DUCKWORTH: I know everyone says this is dumb, but I’m going to do it anyway.
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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 do some people love horror movies?
DUBNER: It is so gory, it has caused audience members to pass out and vomit.
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DUBNER: Angela, we have a listener email from Skyo who writes to say, “Why are people into horror movies? I couldn’t for the life of me bring myself to watch one from start to finish.” By the way, Skyo, I am so on your side. Anyways, Skyo wants to know, “What is the psychology behind fear seeking when there exist many other ways to experience stimulation?” Angela, this is a good question. I want your answer.
DUCKWORTH: I can tell you about horror movies I’ve seen. You’ve seen at least one. Right?
DUBNER: Can I just give you a blanket “no”? I actually looked up on Rotten Tomatoes the 10 scariest horror movies ever.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Tell them to me. I want to hear.
DUBNER: All right. We’ll see how many you’ve seen.
DUCKWORTH: And then, each one — I guess each one you’re going to say you haven’t seen any of these?
DUBNER: It’s a waste of breath, because I have not seen any of them.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. You’re zero for 10. I’m going to do my score.
DUBNER: All right, here we go. No. 1, The Exorcist.
DUBNER: That’s from 2018. The Conjuring from 2013.
DUBNER: The Shining.
DUBNER: Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
DUBNER: The Ring.
DUCKWORTH: I did not see that.
DUBNER: And, let’s see, this is capital “I — T.” I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be “it,” or if it’s actually “I.T.”
DUCKWORTH: It’s It. Stephen King.
DUBNER: I mean, I think I.T. can be pretty scary.
DUCKWORTH: No, this is not your system crashing.
DUBNER: That, I would watch, Angela. Okay, so you’ve seen about, what, four or so?
DUCKWORTH: Was that the list? Was that all?
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s the list. That’s 10.
DUCKWORTH: I was also going to say, like: Poltergeist, Carrie, Silence of the Lambs —.
DUBNER: Okay. So, with a different list, you would’ve had a higher hit rate. But Skyo and I are on team “do not watch horror films.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay. It’s complicated, Stephen. I just want to tell you, I’m now on your team.
DUBNER: What do you mean?
DUCKWORTH: I realize, listening to that list, that any of the more recent horror movies, really there’s almost zero chance that I’ve seen them, because I’m in my 50s now, and I do not watch horror movies now. I don’t think I watched them in my 40s, and I don’t think I watched them in my 30s either. So, it was really, like, a teenager, young-twenties thing.
DUBNER: So, I have to say, you fit the data really, really nicely. Horror film numbers are up lately — over the past five or six years, but they’re still relatively low. So, as a share of all ticket sales — I guess this is assuming that people actually go to theaters to watch movies. So, we may actually be dealing with a different population too, because it may be that there are people who watch a lot of horror films at home and not in theaters. But it looks as though horror films represent 10 percent of all tickets sold. Now, it could also be that only 10 percent of films made are horror films. So, that may be fairly representative. But if you look at age, it’s definitely a younger person’s game. So, it’s probably not so surprising that neither you or I are seeing any lately.
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s also not surprising, because the feature of behavior called “sensation seeking,” like, “Hey, let me try that. I’ve never done that before. I know everyone says this is dumb, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That tends to peak during adolescence — late adolescence, early adulthood. You know, late teens, early twenties.
DUBNER: So, that makes sense. Horror films are one example, let’s say, of sensation seeking. But what else might there be? There might be eating spicy foods. There might be jumping out of a parachute. What do you count as that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, this is all what Paul Rozin, who is one of my favorite psychologists — he also is at my university, University of Pennsylvania — he calls all of these things “benign masochism.”
DUBNER: Good phrase.
DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that so good?
DUBNER: Can I just say, as a nonacademic who’s read a lot of academic work, I am so appreciative when someone — whether it’s a psychologist, an economist, anthropologist, whatever — has come up with a phrase to describe something that makes the lay brain really get it. But I feel that there are so many brilliant people out there doing research, and they want to communicate their findings to the public — and their peers, of course — but they don’t have the ability, or maybe the desire, or maybe they don’t want to seem as though they’re trying to dress it up, or dumb it down, or something. But I find that it’s incredibly useful when there is a name.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I have to digress for a minute here.
DUBNER: You’re going to digress on my digression?
