DUBNER: Whenever I hear the phrase “really annoying people,” I just immediately join that tribe in my head.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What changes will we see in post-pandemic society?
DUCKWORTH: You’ve always been living the pandemic lifestyle, Stephen.
Also: would you take a confirmation-bias vaccine?
DUBNER: I might want to be a conspiracy theorist at some point.
DUCKWORTH: And this is going to be a real problem.
* * *
DUBNER: So, Angela, once the pandemic and the shutdown fade away, what would you say is one permanent change we will see in the life of Professor Angela Duckworth?
DUCKWORTH: Well, what’s leaping to mind is that I have a nonprofit called Character Lab. And during the pandemic, our small team moved out of our beautiful office space and everybody started working from home. For the first few months of the pandemic, I thought, “Well, isn’t this a shame?” And now we have decided as an organization that we will never go back to business as usual, and that we will be a remote-first organization.
DUBNER: Was that driven by finances, in that you can save all that money on real estate and use it to buy cotton candy instead?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it was partly influenced by that. We are saving a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year by not moving back into our original, built-out space.
DUBNER: And are you distributing that money to people who work for you? So that they can add on to their homes, since they’re now going to be doing all their work from there?
DUCKWORTH: We said, “Make your work-from-home space whatever you need it to be. And, within reason, we’ll support that.”
DUBNER: So, you’re obviously one small part of a gigantic trend which seems to be moving in the direction that you are. But did you consider the options and feel this is going to produce better work?
DUCKWORTH: I would say that we thought that it might increase productivity because you’re not commuting, so you don’t have to lose that time. And also, I think for a lot of people, the ability to concentrate is actually better. I know that varies, whether you have kids or dogs underfoot —.
DUBNER: Or roommates, or grandparents, or noisy neighbors, or construction, or enough space in your house.
DUCKWORTH: Right. I have friends who have really little kids, kids who would otherwise be in preschool or daycare, and they’re home. That’s a completely different situation than what I have. Here’s my situation: “Hey, Lucy, I’m going to be on a Zoom call at 12:00. Can you make lunch today and bring it to me?”
DUBNER: So, she’s basically your waitress.
DUCKWORTH: Servant. Yes. I will say, just in my own family, we had something of an experiment, because when the pandemic first hit, my two teenage daughters, my husband, and I were all fighting for space. I had already claimed the home office because I, as a professor, had already been working from home on occasion. And so, I had this amazing setup with a computer and dual monitors. I had this space that I lay down on the floor to read papers in a patch of sun.
DUBNER: Wait. You lie down on the floor to read papers?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, always. It’s awesome.
DUBNER: Why is that?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. It feels good on the back.
DUBNER: You lie down on your back on the floor to read papers?
DUCKWORTH: Well, usually, I lie down on my stomach. What is that called? Is that being prone, or supine, or something?
DUBNER: I think of it as “sniper position,” but that’s me.
DUCKWORTH: Or if you do yoga it’s called the Sphinx position, which is a little less aggressive. That was my pandemic work-from-home situation. I was pretty darn happy. And then there was the rest of my family, who had to scramble and find a nook or cranny in the house. My daughter had to be on her bed while she was working from this makeshift desk. And they were all pretty miserable relative to me. You know, my daughter would say, like, “Oh my gosh, every time I sit down to do work I just want to go to sleep in this bed.” So, I have to say that in the circumstances that I was in, working from home was great. But for other people, even in the same family and even under the same roof, it could be not so great.
DUBNER: So, if you’re fortunate enough to be the kind of person who has the kind of occupation or project that can be done well remotely, and especially if you can continue to earn your living doing that — which would probably describe a fairly large share of this listening audience, but not a fairly large share of the world at large — the substitute for working in an office has been much more palatable. I did see a paper by several authors, including Raffaella Sadun, who studies productivity and leadership. She found that the average workday during the pandemic has increased by just under an hour — 48 minutes, which is a psychologist’s hour. And that the number of meetings increased by 13 percent, although, the average meeting length did decrease a little bit, by 11 and a half percent. But plainly, the work choice set has changed a lot for people. I mean, I was remote before you had to be remote.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You’ve always been living the pandemic lifestyle, Stephen.
