DUBNER: I may be making that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s got a germ of truth to it.
* * *
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 sort of incentives increase vaccination take-up?
DUBNER: If they’re willing to enter me in a lottery that might pay me a million dollars it must be really bad.
Also: Would you rather have the power of flight or invisibility?
DUCKWORTH: This is a hypothetical question that you never actually execute.
DUBNER: I did order an invisibility cloak, just the other day, from the back of a matchbook.
* * *
DUBNER: So, Angela, the behavior change consortium that you help lead, Behavior Change for Good, recently did a big study trying to figure out how to get more people to get vaccines. Now, this was in anticipation of a Covid-19 vaccine. So, the actual experiment was encouraging people to get the flu vaccine, not the Covid vaccine, which wasn’t ready yet. And as I’ve read, the research found that most efforts didn’t work that well. But there was one that was really successful, which was, when people got a text saying that a vaccine dose is “reserved for you” or “waiting for you.” Do I have that right so far?
DUCKWORTH: You have it mostly right. It’s not that most things didn’t do so well. These things actually, as a group, worked really well, but you’re right that there was a particular kind of message that performed better than the rest.
DUBNER: So, these are, essentially, piggyback messages. These are people who are already going to a doctor, and you’re saying, while you’re there, you should consider getting the vaccine? Is that right? So, I did see that one of the worst-performing nudges was a joke — correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s what I’m reading from the article: “A dog tells a joke to a cat. ‘Did you hear the joke about the flu? Never mind. I don’t want to spread it around.'” So, when I read that, I thought, “Wait a minute, is it that a joke doesn’t work, or is it the joke is terrible?” And it made me wonder where you got this joke. Did you write that joke? No offense.
DUCKWORTH: I did not. I’m not even sure I should divulge the identities of the scientists behind that.
DUBNER: Oh, well, you’ve just said enough. It was scientists behind the joke. It wasn’t a professional comedy writer, in other words.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, scientists thought that this was extraordinarily funny, Stephen. And we thought that maybe humor would be a way to grab people’s attention and put them in the right mood. This is like a tournament where scientists are effectively competing against each other to see who has the best idea for changing behavior. And when I saw this entry, I thought, “Wow, I love it. This could be a winner.” And it was one of the big losers, actually.
DUBNER: But we should say it doesn’t prove that humor doesn’t work. It just proves that that piece of humor didn’t work.
DUCKWORTH: Correct. But we also did some analysis to suggest that the more these text messages take a kind of casual tone, something that’s more informal, something that’s more interactive, like, “text back” — that general line of communication is not actually the way to go.
DUBNER: Interesting. So, when people get a text that says “a vaccine dose is reserved for you” or “waiting for you,” why do you think that one was effective?
DUCKWORTH: In short, we don’t know. But we are guessing when you tell someone that their shot “is reserved for them,” one reason why that might be effective is that it implies that you are already going to do it. It’s a default. In other words, the thing that you are going to do if you don’t take action to change course. And we know from tons of research in behavioral science that defaults are enormously powerful. And a lot of people, through inertia, through laziness, in other circumstances wouldn’t actively opt into it, but are not going to opt out of it. So, the psychology of defaults is perhaps one reason why. And there are others.
DUBNER: Can I guess as to a few others?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’d love to hear what you think, because we really don’t know.
DUBNER: So, it is obviously a personal text. It’s saying, “This is for you.” That did make me wonder if perhaps that sort of message appeals to the narcissist in all of us. Like, “Oh, it is for me.”
DUCKWORTH: You’re special. Like, “Stephen, I don’t know about these other people, but for you—”
DUBNER: Yeah. I also wondered about the endowment effect, which is a little bit like what you’re saying, which is, “This thing is already there for you and therefore it has value because it is yours.”
DUCKWORTH: And you don’t want to lose it, because not doing it would be like losing something that you had.
DUBNER: Exactly. And that was the third thing I wondered about, was loss aversion. Like, “This is mine, and if I don’t go, I won’t have it.”
