Search the Site

Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: I can be honest and tell you that your butt is a mile wide.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: are first impressions or last impressions more important? 

DUCKWORTH: “Hey, how are you doing? Smiley face.” And then the person is like, good email!

Also: where does wisdom come from? 

DUBNER: As I get older, it may be total delusion, but I feel like I’m getting wiser.

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, the following question came from a listener, and one reason I’m so interested is that it involves one of my favorite-ever pieces of research, which has to do with colonoscopies. I mean, who does not love colonoscopy research?

Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m about to have one, so don’t scare me. 

DUBNER: Thanks for sharing that. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m 50! You’re supposed to have one when you’re 50. 

DUBNER: Yup. And we appreciate your vigilance. So anyway, this email is from a listener named Sam Cohn, who happens to be a nursing student, and he wants to know this: are first impressions or last impressions more impactful?

DUCKWORTH: What a great question. All right, you’re thinking about the colonoscopy study. I mean, honestly, there’s only one colonoscopy study —.

DUBNER: Well, there are many colonoscopy studies in the medical literature, but only one in the psychology literature that I’m aware of. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly — that social scientists would know about and care about. And that’s the famous Danny-Kahneman-and-colleagues study about peak and end.

DUBNER: The peak-end theory. So, can you tell us about the peak-end theory and how colonoscopy works to illustrate that? 

DUCKWORTH: So, Danny Kahneman and his colleagues did a study where everybody in the study is getting a colonoscopy. You are randomly assigned. 

DUBNER: These are people who are already going to be getting colonoscopies. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I think it was a collaboration with physicians. 

DUBNER: If only there were experiments that we could sign up for, for which we get a colonoscopy.

DUCKWORTH: You’ve been assigned to the colonoscopy condition!

DUBNER: I would prefer the chemotherapy please, sir.

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to prefer the high-fat diet one. So, anyway, this study randomly assigns patients who are already signed up for a colonoscopy to either get a colonoscopy, as usual, which I am told, and as they say in the article, is a pretty unpleasant experience because of the mechanics of the whole thing. And the experimental condition is where the exploratory equipment they have to put into you is held there for a little longer than would necessarily be the case. 

DUBNER: And your instinct might say, “Oh, that’s the bad version of the experiment.” 

DUCKWORTH: Right, because you get more pain. But, what was so clever about this experiment is that, yeah, it’s more pain, but because you’re just having the tip of the colonoscope just sitting there in the rectum, it’s a more moderate-level of pain than when it’s moving around during the colonoscopy itself. 

DUBNER: I think they would probably just call it a mild discomfort compared to a greater discomfort. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, I can’t imagine what it’s like to have the tip of a colonoscope just sitting there. 

DUBNER: Well, you’ll come back in a week or two and give us the details.

DUCKWORTH: So, the reason why this is interesting is that patients who underwent the extended procedure with the additional moderate-level of pain actually rated the overall experience as less-unpleasant. And the reason why this was so important is that Kahneman was, at the time, developing a theory where there is the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.” And he says the experiencing self is just experiencing moment by moment: how happy am I, how sad am I, how anxious am I, how hungry am I? But the remembering self is consolidating all of that and collapsing it into a memory. 

And he had the theory that when the remembering self processes information and collapses a whole string of moments into one impression, two things are going to take additional weight. One is the peak of the experience — so the high and the low points — and the other is the end points. This famous study affirmed the hypothesis that the end of an experience takes disproportionate weight when we evaluate the overall experience. Now, knowing the colonoscopy study, what will I ask for if I had the chance to ask my doctor? 

DUBNER: You say give me the Kahneman colonoscopy, please.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. The Kahneman special. So what’s interesting is that even though this finding is a sturdy finding, I don’t want the extra pain. 

DUBNER: Although since you’re inexperienced in colonoscopies, we’ll have to see if maybe you’ll change your mind after you have one. But let’s say that we want to take it out of the realm of the colonoscopy, which I think we probably should. And let’s say we want to steer this back toward what Sam is asking about, the first impression or the last impression. Imagine a family vacation. Let’s say you are a parent with kids and a spouse or whatnot, and you go on a family holiday. What would you rather have of the two: a great beginning or a great ending? And why?