DUBNER: I have. I’m miserable that it took a pandemic for so many people to try it out. But I’m delighted that so many people see the upsides of it. Let’s talk about other, nonwork ramifications. What about, let’s say, socializing? One could argue that the pandemic has been less bad for people who are antisocial, who don’t really enjoy and look forward to having to interact with people all the time, which I would say kind of describes me. But that doesn’t describe you. You love people, don’t you?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I do love people. But somehow, I have not really felt the physical isolation.
DUBNER: You don’t love people as much as you think you did!
DUCKWORTH: Look, I’ve been quarantining with two of my favorite people! And my younger daughter, Lucy and I, we’re like, “What’s for lunch today? What time should we break for lunch today? Maybe we could sit outside?” So, I’ve been hanging out with my daughter, whom I adore, and then occasionally my husband, because he’s gone back to work in his office. I do love people. And yet, I feel that the reasonably ample diet of Zoom meetings, in which I’ve been interacting with my students, and my colleagues, and collaborators, has been a pretty decent supply of social interaction for me.
DUBNER: But what about the whole notion of collision, as the sociologists call it — this whole idea that we choose to live where we live, in part, because we want to be in a place where we are likely to run into people that we wouldn’t expect to, whether these are people we know or don’t know. And that, therefore, we’ll have conversations — we’ll have ideas that never would have happened without that. Aren’t you excited about getting back to that kind of accidental fun?
DUCKWORTH: You’re onto something really big there. When you ask like, “Well, why do students want to get back into high schools? Don’t they see their friends on Zoom?” I do think that the serendipitous collisions — like, I just happened to run into this person or happen to be sitting next to this person and struck up such-and-such conversation — I think those spontaneous social interactions are missing, because my 4:05 p.m. Zoom call, which has a hard stop at 4:30 p.m., does not allow for that kind of spontaneous human interaction. On the other hand, I take a lot of calls, whenever I can, just, like, walking around my block. I’m in the sun. I’m getting my steps in.
DUBNER: Do you pick up dog poop as you go, just out of habit?
DUCKWORTH: On my new block, since I moved, I have to say, it’s been relatively poop-free.
DUBNER: I’m going to see if Amazon can deliver some poop to your street just to make you feel like you’re doing good work.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, please do just so that my husband has something to do with his day. But my dog-walking neighbors and I just ran into each other. That’s a collision. When we stopped and saw each other, we had a 15-minute conversation. We made a date to have an outdoor dinner. Like, that’s the kind of spontaneous thing that you mean. So, maybe we don’t have as many spontaneous work collisions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have any spontaneous collisions. So, I take your point. And I agree, some spontaneous, social interaction is elemental. And I think that’s also why we don’t want to have a 100 percent work from home, “never see each other in person” kind of policy.
DUBNER: Let me ask you about your appetite for social gatherings. Let’s say there is a going-away party for an employee in your university department. How much, in the old days, would you have looked forward to that? And then, how do you feel about it now?
DUCKWORTH: You mean those parties where everybody stands around with a small glass of champagne hovering over a table of grilled vegetables?
DUBNER: Or cake.
DUCKWORTH: Completely honestly, on a scale from zero to ten — where ten is euphoric and zero is like, “Oh my God” — I’m close to two.
DUBNER: That’s now or pre-pandemic?
DUCKWORTH: Always. I don’t really like parties, even though I’m really extroverted. I don’t know why.
DUBNER: Do you feel that the pandemic will give you a little bit of ammunition or cover to turn down those sort of invitations in the future?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know how long I can keep saying that, like, “Well, since it’s a pandemic—.”
DUBNER: No, I don’t mean that. I mean, you could say, “I really appreciate the invitation. I like you, but I really learned a lot about myself during the pandemic — I find that I really am most comfortable and happy being with myself and my family. Let’s talk some time on the phone.”
DUCKWORTH: I think I’m going to go a different way than that, Stephen. I recognize that there are reasons why we show up to these social gatherings in person that have nothing to do with our own personal happiness. And I get that it’s probably something that not only is good for the whole group, or maybe specific individuals, but also might be a little bit like jogging. Like, maybe you don’t love it in the moment, but there are all these positive benefits afterwards. Here’s the thing that I’ve always wanted to do, pre-pandemic, now, and forever: I want to change all of these, “Hey, let’s get together with a four-ounce glass of champagne over cake or grilled vegetables.” I want to change it to bowling. I think that instead of having these small talk, chit-chat, all just stand around — I think if we were all bowling —.
