MAUGHAN: I honestly am just kind of reeling over here.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What makes an object feel emotionally significant?
DUCKWORTH: I’m like, “Why can’t I? Why can’t I give him the bike?” He’s like, “Please don’t give that bike away.”
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have an email today from a ceramic artist. “Hi, Angela and Mike. I’m currently studying ceramics at the University of Georgia. I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of objects in our lives. For example, a handmade mug from a beloved professor that I’m reluctant to use. So, my question is: How do we assign value to objects? And does using the object add value or degrade the object? Thank you, Jordan W.”
MAUGHAN: I will say, you once sent me a mug with a picture of the two of us on it.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what?! I did?
MAUGHAN: Yes, you sent it —.
DUCKWORTH: When? What’s the picture of?
MAUGHAN: Years ago. It’s not the best picture of the two of us.
DUCKWORTH: Well that tells you how sentimental I am. I can’t even remember sending you the mug.
MAUGHAN: Well, it tells you how sentimental I am, because I have the mug, and I love it.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, is it — and you don’t have to worry about my feelings, because I don’t even remember sending it to you — is it significant, you know, in any kind of special way? Like, beyond its functional significance or, like, acquired a kind of value for you?
MAUGHAN: No, it hasn’t. And not that I don’t love it. It was a very thoughtful gesture that you don’t remember, but I was grateful to receive it. Do I use it regularly or have I seen it in a while? No, but it’s up with the mugs somewhere in my kitchen.
DUCKWORTH: Collecting dust in a cupboard. Okay. Well, I think that means that the handmade mug from Jordan’s beloved professor that she’s reluctant to use is not the same as the mug I must’ve ordered on Shutterfly, sent to you, and that isn’t making a huge difference in your life and clearly didn’t make a lot in mine. But I think it’s a great question. I, I was in the garage the other day, and I was looking for a bicycle for my graduate student. I knew that, in our garage, there were three bikes and Jason and I are only two people. So, in my mind, I was like, one of these bikes must be a bike that we have carried over from, like, one move to another. Neither of us actually bike a lot. So, it’s like, we don’t need three bikes for two people who don’t bike a lot. So, I’m down there in the garage and I text Jason, “Oh, I’m about to give this bike to Ben.” And I send a photo. And he texts back right away, “Don’t give that bike away, I’ll explain.” And you know me, I’m action-oriented, and I’m like, “Why can’t I? Why can’t I give him the bike?” He’s like, “Please don’t give that bike away.”
MAUGHAN: Okay, but the, “I’ll explain” didn’t just trigger massive curiosity?
DUCKWORTH: It did! But I had to delay gratification, because he was probably in a work meeting but felt compelled to stop me. And then, you know, comes home at the end of the day, and he says, “That bike was my dad’s bike.” You know, and his dad passed away several years ago, and he’s like, “I’ll never give that bike away.” And then I, being the unsentimental creature that I am, pointed out that we don’t need it. You know, his dad hadn’t ridden it in years even before, like, it passed to us, but no, we are going to carry that bike with us forever. So, I get the question. And maybe my Shutterfly mug didn’t do the trick, but you probably have something — because you’re more sentimental than I am, like, you probably have something in your life that you wouldn’t give away for anything.
MAUGHAN: I have so many things that I love. I will say this. I moved to a new home about a year ago, you know, it’s going to get redone, and so a lot of the objects that I thought I cared a lot about have been in boxes or in cupboards for about a year. And you kind of forget about them. Just the other day, I went and found that I still have every single baseball card I ever collected as a kid. Yes. Okay, but here’s where I do have just random stuff. So, I have two boxes of just stuff that I never am going to put anywhere, but it’s so fun to go through every five years.
DUCKWORTH: Like, you’re never going to take it out of the boxes?
MAUGHAN: Correct. For example, I have all four mortarboards. You know, the little graduation cap you wear?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the ones you throw in the air.
