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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: You said such a nice thing. Let me hug you!

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: why are we so attracted to the idea of fame? 

DUCKWORTH: If I were Michael Jordan, oh my gosh, I’d feel great!

Also: how aware are we of the people and things that shape our identity? 

DUBNER: The fact is, I may have just been reading a bunch of comic books and eating Cheetos, and I had these ideas.

*      *      *

Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, you’re famous. 

Stephen J. DUBNER: No.  

DUCKWORTH: All right, well, let’s assume for the moment that I’m right, and you’re a little bit famous. 

DUBNER: I have niche fame.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, I want to ask you about fame, and how you feel about being at least a little bit famous, and, maybe, what functional role celebrities play in modern life, because I’m not sure that society’s always had celebrity the way we do today. 

DUBNER: I like the second part of the question a whole lot, about the functional role.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I sidestepped the first one completely! 

DUBNER: I do know that fame has been around a long, long time. There is a Greco-Roman personification — “fama” in Roman. I always think of Gene Fama, the University of Chicago economist who’s got some fame, and he won a Nobel Prize. And then, I guess it’s “pheme” in Greek. And I do know that fame was portrayed by Hesiod, the Greek poet, as an evildoer that was easy to stir up, but then impossible to quell.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting! What a wonderful parallel to what fame really is like. 

DUBNER: And I think there’s another parallel, or paradox, which is that, fame is a thing that I think most people, at some point in their lives, thought would be wonderful and that many people, once they actually get it — I think of it as the chili-cheese french fry of foods. You see the picture, and it looks amazing. Then, you order it, and it’s way, ugh, too much. You would have been much happier with regular french fries, but now you’re stuck with the chili-cheese french fries. So, that’s what I think fame is for a lot of people. 

But, I do have a very tiny — and I will say, lovely — level of niche fame. And one reason it’s weird and nichey is that it’s non-visual. Because I write and I do radio, I can go out places and no one sees your face and says, “Oh my gosh, that’s Tom Hanks.” If you’re Tom Hanks, there’s a lot of things you can’t do and a lot of places you can’t go. At first, it’s super fun and maybe intoxicating, even. Fame has been called “the poisoned chalice” — this idea that you take a sip, and it’s unbelievably delicious and intoxicating, but the more you have it, the worse it is. 

So, I do think that a lot of people look at it from afar and think it will be wonderful, but those who actually achieve it realize that it comes with a lot of costs. Any time I would ever write about a person who was even a little bit famous, every single one of them had at least one very dangerous stalker. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have stalkers who aren’t famous, but I don’t think there are many famous people who don’t have some stalkers. And so when you think about the upsides and downsides, or the costs and benefits of anything, I do think more people now recognize that there are a lot of costs to fame than they used to. 

DUCKWORTH: When Princess Diana died, that made very clear that there are costs to fame. 

DUBNER: So, my most recent sort of brush with actual fame came several years ago. Our first book, Freakonomics, came out, and then, as we were working on the second book, there was a movie being made. It was a documentary film. So, it wasn’t a big, big movie. But when it came out a few years later, all of a sudden, I was being recognized. Like, if I’d go to an airport, between entering the airport and getting off the plane at my destination, I’d have five people say to me, “Oh, are you that guy who blah, blah, blah?” They might know my name. They might not. 

DUCKWORTH: The Freakonomics guy. 

DUBNER: And that was only the people who would say it. And I was very uncomfortable. And so I did what I thought was a sensible thing, which is, I grew my hair out, I grew my beard out, and I got different glasses. And that solved the problem pretty easily. It’s hard for me to believe that some people really enjoy being walked up to in public by a stranger and say, “Hey, you’re that person about whom I know very little, but I feel like I know everything, and I know that you don’t know me at all, but I have a feeling that somehow we connect on a deep level.” It’s a strange dynamic that people misassess from top to bottom. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. This has happened to me, occasionally. Not every day, and certainly not when I’m quarantined during the pandemic. I don’t know what my reaction is, but it’s not strongly aversive. So, if someone says “Hey, aren’t you that Grit lady?” — there is sometimes a little bit of awkwardness. First you have to say, “Yes, I am,” but I don’t have a negative reaction. And then, to your point about their having this feeling of intimacy, there’s this research that hasn’t even been published yet. Anuj Shah at Chicago Booth, as a professor, he would disclose things about himself. He starts off his Zoom-delivered class, and he just shares some details from his life. And it’s not unlike being an author who writes about their story, and then, suddenly, people that you may not know their story, they know yours. So, I think that’s the asymmetry that you’re getting at. 