DUBNER: Yeah, that’ll do it. That’ll fix everything.
DUCKWORTH: Now, I’m at 10.
DUBNER: Well, I appreciate your appetite for a distraction from the awkwardness of the gatherings, I guess where I land on this is that I think most people have learned during this shutdown quite a bit about themselves and, of course, there’s heterogeneity. So, some people desperately missed being around other people from day one. Then, other people discovered that, “Wow, I don’t miss it. And there are other things I don’t miss, like commuting.” And then, there are others who knew that they didn’t like those things. And when they had to do them a lot, it was really costly to them. And so, now, I think they’ll be looking for a way to extend this pandemic grace period into the future. But I also think another wrinkle in the mass psychology — you know, we think a lot in this country about polarization. And there’s been so much made of it in the last eight or 10 years, especially in national politics. But I do think that the circumstances that lead to polarization have grown even stronger during the pandemic, since it’s so much easier to stick to your own groups, and that one of the few ways you have to interact with people is virtually. And so, I do wonder once we start to mingle more, whether it’s in work, or going to ball games, or your kids’ sporting events — what kind of effect do you think that might have? Will it be like one of those horror movies where everybody wakes up, and they realize that they’ve totally changed their character, or they’ve gotten in touch with their true character, and it’s like, “Oh my God, I could never stand those friggin’ people.”
DUCKWORTH: That is a very interesting point. And I think Robert Putnam, the sociologist, who well before the pandemic worried about this as a trend in the United States—.
DUBNER: In his most famous book, Bowling Alone, which is exactly what you’re not prescribing. You’re prescribing bowling in groups.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. He was saying that people used to bowl in leagues. And now, they’re bowling alone. And that sort of thing becomes a vicious cycle. Like, the more we are not with each other, the less we understand each other, and then the less we want to be with each other. Maybe what we need is some countervailing force to bring us together, even if we’re going to go remote-first for offices. Here is one thing that I have seen happen in the pandemic, there is much more use of open space like parks. And even, in Philadelphia anyway, they have shut down certain streets and made them available for outdoor dining. Or they’ve shut down certain boulevards and made them available 24/7 for biking and walking and jogging. And it is a wonderful thing to see our, I guess, neighbors who I had never laid eyes on — like, all the people who live, apparently, in those buildings next to us, out and about. And maybe we will have collisions that are not in the corridors of office buildings.
DUBNER: So, when I asked you the question, “What you think will be a permanent takeaway for you,” I did it knowing full well that most predictions are terrible. But I’m still going to make two predictions about the future, knowing that I’m quite likely wrong. My first one is a scientific one, which is that mRNA technology and perhaps other medical technologies that became very prominent because of the pandemic — I’m talking about the underlying technology of the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines — that may become a medical technology in many more arenas, having nothing to do with viruses but more to do with, let’s say, cancer or other maladies, that will save many more lives than the pandemic took. And so, maybe that’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that’s true. My other prediction is that I think the future will be a lot more like the past than we tend to think. I don’t think most of us are going to change all that much, honestly.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t think we’re going to be working from home two days a week, when before we were working zero days from home?
DUBNER: You’re right. That is a pretty large change. And a lot of people have made individual changes that seem quite large. But the more that I think about the world, and the more that I read history, and the more that I understand the way humans respond, they respond pretty consistently over time, and even when there are big, big, big disruptions, people, kind of are people. And so, I have a feeling that if we look at a year from now, or ten years from now, that it’s going to look a lot more like 2019 than we might think. And it’s interesting — there was a piece by the writer Charles Mann. He wrote in The Atlantic about the pandemic and what kind of effect this would have on us socially. And he was looking back to the 1918 pandemic.
DUCKWORTH: The flu?