MAUGHAN: Yes, I have the mortarboards from my high-school graduation, from my college graduation, and from both of my grad-school graduations. I’m not going to ever do anything with them other than leave them in a box, but I kind of like just having them, because they’re a reminder — every five years, if I open the box — of a good time in my life. It’s weird that I kept them though, because like, you’re not going to put them on a wall.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you could if you were a Cullen.
MAUGHAN: A what?
DUCKWORTH: Wait, I think we have established that you haven’t made contact with the Twilight series. Well, the Cullens are the vampires, and they’re immortal, so they’ve gone through innumerable graduations. Like, they just keep graduating from one high school after the other, and then they move, because then they would draw suspicion. Anyway, you have to be a devotee of the Twilight series to fully appreciate this, but they actually have this big framed mural of all of their graduation caps. When you see the series — not if, but when — you will appreciate that I just explained to you the significance of that and how it’s sort of connected to your mortarboards. Um, you know, this idea that we hold attachments to physical objects is so interesting. There’s this paper on sentimentality. And I want to, like, tell you a little bit about it, because I think it really gets to the kind of hoarding that we do, right, of things where you’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to lug this bicycle from one move to the next,” you know, keep all these boxes, like, that accumulate. So, basically, what researchers say is that there is a value that objects have for us that is not related to their features — not related to what functional use there is for something, or even how attractive something is physically. But, sentimental value really comes down to two things. One is: does it have an association in your mind with another person who is really meaningful to you? I guess that would be Jason and his dad. Or — and I think this might explain the mortarboards in the box that you won’t throw away — the other way there could be sentimental value to an object in our life is if it has associations with a certain event, a special time. Like, I still have my wedding veil.
MAUGHAN: You do?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I do, as unsentimental as I am. And it’s not something I intend to use again. But it has a connection, obviously, to my wedding. So, yeah, that’s probably the most sentimental object that I have.
MAUGHAN: Well, and then you, you have these paintings from your mother, which — I don’t know if those are objects the same way, but there’s great sentimentality connected to those, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I do have these paintings from my mom, and my mom keeps producing paintings at quite a clip for somebody who’s nearing 90, and I don’t know that we have enough room in our home. We sort of ran out of wall space. Now we’re starting to run out of closet space. But yeah, I have paintings that my mom’s done early in her life. I think the earliest one I have is actually this line drawing that she did when I came home from the hospital with her as a newborn. It’s this very simple pencil drawing. It probably took her a minute. And it’s just a sketch of me in the baby carrier still from the car seat. And it’s dated 1970, which is when I was born. I think when we found this sketch, it wasn’t even framed. And, yeah, maybe for obvious reasons, I had huge sentimental attachment to it. There’s nowhere to hang that either in our house, but I won’t throw it away.
MAUGHAN: It seems as though — as much as you claim a lack of sentimentality — you maybe have this attachment to a few things.
DUCKWORTH: A little bit. I’m low on the scale, but, like, even Angela Duckworth has some sentimental attachments. And look, this research is really interesting in that what happens when we have an object over a period of time is generally that we habituate to it. It’s called hedonic adaptation. Like, something that brought us a lot of happiness — like, you know, you get a sweater that you, like, really wanted for a long time, and at first you’re like, “God, I love this sweater. It’s amazing.” But then, over time, it’s something you habituate to. Even if there’s nothing wrong with the sweater, even if the sweater doesn’t get, like, worn at the elbows, we tend to, with all the physical objects in our lives, adapt to them hedonically — meaning, like, they have less of a positive value for us in the sense of, like, bringing us pleasure. But I think what this research suggests from these two researchers, Yang Yang and Jeff Galak, is that our sentimental attachments — the value that we get because of these associations with people that we love or memories in our life — that doesn’t actually have the same downward ski slope of habituation or hedonic adaptation.