DUCKWORTH: I think those are all excellent guesses, Stephen. I especially like the one — I don’t know if I would call it narcissism, or just the idea that people might infer from this that there is some special attention being paid to them, that it’s not a generic request. I want to also suggest that, perhaps, people are wondering what happens to this thing if they don’t take it. I mean, for me, the most powerful psychology is that something gets thrown out and is wasted — be it a vegetable in my refrigerator, or anything. I would go to great lengths to make sure that something, whatever it was of value, didn’t get wasted. So, I think it could be actually some combination of all the things that we mentioned. And scientists tend to like to study things one at a time. That gives us the sense that we’re getting to the true root causes. But, in reality, anything that works is probably working for multiple reasons.
DUBNER: The primary explanation that you give for why this works makes me think of a different sort of incentive, which is caring. It makes me feel like someone cares for me. And that struck me as just a very powerful motivator. And if that is the motivation that was driving more people to get the vaccine when they got the text that said, “a dose was reserved for me, waiting for me,” it did make me wonder how else this sort of incentive — the caring incentive, as I’m calling it — might be applied for other prosocial, or even individual, purposes.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s an excellent direction to take, even within health care. We’ve all been complaining over the last few decades as medicine has gone from your personal relationship with the doctor who spends 45 minutes to sit with you and deal with your problems, has a relationship that extends over years. And now we feel like we’re in this industrial complex where you clock in, you clock out. You don’t know who the provider is gonna be. It could be your doctor, but it could be somebody else in this consortium because that’s two percent more efficient. And I think this idea of caring is maybe something that we effectively signaled in what was, by the way, a text message sent out by a robot. So, maybe we are just tapping into that craving that we all have for some personal, caring attention.
DUBNER: A common complaint among a lot of doctors these days is that so much of their work is done on a screen where they’re reading an electronic medical record.
DUCKWORTH: And entering an electronic medical record.
DUBNER: They complain about being deeply overqualified data-entry clerks. But the worst part is, they’re looking at the screen while they’re treating the patient, and they don’t like that. Most doctors want to engage with the patient. But reading about this research and the personalization of it, it made me think of something as simple as, if I’m the doc and you, Angie, are the patient, maybe one thing I could do is, rather than have the screen just facing me, away from you, maybe I can somehow project the screen and show your name prominently on it.
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, you are hitting a nerve here. I was recently at an appointment with my daughter, and the doctor’s setup was what it always is. There’s a desk, and the chair faces the desk, and the doctor faces the computer. And then, behind that is the patient. Occasionally, the doctor will turn around and talk to the child who’s sitting there on the examining table. And I found this to be the worst kind of psychological architecture there could be. You literally have your back to somebody who is, perhaps, going through some emotions at the time, perhaps has anxiety. And it almost makes a personal connection impossible. We know from research, but we also just know from experience, that direct eye contact and facing somebody is better for communication. So, I advocate, I lobby, I would even go to a march if you wanted to organize this.
DUBNER: Just to be fair, I don’t blame any physician for this setup, because every single one that I’ve ever spoken to, friends or professionally, they all seem to hate it. But it seems that this is the structure that they’ve been herded into. And, you know, we wonder why blood pressure readings in doctors’ offices tend to, typically, be much higher than elsewhere.
DUCKWORTH: Is that right?
DUBNER: I may be making that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s got a germ of truth to it.
DUCKWORTH: So, I could be wrong, but I certainly remember hearing about a study where the quality of patient care, and maybe even the decrease in physician burnout, could be executed through a completely simple change, which is to give a doctor a data entry assistant. They don’t have to have really any advanced degrees, but they could take over some of these clerical responsibilities that I don’t think we go to medical school to learn.
DUBNER: So, let me ask you a little bit more about this research of yours and this nudge text. I’d like you to talk about how you would characterize the magnitude of the effect. So, I read here, “The proportion of people in the control group who got a flu shot was 42 percent. The “reserved-for-you” nudge raised that figure by 4.6 percentage points.
DUCKWORTH: Right, going up to 46.6.
