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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: What kind of jerk does that? The answer was me, apparently. 

*      *      *

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 separates people from nonhuman animals? 

DUBNER: I mean, my dog has a 401k. 

Also: why do we pace when we’re stressed or anxious? 

DUCKWORTH: Like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons where somebody’s waiting outside the delivery for a baby to come.

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DUBNER: So, Angela, I recently came across a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, which I was so charmed by that I asked you to read it so we could talk about it. It’s called “Acquisition of a Joystick-Operated Video Task by Pigs.” 

DUCKWORTH: How could I forget? 

DUBNER: For the listener, I’ll just explain. These experiments were carried out at Penn State University. There were four pigs — a pair of Yorkshire pigs named Hamlet and Omelet, and a pair of Panepinto micro pigs named Ebony and Ivory — I guess, after Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, or the song of that name.

DUCKWORTH: Or after piano keys. 

DUBNER: And the paper describes what the pigs were and were not able to learn in these experiments, manipulating a video-game joystick with their snouts. And what I really want to know is — tell us how it changes your thinking as a psychologist, if at all, about non-human animals, their capabilities, the way we should think about them, perhaps differently, and about ourselves differently.

DUCKWORTH: Well, thank you, Stephen, for broadening my academic horizons. I would not have read this paper on video games and pigs were it not for our friendship. So, first I will just say that when I read this line, I literally laughed out loud: “After 12 weeks of training, Hamlet and Omelet were terminated from the experiment because they had grown too large and no longer fit within the constraints of the test pen.” 

DUBNER: Academic research is tough. You lose 50 percent of your research pool just like that. 

DUCKWORTH: So anyway, now we’re down to two test subjects, by the way. So, one of my intuitions is that one ought not — and I understand that this research is hard, but — maybe not generalize to all of pigdom based on this very small number of pigs. 

DUBNER: Yeah, because look at Wilbur, right? Some pig.


DUBNER: So, maybe Ebony or Ivory were “some pig.” In fact, one of them was much better than the other in the research. So, there’s variance across pigs even. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. It is interesting, if it’s replicated, that these pigs often responded not only to food rewards, but just to the social reward of being encouraged by the trainer. I was like, “Wow, pigs really are smart. Maybe it’s not just Wilbur, who communicates telepathically with a spider.” It led me, actually, to do a little reading and thinking about the intelligence of animals where the studies are a little bit larger and they’ve been replicated. Over and over again, we are discovering, not that animals are just as intelligent as human beings, but they are pretty remarkable. 

DUBNER: If anyone listening to this has never read these studies, or summaries of studies, about the intelligence of ravens, or octopuses who create armor out of coconut shells.

DUCKWORTH: Octopi, Stephen. 

DUBNER: Octopi, excuse me. Or orangutans. In fact, we did an episode of Freakonomics Radio called “The Invisible Paw,” which was my favorite headline ever, because it’s a play on the invisible hand. And it was about how animals, even what we might consider really lower-order animals, like these tiny little fishes — a wrasse — that cleans up stuff on bigger fish called a cleaner wrasse, which is a hard pair of words to say together without sounding like something it’s not meant to sound like. But anyway, these little wrasses even practice activity that economists would consider economic activity, like learning how to manage supply and demand and respond to different kinds of incentives. We also asked a variety of people — theologians, and computer scientists, and sociologists — this basic question of: okay, we know that we humans are an animal, but what would you consider the one thing that sets humans apart from the rest? So, if I were to ask you that question, Angela, what would you say is the one thing? 

DUCKWORTH: I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’m going to go with the ability to set goals — to identify future states. That’s what a goal is, a desired future state. And then, of course, to work toward that. I don’t know that any other animal is able to set future goals the way that human beings can — abstract goals, goals that lie far off in the midst of time, goals that might not even be realized in your own lifetime. 

DUBNER: I mean, my dog has a 401k. She set it up herself. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, but was Fifi defaulted into it?

DUBNER: Ah. Good point. Yeah. It was a default. 

DUCKWORTH: So, what would your answer be? 