DUCKWORTH: So, gosh. I think I would like to have a great ending, because I do think the peak-end effect does hold true. So, regardless of my ambivalence in my colonoscopy, if the vacation were, say, four days, I would rather have a terrible first day and a wonderful fourth day than the opposite. 

DUBNER: That makes sense, because as you were describing, the lasting thing is the memory. So, of course, you want that to be the positive one. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The whole memory is going to be colored by the last moments — more than the midpoint, or something. 

DUBNER: I have to say, ever since I read that paper years ago and interviewed Donald Redelmeier (one of the coauthors) about it, I have tried to apply the peak-end theory all the time in my life — in interviews, with my family, in random encounters with strangers. The minute something good happens, I just stop.

DUCKWORTH: So, you just leave. When I learned about this, it made me think, first of all, of so many rituals that are part of our lives that seem to capitalize on the peak-end theory. So, dessert. Why do we eat dessert last? Why don’t we eat it first? And I don’t know how much yoga you’re doing these days. 

DUBNER: So much! 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, savasana. Do you know this corpse pose at the end?

DUBNER: Of course.

DUCKWORTH: It feels so good to be sitting there and completely relaxing. And there’s a reason, I think, that every yoga practice ends with savasana. So, the next time you think, do I want to do yoga? Your memory is at least colored by that. 

DUBNER: But let’s challenge this notion. So, I think you’ve done a pretty good job persuading everybody that last impressions are really powerful. But let’s talk about first impressions. I mean, there’s this whole mountain of clichés about that, right? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and so on. And let’s go back to that vacation. If you show up with your family to this place where you’re vacationing for four days, and your first impression is terrible, doesn’t that set a tone that will be impossible to recover from, and from which no final impression is possible to save the experience? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, to argue that last impressions take on disproportionate weight does not say that first impressions don’t matter disproportionately also. For different reasons, first impressions can carry more weight than the midpoint, or some other point in an experience. So, one reason is that a first impression has this kind of path-dependency. So, say you have a really bad first day of that four-day vacation. Everybody’s now in a sour mood. Now, you’re all fighting on day two. And then, because you were fighting on day two, day three is a total catastrophe, even though the sun comes out. You get off on the wrong foot, as it were, and then everything kind of goes downhill from there. 

DUBNER: When I first read this question from Sam — “Are first impressions or last impressions more impactful?” — my initial impulse was to try to answer it like we’re trying to do now. But my second impulse, and the deeper one, was to view it as I do as a writer, which is to say, “Well, both.” I think for everything I’ve ever written, whether it’s a book, an article, a podcast script, whatever, I probably spend three to 10 times more effort on the beginning and the end than on anything else, because my experience as a writer was informed years and years and years ago by my experience as a reader, which is that the beginning really, really matters; the ending really, really matters. And there’s also a notion expressed in various places — I don’t know where I got it from, maybe the Talmud or Shakespeare, that the best beginnings have a little bit of the end in them, if the writing is good. So, I do wonder if maybe Sam is pursuing an either/or choice when the answer, in fact, should be an “and” answer. 

DUCKWORTH: Both/and is usually the answer you check off in the great multiple choice of life. The way that this question was framed, it’s like — when we are meeting another person, or when you open a book, or you start an article, or you start listening to a podcast, or watching a movie — it’s so clear to us when we just think about those experiences, how the very beginning, it does matter a lot, because you are very quickly coming to judgments. And there was this research on thin-slicing by among others, Nalini Ambady. Maybe you did a Freakonomics episode on this? 

DUBNER: No, but I read about thin-slicing in one of Malcolm Gladwell‘s books, Blink

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. This is the idea that you can come to very quick impressions, and they’re not even necessarily verbally articulated ones, but just gut feelings of good or bad, in milliseconds, and that these very quick impressions can be predictive of later judgments that are much more deliberative and so forth. 

