6’1” tall, 205 pounds. That’s a little small for an N.F.L. quarterback, but not outside the normal range. But my god, your results, when they put you through the skills evaluation, it really highlights how different N.F.L. athletes are from normal humans. I mean, let’s start with your time in the 40-yard dash. 6.75 seconds. That’s almost a full second slower than the absolute slowest offensive lineman they had ever measured in the N.F.L. And these are guys who weigh 350 pounds. What are you doing? What’s going on?
HICKEY: In my defense, it’s what are they doing? They’re brilliant athletes. You know, there’s that classic joke, like, there should be a normal guy at the Olympics sprinting so you can understand just how even the guy who gets an eighth place in that sprint is the greatest athlete that you would ever meet in your life. And that’s what we tried to do. What we tried to do is we tried to have that one normal guy doing the athletic events so that you could see just how stupendous these folks are, just how accomplished they are. And like, I came at it from a real place of respect. I didn’t want to trivialize, and I had no delusions that I was going to be good. I just wanted to kind of figure out how these people come together to form a team with such decisive and incredible individual athletic talents. And I think that you can do that through deconstruction, right? Like we had a challenge where we were like, “Hey, if you can win the Super Bowl in Madden with me as your quarterback, we’ll send you some swag.” And two people did it. And the way that they did it was that they understood how do I build a team around this guy? That’s what I love about this quant stuff. It allows you to do these kind of experiments and understand why things work based on how you can make them kind of break.
LEVITT: Now this is obviously a fun story, but the way you reported it at FiveThirtyEight, it really highlights how an appreciation of data can enhance storytelling. So you present a graph in the article that plots 40-yard dash times on the vertical axis and weights of the N.F.L. players on the horizontal axis. And there’s one dot for each player and then you color code that dot by the position they play. So quarterbacks will be blue, running backs will be red, offensive linemen will be orange. So that graph by itself, it’s really interesting. You can see that almost all the fastest players in the league are wide receivers or defensive backs, which is not necessarily surprising, but it’s interesting nevertheless to visualize it. And quarterbacks are big outliers on the graph, which surprised me a little bit. Almost all quarterbacks are slow for their weight. But then you put your one lone black dot, represent Walt Hickey, on that graph. And it is so far off the curve that you need to extend the vertical dimension of the graph just to fit it. And you look at Walt compared to all the other players in the N.F.L., and that one visual hits home more than any number of words. That is what I think is beautiful — when people can take data, put it together as a story, and the package together is something you couldn’t have gotten if you didn’t have both the great story and the great data.
HICKEY: It is like a little bit of a magic trick, right? And charts like that kind of illustrate the power that we have to apply data towards things that you didn’t know that you could necessarily apply them to.
LEVITT: Okay, I’m not going to let you off the hook yet about your other stats because they’re just so bad.
HICKEY: Oh please, read them off.
LEVITT: Okay, so throwing the ball. A typical N.F.L. quarterback can throw the ball 60, 70 yards. You said you could throw it between 17 and 20 yards?
HICKEY: Just a reminder, it’s not 17 to 20 feet. It’s 17 to 20 yards — which, if you think about it, is actually pretty impressive.
LEVITT: And your longest punt is not impressive by any standards. 11 yards?
HICKEY: I never had a head for punting. It’s just not for me.
LEVITT: But where you stood out, where you really made your mark, was in the broad jump. So you jumped six feet something. And the great thing is you actually beat one of the N.F.L. players. There was some guy named Stefon Wheeler, 339 pounds. You jumped farther than that guy jumped.
HICKEY: I was reckless, and I was like, “I gotta win at something, and if I break my ass doing this, it will be worth it.”
LEVITT: Okay so I had two reactions to that story. The first one is that this is just a great example of how we should be introducing kids to data. It would be hard for a teenager who likes the Madden N.F.L. video game not to engage with that story. Have them read the article. Give them an Excel spreadsheet with the raw data. Have them answer some questions using the data. And most importantly, I’d say, have them come up with their own questions and answers. Wouldn’t that have been a better exercise for you in high school or even in junior high than any actual homework exercise you ever got?
HICKEY: Yeah, I think about this all the time. What you do in college math is fairly drastically different than what you do a lot of the time in high school math. Particularly with probability and statistics, it is just such an accessible science, and such a valuable science that really helps people just in their day to day lives in a way that — and this is not to diminish geometry — geometry sometimes doesn’t, right?