DUBNER: Yeah, what was called the Spanish flu. Kind of a misnomer because it didn’t originate in Spain. But the deaths from that were massive. The estimates are anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. And again, the world was much, much smaller then, but he writes about the fact that even after the pandemic, the flu didn’t even affect U.S. policy making at all. Congress didn’t allocate extra money for flu research, for instance, afterwards. He also wrote that the first history of the 1918 flu wasn’t published until 1976. So, it’s a different world today for sure, to some degree. But I do wonder if when this is over, we’ll emerge into a world much less changed than we think. And I’m curious whether you agree or disagree.
DUCKWORTH: So, I agree with you. Human nature is not going to change, right? But, you could also take the example of Asia and mask-wearing. You know, mask-wearing before the pandemic became something of a cultural norm in many Asian countries. And that stuck. So, I don’t know what’s going to stick and what’s not going to stick. One other thing, from a public health standpoint, is that I’m hoping this induction into vaccine and virus science that we’ve all gotten a lot smarter about — I hope that sticks in a way that people get vaccinated in larger numbers and take basic, common-sense steps to prevent infectious disease outbreaks. We should be more careful when we’re sick around each other. Simple things, like washing our hands and not going to work when we have a fever, et cetera.
DUBNER: You know, Angie, this podcast was born in the pandemic.
DUCKWORTH: I guess that’s right.
DUBNER: That is right. So, does that mean that when the pandemic is over, we have to quit?
DUCKWORTH: I think that we could say that this podcast is a pandemic behavior that we will merrily continue long after the pandemic.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate the value of certain cognitive flaws.
DUBNER: I so applaud your self-awareness and humility and willingness to say how bad you are at this.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’m going to read you an email from one Brian Gundersdorf. Brian writes, “Here’s a scenario and a question for you. In the hypothetical future, the infrastructure developed to produce Covid vaccines will be put to new use. Pharmaceutical companies will start mass-producing a new vaccine that combats confirmation bias.”
DUBNER: Ooh! Brian, this is so exciting.
DUCKWORTH: “They can produce enough vaccine for every man, woman and child alive. But participation is voluntary. Would you take a confirmation bias vaccine?” And then, Brian writes, “Confirmation bias is often in the way of humans arriving at optimal decisions and making polite conversation. But when I consider removing confirmation bias from the equation, the result feels inhuman. Are our conceptual allegiances integral to who we fundamentally are?”
DUBNER: So, just applause to Brian.
DUCKWORTH: Standing ovation, Brian.
DUBNER: It does call into question, how much do we want to embrace our, quote, flaws? I think we should start off by defining confirmation bias. I could give a half-assed definition. But you’re the psychologist. Why don’t—?
DUCKWORTH: You go, and I’ll judge you. How’s that?
DUBNER: Now that, now that you put it that way, I can’t wait to go. I’ve seen it described as seeing what you already expect to see, which I think is a pretty good layperson’s definition. And here’s a dictionary definition: “Confirmation bias: the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence.” So, I think we’ve all encountered confirmation bias in other people. I’m sure we’ve all done it. We may not think about it in terms of confirmation bias, per se. So, maybe an example would be useful. Angie, can you think of anything in your life that’s fallen prey lately to confirmation bias?
DUCKWORTH: I am always doing the following stupid thing: when I’m trying to hire someone, I, in the first two or three minutes of an interview have come to some judgment about whether this is going to be a great person for the job or not. And then I spend the next 58 minutes just confirming that, selectively paying attention to the things that fall in line with that judgment, probably selectively ignoring the things that counteract or contradict that judgment, and then even changing the questions that I’m going to ask, just so that person that I like so much keeps looking great — or the opposite. And this is why I’m such a terrible person at hiring.
DUBNER: Wow. I so applaud your self-awareness, and humility, and willingness to say how bad you are at this—
DUBNER: Because, I mean, you’re a psychology professor, for goodness’ sake. It makes all the rest of us feel so good that you, who we consider so smart and accomplished and so thoughtful on these things, are so bad at it. It just makes me want to give you a gold star.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I feel like it’s the opposite of humble bragging. But anyway, I don’t want to say that I came to this realization all by myself. I was reading some classic Danny Kahneman writing. And when he talks about confirmation bias, he gives lots of examples, but he also includes hiring as one of these. He talks about how you could have a six-week selection process, but you waste the last five-and-a-half weeks just confirming what you started out thinking.
DUBNER: Can I just ask, what are some traits or characteristics that would cause you to peg someone as either very good or very bad?