DUBNER: That’s an argument in favor of a strong first impression, because, in some cases, like with a movie, or a book, or a person, if the first impression is not a good one, there will be no opportunity for a final impression — or the final impression will be one second after the first impression.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Hopefully, less with people and more with Netflix. So, imagine there’s a job interview and your first impression of a candidate is a positive one. Well, Danny Kahneman would remind us that then confirmation bias is going to kick in. And then, for the last 58 minutes of the hour-long interview, you’re just going to be confirming your own positive impression. There’s a path dependency in judgment, and not just a path-dependency in life events. 

DUBNER: The other argument I could see in favor of stronger first impression is because the way cognitive drift works. If our attention is not kept and captured — whether it’s a website that I log in to, a person that I’m engaging with, an article I’m reading, and my cognition drifts a little bit, perhaps never to be recaptured — the negative value of that is much greater, I would argue, than it is toward the middle or the end, again, because you may not get there. So, I think this conversation is illustrating how incredibly domain-specific this question, and probably most questions, are. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it might be domain-specific, but we’re also pointing to some seemingly universal trends here — across these different domains, first and last impressions matter a lot. 

DUBNER: Yeah, but if a person, especially someone that you want or need to have an ongoing relationship with — let’s say you meet a new person at work, or someone in your social circle, or an in-law — and this is going to be a relationship, but it’s a terrible first impression. The opportunity to recover from that seems much greater than the opportunity to recover from a book that you really wanted to read, and the first chapter was terrible. 

DUCKWORTH: And you never go back to it. Yeah, I think that’s right. And there’s another thing that happens with first impressions, by the way: the halo effect. If I have a positive first impression of you because you’re witty, then I might also assume that you are logical and hardworking. These are all spillover effects of, “Oh, this person’s probably great.” And again, to quote the great Danny Kahneman, or to at least paraphrase him, we have this very strong need for coherence — that we want to come to an evaluation of another person or situation quickly that makes a lot of internal, logical sense. So, if I think, “Stephen: good,” then all of the other attributes that are good would all start to make sense in my little picture of you. All these are things to be mindful of if, for example, one is interviewing candidates to hire, or dating someone for a long-term relationship. 

DUBNER: When my son Solomon was about five or six, he got into this habit of asking about people. Often they were athletes, sometimes figures from history. But he would read about somebody and say, “Good guy?” He just wanted the judgment. “George Washington — good guy? O.J. Simpson — good guy?” And it’s like, well, he was a great football player, then this other stuff happened. But he wanted to put people in one basket or the other. It was an appetite for what the halo effect does. I know one example of the halo effect gone wrong is Ted Bundy, the serial killer —.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, yes, go on. 

DUBNER: Who was so normal-seeming and good-looking that his victims, and even the people that he was with for a long time, had a really hard time putting together the reality of it. He made great first impressions. And the last impressions were quite the opposite. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s like a magic trick. Your eye goes one way, and then your back pocket is being pickpocketed. By the way, it’s not just Solomon. I do a lot of work, as you know, with the psychologist James Gross. And one part of our theory is that, whatever situation we’re in, and whatever we pay attention to, immediately, and without a lot of conscious awareness, we come to evaluations: is this good, or is this bad? And in particular, is this good for me? Every time I open an email, it’s just like, “Is this a good email, or is this a bad email? Is this going to be good news or bad news?” Honestly, mindful of that, when I write emails, I try to make sure that the valence is positive right from the go. “Hey, how are you doing? Smiley face.” And then the person is like, “Good email!” And then the rest of the email can follow. 

DUBNER: But don’t you need the peak-end? Don’t you need the version of the smiley face at the end after you’ve told them that you’re firing them, or whatnot? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s right. That I’m burning the village. I do try to end with smiley faces and positives also. So, yes — both/and. 

DUBNER: The discussion of first and last impressions reminds me a little bit, as we’re speaking now, of birth and death. In a way, the world sees you coming in — that’s the first impression, and the world thinks, “Hey, this one looks pretty lively, and optimistic, and energetic.” And then, on the way out, the world is like, “What an ingrate! They had 81 good years. Why are they so morose?” Do you think the world judges us like that?