LEVITT: Sometimes doesn’t?
HICKEY: Well, I mean, you know.
LEVITT: When does geometry ever do — like, people who know me know I’m completely against geometry and trigonometry.
HICKEY: I’ll push back on that a little bit. Trig is a very good example of how you can actually use math in real life. The classic examples that you would have in a trigonometry exam of how tall a flagpole is, how far away a mountain is, things like that, you can actually get an understanding there’s a connection between you and the abstract as well as the real. The big problem with trig is that you don’t actually get to the magical part of it until college, usually, where you see how these things interact and how they’re all derived from the unit circle. And that is a really powerful moment for a lot of people who end up studying math because they realize that they were forced to do essentially just calculation when they should have been trying to get the understanding of the relationship between sine, cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant, cosecant, right?
LEVITT: That might be a beautiful moment for math majors. And maybe twice in my life I’ve wanted to try to guess the distance between me and a mountain. But look, putting every American through a year of trigonometry for one moment in life, where probably almost no one could remember what the formulas were anyway, that seems to me a really bad trade off compared to teaching kids how to actually use data in their everyday life by introducing them to Madden N.F.L. and getting them excited about the power of STEM and how it actually can do something for them.
HICKEY: I love that. The only other defense that I’ll do for geometry — I’ll concede trig is probably not the most accessible science, and I would take statistics over trig any day of the week, to be clear. Geometry’s cool because geometry is your introduction of proofs, and whenever people are like, “Oh, you studied math and you write for a living? What a strange, peculiar, separate thing that you do.” My counterpoint is like, a lot of what you do is proofs and it forces you to kind of build arguments that rest upon one another sequentially in a way that you can show it to anybody and walk them through it and they get it. And that’s just really journalism. Like you can take an unfamiliar subject, something that people might not have any accessibility with, and if you start from base principles and you walk them through “This step leads to this step and then this step led to this step.” That is just the principles of a good story.
LEVITT: So before we end our discussion on the Madden video game, I had one other reaction. There are a lot of people I know who would pay a lot of money for the experience you had, running through the drills, having an avatar made, getting to insert themselves as a quarterback when playing the game. Somebody, maybe you, should start that business. I think there’s real money to be made in creating a service where people are able to go and Maddenize themselves and put them into the game. What do you think?
HICKEY: Oh, yeah. We were even talking to the folks at EA about that. Like, “This is a lot of fun. You should just do this for normal folks and people who actually play football and want to live that dream!” Like there’s a lot of people for whom that would be the ultimate form of wish fulfillment. It seems like that’s a fairly interesting bespoke service that I think ought to come down the line at some point.
LEVITT: And what did the people at EA — they said, “Hey, yeah, that sounds great, but not for us”?
HICKEY: I think that at any kind of video game company, you’re dealing with a level of crunch that in any other industry would crush you into bits. And so I think that within any kind of video game business, there’s this idea that, you know, there’s a lot of stuff we’d like to have in this game, but unfortunately it’s due, and so we gotta put it out now.
We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Walt Hickey after this short break.
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LEVITT: So let’s talk about your new book. Your only book. It’s called You Are What You Watch. And I could ask you what the book is about, but I’m pretty sure if I did that, your description wouldn’t do it justice. So one thing I found incredibly interesting was the research on eye tracking technology as a means of understanding how people consume something like a movie or a TV ad. Could you talk about that technology and some of the analyses that people have been doing?
HICKEY: Absolutely, yeah. Because if we want to understand what film and TV do to people, we kind of have to understand how people consume it. And some of the most exciting research that I found that talked about how people actually watch movies involved eye tracking.
LEVITT: And how does it work? How they do it?
