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Episode Transcript

Hi NSQers, Stephen is away this week, so we’re replaying two of our favorite questions from the past. We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode for you. In the meantime, enjoy these gems from the NSQ archive.

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DUBNER: What you’re saying is chilling to me. But it’s also deeply admirable. 

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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 we buy exercise equipment that we’ll never use and health food we’ll never eat? 

DUCKWORTH: Who am I? I’m like Beyoncé. What would Beyoncé do? She would drink the sparkling water. 

Also: is Stephen Dubner a hoarder? 

DUCKWORTH: Why can’t you just call 1-800-Got-Junk? 

DUBNER: Even Got Junk doesn’t want my junk.

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Stephen DUBNER: So, Angela, I have a habit, and I suspect many other people do as well, of acquiring, often by purchase, what I’ve come to think of as aspirational objects, which is to say, I will buy stuff that I think I want, or maybe more accurately, that I would like to want, but which in fact, I’ll never actually use. So, one tiny example: at home we probably have 600 boxes of quinoa in our cupboard. As far as I know, we’ve never actually eaten quinoa at home. 

Angela DUCKWORTH: High-protein grain. 

DUBNER: Well, it’s not actually a grain, per se. It’s close to a grain. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh. It’s a legume? 

DUBNER: No. It’s neither. It’s a seed, I believe. But that’s beside the point. Also, similarly, I have over my lifetime bought hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books that I’ve never read, or at least not more than a few pages of. I know many people who have bought closets and basements full of exercise equipment, and golf equipment, and nutritional supplements, and hair oils. So, my question is: are such acquisitions nothing but a waste of time and energy, or is there an upside in such aspirational thinking, even if the thought rarely translates into deed? 

DUCKWORTH: So, aspirational consumerism. I mean, that’s a bit of an irrational behavior. And especially the repeated part, right? I can understand buying the first bag of quinoa, not using it, and then, whatever, money down the drain. But the second bag of quinoa, and even the third, now, that’s, that’s interesting.

DUBNER: And I should say, just to draw the fuller picture, I do like to keep things tidy. I will go through, our cupboards at home and— 

DUCKWORTH: You’ll purge them. You’ll Marie Kondo

DUBNER: Yeah, I’ll purge. So, every, let’s say six months, I’ll throw away or donate eight boxes of quinoa, because there are literally 11. But then, over the next few weeks—

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, of course, when you buy that next box of quinoa, you don’t think, “Let me buy another box of quinoa that I can, six months from now, donate.” You’re actually thinking, at that moment, that you’re going to make the quinoa, right? 

DUBNER: Oh yeah. Because, for every box of quinoa that I’ve bought, there have been approximately one trillion articles written about the benefits of quinoa. And I’ve read them all. 

DUCKWORTH: By the way, it’s quite good. 

DUBNER: It’s okay. 

DUCKWORTH: How do you know? You haven’t made your quinoa. 

DUBNER: I’ve eaten it out. But, when you’re cooking at home, it’s more of an investment. When you’re out, you say, “Oh, quinoa, sure.” All I have to do is say the word and it’s going to be brought to me. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, herein I think maybe is the solution to this, at least a clue. So, what is it that quinoa and books and exercise equipment have in common? Effort. So, I think the difference between quinoa on the menu and quinoa in your cupboard is— And by the way, Stephen, you just have to boil it. It’s not that much effort. 

DUBNER: I know it’s not a big investment, but it’s a big investment for the payoff. 

DUCKWORTH: For the quinoa payoff, which is small in your view. 

DUBNER: But the riddle to me is: why is this a repeated behavior? And what does that say about either me as an example of the human species, or about the human species, which is: we have this kind of tendency? So, what this phenomenon reminds me of a little bit, maybe even a lot, is, one of my favorite books when I was a kid was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Did you ever read that? 

DUCKWORTH: Loved it. Can’t tell you anything about it, but I remember reading it. And having no memory of what was the plot, or who were the characters, why don’t you tell me what the connection is to quinoa?