He actually said, “If this little tidbit from my own personal life is somehow getting my students to feel like I must know tidbits about their personal life, maybe we can use that to advantage.” So, now he’s doing these behavior-change interventions based on that. But basically, I feel like it’s quite endearing and lovely in a sense that someone feels like they know you because you wrote about yourself, and they almost feel like you must know a little bit about them, too, because they have that intimacy. 

DUBNER: I felt exactly the way you were describing now — I felt that way when I was playing music. And, yeah, it’s definitely enjoyable, and fun, and flattering, and ego-boosting, all those things, when you’re getting praise or attention for doing the thing that you love to do — that you’re passionate about, and so on. But then, I think, especially now, it doesn’t take very long for that to become chili-cheese fries, to go a little bit too far in the next direction. That’s the tricky part, almost everybody likes having some, but very few people would genuinely enjoy having a lot of it. There is an economist, Colin Camerer, although he’s much more than just an economist now, because he trained himself up to be a neuroscientist, a very brilliant guy.

DUCKWORTH: Nobody can define what he is now, because he’s just too cool. 

DUBNER: I remember once I was talking with him, I don’t know why we got on this topic, and he said something I thought was so clever, and I’ve thought about it ever since. He said, “Local fame is kind of perfect.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well just in your cohort, being known for being really good or accomplished, or even lucky at something.” He said, “This is why companies, after all these years, still put up that employee of the month poster. That is a perfect level.” 

DUCKWORTH: All the benefits, none of the costs.  

DUBNER: Exactly right. A lot of people write to us for this show. A lot of people write for Freakonomics and Freakonomics Radio, and those are lovely. I don’t get to respond to them all the time. But it’s a great feeling when people tell you that, “Hey, the thing that you do, I really like it a lot, and I admire you, or appreciate you, for that.” No question, that is awesome. But once it crosses over into — before the pandemic, I was eating dinner with my family in a restaurant and we had these people the next table over come over and say, “Excuse me, I recognize your voice. And I just wanted to ask you about this episode, and this episode, and this episode.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, how does that make you feel? 

DUBNER: Terrible. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you didn’t like that? 

DUBNER: I did not. I guess this is one way in which you and I are maybe a little bit different. 

DUCKWORTH: So, I think I get that. But I don’t know. I was thinking about celebrity recently, because Audrey Hepburn, who I never met, but who if I ever could have met, I think I would have just fainted from fandom. I was listening to this song called “Audrey.” Do you know about the story of “Audrey,” the song, and David Brubeck, the jazz musician.

DUBNER: No, please tell.

DUCKWORTH. So, there is a now-deceased jazz musician who was a little bit obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. It’s actually not David Brubeck. It was a saxophonist in the David Brubeck Quartet. 

DUBNER: This is Paul Desmond, yes? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And when Audrey Hepburn was in New York — she was an actress in a play — there would be a time where he would be in his set, but she would be finishing the play, and then going home in a car. And he would always ask to have the break for their quartet at a time where he could go and stand in the alley and just watch her for a few seconds walk out the stage door and climb into her limo. 

Now, that sounds horrible. But here’s the thing. He didn’t do anything terrible. In fact, he wrote this beautiful song. It’s like lyricism itself. And he called it “Audrey.” He never sent it to her. He died of lung cancer. I don’t think he had ever met Audrey Hepburn. He never even assumed that she had ever heard the song. Now, when she died, which was quite a bit later, Audrey Hepburn’s ex-husband called David Brubeck to ask if the quartet would play “Audrey” at the memorial service. 