DUCKWORTH: I really like people who are quick. I think I have probably too much of a fondness for people who are just very fast in a conversation. They’re witty. They catch on quickly.
DUBNER: You’re just describing me from top to bottom, Angela. And humble too, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And if their name is Stephen Dubner, I like them even more.
DUBNER: There is a prominent landscaper on Long Island named Steven Dubner as well. And he’s got his name on trucks, which is something I only aspire to.
DUCKWORTH: Do you ever get phone calls asking for landscaping?
DUBNER: Yeah. Just the other day I planted a whole row of arborvitae for someone.
DUCKWORTH: It’s good to have a side gig. So, anyway, if I’m having a conversation with you, and it’s going really fast, and we’ve got great chemistry, then suddenly I think that you’re also going to have terrific project-management skills, and that you’re going to be terrific when you have to give people negative feedback. We extrapolate. And when you ask Danny, “What is it that explains why we even have confirmation bias?” I think he might say that there is this need for coherence that is very strong. We want to figure out: “What’s going on here? What’s going on with this person? Good for me, bad for me?” Very often evaluative statements. And this need for coherence means that we take a pretty skimpy amount of information, like the beginning of a conversation, a glance at a CV, one recommendation, and we fill in all of the details. And I actually think that a lot of the popular personality inventories — like there’s the Enneagram — it’s kind of feeding this hunger for coherence.
DUBNER: When you’re interviewing the person that you’ve kind of pre-decided is awesome — “They’re fast, they’re sharp, I like them.” How much of that do you think is driven by your sense that they like you?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I am quite sure that I am biased toward people who seem to like me. And I have used this trick myself. When I meet somebody, I just want to show them that I really like them early on. And I hope it’s not manipulative or Machiavellian, but I do think that inclines people to like you back.
DUBNER: Although Machiavelli probably wouldn’t like that we call it Machiavellian. He would just call it smart, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Machiavelli needs some rebranding. But look, I think in those moments that unfold very quickly in a human interaction, like a job interview, you’re trying to signal your likability, they maybe do the same. And then, very, very quickly, you’re both coming to judgments. Like, “Do I like you? Do you like me?” And I think that’s the danger. I was reading this essay. It was a blog post by this investor, this guy named Graham Duncan. And he wrote this essay called “What’s Going on Here, with This Human?” And he talks about the art of hiring people. There’s this one quote. He says, “Before an interview, I sometimes reread this great passage from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.” And then, he quotes: “You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then, you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion, empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.” And then, he writes about confirmation bias and how, because he understands this at some intellectual level, he has trained himself to go into every interaction assuming that the person, for example, is not going to get hired even all the way to the end, to kind of counteract this sort of like, “Wow, you’re great. Welcome aboard.”
DUBNER: So, let me ask you this: What role do you think confirmation bias plays in conspiracy theories? If I’ve come to think that, for instance, all psychology professors are social deviants and transgressive weirdos, and then I hear, on this show, Angela Duckworth talking about collecting all the dog poop in her neighborhood, there you go! It confirms everything I thought about that class of people. Is that a feeder to a conspiracy theory, do you think?
DUCKWORTH: It at least could be said to sustain conspiracy theories. This tendency for human beings to come quickly to a judgment and then to selectively tend to and interpret subsequent evidence that’s favorable with that original judgment, it happens all the time. And I do think it feeds not only conspiracy theories but political divides, et cetera.
DUBNER: Is the following a case of confirmation bias or something different? Let’s say you’re in a pub with 99 other people. 100 of you are watching an American football game. And 50 percent are Steelers fans. And 50 percent are Ravens fans. Okay?
DUCKWORTH: Steelers and Ravens. Got it. So, rivals, right?
DUBNER: That’s the idea. And then, there’s a play. Let’s say, the Steelers are on offense. There’s a pass into the endzone. It’s an incomplete pass, not a touchdown. But the referee throws a flag to call a penalty. Immediately, the Steelers fans are like, “Yes!” — and not only yes, but, “Yes, that was a great call. Plainly, it was pass interference on the defense.” Whereas the Ravens fans are, “That was a terrible call. That plainly wasn’t pass interference, according to the rules.” So, how can those two people truly see one event so differently?