DUBNER: My answer is: I like to be the one that asks the question, because everybody has a different answer. Opposable thumbs or the way we approach food, the way we have different emotional responses. But one person did answer that thinking about the future was the distinguishing factor. And interestingly, that was a theologian. It was the recently-late Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi, I believe, of the UK. But I was really set back when one of the answers came from a sociologist named Dalton Conley. I believe he’s now at Princeton, formerly of NYU. When we asked him about the thing that distinguishes humans from all other animals? He said, “Absolutely nothing.” I’ll read you a chunk of his answer. He said, “One by one, the supposed attributes that we had thought were unique to humans have been shown to be present in other species. Crows use tools. Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. Whales form social networks of the same size and complexity as we do. Penguins mourn their dead. Bonobos are polyamorous. Ducks rape. Chimpanzees deploy slaves. Dolphins have language.” And then he says, “And the quicker we get over the Judeo-Christian notion that we are somehow qualitatively different from the rest of the biome, the quicker we will learn to live healthier lives for ourselves and our planet.” So, what do you think of that, Angela Duckworth? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if you say that crows use tools, of course you’re right. And there is a paper on that, if not more than one. And look, pigs can play video games, apparently, and it’s true that pigeons, even, can delay gratification. All these things are true. But at the same time, we have to point out that, even if animals have rudimentary capacities, they are not nearly, even in order of magnitude, what we can do. So, yes, a pigeon can delay gratification for 10 seconds, but human beings can save in a 401k. And so, in a way, I agree that there may not be a categorical distinction, but the quantitative distinction — the space between myself and a baboon and my capacity to develop friendships — yes, a baboon also has a capacity to develop friendships, but I hope mine are at a different level. 

DUBNER: I think that’s an excellent answer. I should just say that Dalton Conley, what he’s expressing there is typically described by, among others, Peter Singer, as “speciesism” — the favoring, or the preference, of one species over the other for these assumptions. But I think your distinction is excellent, but also obvious. I’m guessing that even Conley and Singer — I don’t mean to degrade your answer, but they’re saying, yes, magnitude is magnitude, but category is really what we’re after here. And I think that’s the real argument. There is an email from our inbox from a while back. It was someone who wrote to us on behalf of their daughter, who is a 13-year-old named Charlotte Glendinning. And the parent wrote that Charlotte had this question for us. It was, “Should we treat more intelligent animals, like dolphins or apes, with greater respect than the rest of the animal kingdom? Should they be considered citizens or have more privileges?” So, I think that’s an excellent question. And it gets to parsing the magnitude issue more directly. What’s your thought on that, Angela? 

DUCKWORTH: So, should we have a moral hierarchy of need or deservedness that goes along with intelligence? 

DUBNER: Wouldn’t that be an exercise in speciesism itself, because we’re privileging intelligence over other attributes? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, then you immediately start to think about whether that’s also true within our species. Right? I, at the same time, recognize that most of us feel — well, okay, I’m a carnivore. I admit that. And I don’t mind eating pigs — cover your ears, Omelet and Hamlet — but I would mind eating a baboon. The question is why do I not mind eating pig, but do mind eating baboon? I think it is because there is a conscious life with a certain sophistication and complexity to a baboon. 

DUBNER: But you’ve just learned that pigs can play video games. So, that increases their intelligence in your assessment.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but they can’t make video games. 

DUBNER: Well, when’s the last time you played a video game made by a baboon? So, I mean, it’s a matter of degrees. Yes?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I guess, I’m just trying to actually post hoc fit my morality to my behavior. 

DUBNER: But you know what? I think that’s what every one of us does all the time when you read something like this. Here’s the thing. There has been a huge movement in this country, and elsewhere, over time — in some countries and some religious traditions, it’s gone on much, much, much longer than the recent trend toward veganism or vegetarianism in this country. Okay, I’ll ask you: what share of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go with 15 percent. And my confidence interval is very, very broad. In other words, I’m probably wildly off, but how is 15 percent? 

DUBNER: Yeah, it’s a fairly terrible guess, but I’d say much less terrible than most people would guess. It’s 5 percent of U.S. adults. 


DUBNER: But I can get you closer to your 15 percent, because if you get rid of white people and old people, then the vegetarian numbers climb a lot. Only 2 percent of Americans over 55 say they are vegetarian, compared with 8 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds.

DUCKWORTH: So that doesn’t surprise me, but I didn’t know that white people really loved meat. 

DUBNER: I’m reading here from a Gallup Poll, “Nonwhite Americans are three times as likely as white Americans to describe themselves as vegetarian.” But also, you have to consider there are a lot of nonwhite Americans who come from ethnic and religious traditions where there’s more vegetarianism. 