HICKEY: Sure, I’ll tell you, because I built one. I built eye tracking goggles. And so here’s what it does. You have two cameras. One of them is looking forward and then one of them is perched underneath your eye. It’s kind of looking up at it. That camera is an infrared camera, and so it’s got light that comes out of an L.E.D. that is in the infrared spectrum. You can’t see that light, but the camera can. And so what the camera is basically doing is it’s shooting light into your eye that you can’t see and then the camera is looking at what’s going on with your eye and the direction that it’s pointed. And after a calibration, it’s able to — using trigonometry, that thing that we talked about earlier — essentially figure out where on the screen you’re looking. And so, one thing that folks have done with it is that they figured out essentially what makes good directing. One of the studies in particular that was really revealing to me was looking at Super Bowl commercials. And essentially they got a group of people, they had eye tracking goggles on them, and then they had them watch a series of Super Bowl commercials. Afterwards they asked them, how’d you feel about it? And what they found was that there was a pretty significant correlation between the commercials that most effectively herded people’s eyeballs around the screen — that is to say, the ones that were directed in a way that everybody was looking where the director wanted them to at all times — those tended to be much more highly rated, much more enjoyed than the ones where people were less unanimous on where to look. That kind of tells us that what the director really directs is eyeballs. Their job is to make people look at the movie the same way, ideally every time, to make sure that we have that common movie-going experience. That’s easy when you have, let’s just say, a big closeup, like a real tight shot of a person’s face. We’re all mammals. We all look at the eyes and the mouth. That’s where we go. Whereas the artistry really comes in when you have these wider shots, these dynamic motion shots. There’s a lot of screen there, and you could look wherever you want, and so the art of making you look where they want you to look is kind of part of the magic trick.
LEVITT: It sounds from the book like you’re quite emotional about the Star Wars series, and you and friends were arguing about why it was that the prequels, so the three films in the Star Wars series that actually came later, people didn’t like them that much. And you had a hypothesis and you decided that eye tracking technology was gonna be a way to prove your hypothesis and to win this bet you were making.
HICKEY: Yes, it essentially came down to: why are these films less effective than the ones that came out in the ‘70s and 80s? And if you look at the films they tend to be a little more stripped down. You can look at the Death Star trench run in the first Star Wars film. That’s a very spare scene. It’s deliberately evoking some of the aerial combat films of World War II, specifically a film called The Dam Busters, actually. They pulled the special effects guy from that film to work on Star Wars. It’s just a stripped-down way of shooting that, really, you know where to look at all times. You know exactly where Lucas wants you to be paying attention.
LEVITT: So then you got these directors for the next three Star Wars movies, and now they’ve got incredible technology for doing computer animation. It sounds like they just made the screen much more complicated. There’s a lot more going on — which, to an economist, seems like a good thing. The more that’s going on, the better. People can pick and choose what they want. But you went to try to test that by seeing what happened when people actually watched those movies.
HICKEY: Yeah. George Lucas is, again, an extremely innovative director and an extremely innovative producer at that too, and essentially was inventing digital cinema on the fly. It had never been done before. And so Lucas was doing really cool stuff, but also they didn’t really have an understanding of what this is actually gonna be like to consume as a viewer. And so you have these battles that are jam-packed with all this action going on in the background. It’s a director’s fantasy. You don’t need to have all these extras at all times. You don’t need to recut takes, you can just have the entire scene be full of action and lightsabers and blasters and everything that you’ve always wished for can now be done with the advantage of digital cinema. And what I found was that these movies that came out in the early 2000s, they’re just so jam-packed, there’s just so much choice for people now about what to look at, that they’re not being directed as to where their eyes should actually be paying attention. And so they’re less effective as climaxes because you’re kind of looking all over the screen. It’s less of a unique experience, shared between different people. The cool thing about this eye tracking technology is that you can use it to understand what people are actually seeing, and not just what they say they’re seeing.
LEVITT: I had the chance to talk with someone who was running a major film studio a while back. And it really amazed me, given how expensive it is to make Hollywood movies and to market them, how primitive the efforts were to figure out whether people actually would like the movies before they brought them to market. And at least at the time, the main thing they did was to hold one or two early screenings of the movie, focus groups, essentially, but they weren’t at all scientific about it. For instance, this company did all of their pre-screenings in Los Angeles, which just can’t be a good idea. That can’t be the way to test out whether a movie would work. And another mistake they made, I think, was to treat each audience member like he or she was an independent observation, when really I suspect that within a given screening of a movie, the experience will be quite correlated. Let me give you an extreme example of that, although I think the principle does hold more broadly. The weekend that the Taylor Swift Eras movie hit the theaters happened to coincide with parents weekend where one of my daughters goes to college. So, being a good dad and a Taylor Swift fan, I pre-ordered tickets for a showing. And before we went to the show, my daughter was fretting because people had been writing online about quote good and quote bad audiences across theater showings. So some showings of the movie people got really animated and others people just sat there and watched. Much to my surprise, my usually quite shy daughter — before the movie begins, we’re sitting in the theater — she gets out of her seat and she starts whispering with some strangers who are around in different places in the movie theater. And then as soon as the movie started, they all got up, all these teenagers, young 20s people, and they screamed and they danced and they sang along like they were at the live concert. And eventually many others joined them, adults. And I have to believe if you gave a survey to the people at that showing, the movie would get rave reviews, way better than if everyone had just sat in their seats.