MAUGHAN: So, if it’s connected to someone we really care about, we continue to love the object, whereas other things, you just start to not even notice them, because they’re always there.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, the idea of habituation is either you start to, like, not notice things, because you’re just used to them, or sometimes the idea of habituation is just, like, even when you’re eating ice cream, the fifth bite of ice cream is actually not as pleasurable as the first bite. So, whether we just don’t notice the thing anymore or because we have gotten used to it, even when we do notice it, the idea is, like, we get less “spark” out of it over time, but maybe not for sentimentality. And in the world of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the world that kind of called forth Marie Kondo to write a book about how we accumulate, like, so much crap in our lives — I mean, we have so much crap. And I think one of the things that this question makes me think about is: can we curate our crap? So that the things that are of sentimental value — like bicycles and mortarboards — that we hang on to those, but, like, can we get rid of the other things?
MAUGHAN: So, Marie Kondo, the thing that drove me insane about her method — there’s this piece in it where she talks about if you don’t love a full book, but you just like a chapter, rip that chapter out and throw the rest of the book away.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, I did read this book, and I didn’t remember that.
MAUGHAN: Oh, it drove me crazy, because I love books, and I love collecting them.
DUCKWORTH: That would be, like, sacrilegious for you to, like, rip out a chapter from the spine. Probably ripping out the chapter of any book for a lot of people would be, like, equivalent to flag burning.
MAUGHAN: I’m not going to go that far, but if I listen to an audio book and love it, I will still buy the physical copy so that I can keep it in my library, because I want to just have the books around that I l— they’re like old friends, and I love collecting them.
DUCKWORTH: You could rip out the part of the Marie Kondo book that you don’t like about ripping out parts of books and then keep the rest of it on your shelf.
MAUGHAN: It’s so weird though. I just felt like that was such an extreme version of her method. I will fully agree with you that throughout life — and never is this more obvious than when we move from place to place — that we are the accumulators of crap.
DUCKWORTH: I think that the moving brings it into relief. First of all, you’re like, how did I ever accumulate this much crap? It’s a reckoning, right? You’re like, “What? How is there this much stuff in my life?” I think books are a whole special category, by the way. I remember the day that I was reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and I hate — did you read that book?
MAUGHAN: I have not read it.
DUCKWORTH: Great writer, and in general one of my favorite writers. But A Prayer for Owen Meany, a lot of it is, like, all caps, and I just felt like I was getting yelled at the whole time. I was still in — gosh, I don’t know, middle school, high school — I was young. And I put the book out in the rain and watched all the pages curl. And I know that’s kind of, like, even for a book you hate, probably a lot of people would be like, “You don’t do that with books.” Which, again, I think is a little bit related to Jordan’s question.
MAUGHAN: Wait, you did it intentionally though.
DUCKWORTH: I did it intentionally.
MAUGHAN: And what were you thinking? What was the point?
DUCKWORTH: I hated the book. I hated the book. I wanted to hurt the book. I wanted the book to die a painful death.
DUCKWORTH: God, I’ll probably start reading this book and love it now. I haven’t gone back to this book since that time. But I think the idea of why that probably gives some people chills — like, just the vision of a book being set out into the rain on purpose and its pages curling up and being ruined — is because objects are more than objects. So, Mike, I think you and I would both love to hear thoughts from our NSQ listeners of objects in their own lives — maybe an object that holds considerable sentimental meaning. Are you one of those people? Do you have a story of a favorite object and what it means to you? If so, record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email us at NSQ@freakonomics. com. Also, if you like the show and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Why do certain objects feel “contaminated” by their owners?
DUCKWORTH: Like, would people want to put on a sweater that Hitler wore?
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about meaningful objects.
MAUGHAN: So Angela, I want to share some data with you from a survey that was conducted in May of 2020 by a group called OnePoll on behalf of this lifestyle brand Shinola. They said that 49 percent of the people polled said that a family heirloom is one of their most-prized possessions. And I think that’s what I would put you in the category of. I think your most-prized possession is the painting your mother did that hangs above your bed. Is that right?