DUBNER: So, it’s about a family, the Nolan family in Brooklyn, and basically how they struggle to get by. They’re very poor. And it’s mostly the mother, who we hear about as Mama, and then the two kids, Francie, the daughter, and Neeley, the son. Every day, or maybe multiple times a day, Mama would give the kids a cup of coffee. And neither of them really liked coffee. But they would hang onto it, and they would swirl it around. They’d put their hands on it to keep warm. And then, they would dump it down the drain. 

And one day, Mama’s sister, she had these two sisters who were a little bit better off than she was, they saw that their sister would let these kids waste coffee all the time when they had no money and said, “That is ridiculous. That is criminal.” And what the mother explained was that, “You know what? When you have so little in the world, just to get the feeling, once a day, of having more than you need and being able to get rid of it is a taste of what luxury must feel like.” And I think that that’s really important to them. 

And I was so struck by that because this felt like the Brooklyn of my parents. It felt like the poverty of my own family, because we didn’t waste anything. And so, I wonder if maybe my quinoa acquisition is a signal to myself that, you know what? I’m never going to eat that quinoa. But I like the notion that I can afford now to buy it, and put it in the cupboard, and then, six months later, get rid of it. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, do it all over again. Okay. So, let me ask you: is the aspiration here that you would like to be the sort of person who actually cooks the quinoa, and eats really healthy, and is on the cutting edge of the most nutritious foods? Or, I think what I’m hearing is that you would aspire to be the sort of person who has enough money in the bank that they could willy-nilly buy, and then give away, and then buy, and then give away boxes of a very bougie, expensive grain. Which of those two aspirations rings true for you? 

DUBNER: I think both. And I think you’ve identified them quite nicely and specifically. But I brought this question to you, because I really want to get your take on what this kind of behavior says about our own, I guess, identity. Obviously, there’s a long literature on conspicuous consumption. But what I’m talking about is actually inconspicuous consumption. These are the things that we’re buying for private. 

DUCKWORTH: I love the idea that a scientist named James March came up with, which is to say, whenever anyone does something, especially when they do it repeatedly, like buy quinoa, buy books, etc., there’s two explanations. One is a rational explanation in that person’s mind, the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs. Now, that explanation for the quinoa buying is that maybe you think that it’s just a little bit of a self-control trick, that if you buy 11 boxes of quinoa, at least you might eat one of them. And so, that’s the kind of neoclassical economic model of anything. And I think you could make some argument for that playing out. 

But I think his other model for understanding any behavior is maybe more relevant. So, James March said, sometimes we’re not making cost-benefit decisions at all. Instead, we ask three very different questions. And those questions are: what situation is this? Who am I? And what does someone like me do in a situation like this? This is a completely different calculus. This is the calculus of identity. 

And I think that that explanation for why you might be repeatedly buying books you don’t read or quinoa that you don’t cook — he calls this identity thinking the logic of appropriateness. Is this an appropriate thing to do given who I am and the situation? So, here’s an example. I felt like this a lot when I was a mom of younger kids. Now, I’m a mom of older teenagers. But, there would be times that I had to use a lot of self-control to manage my emotions. Whatever. They were fighting with each other, spilling things all over. 

DUBNER: They were children, and that’s kind of what children do though.

DUCKWORTH: It was so annoying, though, right? But anyway, I do think that rather than thinking to myself — at any level, this could be all below the waterline of consciousness — what are the benefits of losing my temper? What are the costs? Which is the way an economist might imagine. I think it was more like: what situation is this? They’re children, after all. Who am I? I’m a mother. What does a mother do in a situation like this? 

DUBNER: She blows up at her children. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. No. So, I think March is right that in many cases — it is a heuristic. It is a shortcut. And I think oftentimes, by the way, advertisers take advantage of this. Who am I? I’m like Beyoncé. What would Beyoncé do? She would drink the sparkling water. So, I do think this aspirational consumerism is very bound up with identity. And, I think it happens very quick, and it doesn’t require a lot of deliberation. 