DUCKWORTH: When my father died, it was really a very long last chapter. Six years of just daily suffering, physically. And he was very intellectually compromised, mostly paralyzed. And I was thinking, if you take peak-end seriously, it doesn’t seem like the best way to architect a human life. The very last six years are going to be mostly moments of pain and confusion. I know Atul Gawande, the physician and writer, has thought a lot about this. There has to be a way that understanding this feature of human judgment and experience, that we might be able to be a little wiser in how we allocate time — and in particular, like you say, how to think about the long story of life and what we want the last chapters to be. 

DUBNER: You and I had a conversation on this show, months ago, about why we don’t have eulogies for the living — why we don’t celebrate the lives of people before they die. And it’s not like we invented this idea, but I’m really happy to report that a friend of a friend wrote to say that his father recently died, and it was known that the death was coming, and that they actually did this. And in the age of Zoom it was easier to do, because everybody from around the world who knew this person could be on the line with him, and they were all able to relive their favorite memories together. It was the ultimate in peak-end theory. And so, I think there’s really a lot to be said for appreciating how powerful the end is — even if you are exiting at the end and others are being left behind. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I went to a 75th Zoom birthday party, and there was this time where they said, “Oh, if you want to say anything, go ahead.” And I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t want to say anything, I don’t want to unmute.” And then, something inside of me said, “Well, if not now, then when? It is a 75th birthday party, after all.” So, I said my piece, and I felt so good that I had. And again, hopefully there will be many more birthdays. But I think that this is a little bit of psychological wisdom that we could actually put into practice. And if the ends matter, then any time that we’re even thinking that it’s possibly close to the end, we should make it a good moment. 

DUBNER: So, based on what we’ve learned here, and based on Sam’s question, what would you say is an appropriate way to end the show? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my goodness. Well, you said that every good beginning has a little bit of the end in it. And I’ve always thought, as a writer, that every good ending has a little bit of the beginning in it.

DUBNER: So, you’re saying we should talk some more about colonoscopies, plainly. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether wisdom has any correlation with age. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a good thing that humanity sloughs off the old cells like us. 

*      *      * 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we got an email from a listener named Yvonne. And if it’s okay with you, I’m going to read it.  

DUBNER: Bring on Yvonne. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. “Hi all. I’ve been listening to a podcast called Dr. Death. And in an episode on dealing with medical errors, the interviewee said, ‘We often confuse being smart and being wise.’ And she defines being wise as not only knowing what to do, but how to do it, and whether to do it. I found similar issues in science research. I have very book-smart students who can’t think of good experiments and don’t have that ‘thing’ that makes you a researcher. So, I’m wondering, is there a way to teach wisdom, or is it only something that comes with experience?” This is a great question. I think about this question a lot myself. But I wonder what your thoughts are on it. 

DUBNER: Well, I see why you brought it to me, since I’m such a font of wisdom of all sorts. 

DUCKWORTH: So you are. 

DUBNER: And it sounds, I gather, from the email, that Yvonne is a researcher herself, and she’s got these students. She’s trying to teach them what’s the difference between a worthwhile research project and not. But it’s interesting, this question echoes a conversation you and I had not long ago about the Flynn effect and the global rise of I.Q., and whether higher I.Q. translates into more wisdom and more emotional intelligence, more compassion, perhaps. So, to me, it sounds like Yvonne is actually talking about something closer to creativity than to wisdom. But maybe we should start with a definition of what wisdom is. 

DUCKWORTH: Wisdom is a word that people can define in many different ways. How would you like to define it, Stephen?  

DUBNER: Well, in the email, it sounded like she said it was not only knowing what to do, but how to do it and whether to do it. Here’s a much more formal definition from the O.E.D.: “Having or exercising sound judgment or discernment.” That’s actually pretty similar to what Yvonne said. “Capable of judging truly, concerning what is right or fitting; characterized by good sense and prudence, opposed to foolish.” So again, nothing very surprising. I’ll be honest with you. There is this whole universe of wisdom advice, obviously, since the beginning of time. And I usually find it a little bit too highbrow for my taste, because it all sounds both obvious and unattainable at the same time. So, the pieces of advice about wisdom that I have made use of are more actionable. For instance, one of my favorite wisdom sayings comes from Pirkei Avot, the Jewish text sometimes translated as Ethics of the Sages. And it basically cites a bunch of old rabbis talking about what other old rabbis said about what some other old rabbi said.  