HICKEY: It is entirely that lived experience of being there for a thing. Because the manner in which you consume a piece of media can drastically impact how you perceive it. There’s research that even comes down to how you pace yourself when you consume something has a significant effect on how, long term, you’ll enjoy it. And how binge watching is actually somewhat counterintuitively bad — that you’ll actually appreciate the content less than had you watched it in the old style.
LEVITT: That’s so interesting because binge watching has become so the norm. So you’re saying people are getting it wrong. They’re doing the wrong thing.
HICKEY: But what’s really interesting is that there’s been research about: how do commercials affect people’s view of a sitcom? And the answer is that they actually improve people’s appreciation of them because they’re basically a chance to reset your hedonic feelings towards a thing. Rather than become too comfortable inside the comedy, it gives you a break to learn about what the Tide Corporation is shilling these days. And then you’re back! And so it’s almost like a little break in between so that you don’t get too used to just watching this thing or indulging in it.
LEVITT: You seem almost uniquely equipped at this point — and, maybe again here, I’m always trying to start a business for you — to start a business where you would say to studios, “Look, I understand, using data and technology, how to figure out way ahead of time whether people are going to like your movie or not like your movie.” Do you think we have the tools and the technology out there where somebody like you could actually materially affect the success of a studio?
HICKEY: We’re getting closer. One thing that I did in the book that I think could genuinely be the future of some of this stuff is something called Galvanic Skin Response, or G.S.R. G.S.R. is literally measuring your nervous system’s level of activation.
LEVITT: Okay is this the same thing you pick up on a lie detector, or this is something different?
HICKEY: Yeah, on a polygraph test, this is one of the polygraphs. When we get emotionally intense or have a strong feeling, on your palm little tiny pores are going to release a little bit of sweat, just a little bit. And what the G.S.R. devices do is they’re essentially two little electrodes on two of your fingers, and it’s running a small current from one to the other. And all it’s measuring is how much of that current makes it there. When you’re feeling emotionally charged and you have more sweat on these pores, more of that electricity gets through because your skin is more conductive. And so what that allows us to do is we’re actually able to track your emotional valence over the course of a film. And it’s really cool. You know, I wrote some of the book during the pandemic and figuring out how to execute on some of these things during a time of lockdowns was challenging. But one of the better ideas that I had was I built about nine of these devices. And I sent it to my friends and had a reservoir of movies that I was like, “I’d like you to watch these and all you need to do is turn it on and then it’ll measure how you feel over the course of the film and then turn it off when you’re done.” What I really dug when I was doing this research, it’s like, you know, obviously the films that I ask people to watch are films that I really admire. You have classics in there like Casablanca; Do the Right Thing; you have a bunch of Spielberg movies, just because he’s very good at holding attention and doing cool things with it when he has it; Jurassic Park; the Lord of the Rings flicks, all these different films that really take you on a journey emotionally.
LEVITT: As a data scientist, I have to say, you should have thrown in some clunkers, too, right? Doesn’t make sense to only do the good movies. You want to see the contrast with the bad ones, don’t you think?
HICKEY: Yeah, I mean, listen, this technology’s out there for anyone to use. A cool thing that I was able to learn through this is that lots of movies that aren’t necessarily similar on their face have graphs that look very similar.
LEVITT: And when you say graphs, you’re saying the skin response over time as the movie unfolds, and the ups and the downs?
HICKEY: Yup, when I average out the galvanic skin response of my friends who participated in this study, and we can look at the resulting chart of their aggregated emotional shifts over the course of a film, there’s some cool things that you learn. I’ll give you a good example is that Do the Right Thing, the Spike Lee film, and Casablanca look very similar. They’re a line that’s kind of steadily going up over the course of it. The tensions are getting ratcheted up, and both of these films come to a climax that is just really — the emotional stakes could not be bigger, and they’ve built up slowly over time. And so you can see films that are emotional peers in this kind of way. You can really understand not only what the director wants you to feel during these films, but the commonality of this emotional journey — that it’s not just a thing that you are watching or hearing or seeing. It is having a physical and measurable and, more importantly, repeatable effect on your body.