DUCKWORTH: Like the Buddhist tradition. 

DUBNER: But what I’m saying is that, even though it seems in the public consciousness like there’s this massive movement toward vegetarianism, the practice is still a small minority. And yet, many people who eat all forms of animal protein — which is to say most people — I feel like this is a question that people are wrestling with now. You want food that is raised well and animals that are treated ethically, but then it comes to a very awkward intersection between: wait a minute, how much does it matter if the pigs had an awesome pigpen, if we’re going to eat them? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I’ve been thinking about this recently for two reasons. One is, I’ve been reading this book by Tolstoy called A Calendar of Days. And it is kind of like this daily devotional. So, he, apparently, for the last 15 or more years of his life, created this journal where he kept all his favorite quotes from Blaise Pascal, and from the Bible, and from other sources. And I have to say, something like a fourth of these quotes are about not eating meat. So, I had to Google it, and I discovered that he became a vegetarian as an adult. Here’s a Leo Tolstoy quote, his own: “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.” So, one reason I’ve been thinking about vegetarianism is that every day, I wake up, and I read the new Tolstoy missive, and a lot of the time it’s about being vegetarian. The other reason is that I recall, and this was just a memory from maybe reading all this Tolstoy, that my older daughter Amanda said once, when she was quite young — and we live in a household that could only be described accurately as carnivorous — we just eat a lot of meat, I’m sad to say. And my daughter said, out of the blue, I think that, “In a hundred years, everybody will be vegetarian, and that it will be a horror that we look back on these meat-eating days and say, like, ‘Oh, my God.’” 

DUBNER: I have heard that argument. And it does resonate with me to a degree. It’s interesting, you’re saying in this Tolstoy book, which I have not read, that has quotes from the Bible and so on and talks about meat eating as immoral. Well, the Bible plainly didn’t consider that to be the case. The Bible was very explicit in the foods that were forbidden and permitted the laws of kashrut, or kosher eating, but also halal. So, that’s an interesting paradox or conflict. But I would say it’s constant. I think it’s very natural for people to understand that something that they may enjoy challenges their morality. And so, there are different ways that people reckon with that. What’s interesting to me, though, despite what your daughter said about a trend toward not eating animal protein, if you look at the data on low-income countries as they get richer, the first thing they do is eat a lot more meat. And it’s one reason why the American agricultural sector is doing well, is because we continue to export a lot of meat to a lot of places around the world. So, I do think that this moral consideration of animals — it’s very interesting the way that we juggle it, and I just was curious if maybe reading about and seeing these adorable photos of Omelet and Hamlet changed your relationship with bacon, even a tiny bit? 

DUCKWORTH: Not at all. And if I think back to when I read Charlotte’s Web for the first time, I must have been quite young. Who could forget Wilbur, and Fern’s relationship with Wilbur, and then wanting Wilbur not to become bacon, which was, in fact, the whole plot of the book. I didn’t spend a day not eating meat after reading Charlotte’s Web. So, I don’t know what that makes me — like, a moral vagrant or something? But look, I think that Tolstoy and Fern and this Peter Singer argument — I actually have to say, I think it’s right. I wish I were vegetarian. I want to want to be a vegetarian. 

DUBNER: But you want to eat bacon.

DUCKWORTH: But I want to eat bacon at the same time. And, I guess, right now, my wants are beating out my want-to-wants. But I think it’s interesting that somehow we’re able to compartmentalize. In behavioral economics, there’s this idea of  “mental accounting,” as you well know, if we have money in our vacation account, and we have another pot of money in our retirement account, and another pot of money that we’ve set aside to indulge ourselves in, you know, Frappuccinos. We have these divisions. Now, they’re arbitrary, because money, is money, is money. 

DUBNER: And the economists say that we’re wrong for doing that. And I still maintain that they’re wrong for saying we’re wrong. 

DUCKWORTH: I think they’re wrong, too. Why do you think they’re wrong, by the way? 

DUBNER: I think they’re wrong because it is a useful commitment device, money is fungible. If I have a thousand dollars, “What sense does it make,” the economists will say, “to put $333 in three different funds that I can mentally account and set aside for something?” You know why it makes sense? It’s because the human mind works that way. 