DUCKWORTH: It seems to be what rabbis do — yes, go on.  

DUBNER: It is a favorite activity of rabbis, young and old. So, for instance, from this one passage, Ben Zoma — that was the rabbi — Ben Zoma would say, “Who is wise?” The answer: “One who learns from every person. As is stated in Psalms, ‘From all my teachers have I grown wise.'” In other words, there is no one from whom, nowhere from which, you cannot gather wisdom. Now, interestingly, Psalms was supposedly written by 10 elders, including David, who was the father of— want to play biblical parenting quiz?  

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. I have no idea.  

DUBNER: Well, we’re talking about wisdom. Who’s the wisest of all? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know, Stephen! 

DUBNER: I happen to have a son by the same name. 

DUCKWORTH: Now, I feel even worse, because I can’t remember the name of your son, and I’m ignorant.  

DUBNER: So, there’s a king named Solomon who was the son of David.  

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Thank you. Solomon. 

DUBNER: So, when we think of the wisdom of Solomon —.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes! The baby story. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, for people who don’t know the baby story, there were these two women, each had a baby, and one of them died, and the other accused the one of stealing the live baby. There were two women, one live baby, one dead baby, and they came before King Solomon. 

DUCKWORTH: “She said, she said” — as it were. 

DUBNER: And King Solomon “the wise” said, “Okay, it’s an easy solution. We’ll cut the baby in two. No problem.” And by the way, like I said, my son is named Solomon. We used to joke that he had this in common with his biblical name, in that when his younger sister was born, he too expressed a desire to tear a baby into two. That’s actually not true. He was quite kind to her. But anyway, King Solomon said, “We’ll cut the baby in two. That’ll solve the problem.” And the woman who cried out with the greatest pain and distress and said, “No, no, don’t do it,” Solomon said, “Ah. That’s the mother. Give her the baby.” 

So, that’s how he got a reputation for being wise. But interestingly, the reason that Solomon has such wisdom, as the Bible tells it, is because God asked him what he wanted, and rather than saying big flashy things like temples, and Maseratis, he said he wanted wisdom. And God was so impressed with that that he gave him all the wisdom there was. So, we have these wisdom models throughout history. But I think that I have a very rudimentary understanding of how one is actually meant to acquire wisdom. I think in the popular culture, all we really are told is that older people get wise and young people are stupid.  

DUCKWORTH: “Old and wise, young and foolish,” as the expression goes. 

DUBNER: Is there any empirical evidence that says that age is actually connected in any way to a level of wisdom? 

DUCKWORTH: So, I’m on this listserv — that feels like a very 1990s expression.

DUBNER: Sure does.  

DUCKWORTH: But anyway, it’s all about moral psychology. And mostly I’m just listening, because I’m really not a moral psychologist by training. But, Igor Grossman is on this thread, and he is a moral psychologist. And he was asked by somebody else on this thread, “Do we get older and wiser? What’s the evidence about the causality of age driving wisdom?” And Igor said, “There is zero conclusive evidence about age and wisdom, because virtually all of the robust studies are cross-sectional.” And he added that the evidence and the methodology of these different studies, they’re all over the place. 

Now, I found this interesting, because Igor is probably the most prominent person who has done research on age and wisdom. He’s just acknowledging that even the evidence that he has is cross-sectional. When you see in a snapshot that the 65-year-olds are coming out higher on a wisdom scale than the 25-year-olds, you don’t really know whether age was causing that, or whether it was being born in a different decade, or maybe the kind of response that a 65-year-old would give on a questionnaire versus a 25-year-old. 

But, I think wisdom does grow with experience, at least. The reason why people think about wisdom as being different from intelligence is that wisdom is about being able to make very complex life choices where there are tradeoffs, and that there’s not an obvious answer that can be arrived at through logic and reason. And it would just seem to me the more life experience you have, the better you would be, all things being equal, about making those difficult life choices. 

DUBNER: That is exactly what I’ve always told myself and what makes sense. Although, I have to say, what if your experience that is supposed to accumulate into wisdom is actually teaching you the wrong lessons? 

DUCKWORTH: You could grow more and more foolish with age and experience. 