Maybe what’s at play here is not only the logic of appropriateness and Stephen’s aspirational identity, but also optimism. You hold onto some hope that tomorrow won’t be like today, and you’ll change. I don’t think you’re alone there. And I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing, because if you just kind of settled with, “Look, this is the way I am. I’m a non-quinoa person. I’m a non-reading person. I don’t ride my exercise bike,” then you would never actually change in those positive directions. 

DUBNER: That’s generous of you to dismiss my quinoa problem with optimism, which is a positive trait. But I will say this. I could see there being the downside of, “Oh, I keep thinking I will change, and I don’t.” And that you could therefore beat yourself up more because of your frustration with your own ability to change a habit or to start a new habit. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, there is a word for that, too, Stephen. It’s sometimes called “false-hope syndrome.” And it comes from Janet Polivy, who’s a scientist who has spent most of her career studying obesity and dieting. And what often happens when people embark on an ambitious health kick is that at the beginning they set these aspirational goals that are wonderful, but really unrealistic. 

And then quickly reality comes crashing down. And then, as you point out, that can be almost worse, and maybe even in some cases absolutely worse, than having never tried in the first place. You’ve got yo-yo dieting, and changes to your metabolism, but also you have your own motivation where you feel like, “Oh, gosh, I’m never going to be successful.” That seems like a little bit beyond what’s going on with your quinoa consumption. But, you tell me. Are you disappointed with yourself? 

DUBNER: I mean, honestly, I don’t care at all. I mostly feel it when I open the cupboard to make dinner. And I see these boxes. And I just think, “Well, that’s just stupid. It’s just a waste of time and money. And I should stop.”

DUCKWORTH: All right. I have another suggestion for you that has nothing to do with identity and psychoanalysis. 

DUBNER: Just buy mac and cheese, and eat it, and get over it. 

DUCKWORTH: No, no, no, no, no, no. Because you’re going to have two cupboards. One for all your quinoa, and another for all the mac and cheese that you’re also not eating. 

DUBNER: That does sound like a bad spy novel, The Quinoa Cupboard.

DUCKWORTH: But here’s my suggestion. Why don’t you make a plan to boil some quinoa this very night, Stephen? I do think that closing the gap between the person that we would like to be and the person that we are— I don’t think the solution is not buying quinoa. But I do think figuring out how to get closer to that aspiration— There’s a good impulse in human beings to want to close that gap. 

DUBNER: Well, Angela, you’ve tolerated my discussion of quinoa, and books, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. What about you? Do you have aspirational consumption? 

DUCKWORTH: The only thing I can think of is that I bought a multivitamin. 

DUBNER: One pill or a whole bottle of them? 

DUCKWORTH: Sorry, it came in a bottle. 

DUBNER: You bought a loosie.

DUCKWORTH: And I put it first of all in the drawer that we have all the medicine in. And I didn’t take it. And then I thought, “I’m a behavioral scientist. I have to make the cue more salient.” So I put it on the counter. 

DUBNER: Okay. 

DUCKWORTH: And then I still didn’t take it. I don’t even know if I took one of them. 

DUBNER: Why did you buy it? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s probably a good thing to take a multivitamin. I mean, even though the research on vitamins is mixed and scant, I don’t think there’s much evidence that it’s bad for you, especially now with the coronavirus. Somebody recommended it. Was it you? 

DUBNER: I don’t think it was me. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it was somebody that I trusted enough to buy the vitamin. 

DUBNER: Well, that wouldn’t be me then. Plainly. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, maybe not. And whoever it was, they didn’t tell me how to take it. 

DUBNER: Now, when you say, “They didn’t tell me how to take it,” you do understand the process of opening your mouth, and putting something in it, getting some water?