DUCKWORTH: And that’s how you’re going to save. 

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. 

DUCKWORTH: The economists, I have sometimes wondered whether they have much experience with human beings. But my point was about moral accounting. Maybe we have a way of creating a wall between my relationship with Wilbur and Charlotte and my breakfast the next morning. And that may not be something that you and I would want to defend. 

DUBNER: It is interesting, though, in the book, Fern kept the pig Wilbur, and it was not really a pet. It wasn’t meant to be a pet, because it was a farm animal they were raising for food, and that was where the conflict was. But the fact is, is that the animals that we eat, typically — pigs, cows, goats, chickens, salmon — we don’t keep those for pets. But the ones we like to have around, we also don’t eat, in our culture at least. So, we don’t eat dogs and horses, for instance. And it does suggest to me one idea, which is that: if you say, one problem with the American diet is our super overconsumption of carbs, then maybe one way to get around that is to start keeping bagels as pets. 

DUCKWORTH: I love that idea, Stephen. I think you should run with it. 

DUBNER: We’ll call her Cinnamon Raisin.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela try to help a listener come to terms with his coping mechanism for anxiety. 

DUBNER: I believe in good stress.

DUCKWORTH: Often called eustress in the psychological literature. 

DUBNER: I call it “me stress.” You call it “you stress.” 

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email that I love from a Jonathan Gudjohnsen.

DUBNER: Oh. I went to school with his cousin, Jonathan Badjohnsen.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, this is the good cousin. “I find that on almost every phone call I have at home, I pace around my house. Even when I tell myself before the call that I won’t pace, I still do it. The issue is particularly bad when I’m on a high stakes call with someone who I’m not totally comfortable talking to. I have to assume that the pacing is an involuntary mechanism for reducing the stress or anxiety I’m feeling. I also wondered if it’s a mechanism of compensating for the lack of body language and social cues present in a real face-to-face interaction.”

DUBNER: Wow, for someone with such a high level of self-awareness and self-inquiry, he doesn’t have much self-control. I picture him like Ulysses, wanting to tie himself to the mast to avoid the Sirens. 

DUCKWORTH: Because he feels like he ought not be pacing around the house, and yet he does. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Because it feels like he knows, maybe, the causes, and he doesn’t like that it’s happening. But before we get to why we pace, and what it does or what it doesn’t do, what’s so terrible about pacing? 

DUCKWORTH: I want to tell Jonathan that there are greater vices than pacing around your house on a phone call. We won’t name them, but you can use your imagination. 

DUBNER: Wait a minute. You can’t tease me like that. What are the worse vices than pacing?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know, like, the seven deadly sins, for example.

DUBNER: And pacing wasn’t even in the top 14.

DUCKWORTH: Pacing was not in the top 1,700 deadly sins. So, I think we both want to absolve Jonathan of all guilt or blame. In fact, I think it’s a good thing. You’re getting in your steps! 

DUBNER: Also, he’s not really asking a question. He’s kind of diagnosing the cause of the problem. He says, “I have to assume it’s an involuntary mechanism for reducing the anxiety.” I’m guessing that’s probably, at least, partly true. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think it’s possible. Also, I think there’s something about pacing that, for me anyway — because I sometimes pace — is that it helps me concentrate. And I think that’s different from reducing anxiety. 

DUBNER: This is why you are a positive psychologist, because when Jonathan writes to say that he paces, and he doesn’t like it. You immediately find a dimension on which pacing might be really positive. So pacing, would you say, is substantially different from walking? Because I do know there’s been a lot of research on the cognitive and physical benefits of walking, whether or not you’re on the phone. Do you know anything about that? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I do a little bit. And I don’t know that pacing and walking are any different than each other. I wasn’t thinking about them as different. 

DUBNER: Oh, you weren’t? 

DUCKWORTH: No. What could be the difference between pacing and walking? 

DUBNER: So, one thing that I’ve read about walking, and why it might provide cognitive value — beyond any physiological things — when you’re walking, what I’ve read is that your brain is engaged in essentially an act of mapping and decision-making. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you’re, like, literally outside, and you have to make some decisions about where you’re walking. 