DUCKWORTH: I am — just for a second. We’ll come back to horror movies. But “growth mindset” is a pretty sexy phrase, right? And now, if you ask a C.E.O., or a head of a P.T.A. committee at your kid’s school, they probably know what a growth mindset is. But Carol Dweck only recently, relatively, started using that phrase. She used to call it “implicit theories of incremental —.” I know, right? I can’t even remember. It was, like, “incremental intelligence theory.” There was some multisyllabic, multi-word phrase. And I believe, she had to come up with some terminology when she was writing her first/last/only — at least for now — popular book for a lay audience. And, you know, “implicit theories of intelligence and, you know, incremental versus whatever” — these were not going to fly. And so, “growth mindset” ended up being the terminology we all know and love today. So, I agree with you.
DUBNER: And, can I just say, I don’t mean to disparage any academics who don’t come up with a phrase to describe an idea, or a theory, or their work overall. And I realize that for the most part, people like you, Angela — academic researchers — are writing primarily for each other in journals. Now, we’ve talked about how journal writing, typically, is — what’s the word? “Horrible,” maybe?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think we used the word “horrible.” Yes.
DUBNER: It’s not writing that the average person would — forget about enjoy — but even comprehend. So, I just do want to say to all of our academic listeners out there that I, as a medium-informed layperson, really do appreciate when you take time to essentially label your idea in a descriptive way, because I think it leads to a lot more interest, and therefore understanding, and therefore, theoretically, application of that idea into fruitful policy and so on.
DUCKWORTH: Well, not only have you just sent Paul Rozin and his collaborators a little Stephen Dubner thank-you note, you’re going to want to keep that stationary out, because this is the title of their paper. I love this title. “Glad to Be Sad and Other Examples of Benign Masochism,” which was published in the not so sexily named Judgment and Decision Making journal. But you know, isn’t that great? “Glad to Be Sad.” So, what Paul Rozin wants to argue is that he can explain not only going to watch, you know, The Exorcist, but also why you would get on a roller coaster, why we would listen to, like, sad music, why you would eat really spicy hot sauce. The list goes on. And, in fact, he had people rate on a scale from, I think, zero to a hundred, how much they would want to do these things that are, you know, on the face of them, things that you shouldn’t want to do, because all of these emotions that you know these activities produce are negative emotions. So, I want to tell you what the subscales are on this. Let’s start with fear. That’s one subscale. Sadness is another: sad movies, sad novels, sad music, et cetera. The sensation of burning — particularly food. So, you know, spicy food and then all the things that it makes you do — like, cry, and sweat, and so forth. There’s a disgust subscale. You know, of course, Paul Rozin is beloved for his —.
DUBNER: The king of disgust.
DUCKWORTH: The pioneer of the psychology of disgust. But, you know like, pinching pimples. Or, like, looking at, like, disgusting images. You’re like, “Oh my God. Come here! You have to check this out!” And then, you keep scrolling through, like, more —.
DUBNER: You keep scrolling through. I don’t keep scrolling though.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, come on. You’ve never done that?
DUBNER: I don’t.
DUCKWORTH: You’ve never got on YouTube and watched people, like, pop these, like, huge zits?
DUBNER: Believe it or not, I haven’t.
DUCKWORTH: Is it just me?
DUBNER: I’m getting a whole different image of what you do in your spare time. I thought you were just reading a bunch of academic journals, maybe seeing family once in a while, but this — all about the zit popping. You know, separately, we got another listener email asking a very similar question about horror movies, but this one was more specific. So, this is from a listener named Stephanie who wrote to say, “Recently, a few friends of mine heard about a horror movie being shown in theaters. It is so gory, it has caused audience members to pass out and vomit. Although I know movies often make these claims to generate buzz, they still repulsed me enough to never want to see the film. My friends, however, upon hearing these claims, immediately decided they had to see it. When they went, someone sitting a few seats away from them did throw up about 15 minutes in, followed by at least one other person later in the movie. So, my question,” Stephanie writes, “is: why are many people drawn to consume media that they’re pretty certain will horrify, disgust, and possibly traumatize them on a deep level?” I was so intrigued by this email that I wrote back to Stephanie to ask her, what was the movie? “The movie is called Terrifier 2,” she says, and then she added, “Please don’t watch it. I feel guilty for putting you onto it, and whatever you do, don’t show it to Angela. She must be protected.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, I want to see Terrifier 1 and 2. What are you talking about?