DUCKWORTH: Hey. You jest, but I think that’s partly the problem. I know that’s not like running a marathon, but there’s a little effort there. The water, the cup. And I don’t really like swallowing big-ass pills. You get that feeling in your throat where you feel like it’s still there, but you know it’s not there. And then you drink more water, you still feel like it’s there. Okay so, done the wrong way, the vitamin swallowing could be kind of a bummer for an hour. 

DUBNER: So, to this day, you still have an unopened bottle of multivitamins in your home? 

DUCKWORTH: Hey, it’s only been there for a few weeks. But yes, I have an aspirational bottle. But, I will tell you this, Stephen. I think this is an opportunity for me to learn how to close the gap. 

DUBNER: I agree. I think that this public embarrassment may help a little bit. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, this is commitment. 

DUBNER: And I think we’ve also constructed a really nice S.A.T.-style riddle, which is, “As quinoa is to Stephen Dubner, the multivitamin is to Angela Duckworth.” 

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, question for you. 

DUBNER: Okay. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to know about your quinoa cabinet. And really why I’m asking is: when you said that you keep buying box after box of quinoa and never cook any of it, I had to ask myself, is Stephen a hoarder? 

DUBNER: Am I a hoarder? So, I would say that I don’t believe I am now or have ever been what is called a severe hoarder, where you accumulate so many books, or newspapers, or cuckoo clocks— 

DUCKWORTH: That you can’t make it to the front door. 

DUBNER: Right. That you have to have a goat path through your possessions. But I am certainly familiar with severe hoarding. I mean, I’ve encountered it several times in my life. Mostly in reporting, but some in personal life. And I did grow up in a home where we saved anything that could possibly be reused. But I think that had a lot more to do with being low-income than with the factors that tend to drive severe hoarding. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think this connection where you’re saying, “Oh, that was different, because we didn’t have any money so, of course, we had to hold onto everything,” and then hoarding beyond any kind of level of reasonable thriftiness, I think they are connected. 

The phenomenon of hoarding, which isn’t terribly well-understood, is thought to be an intuition or an impulse gone awry, and it’s like eating fatty, salty, and sweet things. We evolved to seek out really high-calorie things with sodium, etc., that worked well for many generations, until we had so much to eat that that same instinct is serving us wrong. And maybe hoarding is the same way. That we have an intuition to hold on to everything, which is good, until you get to the 20th century. 

DUBNER: So, that makes some sense to me. But I don’t think that’s really how actual severe hoarding happens. From what I’ve read, it’s more usually driven by some kind of traumatic life event where you have come to believe that things have a value beyond what other people would think would be a realistic value, or that things are deeply irreplaceable, or that things are so essential that you cannot go on another day unless you have collected all six of your local newspapers and added them to the pile. So, I would distinguish between what you’re describing as a kind of evolutionary need to conserve and reuse and what seems to be a pathology to keep things well beyond the volume at which they’re useful. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, many pathologies, Stephen, are normal processes taken to their extreme. And so we could both be right. 

DUBNER: We could both be right. And then there’s the question of whether hoarding only means physical things. Do you consider digital hoarding to be legit?

DUCKWORTH: Some researchers actually use the phrase “digital hoarding.” And that’s basically accumulating files, and photos, and so forth that you don’t want to part with. And just like regular hoarding, or analog hoarding, I guess, definitionally it’s dysfunctional. In other words, it’s getting in the way. But this instinct we have, to hold onto things, to not let go —  we’re all on a continuum, and some of us like to do that more than others. And then, at the extreme, you have a hoarder. 

I think you’re right also, though, to highlight that there is an element of obsessive compulsiveness to hoarding. And from what I know, and I’m not clinically trained, as you know, as a psychologist — I merely do research — but my understanding of OCD is that the O part, the obsession part, is a thought. And then the compulsion part is a behavior. And very often the thought is some distressing thought, like, “Oh, no. If I throw this away, bad things are going to happen.” And then the disordered behavior is that you shove everything in the closet. So, I think there is a very uncomfortable, obsessive thought that gets discharged or relieved a little bit when you engage in this behavior. And anyway, I don’t want to say that hoarding is not pathological, because it obviously is. 