DUBNER: So, I could imagine two different people looking at those numbers in two different ways. One might say, “Well, 4.6 percentage points when they get a personalized text, not that big a deal, maybe not even worth it.” And someone else looking at it might say, “Oh my goodness, 4.6 percentage points just for a free robo-text? That’s huge.” How do you look at it?
DUCKWORTH: I think of it as huge. I’ve been in the business of changing human behavior for long enough to realize that human behavior is really hard to change. And if you can do it at almost zero cost, and nobody’s harmed, it’s, to me, a huge and important effect.
DUBNER: Those are nudges. And nudges, which we love because they can be effective, and they can be easy, and they’re cheap.
DUCKWORTH: And they preserve autonomy.
DUBNER: They do indeed. But, let’s be honest, they don’t change behavior from black to white, from A to Z. They might change behavior from A to B, or maybe even from A to C sometimes. But the magnitude of the change is typically not that large. And one critique of them would be, “Hey, nudges — great, sure, let’s use them when we can. But if you really want to move behavior, you have to think about stronger or larger incentives.” So, with the Covid-19 vaccine, right now, we are seeing a bunch of people, particularly politicians, invoking large financial incentives, a million-dollar lottery. Or there are also negative incentives, like not being allowed into certain places if you don’t have a vaccine. So, let’s imagine that Angela Duckworth were appointed Covid-19 Vaccination Completion Tsar tomorrow. What share of your arsenal is comprised of nudges? And how much do you rely on bigger incentives?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m very glad you gave me an arsenal, because I think the name of the game in a crisis like Covid is both/and, not either/or. I don’t think that these costless nudges are at all an argument against either mandates or incentives. So, let’s talk about those two categories. Mandates — that’s what’s often referred to collectively as “hard paternalism.” I think the, “You can’t come here unless you’re vaccinated” — and there are, of course, exceptions that would be made on a case-by-case basis — I’m all for that. I’d have to actually think hard about a situation where I don’t think that’s the right of the institution to mandate vaccination. Now, there’s incentives. That can take the form of — I think Krispy Kreme had a promotion where you show your vaccine card, they give you a free doughnut. And then there are these raffles or lotteries where there’s a sweepstakes of a million dollars. You mentioned Behavior Change for Good — we’re launching one right here in Philadelphia. So I’m thumbs-up on those as well.
DUBNER: I know there is a strong pro-raffle or lottery argument. But then, I do know that one behavioral scientist, George Loewenstein, has written about the possibility of incentives backfiring. Right? The idea that, “Oh, if they’re willing to enter me in a lottery that might pay me a million dollars to get this vaccine, it must be really bad.” So, where do you come down on that?
DUCKWORTH: Look, everything has a plus and a minus, and you’re just trying to get the pluses to outweigh the minuses. George did some research about a decade ago on what the downsides would be of incentivizing a certain behavior. And what he found, in a series of experiments, was that when you pay people a lot to do something, they will do it, comma, and they might infer from the fact that you paid them that there is higher risk. It’s kind of like when you say to a kid, “You can have ice cream if you eat your broccoli.” You know, what is the kid now thinking about the nature of ice cream and broccoli? Like, “Obviously, broccoli can’t be that great. Otherwise my mom wouldn’t be bribing me with dessert.” So there can be that downside. The question is, is that negative larger than the positive? And I think the beliefs about the risks of the vaccine are, to a large extent, irrational or based on misinformation. And in the grand scheme of things, the positive of, like, “Oh, what the heck? But I could win a million dollars!” — that pro outweighs that con, in my judgement.
DUBNER: What do you know about the efficacy of these different incentives? Because I know that in polling and surveys, people say that they would be much more likely to get a vaccine if they’re given a large financial incentive. But, as we know, survey data doesn’t always translate into actual behavior.
DUCKWORTH: We don’t have results yet. And we haven’t even launched our Philadelphia initiative. One of the things that makes it hard to know, even when you do launch one of these things, is that you don’t have a control group in an easy way. Like, the state of California has a lottery, but where is the control group for the state of California? And so that makes it hard to answer under any circumstances. But since they’re just rolling out, we really don’t know. There’s plenty of evidence on prior lottery studies to know that it can move behavior on health stuff, like taking medications. But also on pretty much any behavior.