DUBNER: So, I guess, she’d heard of the song? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes! And this took Brubeck by surprise. And Audrey Hepburn’s husband said that his wife listened to that song every night before she went to bed. So, I read all this. Then, of course, I decided to go down the rabbit hole of watching Audrey Hepburn movies and documentaries. And I have to say that, I know what you mean, that there was this “too much” fame. Because she couldn’t go anywhere. Can you imagine being Audrey Hepburn? She couldn’t do anything without there being crowds of people, watching her, wanting her autograph, wanting to touch her. So, I get that. And yet, I think there’s something lovely about a human being who doesn’t know you, but has this fondness for you.  

DUBNER: I mean, look, it’s a lovely story, and I’m happy to know it, but I think it’s deeply anomalous when it comes to mass celebrity. There’s a sociologist named Chris Rojek. He’s at the City University of London, and he wrote about celebrity for the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Consumption and Consumer Studies, it’s called. And it was really interesting and useful to me because it breaks down, as you asked about, the different roles, or functions, celebrity can play, but especially the different categories of celebrities. 

He writes that there are basically three. “Ascribed celebrity,” which is the social impact that reflects bloodline. Kings, queens, and so on. Obviously that’s a little outdated in some ways, but there’s also what we refer to as “royalty” that isn’t quite royalty. I think we all know who those people are. Then there’s “achieved celebrity,” which refers to “the social impact derived” — as he writes — “from recognized talents and accomplishments.” So Lindbergh, Audrey Hepburn. And then, lastly, are what he calls “celetoids,” like an asteroid — individuals who attain intense bursts of fame, but then it, obviously, may not last. 

So, when I read that, I thought that was a very useful categorization to talk about what role celebrities, or celebrity, or fame, plays for all of us out there, because, yes, some celebrity, or some famous people, are these beacons that stand there as a model of some sort, hopefully a positive model, maybe a negative model sometimes. And then, there’s those who get famous for accomplishing something that we just marvel at. And then there are those who are sort of shooting stars. 

And I think fame satisfies a lot of different things for a lot of people. I guess the question is, and this is purely theoretical, since it would be impossible, but the question is: would the world be better or worse off without celebrity? What functions do you think, Angela, that it satisfies that we would miss? It’s entertaining, obviously. But is there something beyond that?  

DUCKWORTH: I think the reason why celebrities have this magnetic appeal is partly because we are status-hierarchy animals. It’s just our instinct to say that somebody is really high-status, and I wonder what they think, and let’s drink the beer that they drink. I was just talking to our common friend, Bob Cialdini. Well, he’s uncommon as a human being, but we are both friends with him. 

I was reading his soon-to-be published new version of Influence and How We Persuade Each Other. And he says that people take these mental shortcuts when they make decisions, because you can’t process all the information. So you, as a rule of thumb, do what other people do. Social proof. And he writes in his book about how there’s this deluge of information now that was not true in 1500. Now everybody, in their phone, has all human knowledge. And so, we use celebrities, in a way, as a heuristic, as a shortcut. I’m going to do what they do. The stock on celebrity is rising, not falling, because that information is not going to get less. It’s going to get more.  

DUBNER: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. My favorite component of fame, or celebrity, is the acquisition of information about them that you wouldn’t otherwise have, especially people who have something about them that’s different than what’s come before. When you’re a kid, you’re reading these little historical biographies of people — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln — and you’d say, “Oh, that’s how they did that, and that’s how they overcame that, or that’s how they achieved that, or whatnot.” 

But then, I picture an eight-year-old girl, let’s say, reading a biography of Kamala Harris. And you say, “Oh, so this is how you get from here to there.” And the “there” wasn’t a very common thing until recently. And look, people may feel the same way about the Kardashians, or Neymar, or whoever, but I do think there can be something really instructive and useful, even if it’s a cautionary tale. 