LEVITT: You are extremely creative in the way that you think to apply data analysis to movies. One very different example that I love is where you look at action movies, decade by decade, and you analyze who the bad guys are in successful Hollywood movies. And in the 1960s, bad guys were roughly equally split between villains from actual countries, like the Soviet Union; criminals; and then monsters, aliens, and robots. That pattern has changed dramatically, though, over time. Can you talk about what you found?
HICKEY: Yeah, definitely. This was really fun because I looked at, number one, who’s the antagonist in these action films? And also, more importantly, what are the folks fighting for? Are they trying to stop tech from getting into the hands of the Soviets in a bond flick? Are they trying to prevent the bad guy from stealing a bunch of money or that kind of stuff? And essentially what I found is that from the 1960s and ‘80s, a lot of these villains are real countries. They’re from East Germany. They’re from geopolitical rivals, Russians, all that kind of stuff. And then in the ‘90s something really big happens where you start seeing something like 20 percent of the villains be like corporations and corporate aligned baddies. And the other thing that gets really big if you look especially at the 2000s is that monsters, aliens, and robots go from being just a fraction of who the enemies are to being the plurality, to being the most common baddie. Essentially what you saw between the 1980s and the 2000s is you saw real countries, real people, real geopolitical adversaries diminish as our adversaries in action movies and robots, corporations, aliens — things that are morally fine to kill on screen — start becoming the norm, if not the majority of what we’re fighting against. And I attribute that largely to the changing audiences for films.
LEVITT: So you mean the globalization of where Hollywood gets their money, and if we want to ship movies to China, we can’t be killing communist Chinese in our movies? Is that what you mean?
HICKEY: Yeah, like, you saw some of the seeds of this in the 1980s. There’s a part of the book where I talk about the military and the Pentagon has a very longstanding relationship with Hollywood. And Top Gun was a really interesting watershed moment for them. I found this amazing memo over the course of reporting this of: Who should the bad guy in Top Gun be? And the fellow who ran the Korea desk in the Pentagon was like, “Listen, we don’t want to upset the apple cart over here. Why don’t you make it Libya?” And then the fellow who runs the Libya desk in pencil scrawled on top of it, right? “We don’t wanna give Gaddafi any ideas.” And so if you watch Top Gun, there’s no country that they’re fighting. It’s just “the enemy,” right? Now that’s just the norm. We don’t fight other countries anymore. We fight lizards and monsters and robots and aliens and we export those films to those countries.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Walt Hickey. After this short break, they’ll return to discuss the ways pop culture can strengthen a country’s foreign policy.
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Walt Hickey tells so many interesting stories in his new book, You Are What You Watch, that there’s no way we’ll get to cover all of them. One thing I want to talk about for sure is why some countries are so much more effective at exporting their culture than others. But before I get to that, I want to give Walt the chance to tell me what he thinks his most interesting stories are.
LEVITT: So we’ve touched on just a few of the ways in which you use data to analyze how movies and culture influence one another. There are dozens literally in your book. Do you have a personal favorite that we haven’t talked about yet?
HICKEY: There’s a lot that I think are just nice because they make my case super easy for me. There’s the baby names one, where you can pretty instantly track the release of a film and a baby name getting significant popularity over time. Like, you can trace the astounding popularity of the name Luna fairly directly back to the Harry Potter franchise and the character of Luna Lovegood. You can also see the same thing with dog breeds. This is usually the first example I tell folks, which is just after 101 Dalmatians gets re-released in the early ‘90s, pretty much overnight Dalmatians become the eighth most popular dog in America. And then fairly quickly after that, go back down again. The other one that I really love is travel, ‘cause you can see so many interesting stories pan out through how people engage in tourism after seeing a thing. My favorite is the Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand. It was a huge element of their economy. And you saw tourists have a huge increase, and then go back down again. And then they were like, “Please make some Hobbit movies now, please.” And then they go all the way back up again, even higher than they were before. These things make such an impact on us in ways that we don’t always appreciate, but you can see it in the data where it’s like, yeah, no, people fell in love with this country as a result of this film.
LEVITT: One question I find really fascinating is how some countries are successful in exporting their culture, whereas others are not. The U.S.A. has obviously been incredibly successful in this regard for the last 80 or 100 years. Would you say the U.K. has been the second most successful?
