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Stephen DUBNER: They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it.

*      *      *

Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

 Today on the show: How can we heal the tension between generations?

DUBNER: Don’t you sort of want to kill off the old people?

 Also: what’s wrong with taking pictures and videos of major life events? 

DUCKWORTH: Put away your phone. It’s the Olympics, [BLEEP]. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, we have a question from a listener named Jenny Laden, who is 51 years old. How old are you? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s my age. What a great age, Jenny! 

DUBNER: Unless Jenny is Angela. Did you perhaps write into your own show under a pseudonym? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m pretty sure I haven’t, but read me the question. Maybe it was me. 

DUBNER: Jenny writes in to say this: “I am a 51-year-old person who increasingly finds it difficult to listen to, empathize with, and tolerate the often very loud voices of people in their 20s.”

DUCKWORTH: That’s not me, Stephen. 

DUBNER: No. I was kidding, because you’re a college professor, and you love the people in their 20s. 

DUCKWORTH: The 20s are a great decade! 

DUBNER: So, Jenny wants to know: “Was I that annoying then? And how can I, as an older — and questionably wiser — member of the human race, engage in a productive way with these children in adult bodies without being a condescending jerk, without dismissing them entirely, or letting their hypercritical and ignorantly-uninformed viewpoints and/or very loud voices make my head explode?” I think Jenny may have issues beyond not liking people in their 20s. 

DUCKWORTH: But I like Jenny so much. “Children in adult bodies.”

DUBNER: I think this is where the problem really rises because, as Jenny writes further, “I’m currently going back to school for a second degree and find that sharing a classroom with these 20-somethings is very challenging.” So, this is not just sitting in a restaurant and saying, “Oh, those noisy young people.” She’s actually interacting with them in a more systemic way. Finally, she writes, “Are we destined to only be close to people within a few years of our age and maintain a distance from people from different generations, because they simply have no concept of what it is to be that age, just as I have no idea,” she writes, “how it feels for my 81-year-old mother?” So, that’s Jenny’s question, or set of questions, which I find extremely compelling. I don’t mean to be critical or prescriptive, but, in this case, if Jenny’s asking for advice about how to not let these, quote, “children in adult bodies” with their hypercritical and ignorantly-uninformed viewpoints make her head explode, do you think a good first step might be that Jenny smoke some weed or something and just relaxes a little bit? I’m only half joking.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe with the 20-something-year-olds in her class. That would be one way to get together. 

DUBNER: But the reason I ask this is, whenever I get irritated by something, my first question is —. 

DUCKWORTH: Should I smoke weed? That’s what you’re saying, I think. 

DUBNER: That’s my second question. My first question is: is this prima facie irritating, or am I being overly irritative? 

DUCKWORTH: Is it them, or is it me? 

DUBNER: Yeah. And I have to say, even if it’s them, rather than getting upset, or angry, or jealous, or whatever, wouldn’t it just be better, more efficient, and ultimately good for me — so there’s strong self-interest — in being able to adjust my mindset to the thing so that I’m not upset like that? 

DUCKWORTH: When we’re annoyed by anyone — whether they’re people in their 20s and we’re in our 50s, or just your next door neighbor — before we go to the mindful, centered, you know, “It’s like a cloud passing in front of the sun” kind of approach, we should consider all emotions, including irritation, as signals that carry information. Irritation or annoyance is a soft version of anger. And anger is the emotion that comes from some registration that your rights are being violated — your principles are being infringed on, or your respect is being taken away. But to introspect for a moment and say, “Why are these young people irritating the hell out of me?” And then looking for the cause — like, “Oh, I think what they’re saying annoys me, because”— then you can move on and be more centered. If we skip over the stage where we say, “I’m experiencing an emotion. What is that emotion probably signaling?” we’re missing out on a lot of important information.

DUBNER: Let me go even further into that side of the argument. Maybe the younger people take great pleasure in noisily irritating the older people. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think they care about 51-year-olds. 