It’s interesting, there’s been this reexamination and a self-flagellation going on with how Britney Spears was covered when she was younger. This is connected to a new documentary. And the conclusion, essentially, is that a lot of people were needlessly nasty, mean, and invasive, playing off of her fame, or wanting to get close to her fame or wanting to cover her fame, because this is something that the media does really well. And I think a similar thing happened with Lindsay Lohan. I would not be surprised if this is more common with young female celebrities than with young male celebrities. But I’m encouraged a little bit, at least, in that there does seem to be an examination of, “Oh, famous people are people too, and maybe we shouldn’t treat them as if they’re some glittering object that we can turn into what we need it to be.”

DUCKWORTH: Now you’re making me feel bad about reading Us Weekly

DUBNER: If you’re not part of the solution, Angela, you’re part of the problem.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, I think that at least some people might be like me, like net feeling good, not bad. When I was on book tour, which I’ve only been on once and may never be on again, I remember meeting these people who would stand in line for quite some time to get me to sign their book. And I just thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is lovely.” And I hugged a bajillion people, because I was like, “Oh, wait, you said such a nice thing. Let me hug you.” So, I think there can be a little a little upside in having some people in our lives who are celebrities, some of whom we might meet, and others we might not. 

DUBNER: Well, now, I feel terrible about telling you that fame, or the wanting of fame, is mostly a bad thing, because it’s working great for you.  

DUCKWORTH: But maybe that’s the thing. I’m not Audrey Hepburn. And I’m not Britney Spears.  

DUBNER: All I’ll say is, I don’t mean to say that your enjoyment of your level of fame is a bad thing. And I also don’t mean to sound like a total grump about my level of fame. A lot of elements of it are really enjoyable. I just think it is a slippery slope, and that it can very easily become more cost than benefit. So, I think that often people, when they’re envisioning the optimal outcome of the life they’re pursuing, they think about money, power, and fame. 

And I’m just going to go on record as saying that I think money’s awesome, you can do a lot of things with it. You can use it to help people, enjoy it, whatever. I think power can be awesome, especially if you’re using it for social good. Fame, I would leave that one on the table. If that’s the menu that I’m offered, I know what I’m ordering and what I’m not. But your mileage may vary.  

DUCKWORTH: Here’s the meta-lesson for me. I think we so often look at somebody else’s life and say, “If I were that person, I know with certainty how I would feel,” and often we look over and we say, “I’d feel great! If I were Michael Jordan, oh my gosh, I’d be great.” You know, Audrey Hepburn said in this documentary that, “Other people see me as beautiful.” She said, “I’ve never woken up in my life and felt like that. I can’t be that person who looks at me. I can only be me looking at them.” So, who knows what it feels like to be on the other side of experience? 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: How accurate is the narrative we tell ourselves about why we are the way we are? 

DUCKWORTH: So much of what I’ve done is a rebellious little girl telling her father that he was wrong.

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DUBNER: Angela, I want you to tell me about someone or something that’s influenced you a lot, that you probably don’t think has influenced you a lot, but who, upon reflection, has changed the shape of your thinking, feeling, being.  

DUCKWORTH: You want me to tell you about something or someone who has influenced me, except I don’t recognize it at first. 

DUBNER: Or maybe someone that you wouldn’t readily name. When we talk on this show, we talk about your intellectual mentors and heroes. And it strikes me that we all like to name sources, or tell people what books you’ve read. And we burnish our reputations that way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there are also all these things that we don’t talk about, or think about, unless we really try to think about them, that do shape us, that are either less-obvious or less-popular. And I’m just curious if you could ruminate on that for a moment and come up with anything. 

DUCKWORTH: I think this is a fascinating question, Stephen, in the sense that, epistemologically, it’s not answerable. I have access to the things that I think influenced me. I could be wrong. I think Mrs. Faran influenced me when she taught me grammar in eighth grade. I think that kid George in first grade who always brought cheese sandwiches for lunch and always, always, always threw them up at recess — every single time — I was like, “George, get off the monkey bars. We’ve been through this.” 

DUBNER: Okay, wait a minute. We have to unpack this a little bit. Was the problem the cheese sandwich? Or was the problem the monkey bars? Or was the problem just George?  