DUBNER: It’s also, we should say, dangerous, in that something like 25 percent of all fire deaths involve hoarding. 

DUCKWORTH: What?! That’s terrible. 

DUBNER: I’ve seen one study that found that hoarding is responsible for a quarter of all what they call “avoidable fire deaths.” Now, we should say, fire deaths have fallen so, so, so, so much. 

DUCKWORTH: Right, we’re talking about small numbers. But still, proportionally. 

DUBNER: Yeah. It makes sense. Because if you have a house full of newspapers, books, whatever, they’re pretty flammable, and they make it hard to get out, and they make it hard for other people to get in to rescue you. 

DUCKWORTH: During the pandemic, I’ve tried to get in more than 100 steps a day. So, I take a walk around the neighborhood, and I have to say, there is this one house. I look up to the fourth floor, and you can’t see much, except for there’s a fan in the window, and then there’s all these obstructions, and then there’s this tiny sliver of light, which I think is the light that’s on in the room. And it only dawned on me gradually that this must be where a hoarder lives. And now, I’m worried that they’re going to have a fire. 

DUBNER: And what’s your emotional response when you see that? Do you think, “Oh my God, thank goodness it’s not me?” Do you think that looks like a nice way to live?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m not an aspirational hoarder. I’m actually, if anything, the opposite. I have no sentimental bones in my body. I don’t hold onto photographs. 

DUBNER: Can we just say for every pathology, is there not an equally interesting pathology in the opposite direction? 

DUCKWORTH: Right. We can overeat. We can under-eat. We can worry too much. We can worry too little. 

DUBNER: You can Marie Kondo every second life to the point where you throw away your parking receipt even before you have cashed it in. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I am sure that there are some people out there who have taken Marie Kondo to an unhealthy extreme and now have nothing to wear. 

DUBNER: Thrown out their spouse, their children. 

DUCKWORTH: They didn’t spark joy. 

DUBNER: Is there no circumstance that you can envision in your future where you will wish that you had possession of something that you’ve jettisoned? 

DUCKWORTH: I had a call from my mom when she was moving from her home to a senior facility. And she said, “In the basement are all of your journals from when you were growing up, your diploma from college. And one or two sentimental stuffed animals. What do you want me to do with them?” And I said— 

DUBNER: Burn ’em, mom. Burn ’em. 

DUCKWORTH: Yep, that’s exactly what I said. 

DUBNER: You’re kidding. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t have them. I was like, “You know what? I’m too busy. Don’t worry about it.” 

DUBNER: So I have to say, what you’re saying is chilling to me. But it’s also deeply admirable. I envy it. So, I think I would like to revise my earlier answer and say that, yes, I think I do hoard, especially when I hear you describe how you don’t hang on to anything. I don’t think of it as hoarding so much as being an aggressive self-monitorer of all kinds of supplies. 

DUCKWORTH: Like food or—? 

DUBNER: You name it. Yeah, food. So I typically have in my home enough food. If 100 people came over right now unannounced, I could feed them. 

DUCKWORTH: Really? 

DUBNER: Yeah. But I think this stems, again, to my roots, because I grew up in the country where you kept a lot of food stocked for all kinds of reasons — in case the garden didn’t work out well, or in case the chickens got killed by a coyote, or if there was a storm and you couldn’t get to the grocery store for a while. 

DUCKWORTH: You always had canned vegetables in the cellar. 

DUBNER: Oh, thousands. I’m sure if you went back to that house now, 30 years later, you would still find the pickles and green beans. So, I’m sure part of it is driven by that, even though my circumstances are different now. So, I claim responsibility for that. 

DUCKWORTH: Look, I’ve been to your apartment. And I don’t think you’re a hoarder, unless you have another apartment where you’re keeping lots of stuff. 