DUBNER: Okay. But how much do you believe this may be connected to the intent of the, quote, “younger generation” to be aggressive in taking center stage? And I wonder about this from an evolutionary or a growth and survival perspective. Because ultimately, don’t you sort of want to kill off the old people and their ways to make room for yourself and your new ways? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s reflect on this from all the perspectives that we can. I love that Jenny ends this question with the musing about her 81-year-old mother, because there’s the recognition there that she may be just as loud, and annoying, and unwise relative to her 81-year-old mother as 20-something-year-olds are to her. What this question also gets at is this ongoing debate, Stephen, between the idea of there being generational differences in personality, and character, and narcissism, and so forth. And the famous finding is that young people are more and more narcissistic —this kind of egocentric, like “I’m the center of the universe, also I know better than you.” That was one of the first high-profile findings that came out. And the reason why we might even speculate about this is that there are questionnaires on narcissism that have been given out and completed from the seventies all the way up to now. And I will say that psychologists have disagreed about how to analyze the data — about which comparisons really are more fairly considered apples to apples.  The psychologists on the other side of the debate are like, “No, no, no, no. What is masquerading as these generational differences in narcissism is really a developmental trend.” And, in general, young adults can be a little less wise, a little less able to see the big picture, etc. 

DUBNER: Meaning, if we were to consider this question not in 2021, but in 1921, or 1821, or even 821, that theoretically, we may find the same sentiment, because it’s not so much about generational shift as it is about your actual age and stage of development. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, those are the two sides of the debate. And I would say for myself — as a psychologist who’s not directly engaged on either side — I would say that, in general, developmental differences tend to be much larger than generational differences.

DUBNER: And that really makes sense. 

DUCKWORTH: Does it to you? I don’t know. Not to everybody.

DUBNER: It does, because I think that as much as we think time changes, and history changes, and technology changes — which it all does — I think that the power of human development is just stronger. In other words, I would think that the differences would be larger in the development of a human over time versus, let’s say, someone who lives to 80 years old. Would the changes within a given person from zero to 80 be stronger than, or weaker than, the changes in the circumstances that might change their behavior over the course of 80 years?

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. We’re not talking about, like, the Pleistocene era. 

DUBNER: Because if you put Jenny back in the Pleistocene, whoa. 

DUCKWORTH: Watch out! I will also say that sometimes our intuitions about these generational differences can go exactly in the opposite direction of the data that’s available. So, questionnaires are one thing — but the best way to do generational comparisons is actually using measures that are not questionnaires, because you’re not making a judgment relative to your cultural norms. For example, the delayed-gratification tasks that Walter Mischel invented where little kids, usually around age four, have a choice between one treat now — say, one marshmallow now — versus a larger amount of the treat later — say, two marshmallows later. That task has been given now for decades. And when you ask people, “Do you think our kids today are better, the same, or worse at delaying gratification compared to kids who grew up decades ago?” Most people put their money on the kids from decades before. 

DUBNER: “Back in my day I wouldn’t eat a marshmallow for five years.”

DUCKWORTH: “I would wait until it turned to dust.” 

DUBNER: I don’t think a marshmallow ever turns to dust.

DUCKWORTH: It seems to be shelf-stable forever, like Twinkies. 

DUBNER: It does suggest that Walter Mischel chose exactly the right research ingredient. 

DUCKWORTH: He probably just bought one batch of marshmallows in the 60s and then he used them forever. But the point is that people say, when you survey adults, “Oh, people are definitely getting less good at delaying gratification.” And the data are literally exactly the opposite. In other words, little kids today wait longer in the marshmallow task than their counterparts did decades before.

DUBNER: Wow. So, I have two things to say: No. 1: Stale marshmallows are not as good as soft, fluffy marshmallows.

DUCKWORTH: I love that you took a definitive stand on that. Can I commend your bravery? 

DUBNER: You may. The only thing I would say is that, potentially, if you are roasting them over an open fire, whether to make s’mores or just have the marshmallows, the staleness, I think, doesn’t hurt you. And in fact, it may contribute to the shell-like nature of the burnt outer layer. 

DUCKWORTH: The crackly outside contrasting with the gooey inside.

DUBNER: So, we’ve cleared that up. Number two, I do find the last part of Jenny’s question very moving. She writes, “Are we destined to only be close to people within a few years of our age and maintain a distance from people from different generations because they simply have no concept of what it is to be at that age?” I guess the broader question is: How can we all relate to and interact with — and stop feeling dismissive or hateful of — people who aren’t like you? So, not just age but different in any way, because I think that is a fundamental human problem.

DUCKWORTH: I wasn’t kidding when I said that I wanted to hang out with Jenny. And it wasn’t only because she used these great phrases like “children in adult bodies.” She began her question with the word empathy. She said, I’m somebody who finds it increasingly difficult to empathize with the young people that I’m hanging out with more and more.