DUCKWORTH: That is correct. I’m trying to think, like, would I say that more than my wedding ring? Would I say that more than — we still have, like, the original lovies, like, the stuffed animals that Amanda and Lucy — I don’t know how we didn’t lose these. I honestly cannot imagine how these were not lost on a vacation. But we have Big Duck, which was Amanda’s stuffed animal. And then, we have Beluga, which is this little stuffed sheep. It’s, like, the head of a sheep attached to a blanket — it’s kind of weird, actually. Anyway, that’s Lucy’s, and we still have them. And, no, my mom’s painting wins over all of those other competing objects. I’m trying to think if I have any other heirlooms that are older than that. I don’t think I do. You seem to be the kind of person from the kind of family that would have, actually, heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.
MAUGHAN: Yes. In fact, 77 percent of respondents said it was important to them to give a gift that will be around for years and eventually become a family heirloom later in life. And I think about that in terms of, my grandfather had a watch that he loved. And my brother Peter, when my grandparents passed away, he got that, and then he has subsequently invited each of my brothers and my dad to take the watch for two months at a time, or whatever.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like a time-share heirloom.
MAUGHAN: Well, this is what’s most interesting to me, is my brother the other day pulls me aside and said, “Hey, I want to be very clear. This is not a gift. I’m loaning it to you.” And he said, “Someday I want to pass this watch down to my — one of my kids.” And he said, “I want it to be more than just a watch that I wore. I want it to be a watch that each of their uncles wore, because that’s part of the story of the heirloom I want to pass down.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, okay, this actually connects to, like — some of my favorite research is on the belief that if somebody wears something, like a necklace, or a watch, or sweater — or actually has any physical contact with an object — that perhaps there’s something that happens that’s “magical.” I’ll use the word “magic,” because that’s the word the scientists use in terms of, like, our belief anyway that, magically, some essence of the person actually permeates the physical object and stays with it. Yeah, I guess there are a lot of religious traditions — you know, relics and so forth. But the research I’m thinking of is by Paul Rozin, who is in my department, and he’s this very quirky, but also brilliant psychologist. He just studies whatever the hell he wants. Very often it’s something that, like, nobody else studies. And so, I think it was more than 20 years ago, Paul got interested in the following question. He was like, “If I gave you a glass of orange juice” — this is actually from an experiment — “If I gave you a glass of orange juice and I dipped a cockroach in it —.”
MAUGHAN: Oh, what?
DUCKWORTH: Right. “But I took the cockroach out, and, you know, you could be assured the cockroach had been sterilized, sanitized, and like nothing is, like, of the cockroach in the orange juice, would you drink it?” And what Paul found was, no, people do not want to drink a glass of orange juice that a cockroach went inside.
MAUGHAN: I don’t mean to be, like, ahead of my time, but I feel like I could have told them that without doing the — the, the study.
DUCKWORTH: Paul, we don’t need to collect data on this. But he, he did do, like, a series of studies on what he called “contagion.” He mostly studied food for most of his career. So, looking at not only, like, the cockroach in the orange juice, but, you know, a variety of other things. Like, he did one on, like, cyanide, and it’s like, you can be assured that, like, this thing that you’re about to drink had no more cyanide than an apple seed — because, fun fact, apple seeds have cyanide in them, but very, very trace amounts — but then, people had what he would consider, like, an irrational aversion to these things. But whether those examples are convincing or not, the idea is really interesting. He called it the “Law of Contagion” and “contagion” is when, like, a physical object takes on an “essence,” if you will, through physical contact with something else. And it could be a person, right? So, he used to use this example: like, would people want to put on a sweater that Hitler wore?
MAUGHAN: Oh gosh, no, I wouldn’t do that.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. And so, is that because that sweater has some “essence,” if you will, of the person who wore it.
MAUGHAN: Or, mm — my gut reaction is it’s more symbolic. The fact that someone that is so evil wore it — it’s the symbolism, not that I think there’s some “essence” of him still on it.
DUCKWORTH: What about, like, because wearing a sweater, you know, suggests that you are, like, identifying with that person and, like, advocating for their point of view. What about touching it? Would you touch a sweater that Hitler had worn?