DUBNER: So, if you look at a map of the U.S. and look at the areas and states where there’s a high vaccination rate and low, it’s starting to look pretty much like a red-state, blue-state map, with vaccination rates much higher in blue areas. So, let’s just assume that that is connected to the political divide or partisanship that we’re seeing.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s a good assumption.
DUBNER: I would think so. I mean, it’s not necessarily true. You could argue that it’s causal, but that the arrow actually goes in the other direction, which is that Democrats and Republicans are just really good at recruiting people to their team who already have a set of beliefs, as opposed to causing those beliefs. But let’s say this is going to be a continuing gap between different areas — and that the vaccination rate of adults in blue areas, let’s say, gets to something like 80 percent by the end of the summer, maybe 90 percent, and in red areas, more like 40 percent or 50 percent. And let’s assume that you, Angela Duckworth, still are the tsar of—
DUCKWORTH: Tsarina, I believe, Stephen.
DUBNER: Tsarina, excuse me, I am so sorry. So, you are the Tsarina Suprema of Total Vaccination Program of the United States. And you look at this map and say, “I believe it’s my duty to raise the lower areas.” What would you do to try to move that needle higher in the places where the rates are relatively low?
DUCKWORTH: Well, there are two kinds of demand problems. One is that people are not persuaded that the vaccine is a good idea. They think it’s risky for some reason. There’s another kind of demand problem, which is that people do want the vaccine, at least somewhat, but they haven’t gotten around to it. So, is it a persuasion problem or a follow-through problem when we talk about months and months from now and people still haven’t gotten it? I think it’s always going to be a mix. One of the things that our research suggests is that people think often of things like vaccination as being 100 percent a persuasion problem, but just like any other good-for-you behavior, there’s always an element of a follow-through gap between what you intend to do and what you do do. Take heart medication. After people have a heart attack, and they are prescribed statins, for example, which are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively side-effectless and, for most people on healthcare plans, costless. And if you take this pill, you’re very much less likely to have a second heart attack and die. If you ask the question, like, “How many people are actually taking it?” — and these are people who started taking it, so they didn’t have a persuasion problem — a year later, I think it’s something like half of people are, like, no longer taking their meds. And that suggests to me that we will need to both work on persuasion in clever ways and, at the same time, always be working on follow-through — ways to make it easy. Ways to make it fun.
DUBNER: So, maybe the joke idea was right, but it was just the wrong joke. And once you get down the road and there are the holdouts, maybe, in that case, humor would be incredibly effective — if you can come up with a better joke than the dog-and-cat joke.
DUCKWORTH: Well, if we go that path, Stephen, we will not be asking behavioral scientists to make up the punchlines.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: What does your most-desired superpower say about you?
DUBNER: I am not going to vote for invisibility ever, because I don’t trust myself with that superpower.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a really important question to ask you. Would you rather have the ability to go invisible at will, or the power to fly?
DUBNER: The old favorite-superpower question.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes.
DUBNER: So, I think the first question has to be, “Why?”
DUCKWORTH: What do you mean, “Why?” This is a hypothetical question that you could never actually execute.
DUBNER: First of all, we don’t know that that’s the case, because I did order an invisibility cloak, just the other day, from the back of a matchbook.
DUCKWORTH: And you’re waiting for it to come with your X-ray glasses.
DUBNER: Exactly. So, here’s the thing. Do I want the superpower to make my own life more exciting or interesting, or do I want the superpower to do the most good in the world as possible?
DUCKWORTH: Well, Stephen, the reason why this question is so awesome sauce is because you can bring whatever you want to it. And, in fact, if you answer this selfishly or prosocially is part of the fun here.
DUBNER: Oh, so you’re analyzing me right now, aren’t you?
DUCKWORTH: You’re being a little Talmudic with this question. But if you want to go there — yes, I am analyzing you.