DUBNER: Of course, you do.
DUCKWORTH: Gory movies, by the way, on the Paul Rozin scale, for whatever reason, did not — quote, unquote — “load with” the horror movies. And what I mean by that is: you know, I told you that he was asking people, like, on a scale from zero to a hundred, like, how much do you like these activities, even though the emotion that they produce is negative? What “loading” means is, like, does that item — in this case, gory movies — does that correlate with the other items on the fear scale.
DUBNER: And you’re saying gory and fear don’t correlate.
DUCKWORTH: Or they don’t correlate enough. They probably correlate, but they don’t hang together as much as you think.
DUBNER: So, I interrupted you. You gave us four categories. There was fear, sadness, burning hot food, and disgust. What else?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And I have four more. Okay. So, there’s pain. So, do you enjoy, say, getting a really hard massage or, you know, the flash of pain when you experience your hand in ice water? There’s the alcohol subscale, and this is in particular beer and scotch.
DUBNER: I think I can get on board with this subscale. An attraction to those represents what?
DUCKWORTH: I think, in this case, the argument is that these are bitter or burning, right? I think scotch has like —.
DUBNER: Unless you think they’re just delicious.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, one way you can think about these things is that, in many cases, babies would not like these things, right? Like, babies don’t like pain. They don’t like fear.
DUBNER: I tried so hard to get my babies to drink scotch, and they were just terrible at it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, so there you go, You figured it out. You didn’t need a random assignment study for that one. Okay, just two more. One is the feeling of physical exhaustion. And then, the last subscale was bitterness. I guess, like, coffee is on this scale. So, maybe when I was talking about whiskey just then, which is on the alcohol subscale, maybe there’s, like, a different feeling. But all of these things, they’re all what Paul Rozin calls “benign masochism.”
DUBNER: I have to say, I’m also really interested to know what our listeners are thinking about this.
DUCKWORTH: Here’s what I would love listeners to tell us. Since nobody, including Paul Rozin, thinks they have a complete explanation for benign masochism, it’s an open question. Why do you think people watch horror movies, eat spicy foods, go on roller coasters, listen to Whitney Houston sing, “I Will Always Love You”? Why do we do these things? I put in the Whitney Houston plug, because it’s sad.
DUBNER: Not just because you don’t like Whitney Houston.
DUCKWORTH: No! I love Whitney Houston, but it’s sad.
DUBNER: I see.
DUCKWORTH: So anyway, I’d love to hear theories of benign masochism.
DUBNER: You can send us a voice memo. Just use your phone — the voice memo app. Make a nice, quiet recording. Send it to us at email@example.com, and maybe we will play your voice memo in a future episode.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Would Aristotle have been a fan of horror movies?
DUBNER: “Such productions, the great philosopher argued, serve to purge viewers of their pent up emotions —.”
DUCKWORTH: Kind of like a pimple being squeezed.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about horror movies and benign masochism.
DUBNER: So, “Glad to Be Sad and Other Examples of Benign Masochism” — the title alone suggests to me that many, many, many people are attracted to these difficult, or weird, or bitter things because it must trigger some positive response. Is that what we’re being told?
DUCKWORTH: I actually asked Paul about this relatively recently. You know, the paper is almost a decade old, and he now believes that the reason why we like to do things that are suffering experiences — the reason why we put ourselves through pain — is because we have this kind of mind over body sense of control when we’re able to withstand it. So, he thinks that it’s, like, this sense of, “I’ve got this. I’m in a state of fear, but I’m making myself do this.” And so, it’s kind of a sense of control.
DUBNER: So, you challenge yourself, and you meet this challenge, and feel better for that.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. You don’t really think that you are in danger when you’re in a horror movie. You don’t really think you’re going to have a heart attack when you’re eating, like, a spicy taco. So, this kind of sense that you are subjecting yourself to something which is aversive, which is negative. But they’re all safe threats. Also, you know, for example, when people go and exercise really hard, the body produces endorphins. That then creates a kind of analgesic, and even euphoric, effect in large amounts. So, you could also argue that, like, there’s another mechanism at play in addition to this sense of control that we get when we engage in these safe threats. There could be these, like, oppositional defenses that the body has against these threats, and then we get to enjoy them. Or even just the, um, cessation. Like, when you get out of a horror movie, you’re, like, “Oh God, thank god that’s over.” And so, the relief — the absence of pain.