MAUGHAN: I feel like I would not, because the fact that we even, like, keep it around, I find somewhat offensive. It’s like, we should just destroy all that stuff.
DUCKWORTH: Ooh, that’s interesting. That was not a question on a survey that he had asked. But why is that? Why is it that you feel like we should destroy those things? I mean, what Paul would say is that you, Mike, might be engaging in this belief in contagion, which he defines as belief in the transmission of an essence by physical contact to an object. Like, do you think that’s because you’re indulging in magical thinking?
MAUGHAN: No, so I don’t buy that. I — I think keeping something like that is akin to a statue of something or a relic of something. It’s, like, reminding us of that individual and what he or she had done. Now, we have to remember history. Those who can’t remember it are condemned to repeat it.
DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, like, eradicating the world from all objects of the terrible past is probably not what you want to do either.
MAUGHAN: Probably not. But there is this large movement in the United States, for example, to get rid of statues honoring people from the Confederacy, which was a rebellion against the United States —.
DUCKWORTH: In defense of slavery. I mean, there are things that are, like, associated with the Confederate statues that you would want to say, like, let’s not honor those things. But I think that’s different though, right?
MAUGHAN: I guess, in my mind, it’s not different. I like the idea of passing down a watch or whatever family heirloom. For example, at Lucy or Amanda’s wedding, do they wear their mother’s wedding veil?
DUCKWORTH: The veil is not that great. I also want to point out that —.
MAUGHAN: Doesn’t matter.
DUCKWORTH: Does it not matter? Well —.
MAUGHAN: Because there’s the beautiful symbolism.
DUCKWORTH: I think I can give them something smaller and less visible as a sentimental object than the veil that goes over your head.
MAUGHAN: But either way, right? There’s this beautiful symbolism that, like, my mom wore this. I don’t know that it’s a magical conveyance of the “essence” of Angela. But it is, like, a really beautiful reminder that, like, I come from somewhere, I’m carrying on a legacy. I think that’s a really beautiful thing.
DUCKWORTH: The symbolic associations, right? Not like, through some magical process of contagion, my mom is somehow in this veil.
MAUGHAN: Right. I’m not there.
DUCKWORTH: You’re not there. You’re like, “Eh, not so much.” I think the more palatable, if you will, account of, like, when we have stuff in our lives, like, you know, Jason’s dad’s bike, or a ceramic mug from a professor, like, that there’s a symbolic association, right? Not a literal, physical “essence.” Yeah. I think that’s more palatable to me too. And the fact that I have so little ability to have sentimental attachments is a little bit worrisome to me, actually. I think it’s admirable to have this capacity.
MAUGHAN: I’m calling B.S. on you, because you have your veil, you have these paintings, you have your children’s comfort objects. I mean, you have collected some pretty sentimental things.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. But if you ask me for another example, I’d be like, “Okay, that’s it.” Like, so, my mom and dad were moving out of their large-ish, suburban home into a smaller place, as people do as they get older. And in the basement of our home where I grew up for most of my childhood were all of my journals, and maybe photo albums too.
MAUGHAN: You did not turn them away. Stop it.
DUCKWORTH: Mike Maughan. Every. Single. One. Now, by the way, I deeply regret this. Actually, Amanda asked me once, what was my biggest regret? Like, she asked me recently, and I couldn’t think of anything in particular, but I think now this is my answer. My biggest regret is that my mom asked me repeatedly. There was, like, at least two milk crates, because I was a pretty prolific journal writer. And I think they went back to, like, third grade and all the way through high school — in college I think I wrote in my journal nearly every day. And I only had to drive 15 minutes to my mom’s house, walk down the stairs of the basement, grab the two crates — you know, again, this doesn’t fill a garage, this is two milk crates or so of journals — and put them in my basement. And I told her again and again — like, “Are you sure? Da da da.” And I was like, “No, just throw them out.”
MAUGHAN: Stop it! I cannot believe you did this!
DUCKWORTH: I know, right? What is up with that? I can’t even explain it.