DUBNER: I love that you’re analyzing me, and you call my response Talmudic, because if analysis is anything other than Talmudic, I’d like to know. That said, here’s the thing: flying as a superpower has never really appealed to me.
DUBNER: And I’ll tell you why. We’ve got airplanes. I think airplanes do a great job of flying me places.
DUCKWORTH: But you have to wait in line and take off your shoes and sit on a plane next to other people. When you could fly, you could literally be like, “Oh, I’m going to go pick up an avocado.” And you could be back in 25 seconds.
DUBNER: I’d much rather just go all the way and get teleportation.
DUCKWORTH: But I didn’t give you that.
DUBNER: No, you didn’t, but that would be really convenient. Like, right now, I’d like to be standing on the quietest part of the Great Wall of China, just looking out over mountains.
DUCKWORTH: Hm. That’s nice. By the way, I don’t think that’s why people choose flying. I don’t think they’re thinking that they could get places really fast.
DUBNER: Why do they choose it? For the thrill?
DUCKWORTH: Because it could be fun! Do you ever, like, look at a bird and you’re like, “Oh my God, that looks so fun.”
DUBNER: Yeah, but I don’t even like roller coasters, so I don’t really think that’s my thing. I also know that the idea of invisibility is very popular. I think of them as being on the two extremes of a spectrum.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, two ends of what spectrum?
DUBNER: Well, I don’t want to say good and evil, but when I hear about the desire to be invisible, I think back to the story about the Ring of Gyges in Plato. Do you remember that story?
DUCKWORTH: I do not. When you said the Ring of Gyges, I was like, “Is this from The Hobbit?”
DUBNER: A tiny bit older than The Hobbit. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon — Plato’s older brother — tells this story about a shepherd named Gyges. And Gyges comes upon a ring, maybe finds it in a cave. I don’t remember the circumstance. So, anyway, Gyges puts the ring on, it makes him invisible.
DUCKWORTH: This is like The Lord of the Rings!
DUBNER: He seduces the queen, he kills the king, and he seizes the kingdom.
DUCKWORTH: When he seduces the queen, is he invisible?
DUBNER: I don’t recall.
DUCKWORTH: That’s very exciting. I wonder what the queen thought was going on.
DUBNER: And the reason that Plato is telling us this story is the philosophical or moralistic idea that: if we can act with impunity, without the threat of punishment, we will do all kinds of things for our own purposes that are not so noble. And so, honestly, when I hear about this choice between flying and invisibility, I think, “Well, flying is a kind of freedom and thrill, and it allows me to have new experiences, and what’s wrong with that?” Whereas, invisibility will inevitably be a temptation that will encourage me to do things that are a little bit cheeky, at the very least, and maybe a lot evil, without getting caught. So I am not going to vote for invisibility ever, because I don’t trust myself with that superpower.
DUCKWORTH: That is so obvious when you say it. And yet, wow, I had not thought of that at all. Now that you have said it, by the way, there is research that, when people think that they are being watched, you know, there’s a poster with eyes on it, are people more honest? I know it’s debated. And when people are wearing sunglasses, do they do more bad stuff than when they don’t? Which is incredibly silly — it’s more like an ostrich effect. Obviously people can still see you when you’re wearing sunglasses. But, anyway, all that to say, I think you’re right about people behaving better when they are being watched. I mean, my husband has spent a good part of his life advocating for speed cameras. It’s like his extracurricular activity.
DUBNER: He has a lot of extracurricular activities. There’s the dog-poop patrol.
DUCKWORTH: He really does. He is, like, a professional citizen.
DUBNER: He is the most civic person. Can I elect him to something?
DUCKWORTH: You know, there’s a person who’s in charge of sanitation services — the trash collection, the municipal trash cans and all that. And if he could be the tsar of all that cleanup stuff, he has said to me that he would do it.
DUBNER: So, no offense to Jason. I think he’s shooting too low.
DUCKWORTH: Well, we can talk to him about it. But in the classic power-to-be-invisible-versus-power-to-fly “would you rather,” do you want to guess at the ratio of people’s typical leanings?