DUCKWORTH: I do have another apartment where I keep lots of stuff, which is called my office. So my office, it’s a one-bedroom apartment. And most people wouldn’t think that just a writer, a guy like me, would need a whole other apartment. But in fact, I do. And it is full of mostly work product — things from my working life, from the last many, many, many years. I probably have 40, 50, 60 crates of notes and research material from all the things I wrote in the first maybe 15 or 20 years that I worked as a writer and journalist. 

DUCKWORTH: You have all your notes? You’re not parting with those anytime soon? 

DUBNER: It’s been a struggle for me. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve come up with many plans and strategies, none of which I’ve carried out. The only progress I’ve made is this: in the last maybe eight or 10 years, I’ve stopped saving anything. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so you’re not accumulating more stuff. You just can’t get rid of the old stuff. 

DUBNER: Correct. 

DUCKWORTH: And why? Why can’t you just call 1-800-GOT-JUNK? 

DUBNER: Even GOT JUNK doesn’t want my junk. 

DUCKWORTH: GOT JUNK will take it. I don’t know where they put it. I don’t want to think about where they put it. 

DUBNER: Well, I don’t need to call GOT JUNK for paper. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh that’s true. You could recycle that. Why don’t you do that? 

DUBNER: I don’t know. I think for the same reason I’m having a hard time answering your question today of whether I’m a hoarder or not. But I do feel — okay, so I’m totally changing my answer now. If I believed, at the beginning this conversation, that a hoarder was someone who had an over-exaggerated, or maybe unhealthy, need to hang on to things, even if they were of no use or little use — and I thought that was other people. I thought that was the Collyer brothers, who kept their house so full of newspapers that I think a floor collapsed or something. 

I think I could have been a Collyer cousin, maybe, because I do have these crates, and crates, and crates that I feel have some value, even if just nostalgic. But, yeah, I can’t pull the trigger. I can’t get rid of them. I did take these 40 or 50 crates of work product, and I did start to triage, and I did get rid of one or two categories entirely that I felt like I could let go of. But it was interesting because, when I was getting rid of them, I still had some regrets. And I’ll tell you what they were. They were the contracts for all the foreign editions of Freakonomics that we signed, when Freakonomics first came out.

DUCKWORTH: Like the Bulgaria contract?

DUBNER: Exactly. We had contracts from, I don’t know, 60, 80 countries. And first of all, when they came in, I thought it was an awesome document just to have. And then when I had many of them, they felt even more awesome in the aggregate. But at a certain point, I decided that I didn’t need the Bulgarian contract. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t think you do, Stephen. 

DUBNER: I got rid of them. And it did feel good. And so I do envy your ability to purge like that. On the other hand, now that I’m talking about it, I’d love to be able to go pull out that Bulgarian contract. 

DUCKWORTH: I haven’t cured you. I think that’s the bottom line. 

DUBNER: I don’t know if there’s a good answer to this question. Well your question was: am I a hoarder? My answers were no, maybe, and yes. So, I guess there are many good answers, but I don’t know if there’s a good answer advice-wise. So, let’s say you’re talking to not me, someone who’s a little bit like me, who’s on the border of hoarding versus not hoarding. You are plainly the purger. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m a purger. 

DUBNER: Can you walk someone through the purging process, who may not have as easy a time of it as you?

DUCKWORTH: Well, for me, when you ask that question: can you imagine a day where you’re going to really regret not having this? I can imagine a day where I was like, “’Oh, I wonder what my fourth grade diary said,’ anyway, that would be fun for me to go read.” I can envision that. But when I play out that movie in my head, I’m not weeping. I’m not distraught. I’m just like, “Yeah. That would be good.”

DUBNER: Are you laughing at the suckers who’ve hung on to all that stuff? 

DUCKWORTH: No. No judgment. I’m okay with other people being sentimental. I guess here’s my prescriptive recommendation. Wherever you fall on this continuum from a purger to a hoarder, I think you should ask yourself: how do I feel about that? And I don’t know how real hoarders would answer that. Maybe they would say, “I’m fine.” 