DUCKWORTH: Well, the fact that we can pay attention to only a small part of the possible inputs to our sensory stimuli, like what we see, what we hear, what we’re thinking about, that allows two people to be looking at the same thing but seeing two different pictures.
DUBNER: Literally, you mean?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, literally.
DUBNER: But it’s because you’ve primed yourself to receive a certain kind of information and to reject a different kind of information, yes?
DUCKWORTH: Well, yeah. But here’s two things that I’m saying here. One is that it is not possible to pay attention to every possible element of what’s going on. So, we select. Human attention is dramatically incomplete in the sense of the proportion of information that we could pay attention to. Then the second thing that I’m saying is that we are motivated. We are not unbiased judges of what’s going on. And I think the question that this listener Brian is bringing up is, like, given the pros and cons of this particular bias, would you vaccinate yourself against it?
DUBNER: So, on the one hand, you’d have to say yes. It’d be wonderful to have a confirmation bias vaccine.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s play that out. What would that be like?
DUBNER: I guess the single biggest upside would be that it would allow you to optimize the amount of new and useful information. Because I’m not coming into a situation thinking I know the answer. I’m not coming into a meeting with someone thinking — like you — “Oh, I’m definitely going to hire them.” So, I would think that it would lead you to massive potential good things.
DUCKWORTH: Like, better hiring decisions, for example.
DUBNER: You wouldn’t rule out so many things, prima facie. And you also wouldn’t decide to do so many things that might end up not being so good. So, plainly, that’s hugely positive, right?
DUCKWORTH: I’m very thumbs up on having more information. I’m absolutely on board. And in Brian’s original note to us, he says, “Not only is confirmation bias the enemy of optimal decision making, it even gets in the way of conversation.” And I think that’s right, too. Because you know those really annoying people who — they’re just talking at you? It’s not, like, a volley of, “Okay, I’ll talk—.”
DUBNER: I’m scared to say anything now.
DUCKWORTH: Not you, Stephen.
DUBNER: Whenever I hear the phrase “really annoying people,” I just immediately join that tribe in my head.
DUCKWORTH: No, no, the other really annoying people. So, okay, that’s the pro side of the vaccine against confirmation bias. It’s harder to think of the downsides. So what are we losing by losing confirmation bias?
DUBNER: Well, we have talked in the past about the fact that heuristics, or these cognitive shortcuts, are useful. You couldn’t make it through a whole day if you didn’t have a whole lot of shortcuts. So, they’re obviously serving some purpose. I think the bigger question isn’t really about confirmation bias, per se, but about all the anomalies, and other biases, and quirks that make us who we are. You know, the more I think and learn about artificial intelligence and machine learning, the more I think that what makes us humans interesting and loveable, and also terrible, is not the norms, but our deviance from the norms. And so, if I took a vaccine against all those biases and anomalies — I think as much as I love Brian’s notion and I see the significant upside, I’m going to be anti-vax on the confirmation bias vaccine.
DUCKWORTH: Really? Just because you think that the slightly irrational quirks are part and parcel of who you are? Are you kidding me?
DUBNER: I’m not kidding you. And I think I’m probably making a bad decision here, but it’s for the same reason that I don’t want laser eye surgery.
DUCKWORTH: Like, why not? I got it. And it’s awesome.
DUBNER: Well, yeah. It probably is. But here’s the thing. I know I’m imperfect. We’re all imperfect. But I’m accustomed to my imperfections. And I’ve learned to work with them. I’m slightly worried about the downsides of correcting those imperfections when there’s a fairly significant amount of uncertainty. And maybe I’m totally wrong. The science says I’m mostly wrong about laser eye surgery. But I just think, you know what? Glasses are kind of a pain in the neck, but they work. I see stuff. And so, I think the confirmation bias vaccine, even though I really appreciate the upsides —.
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, who knows?
DUBNER: I might want to be a conspiracy theorist at some point.
DUCKWORTH: And this is going to be a real problem.
DUBNER: But you want the shot?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I wanted Lasik, too. I’m in on everything, Stephen. I’m like, “Go ahead and nuke my eye and give me the confirmation bias vaccine. I guess I’m not thinking through the possible downsides as clearly as you are. I mean, I didn’t really hesitate at all to get Lasik. And I’m not talking about recently. I’m talking about when it first came out.