DUBNER: I would say that more people would choose invisibility over flying.
DUCKWORTH: You think that people are going to choose evil over good?
DUBNER: Yeah. I guess, I was going with the cynical answer.
DUCKWORTH: The study that I was looking at was from Forbes, and they surveyed over 7,000 leaders around the world, most of them in North America, but also Europe, Asia, etc. And with a difference of about three to one, the choice was the ability to fly over being invisible.
DUBNER: Interesting. I’m looking at something here that also suggests against my answer. I’m looking at this survey that was done by a market research firm called Morning Consult. And they asked Americans what their preferred superpowers would be. It blew me away. The five most popular — I’m not even going to read you three, four and five, I’m just going to read you one and two. Number one favorite superpower: ability to heal others. Can you imagine anything more benevolent than that?
DUCKWORTH: That is amazing. Is that even, like, one of the superheroes? I know there’s Flash, and Spider-Man, and Superman, and Aquaman. But is there one who’s like the Hippocrates?
DUBNER: I mean, there’s Jesus. Is he a superhero? Some people would argue that he was kind of one of the original superheroes.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the O.G.
DUBNER: So, No. 1, “ability to heal others.” And number two, this is a little bit more selfish: ability to heal yourself.
DUCKWORTH: You could collapse those into one, I think. The ability to heal.
DUBNER: And then, this does have invisibility and flying. Oh, they’re about tied. 17 percent and 16 percent, invisibility first.
DUCKWORTH: But what’s the last one? I wanna know the last one, otherwise I won’t be able to sleep tonight.
DUBNER: The last one — oh, this is interesting, because this is maybe one that I would choose. In this survey, they called it the “ability to read people’s minds.” I think that sounds creepy.
DUCKWORTH: Mmm, telepathy.
DUBNER: What I like is the phrase that I’ve learned from you, which is “perspective taking,” I believe.
DUCKWORTH: Basically being able to take somebody else’s point of view. Which is shockingly hard.
DUBNER: Exactly. If there is a superpower I would like, something along the lines of perspective taking or telepathy, that would be one of mine. There’s one other I really like. But the reason I would like this is because this is what I actually try to do in my work when I’m interviewing someone or when I’m talking directly to the listener in Freakonomics Radio. Essentially, what I’m trying to do is anticipate, what does the listener need to know next? What don’t they understand yet? It’s as if Plato was telling a different story, and that Gyges used this ring, rather than to be invisible, to think, “What is this person feeling or thinking when they’re having this experience or conversation? And how can I bring myself more to them rather than just think about what I’m thinking already?”
DUCKWORTH: By the way, I don’t know if you’re a Twilight fan. I assume you are not. Do you know what Twilight is?
DUBNER: A series of books.
DUCKWORTH: A series of books and movies, starring Robert Pattinson.
DUBNER: He is cute, I have to say.
DUCKWORTH: He is so cute!
DUBNER: But you know what, I don’t think he has the chops to be a sanitation collector or citizen number one. So, don’t get any ideas.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. But he has the ability to read minds in Twilight. Look, because we’re on a twig, of a branch, of a digression, of whatever —but, here is, Stephen, why I think this question is so perennially popular. I think it is a projective test. In the mid-20th century, there were a lot of psychologists who would try to diagnose your schizophrenia or your depression by showing you inkblots, or they could show you a picture of a little boy with a violin and a woman in the background. And in these projective tests, you make up a story about what’s going on in this ambiguous stimulus. And the point of these tests was to capture your unconscious urges, needs, conflicts, and through the storytelling, your real personality would come out. That was the idea. But these tests fell out of favor because they’re extremely unreliable. I think the consensus is now that there is a little signal, but a lot of noise. And I think this question — would you rather be invisible or would you rather fly, and why — is a, kind of, projective test.
DUBNER: I think the “and why” is really important. It may be just a function of my limited imagination that when I think about flying, I don’t think about so much thrill and freedom as about getting someplace.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you are so functional with the flying thing. You’re like, “Oh, well, how long does it take to get to LaGuardia?” And I’m thinking about sailing through the sky like an eagle.