DUBNER: Not just decisions about which way I’m going to go, but I’m observing things that may trigger a thought. Whereas, when I think of pacing, especially the way Jonathan is describing pacing — and I too pace when I’m on the phone —I’m mostly going around in circles, or going back and forth. Like, if I were to see a heat map of my pacing, it is not a walk in the country. It’s just a scribble-scrabble from one window to the other.

DUCKWORTH: Like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons where somebody’s waiting outside the delivery for a baby to come, and they’re walking back and forth. Okay, well, there may be some distinctions between indoor pacing and outdoor walking. There are benefits to aerobic exercise in general, Stephen, cognitively — both short-term and, actually, long-term. Maybe I’m biased to only think about positive things, but walking is better than being sedentary. For example, in creativity tests and so forth it does seem like walking is helpful. 

DUBNER: Maybe this is a framing issue for Jonathan. If his question is, “I pace, I’m not happy about it, what should I do?” — maybe our answer should be: you should keep pacing, but you should consider your pacing in a different light. You should think of it as small walking, and walking produces all kinds of cognitive and physical benefits that run exactly counter to the kind of problems that you think are produced by, or are the cause of, your pacing, which is to say you think it’s anxiety and so on. But the fact is, walking increases your blood flow, and it promotes positive affect and emotions. So, maybe this isn’t at all about fearing pacing or stopping pacing. Maybe it’s about Jonathan considering that pacing is actually a wonderful thing to do while he’s on the phone, if he thinks about it in a positive light. 

DUCKWORTH: But let’s meet Jonathan where he is. When he says, “Maybe this is something I do to mitigate anxiety or stress.” I’ve been thinking about what are sometimes called “stereotypies,” since I was in my master’s program in gosh, the 90s — so, it’s been more than 20 years — I had a friend named Pepe who studied rat stereotypies. And a stereotypy is a movement that is rhythmic and repetitive. It could be, like, scratching a certain place — I guess, if you’re a rat. But then, human beings have stereotypies, like, tapping nervously on a table when you’re under a state of stress. There is something about this that is relieving of your anxiety, which is why people do it, and then they do it more, and more, and more. Now, again, I think that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be, if it’s getting in the way of your life or if it’s annoying other people. 

DUBNER: But the pacing that Jonathan is doing is not getting in the way — at least, the person on the other end of the conversation is probably not aware, as long as it’s not a Zoom call. So, once again, you’re saying that the pacing, the thing that Jonathan perceives as a negative, may, in fact, relieve some anxiety. It sounds like pacing may be an outlet that improves the underlying problem he’s having. So, maybe, rather than think about pacing as the enemy, maybe you should think about it as a useful signal that he should be working long before he gets on the call to address the root cause and figure out what’s causing the anxiety. What do you think of that idea? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, stress is an interesting topic, because many people, I think, have the idea that the perfect amount of stress is zero stress. 

DUBNER: Really, who thinks that? 

DUCKWORTH: A lot of people. 

DUBNER: I believe in good stress.

DUCKWORTH: Often called eustress in the psychological literature. 

DUBNER: I call it “me stress.” You call it “you stress.” 

DUCKWORTH: E-U, meaning good, and not meaning European Union, either. I think the work of Alia Crum at Stanford on stress is so interesting, because what she finds is that, though we have this culture-wide, like, “oh, we should minimize stress, stress reduction; I wish I weren’t so stressed; stress is bad” assumption, that actually, this is an evolved adaptation. And were it not for the stress response, you wouldn’t be alive. This is a good thing. You are rallying your resources to meet new challenges. And I know that sounds Pollyanna, but I think, rather than saying, “Oh, my gosh, I must pace because I’m stressed. How do I reduce the stress before the phone call even starts?” Isn’t it okay? 

DUBNER: Good point. 

DUCKWORTH: I was reading a book and the author was quoting Bruce Springsteen. 

DUBNER: Was his Ph.D. in normative psychology or behavioral psychology? I forget. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, in this book, which is actually by a psychiatrist named Samantha Boardman, and it is a description of what she sees happen in her clinical practice, which is that many of her patients labor under this idea that, “Stress is bad; I don’t want to have it. Tell me, Doctor, how I can have none of it.” So, she recounts this anecdote where Bruce Springsteen is being interviewed, and he is describing, “This is what it feels like right before I’m going to go on stage before thousands of people. My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing, my breathing changes, I get hot, and that’s how I know I’m ready to rock.” And I think that’s the illustration that you need when you are feeling the stress response. You maybe don’t need to interpret it as something to suppress, but just that your body is getting into gear, and your mind is getting into gear, too. In general, many people perform worse under stress, although very recent research shows that if you actually mentally frame the stress response as excitement, that might potentially improve your performance, not decrease it. 