MAUGHAN: Don’t get me wrong, your journal when you are in third grade is probably, like, a bunch of, like, hullabaloo. But still, a window into who you were.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I want to know what the hullabaloo was. And definitely into my angsty adolescent years. Also, like, I was recently talking to Amanda and Lucy, and I was trying to remember what it was like to be a younger me — like, really trying to remember, and I realized that I couldn’t. I keep projecting onto my younger me, me now. You know? And I say things to them like, “I don’t think that I really cared that much about my appearance. I think I was, like, only worried about what I was accomplishing.” And then I was like, “Oh, wait, no, that’s me now. Sorry. That’s me now. Kind of confused.” I know. Isn’t that tragic?
MAUGHAN: I honestly am just kind of reeling over here. Also, that your mom wasn’t like, “Okay, we should save these regardless, because she’s going to regret this.”
DUCKWORTH: She should have overruled me, should she not have? Isn’t it my mom’s fault for not overruling me and just holding on?
MAUGHAN: I am not going that far.
DUCKWORTH: I did ask her later, because I was thinking a wise mother might be, like, “You say you don’t want this, but you’re going to want it for your own children.” But she didn’t overrule me. She just, “Yeah, okay, well, you said not to save those, so I didn’t.” There are things that have moved from house to house, like cans of Lysol from 1982 that I’m like, “How did this make it? And, like, my journals from —” but, yeah, again, it’s my fault. I think sometimes I almost have, like, this oppositional like I — you know, I remember going on a trip once. I had this friend in high school named James. I can’t remember how old we were. It was probably, like, early college years, and we scraped together all of our, like, dimes and nickels and we went on some trip to Europe. Anyway, I remember biking, and I remember Jim would have the impulse to take a picture now and again, like a normal human, right?
MAUGHAN: Or now everyone does them everywhere, but yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, God, right. That was bef — you know, back in the day when there were actually cameras and they weren’t attached to your phone. And I resolutely — like, “No. I don’t want to take any photos.” I was like, “I’m taking a picture with my mind.” I think I have, like, a rebellious streak. And I was just like, “No, I’m not going to be sentimental. I’m not going to take pictures. I’m not going to keep my journals.” But I think that was just dumb, honestly.
MAUGHAN: What’s interesting is if you go back to the survey, Americans’ most-prized possessions, the number one item —.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait, don’t tell me, let me guess. The number one most-prized — by the way, this is a poll done by a private company for a for-profit start up, right? This sounds a little biased. I’m just registering a little skepticism, because if the number one object is one that they sell and is hyperlinked, I’m really going to lose all faith. But is it jewelry?
MAUGHAN: That is very close. Those are numbers two, three, four.
DUCKWORTH: What’s number one?
MAUGHAN: Number one is family photos.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I was not going to guess that.
MAUGHAN: Most-prized possessions. And that was the one thing you refused to take.
DUCKWORTH: I know, right.
MAUGHAN: I know he was not your family. But, yeah, family photos are the number one most-prized possession.
DUCKWORTH: Even now when there’s, like, a gajillion of them and they live in the cloud?
MAUGHAN: I mean this was May 2020. Granted you’re in the middle of the pandemic then, so maybe people just miss their families, but — the next ones are wedding ring, piece of jewelry, engagement ring.
DUCKWORTH: I think so much of jewelry is symbolic. Like, what is a wedding ring other than a symbol of, like, eternity — the circle that never ends.
MAUGHAN: Well here, I want to go — I think this is important — the top 10 items Americans hope to inherit: the number one thing they hope to inherit is the engagement ring; two is a piece of jewelry; three, wedding ring; four, watch. Guess what number six is?! Wedding veil.