DUBNER: When it was still done by rogue Russians in VW vans driving down side streets in Philadelphia.
DUCKWORTH: I believe I got it from a certified ophthalmologist. But still, it was relatively new. And I was like, “I’m in.” I’m not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing according to judgment and decision-making scientists, which is carefully weighing the counterarguments as well.
DUBNER: So, let’s just say, you get the confirmation bias vaccine. I don’t. How many people need to get it for it to be eliminated? Is there herd immunity for this confirmation bias vaccine?
DUCKWORTH: I wonder, actually, whether the upside of confirmation bias is that you move forward from this whole decision-making process to action. And if you just play that out in hiring, you hire the person, right? And you go forward. And maybe it was not a great decision and you part ways, but you’re not sitting there still deliberating. And I do wonder this about the whole judgment and decision-making canon. I have often wondered whether they, in fact, are themselves biased towards judgment and decision-making as being the be-all and end-all. Because most of human life is action. You’ve got to, like, move forward. Sign the lease, or don’t sign the lease. And maybe instead of having 80 percent of people inoculated against confirmation bias, and therefore taking many more hours and days to make any decision because they now have to see all the sides of it, maybe instead we could get herd immunity if only, say, 10 percent of people got this. And we call them “the deliberators.” And every time we have to make a decision, we’re like, “You deliberators, since you have been inoculated and are going to spend all of your time writing out the pros and cons, you guys do that. And the 90 percent of us who have not been vaccinated, we’re going to actually go do stuff.”
DUBNER: So, the deliberators are a kind of Supreme Court that does the heavy cognitive lifting for us.
DUCKWORTH: We’ll call them the brains, or something.
DUBNER: I like that. I’ve also read that confirmation bias seems to be a human phenomenon. So, we could also just make dogs the Supreme Court of deliberators.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes.
DUBNER: I think that’s more practical, really.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Angela says that she likes to lie on her stomach on the floor of her office and read papers in a patch of sun. She can’t remember whether this position is called “prone” or “supine.” The prone position describes a person lying face down or on their stomach. Supine position is the 180-degree difference — a person lying flat on their back. Listeners might have grown more familiar with the prone position during the pandemic, as it was widely discussed by medical journals and news outlets as part of the treatment protocol for patients on ventilators with Covid-19. While gravity suppresses the lungs in the supine position, the prone position allows for better airflow.
Later, Stephen says that Spanish flu was a misnomer for the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic. This is correct. The virus began to spread towards the end of World War I, and its mortality rate is estimated to have been over three times that of the war casualties. To maintain morale, European governments on both sides minimized early reports of the virus. Spain was a neutral country, and journalists were able to report on the disease. Thus, it appeared as if the flu originated in Spain, even though it hadn’t. But because news outlets there were transparent about the virus, the pandemic was dubbed the “Spanish flu.”
Finally, Angela worries that her behavior is Machiavellian. And she and Stephen wonder how Machiavelli would have felt about having his name used as a descriptor to imply unscrupulousness, duplicity, and cunning. Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance diplomat who is infamous for his 1513 book The Prince, a treatise on how to acquire power and keep it. Some scholars have asserted that Machiavelli himself was not very Machiavellian. His later works Discourses on Livy and The Art of War seem to run counter to the advice given in The Prince. Some historians believe that The Prince is actually a satirical piece, meant to ridicule monarchy, and others think he may have had a change of heart. But I’m sure that historians would agree, it doesn’t seem like Angela’s attempts to get others to like her by showing her fondness for them could be construed as Machiavelli-adjacent in any context.
That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zach Lapinksi, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: “Look, I’ve been isolated for the past 15 months. And I’ve discovered that I don’t really enjoy parties. So, thanks for the invitation.”
DUCKWORTH: “I’ve discovered that I don’t really like you.”
- “Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work,” by Evan DeFilippis, Stephen Michael Impink, Madison Singell, Jeffrey T. Polzer, and Raffaella Sadun (Harvard Business School Working Paper, 2020).
- “Pandemics Leave Us Forever Altered,” by Charles C. Mann (The Atlantic, 2020).
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (2011).
- Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam (2000).
- American Pastoral, by Philip Roth (1997).