HICKEY: I mean, yeah, the U.K. — you know, there’s this idea of hard power and soft power. And those are, at times, controversial terms, but just in the broadest sense of the word, hard power is military power, diplomatic power, coercing countries to do things using the hard power of the state. Battleships and harbors and all that kind of stuff. Soft power is when you get countries to do what you want by sharing your values, sharing your culture. That can be business, it can be through language, and it could be through art, and it can also be through pop culture. And the United Kingdom in particular, after World War II, was at a very transformational moment where they were becoming a post-imperial power. They were shedding the hard power that they had essentially maintained for two centuries and were in a world in which they were no longer top dog. They were a regional power to be sure. But the question is, where does this country stand in the geopolitical global order? And then you see their pop culture really begin making inroads in places that it would be surprising that they made inroads. If you think about the reputation of British intelligence and the British espionage services when they were an imperial empire, that was not a favorable thing in many of the countries that were their colonies or their rivals. And then all of a sudden you’ve got James Bond becoming an international fixture and cementing British intelligence and British espionage as a single handedly important contributor to the Cold War. You also see them export their actors and their actresses and their comedians, Monty Python. And the argument is that they are the most effective foreign policy advocates that we have. The Beatles are doing more for the British economy and British reputation than many of the other institutions that had been preserving it in the past. But, you know, the U.K. really did invent this idea of what would happen if we instead valued our exports culturally and really did a great deal to promote that. And that playbook has been replicated by places like Japan and places like Korea.
LEVITT: Korea! I mean, they have been incredibly successful exporters of media and culture. Given that the rest of the world doesn’t speak their languages, it’s really surprising they’ve been able to pull that off.
HICKEY: It’s a huge accomplishment. Like, again, there’s one country in the world that speaks Japanese. And it’s Japan. And you can actually track the number of people who are seeking to learn Japanese as a proxy for their cultural soft power. If you talk to anyone under the age of 20, a lot of what they’re consuming now is manga. A lot of what they’re consuming now is anime. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book was that, as they were coming out of the pandemic, the French decided to give every 18 year old a stipend of, I think it was something like 300 euros, that could be used for culture. And the hope was that they could reward 18 year olds who had had a rather bad time at the tail end of the pandemic — that was a tough time to become an adult — at the same time that they could give a big boost to their domestic industries of museums and bookstores and performing arts and all that. And when they ran the numbers on it, about half the money was just spent on manga. It was spent on Japanese comics. And I think that’s just such a credit to the accomplishment that Japan has had when it comes to understanding and valuing their cultural exports. To the point that, you know, Japan has a declining population. It has an aging population. And Japan was expecting its anime industry and the cultural industry around that to decline financially for the first time in years a few years ago in 2014, I believe. And it declined domestically, but that was also the first year that it really began expanding internationally to the point that, on balance, it grew. And that was a huge unexpected thing. For a country that is aging, for a country that has demographic issues, that was staring down the potential of just kind of diminishing importance, it was really bailed out by its cultural industries and their increased relevance internationally.
LEVITT: Now China has been particularly unsuccessful in exporting culture. Do you think that will matter for how geopolitics evolve?
HICKEY: You’ve hit on a topic that fascinates me. With China, it’s so interesting because they have more cinemas than anyone else. They have a domestic industry that is doing really interesting, compelling work. They had a lot of people who went to Hollywood to learn or brought expertise. But they still haven’t had that hit yet. They haven’t had that thing that really transcends borders. They haven’t had an animated film industry that has been able to make a hit happen outside of China. There was a film that really shook China to its core when it came to: why does this work and we can’t get this to work? And it was actually the Kung Fu Panda series, which was made by DreamWorks. And was really made with a lot of reverence and deliberate respect for Chinese culture and incorporates it in a very honest and direct way. And they were wondering, “Well, how the devil did the Americans do this better than we could?” And I think that they’re still coming up short for an answer. They have really outstanding, I think, science fiction in particular coming out of China right now. But, you know, censorship is an issue. It really does hinder their ability to do the kind of stories that would resonate internationally. Free countries do have an advantage when it comes to making art. I think that we’ve seen that time and time again throughout history. If they’re going to limit the kind of stories that can get told, and if they’re going to, you know, at times jail or incarcerate artists that are having success, particularly in the West, or covering topics that are not necessarily what the party wants, you’re always going to be trying to shoot a movie with one hand tied behind your back.
LEVITT: You’re a journalist who writes articles. You’ve got a book, a newsletter, a podcast. You’re even part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for cartoons. You make it sound like there’s nothing you’d rather do than be a data journalist. If you could do anything, what would you be doing right now?