DUBNER: She did say “empathize with and tolerate.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s true. I think empathy is really hard, not only between the 51-year-olds and the 21-year-olds, but even with ourselves. George Loewenstein — one of my favorite behavioral scientists — George has this term “the hot-cold empathy gap.” And he’s not talking about me not being able to understand Stephen Dubner’s life. He’s not talking about me not being able to understand my 87-year-old mother’s life. He’s talking about me not being able to understand me. And it can happen even as simply as, you know, I go to the supermarket. And I’m hungry. When you have a hungry Angela at the supermarket, it’s not that Angela is buying, you know, lettuce, spinach, tofu, and other healthy things. It’s, like, Angela in the snack aisle. I’m just unable to empathize with Angela who’s not hungry. And this hot-cold empathy gap, even within ourselves, could explain impulsive behavior — people doing things in a hot state and then failing to remember or empathize with their more reflective self. And if it’s difficult for us to empathize even with our other selves across a four-hour period, imagine how hard it must be to truly understand the thoughts and feelings of someone else, regardless of their age. 

DUBNER: I also wonder if part of Jenny’s experience with these younger people — especially because she’s a peer now and so she’s a bit of an outlier; she’s someone who in her 50s is going back to school, which can’t be easy on a number of fronts, although it’s also exciting on a number of fronts — but I wonder if her experience is partly informed by her belief that what’s happening here is ageism: the notion that, as you get older, you become a little bit less visible to younger people. You are made to feel a little bit less relevant, and this is a real effect. I know the World Health Organization recently called ageism a very significant global challenge, saying, “it leads to poorer health and social isolation, earlier deaths, and that it costs economies billions of dollars,” because older people, especially pre-COVID when they weren’t so needed for the short labor market, were basically pushed aside. This turns up in a number of places. If you look at different medical disciplines, there is a very significant shortage of geriatricians, doctors who specialize in the care of older people. So, I think it’s worth talking about the general impulse toward empathy and these general ideas around generations. But I do also wonder if, perhaps, she’s identifying something that’s a little bit below the surface that she might be picking up on. 

DUCKWORTH: And it would seem to me that the psychology of these other “isms” would apply, which is that being marginalized from society, and pushed out to the outside of the herd, and made to feel like you don’t matter, that does seem to be one of the pernicious things that you can do to somebody. It activates an inflammatory response at the physiological level — these indicators that lead to cardiac problems and more. So, it makes sense that it would have toxic effects. 

DUBNER: I will leave Jenny with one thought, if she’s looking for ammunition for why she’s right to think that young people are terrible. This is from Aristotle, who did his thinking many centuries ago. He wrote, “Young people have exalted notions, because they’ve not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations. Moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones. Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning. They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it.” So, that sounds like something Jenny could maybe carry around in her pocket and show these noisy young people. But, for the record, Aristotle is not so easy on the old people either. 

DUCKWORTH: And, for the record, wise, old Aristotle was once young, unwise Aristotle. 

DUBNER: That is true. Aristotle wrote, “Old people have lived many years.” I guess that’s kind of a truism. “And life on the whole is a bad business. The result is that they are sure about nothing, and they under-do everything. They think,” he wrote, “but they never know. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. Their desires are set upon nothing more exalted or unusual than what will help keep them alive.” 

DUCKWORTH: Aristotle is really cranky. I think he’s just throwing everyone under the bus. 

DUBNER: So, I guess if Jenny wants to feel better, she should read some Aristotle and say that, compared to him, everybody is actually pretty awesome. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s a good antidote.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how personal technology affects our ability to live in the moment.

DUCKWORTH: You’re trying to pay attention to Dr. Duckworth and the person next to you is watching Gossip Girl

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from a William Anderson. Would you mind if I read it to you? It has a little bit of golf in it. 

DUBNER: Ah! You can read me 10 letters from William Anderson. 

DUCKWORTH: I had you at golf. Okay. “When watching the Ryder Cup, but really every event” — that’s it, Stephen. That’s all the golf. Just to manage expectations. 

DUBNER: Okay. But this is a little bit of synchronicity. Did we not just discuss the Ryder Cup in a recent episode? 

DUCKWORTH: We did. This is probably not specific to golf, and that’s why William says, “but really every event,” um, “I’m always struck by the number of people with their phone in front of their face — presumably filming, slash, streaming, slash, posting. To me, it seems like the proper way to enjoy an event is by being in the moment and enjoying the experience.” 