DUCKWORTH: Oh! Wedding veil? I think, actually, my mom did not pass down her wedding veil to me, nor her wedding dress, which I couldn’t fit my little pinky into, honestly. But my mom — and maybe this is where my lack of sentimentality comes from — back in the day, my mom and dad did not have a lot of money. They had immigrated from China. All of their friends who had immigrated from China also didn’t have a lot of money. And so, they would just pass around wedding veils and wedding dresses. And so, I think my mom lived that way with me and, like, you know, she’s not very sentimental. She lost her wedding ring and didn’t even bat an eyelash — and also some watch that her in-laws had given her, like, as “the gift,” the symbolic gift of, like, one family to another. It was, like, a gold Rolex. And my mom lost both the wedding ring and the Rolex. I think she hid them somewhere, because she thought it would be safer, and then she couldn’t find them. And then she really, really couldn’t find them. She just didn’t care. Like, she just somehow did not have this, like, symbolic meaning that floats around, like, the aura of things. So, maybe I observed her, or maybe I’m just rebellious. I don’t know. But I seem to be lacking a little bit of the sentimentality capacity. But Mike, getting back to this question of what it means to have objects in our lives that are especially meaningful, you know, something that Jordan asks is whether using the object adds or subtracts value. I would like to think that the mug that I sent you that you never used might be accumulating compound sentimental interest in the cabinet that you never open. But I wonder what you think about that. Do you think you would care about it more if it were your go-to mug in the morning?
MAUGHAN: I think — you’re going to hate my answer — I think it depends.
DUCKWORTH: You sound like an academic.
MAUGHAN: I know. And I actually, no offense, detest that answer when academics are like, “Well, on the one hand.” But here’s what I would say. The vast majority of the time, something becomes more meaningful if used. I guess where I’m saying “it depends” is obviously, if it’s a piece of art, no. But I think that’s why, when we go back to the survey of most-prized possessions, or things people hope to inherit, they’re almost always jewelry. And you use it, right? So, if your mother passed down this necklace and then you pass that down to your children, then it’s something that is used and they can carry it with them. And I think that’s the idea of the watch that my brother is wanting to pass down to his kids is like, hey, it’s something that they’ll actually use.
DUCKWORTH: But also, like, that the value is more because you used it. It’s almost like — well, you don’t want to say it’s “magical contagion” and da, da, da. It’s not like the “essence” of you is in it, but there is something about, like, the longer it’s been on your wrist, going through your life, there is something at least symbolic about all that time that it’s spent with you.
MAUGHAN: Right. I mean, you’ve always heard the expression “if these walls could talk.” Well, what if this watch could talk? Because it was with Grandpa in all those meetings when he did all these things over all these years, or whatever that is. So, I would say, Jordan, use the mug. And guess what I’m going to do today? You’d better darn well believe I’m leaving this moment, going downstairs, grabbing the mug, and using it for the rest of the day.
DUCKWORTH: My mug? The mug with my and your face on it that I can’t remember sending you?
DUCKWORTH: Oh good. Our mug with our mugs on it. I think the thing about Jordan is that she doesn’t want to break the mug, whereas you can’t as easily break a watch, and you certainly can’t as easily break a wedding ring. Don’t you think it’s just a practical thing? Jordan’s like, “What if I drop the mug?”
MAUGHAN: I think that that’s totally fair.
DUCKWORTH: I remember Jason once bought me diamond earrings. This is because I asked him to buy me diamond earrings, repeatedly, actually, over the early years of our marriage. I don’t know, I’d just seen too many advertisements for, like, a diamond is a sign of true love, and anyway — so, once I got these diamond earrings, I was really, like, skittish about losing one or both of them. And then, it happened. I think it was, like, on my way to work. I would always touch them in my ears before I left just to make sure they were there. Right! And then, you know, I think it was at work, I touched one of my ears, and it wasn’t there. And I went into a panic. And I do remember walking out and I used to take this commuter train, and I walked all the way back to the station, and then I walked again, I mean, over, and over, over, like, miles. And then I took the train home, and then I walked that pathway from that train station to our house, like, back and forth, looked everywhere. I couldn’t find it. It was really distressing. I mean, the question of sentimentality and use took on poignancy there. And the lesson I took from not being able to find the diamond was this: that maybe we should use the mugs that we could break or wear the diamond earrings that we could lose. Even if it’s something as sentimental as can be — even if it’s unique and can never be replaced — wear it, lose it, and enjoy it while it lasts.