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. Maybe he was lactose-intolerant? But, it was like clockwork. American cheese on white bread, and then monkey bars, and then it was like, “Bleh.”

DUBNER: And nobody from the teacher, to George’s parents, to George, to you, ever said, “Hey, maybe you should try tuna fish?” 

DUCKWORTH: No. It was like Groundhog Day. Actually, in Groundhog Day, at least Bill Murray‘s character learns.  

DUBNER: So, are you saying that George was the primary influence in your life in staying away from cheese sandwiches? In staying away from monkey bars?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, look. I remember George. Or, at least, I think I remember George. 

DUBNER: I would love to fact check this. I bet there was no George. There was no cheese sandwich. 

DUCKWORTH: There were no monkey bars! Now, look, I have access to what I remember and what I think influenced me. But you’re asking me about influences that I might not realize were influences. 

DUBNER: Yeah. And I realize there is a certain, if not impossibility, at least a little bit of a paradox here. But I know you have a nimble mind. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, look. I think memory is very interesting. I was talking to Mike Kahana, who’s a psychologist who studies memory. And he said something along the lines of, “We’re not very good at remembering what we remember.” So, we think we remember certain things — like false memories, for example — and we don’t. And we can also think we have forgotten things. Like, “I’ll never be able to remember that.” But actually, it’s hidden there in our long-term memory, and we just have to access it. 

DUBNER: So, I think you’ve done a wonderful job so far of not answering my question.  

DUCKWORTH: Because I think it’s unanswerable. Can I turn it on you? Can you answer that question for yourself? 

DUBNER: When I try to think about the people who have influenced me, whether they’re researchers, writers, friends, mentors, religious figures, whatever, I keep coming back, and maybe this is just a function of getting older and having kids of my own who are now into their teenage years and into college — I keep coming back to my mother and the many, many, many, many dimensions on which she really shaped the way that I approach life. Now, this is not to say that I do everything that she did. And often, I do things exactly the opposite. 

DUCKWORTH: But there’s still causality there.

DUBNER: Absolutely. And it makes perfect sense that my mother was a very influential person for me, in part because my dad had died when I was a kid. So, she was a single parent. I was the last of a whole bunch of kids. So I spent more time with her individually than any of the other kids did. And so, yeah, she was a big influence. But today, if I were to meet someone and they say, “What do you do? You write blah, blah, blah. Who’ve been your influences?” My mother would be like 80th on the list of people that I would say were my influences. I’d think about all the books I’ve read, all the teachers I’ve had, and so on. 

But the fact is, when I look at my actual activities, my actual beliefs, I realize that she was a massive, massive influence that hasn’t really dissipated — that there were some core beliefs, some core ways of thinking, some core ways of learning, and of being, and of treating people, and wanting to be treated, that really formed back then. So, that got me to wanting to ask you where you think your core influences come from, and if maybe it’s not an obvious answer. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you said “the fact is,” and I just want to amend that, or comment on that, because it’s more like, “the opinion is that my mother really influenced me.” We really don’t know. I think that was the gist of what Mike Kahana was saying, is that you think that formative event X had effect Y on you in the following ways. But one of the reasons why I think this point is worth dwelling on for a moment is because human beings are coherence machines. If Danny Kahneman has taught me anything, it is that we are constructing a coherent narrative. As soon as we perceive something — I see an edge, and then I see another edge, oh, it’s a box! We’re always trying to create meaningful, orderly, logical pictures of the world and stories about our life. And I don’t think we should be blind to that.

You construct a story of Stephen Dubner, who grew up, and spent a lot of time with his mom, and was influenced by her. And I’ve constructed a story, and even written it down on paper, about my dad influencing me, and I wouldn’t be studying achievement if I didn’t have a father who was so obsessed with his own accomplishments, or lack thereof. But, I think we should just bear in mind that my coherence machinery is very strong, and I believe it was the fact, but it is, at the end of the day, still a subjective narrative.  