DUBNER: Those all make a lot of sense to me, and I appreciate the explanation. But let me just say, I don’t have that desire.
DUBNER: Well, you did use the phrase “suffering experience” to describe all of these. I would say scotch is not a suffering experience.
DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah. You would’ve had a little blip for the scotch and whiskey.
DUBNER: And then bitterness too.
DUCKWORTH: Unsweetened coffee, which is you.
DUBNER: And even hot food.
DUCKWORTH: Do you eat spicy food?
DUBNER: You know, I didn’t used to, and then I read two things that changed my idea about this. One was Robert Sapolsky writing about how many people get so fixed in their appetites and habits of everything — food, music, places they go, the people they see — by the time they’re roughly 35, that they just sort of calcify. And when I read that, I thought, “Oh crap.”
DUCKWORTH: “Not I,” said Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Yeah. And so, I’m a person who, I think, is relatively eager to try out new things, but that sort of gave me even more motivation to do so. Additionally, then I read something about how, as you get older, your taste buds sort of dull. And so, I read that many older people therefore start eating spicy food, even when they didn’t like it before. And I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m going to try.” And in the last like five/10 years, I’ve been eating a lot more of it. And it turns out that I just like it. And I don’t think that has anything to do with taste buds being duller. I think I just was scared of it for some reason. I grew up eating a kind of, you know, meat and potatoes-ish, rural-farmer, bland diet, and spicy things seemed a little bit strange and foreign. And now I eat a lot, and I like it.
DUCKWORTH: I want to double click on this. Believe it or not, Paul Rozin has done a spicy-food study with pigs, and so I’m going to tell you about it. But before I do, what spicy foods do you eat?
DUBNER: So, the primary spicy food I eat is from one restaurant in New York, which is just a really good Sichuan Chinese restaurant called Han Dynasty.
DUCKWORTH: Wait! Is it the same one in Philly?! Oh my gosh. Filthadelphia gave New York Han Dynasty? I go there all the time. It’s very good. Very spicy.
DUBNER: I love, love, love, love it. And every dish at Han Dynasty has a spice scale on it.
DUCKWORTH: Zero to 10.
DUBNER: So what do you get there?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, my parents — well, my mother is from Sichuan Province. That’s, like, famously, you know, like, the province in China with the hottest food. My grandmother used to make food for my father who was not from that part of China. And he would weep. It was so spicy. And my grandma, whatever, she was, like, 75 and, like, cooking this incredibly hot food. Anyway, my point is that, at Han Dynasty, I am not a 10 person. I am more of a three or four person. I recommend the garlic chicken, which I think is a three.
DUBNER: Yeah. The garlic sauce is for wimps.
DUCKWORTH: I know. It’s, like, the equivalent of chicken breast. But I’m venturing up. And just today, I put some — you know that sauce that comes out of the rooster container? The, like, hot sauce that everybody uses on every — what’s it called? It’s, like, a clear bottle and a green top? Anyway, I put it on my food just today.
DUBNER: Congratulations. So, what have we established? Spicy food is not unpopular among the two of us.
DUCKWORTH: That took us a while to establish that. No, no, no. I wanted to tell you about this, um, Paul Rozin study.
DUBNER: Oh, about pigs.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. About pigs. But here’s what Paul Rozin did, and I think it underscores this idea that benign masochism — like so many other things — has to be multiply determined. It can’t just be the pleasure of escaping a safe threat or relief from pain. So, Paul wondered how it is that we end up eating spicy food, because, around the world — even in the province of Sichuan, or the country of Mexico, where there’s this long, proud tradition of adults eating spicy food — babies and very young children don’t, and they don’t like it. No baby likes Sichuan peppercorns.
DUBNER: Or scotch, as we’ve established.
DUCKWORTH: Or scotch, as Stephen has established with his own children. So, what Paul was inspired to do — because I think at the time he was in Mexico, but I’m not a hundred percent sure — and he was living in this rural village. And he noticed that the families would feed their pigs by just throwing out the slop of what was left over. And then, he thought to himself, “Well, how did a piglet learn to eat hot food? Did they like the hot food, or are they just hungry?” So, what he did — and I think he did this with Cheetos. So, he would take a Cheeto, and he would put hot sauce on it. You know, basically Paul made up his own Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. He should get credit for this. In the control condition, he just had the plain one. And then, he would put them next to each other in the yard where the pigs were. He wanted to see which one it preferred — which one it would eat first. And to his surprise, over and over again, these pigs preferred the non-spicy Cheeto. They had lived for a long time on the spicy food, but clearly they didn’t like it.