DUBNER: Absolutely. Or more and more narrow in your view of things. 

DUCKWORTH: We both know about confirmation bias. And that’s usually played out over the course of minutes where you think you know whether this person is going to be a good candidate or a bad candidate for hiring. And then you spend the rest of the interview just confirming your intuitions. Okay, that plays out over the very short term. But you can imagine that over the decades of your life, you begin to have these ossified views of what men are like, or how to succeed, or how to have a conversation. And you get more and more narrow. 

I was thinking about the idea of being in a cognitive rut. And it dawned on me that ruts — with wagon wheels and the like — are probably not an accessible analogy right now. But if you could go back to that visual of a rut in the mud that gets deeper and deeper, and it’s very hard to get out of that groove. So, one can imagine a kind of confirmation bias that plays out over decades, making you into more and more of a fool.  

DUBNER: Yeah, I can imagine the wrong kind of experience that makes you think you’re wise is like, imagine I’m a parent, and I yell at my kids a lot to get them to do what I want them to do, and 30 percent of the time it works. 70 percent it doesn’t, but 30 percent of the time it does. So, I might assume that, hey, this is the way to be. And if I want to pass on the wisdom to my children, which I am inevitably doing by modeling this behavior, then, I may decide that the wise parent is the one who yells at their child all the time, because that’s the way to make it work. I don’t have a different model that might, in fact, make me more wise.  

DUCKWORTH: Even though we talk about the young being foolish and the old being wise, and we both have this intuition that some experience or practice might be helpful, I have noticed that, not to romanticize young people, but they sometimes do see things with a clarity of perspective. Especially around now, historically, where I see my daughters growing up with a sensitivity to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, issues of social equality. 

I just feel like it’s a good thing that humanity sloughs off the old cells like us. We’ll die, and then they’ll take over, and then their children will be outraged and indignant about how limited their parents are. And, I don’t know, I do feel like that’s part of how we get better. So, yes, with age comes experience, with experience sometimes can come better decision-making about these hard things, but I also feel like sometimes you do get into these ruts. And maybe that’s why young people can sometimes just be so much better than we are at thinking about stuff.  

DUBNER: So, I did come across this book. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but I’d like to tell you about it a little bit, and maybe this would prove useful for Yvonne as well. It’s written by two authors — one of whom I know you know, Barry Schwartz, who’s a psychologist at Swarthmore, and Kenneth Sharpe, who is a political scientist at Swarthmore. And it’s called Practical Wisdom. And they make this argument that I think would resonate with a lot of people, which is that everyone wants to succeed on some level, but we also want to do the right thing, again, at some level. And sometimes the balancing of the two can be hard. 

And the way to balance, they argue, is by exercising wisdom — practical wisdom. There are six key qualities that they offer of how a wise person can, or should, behave. First is, “A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in.” I think of that as: are you there to promote yourself, or to help other people, and so on? The second one, “A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.” I thought this was incredibly insightful, because a lot of what someone like Yvonne, or I, and maybe you, would think about as wisdom is responding to things that you certainly hadn’t planned. 

DUCKWORTH: And the other element of that that I think Barry would want to underline is that when you are confronted with a decision that requires wisdom, there’s usually a conflict. There’s usually a tradeoff. I can be honest and tell you that your butt looks a mile wide in that pair of jeans, because honesty is important, or I could be kind and not say anything. And then there’s a tradeoff, or a conflict, between two virtues. So, yeah, you have to improvise for the unexpected, especially when it’s not clear which virtue is the one that is higher in that situation.  

DUBNER: Wisdom rule number three from Practical Wisdom: “A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read social context, and knows how to move beyond the black and white of rules and see the gray in a situation.” That seems obvious to me. No offense, Barry.  

DUCKWORTH: Easier said than done, though, right? I think the human mind loves black and white rules, and seeing the gradations of gray is so much work.  

DUBNER: A stout defense. Wisdom rule number four: “A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another to see the situation as the other person does, and thus to understand how the other person feels.” This is perspective-taking now. This is one where, if you agree with it, I would think you would have to revise a little bit what you said about younger people, because I think younger people don’t necessarily have this characteristic in spades. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, of taking on the perspective of others? You think they’re egocentric?  