DUBNER: Understood. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s a long caveat. I can still answer the question. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, please do. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, epistemologically, maybe this isn’t impossible, because I think what you’re asking me to do is take a more systematized approach to thinking about my influences — as opposed to the first things that leap to mind. And if I march through: what about when you were in fourth grade? What about in fifth grade? What about social influences? What about physical influences? Then, maybe I can actually unearth some influences that might not have leapt to mind. 

DUBNER: Right. Maybe they would be some less recent, or maybe some less prominent. On this show, you often mention thinkers who have been influential for you. Marty Seligman comes to mind. Carol Dweck comes to mind. Danny Kahneman comes up in just about every episode. And, I’m curious, have they really been as influential as one might think, or is it that they stand for something that you maybe aspire to? Or is it they are recognizable people, and so it’s very comfortable to claim them as influence?  

DUCKWORTH: Or they’re recent. So, they’re just available. They’re in working memory, as it were. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Whereas, in fact, it may be something that an uncle said to you at a family gathering once that made you think, holy cow, he’s right. I shouldn’t do this with my life. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, I somehow have not accessed that memory for a long time. Maybe, but then, I don’t know how I would know. 

DUBNER: Let me flip the question then. Rack your brain to tell me about someone or something that you think has influenced you a lot, but really hasn’t. Maybe it’s something that you like to claim is a big influence. But, in fact, it’s more like a virtue signal, or something. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, in this self-concept that I have, where I feel like so much of what I’ve done is a rebellious little girl telling her father that he was wrong. And Marty Seligman, my Ph.D. advisor, he might say that I’ve got things wrong, because so much of the time when we think about our behavior, we attribute causes in the past. And one of Marty’s bold claims is that we are not driven by the past, we are pulled by the future. If we want to explain our behavior, we actually have to think about the movies that we play in our head about future worlds that we hope to live in, or we think are going to happen, and so forth. 

I have argued with Marty about this a little bit, because I take his point that there is this easy narrative — “I am who I am today because of these things that happened to me before,” versus what he wants to say, which is, “I am what I am today because of what I’m expecting to happen in the future.” But I think these things are connected. Because certain things happened to me in the past, that’s what makes the predictions in the first place. So, I feel like it’s not quite true. But Marty has made that point quite strongly. He thinks that we vastly overestimate past influences of all kinds.  

DUBNER: That is so interesting. The phrase “being pulled by the future” appeals to me, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate so much with me. And I wonder, therefore, if the future is not pulling me as much as it should be. How universal is the future-pulling energy?  

DUCKWORTH: I think Marty would like to argue that it is universal and perhaps definitional to human consciousness. That it’s part of what makes us special. All human beings have the capacity to imagine possible futures. And I think that’s where creativity comes from. It is pretty cool that human beings are able to conjure a future, and then just make it happen. And I do think this idea that we could be romanticizing the past, that even the very question — “What have been your greatest influences?” — presumes that the influences are in our past and accessible by memory. And maybe it’s all like Marty says — daydreaming, planning, and goals are really what explains who we are and what we do. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I guess what I was thinking when I asked this question is that if you read the Vanity Fair questionnaire, or The New York Times Q&A with someone, and they’re asked, “You’re a C.E.O., who’ve been your greatest influences?” There are the answers that we all want to give, and want to hear, that are a component of reputation-burnishing. And again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. But we do like to point to the classiest influences. 

DUCKWORTH: The Danny Kahneman influences. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I’m just saying this as something I’ve observed in many people. Let’s say I’m a novelist, and I’ve just written a really wonderful novel of manners, set now, that tries to telescope all of human history. And you ask me, “Who were your influences?” And I might say, “Most of my contemporary thinking was really informed by the Greek philosophers and some early Renaissance sculptors.” 

DUCKWORTH: Hebrew poets. 

DUBNER: The fact is, I may have just been reading a bunch of comic books and eating Cheetos, and I had these ideas. So, I think that we curate our influences in a way, publicly, and even privately, that we may leave out some formative ones. 

DUCKWORTH: And maybe we don’t even know it, right? So, there’s two forms of social-desirability bias in, for example, questionnaire research. When someone says, “Oh, yeah. I’m really dependable, and I’m very punctual, and I always give the other person their say in a conversation.” Psychologists always worry that there’s social-desirability bias.