DUBNER: Little judgy there, William. But that’s okay. Continue. 

DUCKWORTH: “Curious your perspectives on the relative value of being in the moment versus filming it. Maybe others can do both, but I’m not sure I can or would want to. It seems as though whenever anything cool, slash, controversial happens these days, a sizable cohort of folks instinctively take out their phone to capture it. Maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon. Furthermore, do people even go back and look at photos anyways? It seems as though the ease of taking quality photos may have paradoxically reduced their independent value as people take so many of them. Thanks, William.” Now, by the way, the whole time I’m like, is William 80 years old or is he 18? 

DUBNER: I don’t think 18-year-olds use the word “curmudgeon.” I think that’s reserved for above 50 at least.

DUCKWORTH: Plus, this has proper capitalization and punctuation. Right there, you’re like, “Wait, you’re definitely not 18.” Anyway, I don’t know how old William is, but I have wondered this question myself: whether we should advise everyone to put away their phones at graduations, and so forth. 

DUBNER: I agree with you and William that it is an interesting phenomenon. The economic angle certainly intrigues me, which is, as he put it: because it’s so easy to take good pictures, does it reduce their value? I mean, you have to agree that the supply, or the abundance, of photos today means that they seem potentially, at least to someone like William, less valuable than when the resource was scarce. But I would also argue, isn’t that what human progress is about? Until the last century or two, one of the biggest threats to humankind was not having enough food. For many people now, one of the biggest threats — to their personal health at least — is eating too much food. So, the way that we deal with abundance can be puzzling sometimes. And I understand his point, but I think it’s more than that that troubles him. He asks how many people even go back and look. That’s one form of utility, but if you text a photo to someone who cares about it, or if you post it on Instagram, that’s another form of utility. So, I think that his points are perfectly valid, but a little off the center of the real question, which is: when you’re at an event and everyone pulls out their phone, does it make sense? And I think what he’s implying is that maybe it doesn’t, because you can’t experience it the way you would if you didn’t have the phone in front of your face. And I do think there are some valid questions to ask about why we do it. I think herd mentality has a lot to do with it. 

DUCKWORTH: Herd mentality?

DUBNER: If you’re at an event with nine other people and all nine of them pull out their phone, do you feel a little weird for not? Like, “Oh, well, plainly, I should be recording this as well. I don’t quite know why, but I feel I should.”

DUCKWORTH: You have this social-norm effect. Like, “Wait, everyone’s doing it. There’s probably a good reason they’re doing it. Something bad might happen if I don’t do it. The safer thing, as it were, is to just whip out the phone. Did you feel though that when you were watching the Olympic opening ceremonies this past summer —.

DUBNER: That’s quite an assumption — that I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. You don’t watch the ceremonies? 

DUBNER: God. It’s the worst. 

DUCKWORTH: The closing ceremonies are the worst. The opening ceremonies are interesting. 

DUBNER: I’m not much for pageantry, I have to tell you. Although the London games, several years ago, did you watch those opening ceremonies?

DUCKWORTH: Uh, yes I did. 

DUBNER: Okay. I know they were famous for, I think, Boris Johnson — who was not yet prime minister, he was the mayor of London — he apparently zip-lined into the stadium. So, I know that got a lot of attention. I actually didn’t see that. I think there was some skit, or something, where there was James Bond and the Queen, I think neither of them were the real ones, maybe? Or maybe Queen Elizabeth II zip-lined into the stadium as well? But the part that I did see — they had a segment that was a celebration of the N.H.S., the National Health Service. And they had people in beds — like, dancers in beds who were posing as sick people — and then, they get up and they start dancing around with the nurses and the doctors. It was the most British, and most wonderfully unique way to say who we are and what we care about. We care about our Queen. We care about James Bond. And we love our N.H.S., dammit. So anyway, I guess I did watch an opening ceremony once. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. The reason why I brought up the Olympic ceremonies is that, more and more, you see these athletes who spent their whole lives making it to the Olympics and they are walking in formation behind the flag of their country as the entire world looks on, and they have their phones out — basically experiencing the opening of the Olympics through their phones! I’m like, “You’re there! Stop! Put your phone away.” 