DUBNER: It’s interesting, Jonathan, also in his email, wonders if the pacing is a mechanism of compensating for the lack of body language and social cues in a real interaction. And I do think there’s something to be said for that. You know, I’ve had this observation I just wanted to run by you, and this is actually owing to you. So, the first Zoom calls I ever had were quite a bit before the pandemic, and they were with you. Do you remember the first time I was on a Zoom call with you? 

DUCKWORTH: No, I do not. 

DUBNER: This was maybe three years ago. And you said, “I’ve started using this thing called Zoom. And rather than just have our conference call—” we were going to talk about some project. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh! I do. I do. I do. I do. 

DUBNER: And what did I do? 

DUCKWORTH: You put, like, a Post-it note over your camera. 

DUBNER: I sure did. The problem is, when I’m on a phone call, especially a conference call, I have a strategy, which is to wear headphones so that I can be hands free and walk around, and so that I can do stuff.” I would liked to have been in a position where I had the option to do something other than sit and look at the computer to have a phone call. But, I’m here to tell you — first of all, for you, I’m sure I didn’t really multitask. Second of all, I think what I did is I removed the Post-it halfway through the conversation, because I felt like such a jerk. 

DUCKWORTH: I think you did. And everybody else was on video.

DUBNER: Yeah. So it’s like, what kind of jerk does that? And the answer was me, apparently. But I removed it.

DUCKWORTH: The kind of jerk who doesn’t know that you can just turn off your video camera while you’re on the Zoom call. But anyway, go on. 

DUBNER: Hey, it was my first Zoom call! Come on. But then, here’s what I’ve since discovered, which maybe relates a little bit to Jonathan, and if it doesn’t answer the question about the compensation, at least it gives us a different way of thinking about it. So, I now love Zoom calls, and I much prefer them to phone calls. And the reason is because there is that extra dimension of focus and feeling connection. Now, the problem is, an hour Zoom call is exhausting. But, I will say this: I find that a 12 minute Zoom call can be much more productive than a 45 minute phone conference call, because people are getting the cues, you are communicating differently, and so on. Maybe what makes the pacing necessary is when you’re on a conference call or a phone call, you are missing a lot of that. And so, they tend to kind of go long because you’re over-explaining or over asking. I would rather have a focused, productive Zoom, for, you know, 10 minutes, rather than that big, rambling bag of a garbage call for 30 minutes. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, maybe so. But I don’t know that I agree with Jonathan’s hypothesis that pacing is a way of compensating for the lack of body language on a video call or in a real interaction. It just seems to me like, “Okay, I can’t use my hands, and my posture, and my smile to communicate to you all these things I want to communicate to you, so I’m going to pace around my kitchen.” But I don’t disagree, Stephen, that video calls are a medium in which you can communicate more, because you can see some of those bodily facial queues, and also, that they can be more efficient. 

DUBNER: It reminds me, of all things, of the difference between black and white and color photography. You know, this is why for many, many, many years after color film and printing was readily available, most serious photographers stuck with black and white, and many still do. And one explanation from photographers, including my wife — who’s a photographer who shot a little bit in color — Kodachrome, but mostly black and white — is that a photograph is an amazingly interesting thing in that it is a frozen moment in time. We’re used to existing as animals with time and circumstance flying by, but a photograph is frozen and we can inspect it. It’s impossible otherwise. And so, your relationship to what’s in that photograph can be very intense or intimate. It’s why, all these years, when we have so many other media that are so much more vibrant, and noisy, and sexy, we still love to look at pictures. But the argument about color was that color is too distracting, because there’s just too much emphasis on the things that aren’t really meant to be emphasized. Whereas, a great photographer can use black and white film, almost like a painter can paint to draw our eye to something, because you’re removing it from reality in a particular way by rendering it in black and white, when we know that the world is really in color. And so, I think there’s something in that notion that might be useful to Jonathan about how we can put ourself in the best position to focus on the things that we want to and to even try to cheat a little bit and — not freeze a moment in time on that call, but to focus so intensely that it’s as if we have. We are in that moment as if there is no other moment going on in the world, and that, I think, is the goal.