But there’s two kinds. The more obvious one is that you’re presenting yourself in a desirable way to others, including the experimenter collecting the survey. But there’s another, maybe more insidious, form of social desirability bias, where you are fooling yourself. You are presenting an attractive version of yourself, even to your own ego. So, maybe you’re right. Maybe in my little narrative of, “Well, there is my dad, and then there’s Nobel Prize-winner Danny Kahneman, and then there’s Wharton professor Katy Milkman,” I’m curating a bio that just sounds really good, not only to others, but to myself.

DUBNER: Or in the words of, I believe, Danny Kahneman, “Not only are we blind, but we are blind to our blindness.”

DUCKWORTH: That sounds like a Danny Kahnemanism. 

DUBNER: But I could be wrong. It might have been Groucho Marx. Hard to say. I will say this. Angela Duckworth, I think you have actually been rather influential on me. 


DUBNER: I sometimes resist. I sometimes disbelieve, for a little while, until I believe. I sometimes play devil’s advocate, because I enjoy that role. 

DUCKWORTH: Often play devil’s advocate. 

DUBNER: I sometimes squirm with discomfort at an idea or solution that you propose, but then upon some rumination, I realize you’re usually right, and eventually I fall in line. So, I guess, I should just say thank you. 

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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.

In the first half of the episode, Angela wonders if society has always experienced celebrity the way it does today, but globalization and social media have clearly changed what it means to be famous. In 2019, The Harris Poll conducted a survey of 3,000 children between the ages eight and 12. Thirty percent of respondents in the United States and 29 percent in the United Kingdom named “vlogger,” or YouTuber, as their dream job, making it the most sought-after career for children in this age group. However, celebrity worship has been an intrinsic part of human history for ages. Stephen and Angela discuss the hysteria around people like Audrey Hepburn and Britney Spears, but this sort of frenzy is nothing new. Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was greeted like a rock star when he toured the United States in 1867. His hotel in Boston had to place armed guards outside to keep fans from trying to reach him. He was even stalked by Jane Bigelow, a socialite from Baltimore, who threatened and attacked women who expressed interest in him.

Later, Angela tells the story of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s obsession with Audrey Hepburn. She refers to the band he played in as the “David Brubeck Quartet.” The group was actually called the “Dave Brubeck Quartet.” Maybe his mother called him David, but Brubeck, a giant of jazz, went by Dave. While playing with the quartet, Desmond would, as Angela recalled, leave the night club where he was playing to watch Hepburn exit the 46th street theatre where she was starring in a production of Ondine. His song “Audrey” appeared on the 1955 Columbia Records album, “Brubeck Time.” Angela described it as “like lyricism itself,” but it should be noted that, like most jazz recordings, this song has no lyrics.

Finally, Angela and Stephen wonder why George, a student in Angela’s first-grade class, would regularly vomit up his cheese sandwich after swinging on the monkey bars. I have two hypotheses. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is, as Angela mentions, lactose intolerance. Approximately 65 percent of the population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin between 30 minutes to two hours after consuming dairy, and vomiting is common. My second theory is motion sickness, a common and complex syndrome that can strike quickly. A 2014 study from the European Journal of Pediatrics found that 43 percent of children between the ages of seven and 12 experience motion sickness in cars, and 11.6 percent experience motion sickness on a park swing. This sensitivity usually diminishes with age. Unfortunately, swinging on monkey bars was not included in the study, and Angela did not stay in touch with George, so we may never solve this mystery. George, if you’re listening, please email and let us know what on earth was going on.

That’s it for the fact-check!

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. 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 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! 

DUCKWORTH: When I was in high school, there was a group of popular girls.

DUBNER: I hate them already.

DUCKWORTH: They weren’t really classic mean girls.

DUBNER: Oh. I take back my hatred for them.

DUCKWORTH: They didn’t snub me, but I wasn’t in the inner circle.

DUBNER: This story gets less dramatic by the moment, I have to say. 

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