But I think that for a lot of people who have, for example, obsessive compulsive disorder, they do have a really high level of distress. They don’t like having O.C.D. And I’m guessing that there are people who are hoarders who don’t want to be hoarders. Maybe the same is true of purgers, by the way. But I think as long as you can say, “I like where I am on the continuum”— and maybe let me also say this: as long as your roommate, family, and neighbor are okay with where you are on the continuum, then, the house is your house after all. So, do what you will. 

DUBNER: This reminds me of a wise thing you said recently, I think quoting someone else, maybe even Harry Frankfurt, saying you have to distinguish between what you want and what you want to want. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s Harry Frankfurt. He said that was the definition of free will. 

DUBNER: And so, what I want is to save all these things. But what I want to want is to not save all these things. 

DUCKWORTH: Then, I believe that Frankfurt would say you have a problem, and— 

DUBNER: I think we knew that. Thanks, Harry Frankfurt. That’s a big help. 

DUCKWORTH: I have an idea for you. Okay. Last week, I got a notice in the mail. Apparently some storage facility has been billing my credit card for what appears to be 10 boxes of documents that I can only infer are some kind of files or surveys that I must have collected when I was in graduate school. 

DUBNER: So, you’re saying you have a storage facility I can use to keep hoarding my stuff? Is that where we’re going with this? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, what I was going to say, Stephen, is what you’re going to do is, you’re going to on my behalf, call them and just say, “Whatever the hell it is, I don’t care. You can do with it what you like, but I’m not paying this bill anymore.” I think that would be, for you, very difficult to do. But maybe you can do it for me. 

DUBNER: Okay. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, that’s a little baby step. 

DUBNER: All right, so I love how you’ve turned this. You’re getting me, who’s got a real problem, to solve your problem, which is not very large. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m getting you to do my clerical work, but I think there’s a little bit of upside there for you too. 

Angela notes that there is an element of obsessive-compulsiveness to hoarding. Hoarding was actually classified under obsessive-compulsive disorder in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the D.S.M. IV. The D.S.M. V, however, released in 2013, classifies hoarding as an entirely separate disorder, although individuals with hoarding disorder may receive a comorbid diagnosis of O.C.D. 

Later, Stephen references the infamous Collyer brothers, whom he says kept their house so filled with newspapers that a floor collapsed. The truth of the matter is actually even more disturbing. Langley and Homer Collyer were reclusive brothers who lived in a Harlem brownstone that contained not just newspapers, but 120 tons of junk — including 14 grand pianos, parts of a model-T Ford, and more than 3,000 books. In 1947, Langley died in an avalanche of material after tripping one of his many booby traps that he had created in a paranoid state. Homer, who was paralyzed, starved to death soon after. New York City firefighters still refer to emergency hoarding situations as, “Collyers.”

Finally, Angela suggests that 1-800-GOT-JUNK might be the solution to Stephen’s problems. But she says that she doesn’t know where the company puts the trash that they collect, and she doesn’t want to think about where it might end up — presumably, talking about landfills. 1-800-GOT-JUNK is a Canadian disposal company operating in the United States, Canada, and Australia. A 2009 environmental audit of GOT JUNK revealed that the company either recycled or donated over 60 percent of what it collected. They also offer free pickup and delivery of any materials for charity. However, the company’s website notes that participants cannot donate certain objects, including: swords, bullets, hazardous chemicals, and old batteries. The franchise regularly participates in the popular A&E television series Hoarders.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente.Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: It’s a real kill-two-birds-with-one-stone idea. 

DUCKWORTH: Or feed-two-birds-with-one-scone idea.

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Sources

  • Marie Kondo bestselling author, star of the Netflix show “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” and founder of KonMari Media, Inc.
  • James March, former professor of business and education at Stanford University.
  • Janet Polivy, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.
  • Harry G. Frankfurt, professor of philosophy at Princeton University.

Resources

Extras

1-800-GOT-JUNK

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