DUBNER: So, if the pig could talk, the pig would’ve said, “Hey, human handler —.”
DUBNER: “I’ve been eating this spicy slop you’ve been giving me. I’ve never enjoyed it.”
DUCKWORTH: “My eyes are tearing. I’m sweating here. Come on!” So then, Paul says, “Okay, now that’s really interesting. Like babies, pigs don’t like spicy food. How the heck is it that kids do eventually turn into adults who eat spicy food? So then, he started just sitting in on these meals, and he told me the story of this particular family that was, like, three kids in the family. So, there’s little kid, middle kid, older kid. I guess they would have these, like, tortillas. And there wasn’t actually much to put on them, but you added spicy sauce to make it palatable. And then, just as you would go down in age, the pattern was that the child would eat less and less of the spicy food. And what he saw was that the littlest kid would just, like, take their tortilla, and then, like all little kids, look to the older ones and just see what they were doing. But he speculated that when we have a role model — when we have a higher-status person in our midst who does something like eat spicy food, watch a horror movie, go on the internet and look at disgusting pimple pictures, whatever it is — we can learn that that is something that we should like. And this generally gets to a topic that Paul has been obsessed with for his whole life, which is, like, how do we come to like what we like?
DUBNER: To me, the dividing line is: the things that are put in front of us — like the pigs and the kids — and the things that we seek out, like the horror films. I can see how we’re adaptable, so that when things are put in front of us — and when we have no choice set, really — we habituate to things, even though the pigs were probably not very happy about it. But, like, to go to the trouble to make plans to go to a movie that I know I’m going to hate, that would make no sense for me. So, then I realize, well, there are people who plainly really love that enough to go out of their way to do it. When I think about the appeal, what makes me different from that person — or that person different from me — I try to think through how I would have to be to want to do that. So, I could see two different directions. One is that I’m a very secure, settled, unafraid person, and I can watch a really horrible, scary film for what it is and have fun with it — like a tourist visiting a country that I wouldn’t want to live in, but it’s okay cause I know I’ll be going home. So, that’s one. The other is really opposite, which is: I feel the world itself is so chaotic, and scary, and weird, that it’s nice to have that perception upheld to some degree in this film-version — that I can see the darkest elements of human behavior.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting. Like, dystopian movies and T.V. series, which are all the rage right now, because we seem to be living in dystopia itself.
DUBNER: Exactly. And it makes me feel like I’m not wrong for seeing the world that way. And so, it could actually uphold my perception of the world.
DUCKWORTH: I know that people these days are watching all kinds of dystopian miniseries and movies. I hate them. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, life is hard and the world is melting. The last thing I wanna do is sit on the couch and watch disaster unfolding on the screen.”
DUBNER So, let me ask you this. If you avoid that kind of, we’ll call it “horror,” “dystopia” or whatever, do you also avoid news about terrible things?
DUCKWORTH: I think I do.
DUBNER: I would be very curious to know if the fans of horror films also consume a lot of social media and other media, because, you know, media generally veers toward the negative. I believe we’ve talked about that on this show before — the power of bad, and all that. But also, it just sells. And when I look at social media — I think even more in the last year or two than it used to be — it can be remarkably nasty, negative, designed to enrage. And I do wonder if that is scratching a similar sort of itch as the horror film is scratching — especially, keeping in mind what I mentioned earlier, that the demand for horror films has gone up in the last five years. So, I do wonder if that, and social media, and bad real news in the world may be somehow connected.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t know the answer to that. At least I haven’t seen any study that I thought really teased these things apart well. Because anything correlational like that, you’re like, “Yeah, but could it be this? Could it be that? Like, what else could be going on?”
DUBNER Now, I’ve only glanced at this Paul Rozin et al. paper, and I did see there was a quick reference to Aristotle’s notion of catharsis. And I see here that Aristotle did put forth a theory of horror as catharsis. So, when talking about Greek tragic plays, which are full of very, very dark things — betrayals, and stabbings, and the murder of family members and others — so, this piece is saying that, “Such productions, the great philosopher argued, serve to purge viewers of their pent up emotions —.” Yeah. “— in a safely walled-off fictional world, thus preparing them to deal with the anxieties of real life.” Do you buy that?