HICKEY: Oh man, I mean, listen, this is up there. I think I’m very happy doing what I’m doing. I think the medium of comics is so exciting and dynamic. And I have a really good time telling stories that we couldn’t otherwise tell just through print through adapting them into comic books, essentially, kind of web based scrolling comics. I could definitely see doing more of that. Comics are such an under — like, people will look at them and see superheroes and only superheroes, whereas some of my favorite just work — period, end of sentence — of this year is a comic and a story that you can really only tell in comics. And so that field always calls to me.
LEVITT: It’s interesting to hear you say that because I collected comic books as a kid, but the first comic I’ve read in roughly 30 years was what you did on the Uyghurs. And I have to say, it was surprisingly powerful. What I found interesting is the Chinese government takes actions that are so outrageous that they’re almost mind boggling. They’re almost too much. And I found the cartoon was a great way to convey those really troubling ideas in a powerful but not too overwhelming way. So I thought it was good. I’m a comic skeptic, but you’ve definitely pushed me a bit in that direction.
HICKEY: With that comic in particular, we had an interview subject, Zumrat Dawut, who had experienced a significant amount of oppression in a very personal way from the Chinese government. She was sent to one of the Uyghur re-education facilities, they violated her bodily autonomy, they beat her, they did all the manner of oppression that we know and gets reported. But the thing that we had always found when it came to Uyghurs is that there was so little photography. Whenever you would read a story about the oppression of the Uyghurs, there would be one of two Getty Images because you just can’t get a photographer for a news division inside of a Chinese re-education facility. And so as a result, there was just a lack of visual imagery. And because, like I’ve mentioned many times, we are mammals, we are apes, we must see to believe. And so as a result, by keeping these cameras out, the government had successfully made it so that it’s impossible to articulate what’s going on. By illustrating the testimony and lived experience of our subject, we were able to illustrate where a camera couldn’t go and the unique manners of oppression faced by this persecuted Muslim minority in Western China in a way that we hope people were able to empathize with a group of people that perhaps they hadn’t been able to before owing to the photographic limitations of this issue. But hey, I’m glad that you read it. Thank you very much. I’m glad that I was your first comic in a little while.
LEVITT: So you generate content in so many different media. Per hour that you’re spending, what do you get paid the most for across these different kinds of media?
HICKEY: Oh, that’s a good question. Let’s see. Per hour, it’s probably Numlock. Numlock is my daily morning newsletter. I write a new edition every day. It highlights numbers in the news. I’ve been doing it since I left FiveThirtyEight about five years ago. I spend one to two hours on that every day and have a pretty brisk business from the subscribers who choose to support it. It’s important for me to have different outlets for different things, like I love having a daily opportunity to write and talk to people about a thing that I really care about. I love doing these comics which can take months to do, and working on stories which can take weeks to do. And then I love having this book that took years to do. You never want to overdo it and burn out on doing one thing at five different speeds. And so having these different kind of avenues through which I can follow this, honestly, it’s kind of a fun way to build a career if you ask me.
I hope my chat with Walt Hickey got you just a little bit more excited about data. He’s got a knack for making it feel hip, which is not an easy task. If you like the creativity and thoughtfulness that Walt Hickey brings to his data analysis, you can find a lot more of it in his book, You Are What You Watch, or get a daily dose in his newsletter, Numlock News.
LEVITT: So now it’s the time in the show where we take a listener question and, as always, we bring on our producer, Morgan.
LEVEY: Hi Steve, so a listener named Sylvia wrote in. In the past on the show you’ve talked about the guests who have changed your mind the most, specifically Carl Hart and his belief that we should make all drugs legal. But Sylvia wanted to know which guest has had the biggest impact on your daily life. Have any of our guests influenced how you live your life from day to day?
LEVITT: That’s a great question. I think a lot of guests have had subtle impacts. In my daily life, I’m not very animated and I’ve come to learn how amazing it is to be around animated people. So I at least try to be animated like some of my guests, like Carolyn Bertozzi or Sue Bird, although I don’t do a very good job of that, but it’s an aspiration that I have.
LEVEY: We had Sendhil Mullainathan, a friend of yours, on the show and he talked about the importance of play in everyday life, and I think you’ve really tried to incorporate play into your daily life, but have —
LEVITT: Look, I’ve given up on play. I’m not a player. So I’m aiming for two things now. One is enthusiasm and the other is kindness. I think I really watch guests like B. J. Miller or Dwayne Betts. These are people who, when I see their kindness, I definitely aspire to that kind of feeling. Again, I’m not very good at it, but it is something that I at least try to do. But if we talk about how I actually spend my day, I am about to embark on a real life change because I convinced Peter Attia, the doctor who is trying to make people live longer and healthier, better lives, I convinced him to let me be his patient.