And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Angela says that the oldest piece of art she has from her mother is a line drawing of her coming home from the hospital as a newborn. We know from a past episode of No Stupid Questions that this is incorrect. In episode 156, Angela describes a watercolor that her mother painted when she was just 24 years old of a mountain rising from the sea. She says that the image represents the challenge of leaving China behind for a new life in the United States. Mike actually references this piece later on in today’s episode when he notes that Angela’s favorite painting by her mother currently hangs above her bed.
Then, Mike says that Japanese author and professional organizer Marie Kondo recommends ripping out pages of a book that resonate with you and getting rid of the rest of it. In her 2010 self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo says that she experimented with this method but that it didn’t end up working for her, and she instead recommends discarding most books in their entirety.
Finally, Angela says that apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. The truth is a bit more complicated. Apple seeds contain amygdalin, a compound that is also found in stone fruits like peaches, apricots, and cherries. And digestive enzymes can break down the sugars in amygdalin, leaving cyanide as a byproduct. This isn’t usually a concern with apple seeds because they have such a tough outer layer. And even if you chewed the seeds really well to make them easier to digest, there is not enough amygdalin in an apple to cause any real harm. Food scientist Islamiyat Folashade Bolarinwa has stated that one would have to consume at least 25 apples in one sitting — and really grind up the seeds — before the poison would have any effect.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on manifestation.
Ofra OBEJAS: I’m embarrassed to admit that I fell for a law-of-attraction-based coaching program more than once. I’ve given a lot of thought to why these programs didn’t work. You nailed it. The emphasis in these programs was on mindset: “dream big, believe.” But when obstacles came up like, “I raised my rates and clients stopped calling,” the response from the coaches was “believe harder,” rather than acknowledge the obstacle and help me make a plan. It’s appealing to believe that all you have to do is visualize and results will fall from the sky. These ideas treat adults like we’re children.
Leo ISIKDOGAN: Hello Angela and Mike, this is Leo Isikdogan. I used to believe in the so-called “Law of Attraction” as a teenager and surprisingly it seemed to work for me. In college, I realized all that quantum mysticism stuff was nothing but pseudoscience, but more surprisingly, it still kept working, even after that realization. It didn’t work because the universe grants our wishes through some quantum mumbo jumbo, but because it kept me motivated.
Adrian ACOSTA: Hi, Mike and Angela. As evidence of the power of manifesting, I’m manifesting that you will play this recording on your show.
That was, respectively, Ofra Obejas, Leo Isikdohgin, and Adrian Acosta. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on sentimental objects. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is meritocracy fair?
DUCKWORTH: I do think talent is everywhere, and I do believe opportunity is not.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne and Jasmin Klinger. We had help on this episode from Julie Kanfer. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: Love life coaches.
DUCKWORTH: We both love getting coached for, like, anything. Including life.
MAUGHAN: Especially life.
- Jeffrey Galak, professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
- John Irving, author.
- Marie Kondo, professional organizer and consultant.
- Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Yang Yang, research scientist at the Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University.
- “Experiences Endure,” by Angela Duckworth (Character Lab, 2022).
- “Study Finds That THESE Are the Most Valued Family Heirlooms,” by SWNS Staff (SWNS, 2021).
- “Micro Wave: How ‘Bout Dem Apple…Seeds,” by Thomas Lu, Madeline K. Sofia, and Brit Hanson (Short Wave, 2021).
- “Sentimental Value and Its Influence on Hedonic Adaptation,” by Yang Yang and Jeffrey Galak (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015)
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo (2010).
- “A Real-Life Version of the Hitler’s Sweater Experiment,” by David Berreby (Big Think, 2010).
- “The Makings of the Magical Mind: The Nature and Function of Sympathetic Magical Thinking,” by Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin (Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children, 2000).
- “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains,” by Paul Rozin, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1986).