DUCKWORTH: You know, the idea of catharsis, which may have started as early as Aristotle, but was a central part of Freudian psycho-analysis, has pretty much been debunked. So, even though it’s intuitive that we should, like, release our emotions — like, “Let me get the anger out. Let me get it out of my system.” It turns out that the modern science of emotion regulation and psychotherapy suggests that in most cases we just kindle, and it’s worse to vent — to kind of, like, be cathartic. And it’s much better to take some psychological distance — some space between you and the emotion. So, it’s a charming concept — like, “get it all out” — but it turns out not to be true.
DUBNER: So, let’s go back to Skyo’s original question — to the last part of Skyo’s question, “What is the psychology behind fear seeking when there exists many other ways to experience stimulation?” And let me add one last question on that. I think I understand why we experience fear. We want to be scared of things that may endanger us. But why, when there is no real danger, why would we want to seek out the same emotion, like fear, in a horror movie? How does that make sense to you?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I said that, on behalf of Paul, there’s this idea of experiencing fear and other negative emotions, but knowing that it’s imaginary or an unreal threat. So, there’s this feeling of mind over matter, this feeling of control. That’s one thing that we talked about. We also talked about, you know, maybe there’s the relief? After the fear passes, you get the pleasure of not having the fear anymore, right — The second reason. Third is, like, maybe there’s some, like, social peer and modeling influences. Like, we watch other people, and they, you know, go on roller coasters and watch horror movies, and that encourages us to do it as well. But there is just one additional thing that I’m now thinking about because you said “catharsis” and that brought up Freud. So, I spent some time with George Vaillant — the Harvard psychiatrist who was, as most psychiatrists of his generation were — trained as a Freudian. And he pointed out to me Freud’s idea of defenses, these ego defenses — things that we do to help us through life, and especially the pain of having what Freud thought were these, like, deep, unconscious conflicts. So, one of the defenses is called “anticipation.” And in anticipation, you pretend in your mind that something truly horrible has happened. Like, you play out the worst-case scenario. And I’m not even going to ask you to utter it in this conversation, Stephen, but you can just imagine, like, what would be your worst fear come to pass. For me, it absolutely has to do with the loss of loved ones, but I can only use abstract language, because I can’t even bring myself to say it. When you play that out, when you imagine it happening, you’re kind of habituating to it. You’re, like, kind of coming to tolerate it. And so, if and when that does happen — or some version of that happens — you will be prepared. So, that’s another layer of this. We’re kind of preparing ourselves. You know, we’re practicing what it would be like and what we should do.
DUBNER: So, Angela, let me ask you one last question. Has this conversation made you more or less likely to watch a horror film in the near future, and why?
DUCKWORTH: It has not changed my aversion to horror movies.
DUBNER: Has this conversation made you more or less likely, or neither, to engage in some form of benign masochism in the near future?
DUCKWORTH: This conversation has made me want to order hotter food from Han Dynasty in the very short-term future, possibly tonight.
DUBNER: What are the odds that you’re going to see Terrifier 2 and vomit?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that? I’ll give in at least 20 percent. Maybe while I’m watching Terrifier 2, I’ll have some spicy Don Don noodles.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen reads Angela the media-review website Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the top 10 scariest movies of all time. He actually skipped number nine — the 2012 movie Sinister, directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Ethan Hawke. As with the other modern horror movies, Angela has not seen this film.
Later, Angela forgets the terminology that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck originally used to describe an idea that she ultimately called “growth mindset.” The phrase Angela was looking for is “an incremental theory of intelligence.” This is the opposite of a “fixed mindset,” which Dweck originally called an “entity theory of intelligence.”
Also, Angela has difficulty differentiating Paul Rozin’s alcohol subscale from the bitterness subscale. Rozin and his colleagues write that the flavor of alcoholic beverages isn’t bitter, per se, but rather, quote, “innately negative.” Stephen would obviously disagree.
Next, Angela cannot remember the name of the hot sauce that she’s been experimenting with. She was thinking of Sriracha, a condiment named after the town of Si Racha in Thailand where it was first created by home cook Thanom Chakkapak. It was later introduced to the United States in the 1980s by Vietnamese immigrant David Tran who began selling his own version of the sauce through his company Huy Fong Foods.