LEVITT: And I do that with great foreboding because being Peter Attia’s patient is like taking on a second full time job.
LEVEY: Detail for me what that actually entails. Do you exercise now? And are you going to have to exercise on a daily basis?
LEVITT: So, I don’t know all of the details yet, but his regimen takes hours per day between the strength training and the exercise changing your diet. He does all sorts of testing, like a full body scan to see if cancer is hiding out somewhere in your body. So this for me will be a big change. I don’t really exercise and I don’t really do strength training and I don’t really eat very well. I just kind of exist. If there’s one thing I’ve done with great success over the last 30 years it’s to avoid getting enmeshed in the medical system. I really haven’t been to a doctor in 30 years,
LEVEY: Oh my god.
LEVITT: Which I’m happy about. I just have a deep fear of doctors and of medicine and invasive things. So it’s a big change for me psychologically, physically. I did have to go to the doctor twice when I adopted babies from China, I had to have a physical. And my reaction was that I didn’t learn a single thing that was of use to me from that physical. I’ve been so lucky to be healthy and I use that as a good excuse to never go to the doctor.
LEVEY: I want to know what the real motivation, then, for becoming a patient of Peter Attia’s is. Do you want to live to be 100 years old?
LEVITT: One of my deepest fears is dependency. I hate the thought of being dependent. So I hate the thought of losing my mental ability and having to rely on people. I hate almost as much the thought of losing my physical abilities and having to rely on people. I think that’s it for me. I just want to avoid some terrible decline.
LEVEY: Maybe in a few months, Steve, we’ll check back in on how your progress with Peter Attia is going. If you have a question for us, our email is PIMA@freakonomics.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics. com. It’s an acronym for our show. We read every email that’s sent. We look forward to reading yours.
In two weeks, we’re back with a brand-new episode featuring M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu. In my opinion, he is the greatest economist of my generation.
ACEMOGLU: Economists are making a lot of progress in thinking about what’s the rate of technological progress, what’s the rate of economic growth. But they’re not asking about what type of technologies we’re developing, who are we trying to help with those technologies.
As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: So they rate players in Madden N.F.L. on a scale of 0 to 100. And maybe the biggest surprise is that you got a rating of 12. I would have expected 2 or 3 or 4.
HICKEY: Well, for perspective, the lowest score of any active player at the time, I believe, was 41. I did get more than two. But also, I am pretty much a negative number.
- Walter Hickey, author, journalist, and data expert.
- You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything, by Walter Hickey (2023).
- “France Gave Teenagers $350 for Culture. They’re Buying Comic Books,” by Aurelien Breeden (The New York Times, 2021).
- “How I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp,” by Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col, and Josh Adams (Business Insider, 2021).
- “Why You Should Stop Binge-Watching,” by Alan Jern (Psychology Today, 2021).
- “China Wants Soft Power. But Censorship Is Stifling Its Film Industry,” by Eduardo Baptista (CNN, 2019).
- “The Economic Impact of On-Screen Tourism: The Case of The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit,” by ShiNa Li, Hengyun Li, Haiyan Song, Christine Lundberg, and Shujie Shen (Tourism Management, 2017).
- “A Lazy, Out-Of-Shape Amateur Won Two More Super Bowls Than Tony Romo,” by Walter Hickey and Jody Avirgan (FiveThirtyEight, 2015).
- “How Madden Helped a Schlub Like Me Make It Into the NFL,” by Walter Hickey (FiveThirtyEight, 2015).
- “‘Kung Fu Panda’ Prompts Soul-Searching in China,” by Simon Rabinovitch (Reuters, 2008).
- Numlock News, by Walter Hickey.
- “Nate Silver Says We’re Bad at Making Predictions,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Adding Ten Healthy Years to Your Life,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Reading Dostoevsky Behind Bars,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Does Death Have to Be a Death Sentence?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “A Rockstar Chemist and Her Cancer-Attacking ‘Lawn Mower,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Professor Carl Hart Argues All Drugs Should Be Legal — Can He Convince Steve?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sue Bird: ‘You Have to Pay the Superstars,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).