DUBNER: So, I am now making, on my notepad, a little matrix. There’s “curmudgeon, not-curmudgeon.” In the “curmudgeon” column, William and Angela.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, come on. You don’t think that’s absurd? That’s, that’ a very Stephen Dubner thing to say. Like, “Put away your phone. It’s the Olympics, [BLEEP].” 

DUBNER: I may be a curmudgeon in some ways, but here’s the way I think about it. Let’s say, I am a pommel horser. 

DUCKWORTH: Gymnast, you mean? 

DUBNER: A gymnast. That’s what I mean to go for. And I’ve been working since I was the age of, whatever, four, toward this goal. And now I’m there. I know that there’s going to be a tape of it. And what I want is — for my personal memory, and to show my family, and my friends, and maybe my future spouse, and future kids, and grandkids — I want to show my experience of that moment, literally my point of view. What’s wrong with that?

DUCKWORTH: Well, there’s nothing morally wrong with that. And let me concede a little ground here. So, my friend Gal Zauberman at Yale has actually done scientific research on using photos —

DUBNER: Oh, you’re going to bring in the science here. That’s kind of cheap. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going to pull the science card. But look, I’m pulling it against myself. So, this is good for your argument.

DUBNER: Perfect. Bring it on. 

DUCKWORTH: In one of his studies, he actually hired a tour bus, and then randomly assigned undergraduates to go on one tour without photos and cameras. The other one, please take photos. 

DUBNER: Can I just say, I love the idea of that study, and I applaud the use of whatever tax dollars went toward it. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure it was federal research dollars. I don’t know, maybe Yale paid for it. 

DUBNER: Children are starving, but we now know whether picture-taking on a tour bus —  

DUCKWORTH: But it is so clever. And what he found was that when you are randomly assigned to take photos of your experience, that, on average, it actually enhances your enjoyment. So, I’m arguing against myself, and I’m arguing against William, I guess, too. So, maybe we, old people, who, you know, still capitalize words in sentences — we don’t understand that when people take photos of what they’re doing, that it can actually increase enjoyment. 

DUBNER: What I find most interesting about this is you, the scientist, knew the science coming in, and yet, you, the person, actually argued the other side of it. Now, that’s okay. There are a lot of things that I know to be true or empirical, and yet I have a personal preference for the opposite. But I am curious whether you find that scientific evidence unconvincing, or whether you think that there is some kind of moral override on the utilitarian-ness of it?

DUCKWORTH: So, when I read Gal’s research — I mean, look, I read it with my own bias. And this was some years ago. So, it was before this last Olympics, but I had always been annoyed by people whipping out their phones at college graduations and other things where I was like, “Bleep just, like, experience the thing.” So, critically, I read this article, and here’s something else I want to say, which kind of takes back a little of the ground that I gave you. Gal also found that the photo-taking benefits — in terms of increasing enjoyment — they depended on engagement. In other words, the reason why you enjoy it more is that, when tasked with taking photos, you’re just, like, a little more into it. You’re engaged. But if the experience is already engaging, or the photo taking interferes with the experience — you know, imagine that you’re at the altar. You could also say, like, “I’m just going to want this for posterity. I know there’s a videographer, but wait, hold that thought.” 

DUBNER: In that case, you got to wear a GoPro. You just don’t use the phone. You just walk in with the headgear, and I think that makes everybody very comfortable.

DUCKWORTH: So, I think the big caveat here is: all things being equal, increasing your engagement with the experience because you’re taking photos can be beneficial, but there are many scenarios in which you were already at maximal engagement and where the phone actually somehow interferes with your presentness. 

DUBNER: That is an interesting nuance, and it reminds me of a similar-ish piece of research. We did this episode a while back on Freakonomics Radio to try to look at the impact of taking notes by longhand — pen and paper, or whatnot — versus by laptop. And this was researched by Pam Mueller and Dan Oppenheimer, who, I guess, you know, correct? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I do. 

DUBNER: What Oppenheimer and Mueller found was that for factual questions, there was no difference between the laptop and the longhand note-taking, but for conceptual questions, do you remember the result? 

DUCKWORTH: It had this great title. It’s like, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard.” So, yes, longhand in that study was better for the important, key ideas of lecture. 

DUBNER: And the mechanism by which that would happen would be to your mind, what? Why do you think that would be the case? 