Finally, Angela describes University of Pennsylvania psychologist and “King of Disgust” Paul Rozin’s research on whether pigs enjoy spicy food. The experiment took place in the 1970s in Oaxaca and involved both pigs and dogs. Rozin did not — as Angela recalled — use Cheetos. Instead, he offered the animals a plain cheese cracker and one laced with hot sauce. Rozin said that the animals would eat both snacks, but always chose the mild cracker first.
That’s it for the fact-check.
* * *
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on our recent episode about automation. Here’s what you said:
Anwar OSBORNE: Hey, what’s up, guys? My name is Anwar, and I am an ER doctor in one of the busiest trauma centers on the East Coast, here in Atlanta. I would love to see a lot more automation in my life. Particularly with these two things, one being more autonomous driving. I think if people really had an idea of the amount of carnage and dead bodies that I’d seen over my career, they would probably be more sensitive to letting the cars drive themselves on the highways. Humans are awful drivers. The number two thing is radiology reads. You guys kind of mentioned it. Where I work — and like a lot of other places — have off-hours reads, meaning, like, the films were done, like, not between business hours of 9 to 5. Those reads are a lot of times completed by a trainee. I think that that is, like, two standards of care. So, I want to see more automation of radiology scans — at least in the off hours. Thanks, guys. Love the show.
Anonymous: Hi, NSQ team. Today, I listened to your show about algorithms. I see a lot of uses for them. But one of the hardest things about those algorithms comes when they try to tell you not only who you are, but who you are compatible with. And I’m thinking a lot about online dating sites. I had an experience where I was told that I was highly compatible with this person, and as I read his profile, it became clear he was a white supremacist. I was really upset. I took a break after that, because it was just too painful. So, you know, algorithms are great, but they need to be used wisely.
Alison HERGET: Hey Steven and Angela. This is Alison from Narberth, Pennsylvania. As a former admission officer who now works in the ed-tech space, I think a lot about automation. The idea of devising an algorithm to read applications or letters of recommendation may be intriguing to bleary-eyed admission officers, who often work late nights and weekends reading applications. However, with the sticker price of highly-selective colleges, I can’t imagine the parent of a student being satisfied knowing their kid’s application was even partially read by a robot. However, it would be great if we could train a robot to handle the screaming phone calls we used to get what a student was denied.
That was, respectively: Anwar Osborne, a listener who would like to remain anonymous, and Alison Herget. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their stories. And remember, we’d still love to hear your thoughts on benign masochism. Why do you think people enjoy controlled suffering? Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next on No Stupid Questions: How do you become a better conversationalist?
DUCKWORTH: I’m just going to mimic Barack Obama.
DUBNER: You sound a lot like Barack Obama, now that I think about it.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. 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 follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. I’m looking at images of Terrifer 2.
DUBNER: I have no desire to look. I’m not even going to listen to any words you say. I’m going to hang up now.
- Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
- Sigmund Freud, neurologist and father of psychoanalysis.
- Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University.
- George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Mass General Research Institute.
- “The 10 Scariest Horror Movies Ever,” by RT Staff (Rotten Tomatoes, 2022).
- “Box Office History for Horror,” (The Numbers, 2022).
- “Around the World, Adolescence Is a Time of Heightened Sensation Seeking and Immature Self-Regulation,” by Laurence Steinberg, Grace Icenogle, Elizabeth P. Shulman, Kaitlyn Breiner, Jason Chein, Dario Bacchini, Lei Chang, Nandita Chaudhary, Laura Di Giunta, et al. (Developmental Science, 2018).
- “Why Taste Buds Dull As We Age,” by Natalie Jacewicz (The Salt, 2017).
- Horror Literature Through History, edited by Matt Cardin (2017).
- “Why We Love the Pain of Spicy Food,” by John McQuaid (The Wall Street Journal, 2014).
- “Glad to Be Sad, and Other Examples of Benign Masochism,” by Paul Rozin, Lily Guillot, Katrina Fincher, Alexander Rozin, and Eli Tsukayama (Judgment and Decision Making, 2013).
- “The Ignorant and the Furious: Video and Catharsis,” by the Association for Psychological Science (2010).
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck (2006).
- “Adaptive Mental Mechanisms: Their Role in a Positive Psychology,” by George E. Vaillant (American Psychologist, 2000).