DUBNER: Even when I think about it like that, I think, “Okay, I can see why that’s thrilling. Is it something I really need to do every day?” Wouldn’t it wear off? Doesn’t that have a real diminishing return? Versus something that — okay, here’s a superpower I really want. If I can’t have world-class perspective taking, I’d like the ability to persuade anyone of anything. But like the invisibility, I would be slightly worried that I would be significantly tempted to use it for ill.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think Bob Cialdini would want anyone to have the absolute superpower of persuasion.
DUBNER: It’s interesting, because he says that he wrote the book Influence so that we, all of us civilians, could be hip to the tricks that professional persuaders use. But he will freely admit that his book became a sort of bible for professional persuaders, including salespeople, marketing people, political persuaders and so on. So, I do think that the popularity of that book and the aftermath of it illustrates the real issue here, which is, any tool, whether it’s a superpower, or a computer program, or a knife, or fire — any tool can be used for good or ill. And you have to think about how it will be used and how much freedom you want to give people to use it.
DUCKWORTH: I like what you’re saying. I also, by the way, love the new version of Influence. The original version of Influence is why I became a psychologist in the first place.
DUBNER: Get out of here.
DUCKWORTH: True story. When I was in high school, I took a summer-school class on psychology, and I remember this one study-slash-story about a jewelry store mistakenly increasing their prices.
DUBNER: Oh, right. They’d had all this jewelry that wasn’t selling, and the instinct was to put it on sale.
DUCKWORTH: Right! And instead, through miscommunication, the sign in the window actually raised the prices by a lot. And then everybody couldn’t wait to get this jewelry because, “It must be great, it’s so expensive!” And I remember hearing that when I was 16-17 years old and saying, “This is the coolest thing ever.” Now, it took me another 16 years to figure out that that means I should go get a Ph.D. But I never forgot that. And it, to me, distilled the magic of this science.
DUBNER: So, if you hadn’t read that story in that book, what would you have been instead? Do you think you would have just pursued the superhero life, become Wonder Woman, something like that?
DUCKWORTH: I would try to become invisible. No, but I will say this: I wouldn’t want the superpower to persuade anybody of anything. But I might enjoy the superpower of teaching anybody anything. And you’re right that that could be used for good or for ill. But that, to me, feels like most use cases are for good and not for bad.
DUBNER: So, that is a very good answer and a very pro-social answer. And it doesn’t surprise me coming from you, because you’re a good and prosocial person. Let me ask you one last question about it, though. Would you say that the gap between education generally, at the moment, and optimal education — in other words, superpower education — is larger than or smaller than the gap between persuasive ability, on average, and optimal persuasive ability — persuasion superpower.
DUCKWORTH: I would say, Stephen, that by far, there is a much larger gap, like, Grand Canyon-sized, for education.
DUBNER: So, the headline here is “Penn Professor Says Educators Are Terrible.” Is that the headline I’m drawing from this conversation?
DUCKWORTH: “Penn Professor Says that We Should Try to Be Super About Education.”
DUBNER: Okay. I’m going to say that you do not quite yet have the superpower of headline writing, but you’re well on your way.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Stephen says that blood-pressure readings in a doctor’s office tend to be much higher than elsewhere. Among patients who exhibit high blood pressure at a doctor’s office, 15 to 30 percent of them may have what’s called “white-coat hypertension” — or high blood pressure that occurs during an appointment with a physician, but not in other settings. But the reverse effect is also true — “masked hypertension” occurs when patients display normal blood pressure at their doctor’s office but a higher range in other settings. According to the National Center of Biotechnology Information, the prevalence of masked hypertension lies between 8% and 20% of untreated adults, and up to 61% of treated adults!
Later, Angela says that Behavior Change for Good has not yet begun its Philadelphia initiative. Since the recording of this episode, the project has launched. A total of 36 vaccinated Philadelphians will win cash prizes up to $50,000, totaling nearly $400,000 in giveaways.