DUCKWORTH: When you are in class with a keyboard, you’re a stenographer. You’re just taking down everything in a kind of mindless, you know —  And that’s preventing you from doing what you really need to do, which is to sit there and just really think, and synthesize, and draw the connections. And I do think there’s something about having the keyboard in front of you and the fact that we can, frankly, type faster than we can write, that actually leads us down that slippery slope of just, you know, you spend the whole time typing everything the professor says. That article though, by the way, has been since questioned. And I think it would be fair to say that the jury’s out on what’s better. My guess is that it’s also going to vary a lot by the person. 

DUBNER: And I know for college professors, such as yourself, this is a point of interest. Not so much whether note-taking is better on the computer by hand, but whether note-taking on computers should be allowed. So, I know that with your Behavior Change For Good project — David Laibson was running experiments about whether to allow computers in a class. The idea being that these students who were at Harvard, and Princeton, and Yale have such little self-control that they’re spending all their time on Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever. So, if I let someone in my class with a laptop, then they’re going to abuse it, and they’re not going to pay attention. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s because of the externalities. 

DUBNER: Meaning other people will be disturbed by your engrossment.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, there is research suggesting that if you have your laptop in class, which you are likely not using it to take notes, but, in fact, watching a full-length feature film, then you are going to distract your classmate who’s actually trying to pay attention to the extremely boring professor. So, I don’t let my students have laptops in class, not because I worry about their own cognitive retention as much as I really do think it’s distracting. When my husband showed me the photograph of my own students, in my own class, watching YouTube videos and not taking notes — even though it looked, to me, like they were from the other side of the laptop — I just knew right then that there would be this enormous externality problem, because you’re trying to pay attention to Dr. Duckworth and the person next to you is watching Gossip Girl

DUBNER: Now, it may be that there was one person in that entire class doing something that you would like them to not do. I can see that as a potential problem, but as someone who’s — for years, and years, and years — loved taking notes on computers, because I can type a lot faster than I can write, I would be the collateral damage if the laptop were banned. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s true. Such is the life of the policymaker, Stephen, what can I say? But I do think that with this original question of: should people take photos at big events or should they not?  I have to say that, when I was having these curmudgeonly thoughts about people at graduation — I was literally at a graduation. I was like, “They’re looking at their beloved daughter or son through a phone. They’re right there, but you’re not looking at them.” I thought about psychological distancing, which is something that Ethan Kross, and other psychologists, have worked on. I’ve worked on it with Ethan for some years. And it’s this idea that when you take a removed perspective — like, when you’re not immersed in the experience, but you have some remove — you’re looking at it through a phone, or you’re looking at it from a third-person perspective, that in some cases, it can be good. If it’s a very painful event and you take a removed perspective, then you have a little psychological distance. That’s good. But I remember thinking this in a curmudgeonly way at a graduation, because I was like, “This is where you don’t want psychological distance. You want to be immersed in the first-person perspective.”

DUBNER: What I’m starting to take away from this conversation, even though we’re both wiggling and waggling a little bit on William’s original question, is that having your phone and recording it — whether still photo, video, whatever — is a complement to the event and not a substitute for the activity. In other words, it can augment — it could potentially subtract, of course, but it could also augment — because it’s a different part of the activity. And that’s where I feel that you curmudgeons are not quite seeing the full picture. And the other thing to think about is this: in the old days, meaning, like, let’s say 20 years ago, there were a group of people who were called publishers and they controlled what all of us saw. There were newspapers. There were T.V. stations. 

DUCKWORTH: This is like a fable. A long, long time ago —

DUBNER: And it was a relatively tiny, tiny group of people who decided for all of what we would see on a given day. Now, everyone is their own publisher. And if I want to have as content my blurry, four-second image of Rory McIlroy taking a swing in a Ryder Cup competition — hey, I’m the publisher! 

DUCKWORTH: You have the power. 

DUBNER: And therefore, who am I to say to you that, “No, no, no, no. You should experience the moment live in real time. Put down the phone!”? I think it is not understanding the different dimensions on which people gain happiness or utility. That’s what I would have to say. I also think William’s question was fairly narrow, but it raises a broader point about the implications of cameras just being everywhere. If you look at the drop in crime in many cities across the world, over the past, really 30 years now — it’s hotly debated, it’s hard to fully understand what’s causal all the time. But in the U.K., for instance, one attribute that is widely considered to have been successful is the presence of what they used to call C.C.T.V.s, closed circuit T.V.s. They’re just cameras everywhere. There’s a much greater chance that if someone commits a crime, they’ll be captured on film and then captured in real life. It also works if the police commit a crime. I mean, think about George Floyd and Derek Chauvin. Do you think that Derek Chauvin would have been convicted without the photographic or video evidence? I don’t think so. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think so. And nor would we have had the ripple effect of essentially a social revolution — without that footage, arguably.