DUBNER: Well, you’re the one that’s always telling us about the brain still being in formation — doesn’t have certain governors in it yet, doesn’t have certain perspective-taking abilities yet.  

DUCKWORTH: I think that adolescents don’t have the best and highest-functioning prefrontal cortexes around, but in terms of the ability to take the perspective of another person, that I am not sure that teenagers are worse at. I will say this, they spend a lot of their energy trying to get us to understand their perspective. I think they’re often frustrated that their perspective isn’t being heard or respected. 

DUBNER: And because they have to work so hard at it, they don’t have as much time to understand our perspective.  

DUCKWORTH: That’s true. Maybe they’re just less interested in our perspective and much more interested in their perspective of their friends. But anyway, so, at any age this is hard. I can only wake up in the morning and see the ceiling and my window from my exact standpoint. And it’s a really, really profoundly difficult problem to take anybody else’s perspective, even for a millisecond.  

DUBNER: The fifth rule of Practical Wisdom, this one blew me away. “A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for and to inform judgment without distorting it.” I think that is blackbelt wisdom stuff.  

DUCKWORTH: Because most people think of emotion as the enemy of reason?

DUBNER: Not only as the enemy of reason, but I think most people, when they’re experiencing strong emotions, they don’t even think about emotion and reason as being two separate manipulatable forces. Most of us just fall so prey to the power of emotion that we don’t think about it as a signal of what the situation calls for, and then, to make that an ally of your reason and proceeding. 

DUCKWORTH: If you have a gut feel. Maybe what Barry’s advocating for is learning how to make emotion and gut feel an ally, but also to get more skilled at interpreting these non-verbal feelings that are almost physiological about making hard choices in life situations. 

DUBNER: The last landmark of this book, Practical Wisdom, is as follows: “A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft, and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences.” So, here we’re getting all the way back to the idea that age and experience leads to wisdom. So, perhaps this does suggest that there’s more wisdom with age, or at least experience. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, and nobody becomes a craftsman just because you got older. You have to do brave things to become brave, as Aristotle said. And any of us who wanted to learn a craft would probably look for an experienced craftsman to learn from — either reading their book or, even better, by watching them practice their craft and then doing likewise.  

DUBNER: I do feel that as I get older, the biggest upside is — maybe total delusion — but, I feel like I’m getting wiser. I’m feeling like, Angie, in a few years, I’m just going to explode with all the wisdom I’m carrying around. I think that’s the way I’m going to go out of this world.  

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

In the first half of the episode, Stephen and Angela ground their discussion about significant impressions in Nobel-prize winning psychologist Danny Kahneman’s “peak-end” rule. In doing so, they debate the importance of endings and the corresponding significance of beginnings, but they spend almost no time discussing the “peak” part of “peak-end.” Angela and Stephen say that they only remember one major colonoscopy study from psychological literature, but three years after the original 1993 paper, Kanehman conducted another study that again assessed the discomfort of colonoscopy patients. This time, he and his colleague Donald Redelmeier found that subjects evaluated the patient experience based on the moment of most intense pain — the peak moment — in addition to their feelings at the end of the procedure. When applied to Stephen and Angela’s vacation analogy, an emotionally intense moment in the middle of a trip — say, something frightening like a car accident, or something thrilling like an engagement — can color your experience just as much, if not more, than a memorable ending.

Later, Stephen shares the story of the judgment of Solomon. While his summary is mostly accurate, there is one detail that he gets wrong. He says that King Solomon gave the child to the woman who cried out with the greatest pain and distress. However, in the story, only one mother cries out in distress; the other doesn’t contest Solomon’s decision to cut the child in half. The distraught mother begs Solomon not to kill the baby and to instead give the other woman the child. Solomon then wisely ascertains that the woman who wants to save the child is the true mother, and the woman who is fine with half a baby is a fraud. 

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, and Emma Tyrrell. 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 @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@freakonomics.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: I’ve got a barking dog, sorry. I should have stopped that. 

DUCKWORTH: Did you just do that “ruff”? Or was that all him? 

DUBNER: It’s been both of us. 

Read full Transcript

Sources

Resources

Extras

Comments