DUCKWORTH: And all of your attention is there. 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: I also want to say that when we are paying attention, that sometimes it’s harmful, or a hindrance anyway, to have something to look at. Now again, picture Jonathan: he’s on an old fashioned phone call. If he’s anything like my husband, he’s got his phone to his ear. No headset, no earbuds. 

DUBNER: Those troglodytes. 

DUCKWORTH: Going back and forth in the kitchen. Two recent experiences for me are somewhat analogous. One is, you know, I’m a member of the faculty in my department in psychology at University of Pennsylvania. And we have these colloquium speakers, which during the pandemic have been Zoom webinars. And I have found it to be more profitable for me to put on my AirPods and actually go for a walk while listening to these speakers. Now, at first when I did this, I felt sort of sheepish about it, kind of guilty. I would have my phone open, and I would be looking at the slides. And then, I realized that I internally was able to allocate more attentional resources if I just listened. But I needed to give the rest of me something to do. And I honestly feel that I got more out of those talks — that I would remember more — than if I had the visuals plus the sound at the same time. So, that’s one observation. The other thing is, when you’re in all these Zoom calls, you can see yourself, right? And I noticed that when I get a question from a student, for example, that’s really a tough one. Like, “What does Buddhism have to say about grit?” I find myself looking away. I look up. I look to the side. And why do I do that? Why can’t I look at the student for the same five seconds as I take to look up and look away? I think it’s partly because if I’m looking at the student, my attention has to — at some level — be on their reaction. You know, are they smiling? All I want is my intention to be on the question. So, I look up or away. All of this is to say that I think concentration and attention have to be part of the story. Jonathan may, like me, feel that there are things that we do that might not, on the surface, seem like they’re increasing the allocation of attention to the conversation at hand, but really are — the pacing, taking the walk, or looking away. And in addition to that, there is everything else we talked about. Maybe it does help you manage your anxiety, and hey, maybe it oxygenates your prefrontal cortex. So, I can’t think of a single reason that Jonathan shouldn’t keep pacing. 

DUBNER: Unless he walks into traffic, or he’s wearing out a beautiful rug that he cares about deeply. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Unless you are wearing out a rug, Jonathan, or putting yourself in harm’s way, pace to your heart’s content.

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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.

Stephen uses “octopuses” as the plural of octopus, but Angela tells him that the correct term is “octopi.” They’re actually both right! According to Merriam-Webster, there are three plural forms of octopus. When the animal was first described in the English language in the mid-1700s, it was pluralized as “octopuses.” “Octopi” comes from grammarians who assumed that the word was a Latin-based noun, but the word is actually derived from Greek, and therefore “octopodes” can be used as a third form of pluralization. 

Later, Stephen reads a question about animal intelligence from a 13-year-old listener named Charlotte Glendinning. Charlotte actually submitted a couple questions, but the question about animals actually came from her younger sister, 10-year-old Olivia Glendinning. Thanks to both Olivia and Charlotte for their thoughtful queries, and thanks also to their mother Emily for submitting the notes on their behalf.

Finally, Angela tells Stephen about a Tolstoy book that she is enjoying called A Calendar of Days. Angela seems to be developing a habit of remembering interesting details about the book she reads, while getting their titles wrong. The name of the book is actually A Calendar of Wisdom, also known as A Cycle of Readings or Path of Life. Tolstoy wrote the book in 1910, the final year of his life, at 82-years-old. The choice of quotations are meant to teach how to find happiness in life and die without fear. The passage he chose for June 20th pretty much parallels Angela’s daughter’s idea about the future of meat eating. He quotes French author and poet Alphonse de Lamartine, “The time will come when people will have the same disgust for meat of animals as they now have for human flesh.” Maybe one day Amanda Duckworth’s ideas will be included in a famous author’s collection of significant quotes. 

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, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, 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 And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

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DUCKWORTH: Holy shmoly. These Charlotte’s Web images are so cute. 

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  • Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.
  • Dalton Conley, professor of sociology at Princeton University.
  • Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.
  • Leo Tolstoy, renowned Russian novelist.
  • Samantha Boardman, founder of Positive Prescription and clinical instructor of psychiatry at Cornell University.



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