DUBNER: There’s the recent trial over Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed. And what’s interesting is that the video evidence was shot, I believe, by one of the three men who later was accused, and then put on trial, for killing him. So, I think the thread that William began to pull is a really interesting and very, very, very large thread that it would behoove us all to think about it a little bit more deeply.

DUCKWORTH: Well, let me conclude with pro-camera comments — just to show you how open-minded I am, Stephen. I am all in favor of speed cameras, red-light cameras. I would have cameras on every street corner. Film everything! And I think that would be, net, enormously positive for society. I don’t have a lot of hang-ups about, “What about my privacy as I’m walking down the sidewalk?” I don’t care. 

DUBNER: So, you’re Orwellian in your pursuit of cameras everywhere, but if you pull out your iPhone at a graduation — dammit, Duckworth is all over you. I think back to a conversation we had on this show a while ago about hoarding and nostalgia. It really affected me, because you are deeply non-nostalgic and you keep nothing. And I am a little bit of a nostalgist and a hoarder. That said, and I hope you don’t mind me saying so, because we’re friends and I’m about to reveal a slight intimacy — but you will occasionally text me a photo of something that you see out in the world. All I’m saying is, that you’re saying that you don’t believe in memorabilia, nostalgia, hoarding. 

DUCKWORTH: True. And then I send you photos that are kind of sentimental. 

DUBNER: The person that I get the most texts from of cute little pictures is you! 

DUCKWORTH: It’s true! 

DUBNER: So, I think what this anti-hoarding and yet pro-picture texting dichotomy in you shows is that you, like the rest of us, Angela, are human. And humans have a variety of intertwining motivations and values. You may be the most human human ever. 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, what can I say? I am large. I contain multitudes. 

This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela wonder about the shelf life of a marshmallow and compare it to that of a Twinkie. Unfortunately, neither is shelf-stable forever. The myth began when Roger Bennatti, a science teacher in Blue Hill, Maine, kept a Twinkie on top of his classroom blackboard for more than 30 years. Upon his retirement in 2004, Bennatti told the Associated Press, quote, “It’s rather brittle, but if you dusted it off, it’s probably still edible.” But manufacturers don’t suggest eating a Twinkie after about 45 days — if you’re planning to eat a Twinkie older than that, researchers suggest carefully checking for mold and fungi first. The shelf life for a marshmallow is a little longer — according to the brand Essential Everyday, marshmallows have a shelf life of 240 days from date of manufacture and about 150 days from receipt of goods.

Later, Anglea and Stephen guess that listener William is over 50 years old because of his feelings about cell phones and his use of the word “curmudgeon.” I followed up with William via email and found out that he’s actually a relatively young person: just 29 years old. But from the language in his question, he sounds like the type of millennial that listener Jenny might actually enjoy hanging out with!

Also, Stephen wavers on the details of the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics. Boris Johnson did indeed zipline, not into the stadium, but over Victoria Park where the games were being shown on big screens. He famously lost momentum and was stuck hanging 20 feet above the ground for several minutes. And Queen Elizabeth II and Daniel Craig as James Bond did indeed participate in a celebratory skit. However, the Queen was not involved in any zip-lining. Stephen’s description of the NHS dancers was accurate — children posing as patients rose from hospital beds to dance with performers dressed as doctors and nurses. 

Finally, Stephen jokes about federal dollars funding Gal Zauberman’s study on whether taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences. Angela thinks that Yale may have paid for it. In actuality, neither funded the research. The study was paid for by a grant from the Marketing Science Institute as well as several grants from Angela’s own Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

That’s it for the fact-check. 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I Mostly Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to 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.comNSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: If you haven’t watched the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies, you have not lived. 

DUBNER: How many hospital beds did they have? Because if they had less than a hundred hospital beds, it was not a proper opening ceremony.

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Sources

  • Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
  • George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Aristotleancient Greek philosopher.
  • Gal Zauberman, professor of marketing at Yale University.
  • Pam Mueller, justice policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
  • Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • David Laibson, professor of economics at Harvard University.
  • Ethan Kross, professor of psychology and management/organizations at the University of Michigan.

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