Also, Angela wonders if any popular superheroes have the power to heal. In fact, quite a few Marvel characters have healing powers! Wolverine was able to resurrect himself after being torn in half by the Hulk, a superhero who can also self-heal, thanks to his mutated cells. And Deadpool can cure his own cancer, although not well enough to keep from being disfigured by it. There are fewer superheroes, however, that can heal others, but Marvel characters Elixir and Archangel have versions of this ability. Outside of the Marvel universe, the anime superhero Sailor Moon has the ability to completely heal characters who have been hurt by her enemies’ power.
Finally, Angela has quite a few questions about The Ring of Gyges. And Stephen can’t remember the full story — although he comes pretty close. In Plato’s Republic, an unnamed ancestor of Gyges, not Gyges himself, is a shepherd in service of the King of Lydia. An earthquake creates an opening in the ground where he finds a bronze horse and a corpse wearing a gold ring. He takes the ring and discovers that it makes him invisible. This specific story doesn’t clarify how or why the ability helps him to seduce the queen, but seduce her he does, and then, as Stephen recalls, he kills the king and takes over the kingdom. So, not great PR for invisibility, and a pretty solid argument in favor of Stephen’s “invisibility is evil” theory — as is H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of Rings. However, Marvel’s Invisible Woman seems to work against this theory — as a co-founding member of the Fantastic Four, the Invisible Woman dedicates her powers to super-heroics and scientific exploration. But, to be fair, she can also fly.
That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, 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: My favorite superpower — in the past, I might have said the United States, but China has really showed me a lot in the past 20 years.
- “These Are the Text Messages That Get People to Take Vaccines,” by Katy Milkman, Angela Duckworth, and Mitesh Patel (The Washington Post, 2021).
- “A Megastudy of Text-Based Nudges Encouraging Patients to Get Vaccinated at an Upcoming Doctor’s Appointment,” by Katherine L. Milkman, Mitesh S. Patel, Linnea Gandhi, Heather N. Graci, Dena M. Gromet, Hung Ho, Joseph S. Kay, Timothy W. Lee, Modupe Akinola, John Beshears, Jonathan E. Bogard, Alison Buttenheim, Christopher F. Chabris, Gretchen B. Chapman, James J. Choi, Hengchen Dai, Craig R. Fox, Amir Goren, Matthew D. Hilchey, Jillian Hmurovic, Leslie K. John, Dean Karlan, Melanie Kim, David Laibson, Cait Lamberton, Brigitte C. Madrian, Michelle N. Meyer, Maria Modanu, Jimin Nam, Todd Rogers, Renante Rondina, Silvia Saccardo, Maheen Shermohammed, Dilip Soman, Jehan Sparks, Caleb Warren, Megan Weber, Ron Berman, Chalanda N. Evans, Christopher K. Snider, Eli Tsukayama, Christophe Van den Bulte, Kevin G. Volpp, and Angela L. Duckworth (PNAS, 2021).
- Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini (2021).
- “The Rorschach Inkblot Test,” by Kendra Cherry (Verywell Mind, 2021).
- “Why Paying People to Be Vaccinated Could Backfire,” by George Loewenstein and Cynthia Cryder (The New York Times, 2020).
- “Nearly Half of Older Patients Stop Taking Statins Within a Year, Study Finds,” by Susan Mayor (BMJ, 2018).
- “If You Could Have Any Super Power, Which Power Would You Choose?” by Morning Consult (2018).
- “Everything You Should Know About White Coat Syndrome,” by Carissa Stephens and Kimberly Holland (Healthline, 2017).
- “Impact of Electronic Medical Record Use on the Patient–Doctor Relationship and Communication: A Systematic Review,” by Maria Alcocer Alkureishi, Wei Wei Lee, Maureen Lyons, Valerie G. Press, Sara Imam, Akua Nkansah-Amankra, Deb Werner, and Vineet M. Arora (Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2016).
- “Which Superpower Would You Choose: To Fly Or To Be Invisible?” by Joseph Folkman (Forbes, 2015).
- The Republic, Plato (375 B.C.E.).