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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: It sounds lewd.

DUBNER: It sounds like a delicious cocktail.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: What’s wrong with cheating on tests?

DUBNER: The victims are the law-abiding suckers.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, we have a question from a listener. His name is Aidan.


DUBNER Aidan writes to say, “I’m a 20-year-old sophomore in college, and I have been cheating since middle school. Through the years,” Aidan writes, “I have created close to 100 new ways of cheating, mostly using the tech realm. I know I am more than capable of not cheating, but it is extremely difficult to motivate doing it.” I guess what that means is Aidan has a hard time being motivated to not cheat, right?

DUCKWORTH: Right, to actually, like, do the work, I guess. 

DUBNER: I guess so, or maybe it’s just super fun. Anyway, Aidan goes on to say, “Even in my favorite classes, I can’t help myself but cheat on virtually every assignment. Ironically, I have spent far longer learning how to cheat than the time it takes to actually do the assignment.”

DUCKWORTH: Also, ironically, this is a remarkably honest email from someone about their lifelong cheating.

DUBNER: Unless it’s fictional, but, yeah, let’s assume it is. Finally, Aidan ends with a couple questions, “Why do I feel motivation to cheat, and is cheating really all that bad?” Okay. Let’s start with No. 1. Why does someone like Aidan, or anyone, feel the motivation to cheat?

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I think it’s, in a way, a subcategory of a self-control dilemma. When you cheat, you get a little reward, immediately — which is, you get a better grade or say, let’s also expand this to lying. You know, why do we want to tell a lie? Usually, because we’ll be better off, at least in the short run. I think of it as a self-control dilemma, because in the long run I would argue you’re worse off, and certainly other people are worse off. So, you can tell I’m really anti-cheating here, but I think the motivation is the same reason we have the motivation to do other impulsive things, which is: “me now” thinks it’s a great idea, because “me now” benefits.

DUBNER: You know, Aidan has a “P.S.” to the email, which I’d like to read too. “About a year or two ago, I showed my dad, who is a college professor, the possibility of A.I., artificial intelligence, being used to write essays for students. I had him give me some of his previous essay prompts, and I put them in the A.I. When I showed him the results, he read it and said, ‘This is better than many of my students’ essays.’ Throughout my life,” Aidan continues, “I’ve watched him,” his father, “spend hundreds of hours pouring his heart and soul into grading and writing detailed notes for his students’ papers.” Aidan goes on to say that he has not told his father about his own cheating, but as he concludes this email, “I can’t stop thinking about how depressing the concept of spending so many hours on grading a paper written by an A.I. is. That being said, this guilt hasn’t stopped me from cheating.” So Angela, as a professor and a parent, how does that make you feel? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. Aidan. Aidan, we need to talk. This is so depressing to me, right? Like, Aidan’s father is a professor who spends hundreds of hours devotedly making notes — it sounds like he’s a wonderful professor. No professor and no father, or mother, wants to think of a young person cheating.

DUBNER: Well, wait a minute. That sounds obviously true, but I mean, let’s back up and just talk about what cheating is, and how it differs from environment to environment, and why we think Aidan is cheating. Because, I mean, look, my gut reaction is like yours, “Cheating, bad. This is terrible. Poor Aidan’s dad.” On the other hand, Aidan sounds kind of like a badass.

DUCKWORTH: Clever. Self-aware.

DUBNER: And smart. Aidan is smart enough to not want to waste time on stuff he doesn’t care about. Maybe he just doesn’t think what’s being asked of him is worth doing well?

DUCKWORTH: So, I have, shockingly, I think for a psychologist, like, a pretty deep conviction that human beings make cost-benefit calculations all the time. You might think only an economist would think that the person thinks in terms of costs and benefits. But as a psychologist, I think that is what we’re doing at some level. And it’s just that the cost and benefits aren’t just dollars and cents, it’s, you know, like, “Is there shame? Is there guilt?” And I said that an act of cheating is kind of an act of impulsivity, because you’re doing something that there’s some benefit to you now. I mean, let’s also talk about what the costs are. I think when someone cheats, they also feel like not a lot of harm is done, if any. I think sometimes people lie, cheat, or steal, thinking there’s really no victim. And if you did say to them, “Hey, by the way, this person over here, they’re going to suffer, or they’re going to get a lower organic chemistry grade because you cheated, changed the curve, like, you’re hurting this person,” I think that would dissuade a lot of cheaters from cheating.  

DUBNER: Now, to be fair, there are many different kinds of cheating, and some of them are more victimless than others. Right?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s give some examples, Stephen. Could you tell me what kind of cheating doesn’t harm anyone?  

DUBNER: Well, I’m not saying it doesn’t harm anyone, but I would say a continuum is a good way of putting it. We actually wrote about cheating a good bit in Freakonomics, our first book, in a variety of settings. One was sumo wrestlers colluding. They cheated. One would throw the match. It was, essentially, a kind of quid-pro-quo arrangement. So, who lost in that case? Both of the actual participants benefited. Who lost, you could say, are those who have an investment in the integrity of the sport. And that can be important. Who lost could be some gamblers, whether they’re professional or amateur, that could be significant.  

DUCKWORTH: Certainly, it would be the case. Right? Like, anybody who bet on the other wrestler.

DUBNER: Sure. But you could imagine how they could think, “Well, I’m not cheating my opponent out of something,” and therefore that seems more victimless. So, I do think it’s always worth looking at the motivations and what people think is the payoff. And, you know, is it true that there is no victim? Like, what if you’re on a highway, and there’s traffic, and someone comes zooming up the breakdown lane, and then noses in front of you. How do you feel about that?

DUCKWORTH: Well, of course, that makes me mad. I think of the time that I was in line for a bathroom. I think it was 20 people deep. It was in an airport, actually. And this woman just, like, went to the front of the line, pretended not to speak English, and she was, like, kind of pantomiming that like, “Sorry, she didn’t understand.” Then, I remember later watching her speak in fluent English to her daughter. It just drove me crazy. So, okay, in that case, you could argue that it harms me — that she got in front of me. “Oh, how much,” right? Like, how much does one person cutting in front of the line really harm you? She occupied one stall. Maybe that’s in part what goes through the mind of a cheater. Like, “I’ll cut the line. Who does it really harm?” But the whole problem of self-control is that when you make local decisions and they’re kind of like, “Oh, just this once. How much harm could it possibly do in the long run?” the thing that you make a mistake about is that when you do that, you’re more likely to do it again.

DUBNER: So, it becomes a habit.

DUCKWORTH: And it’s not a coincidence to me, I think, that Aidan writes about cheating. What does he say? “I’ve created close to a hundred new ways of cheating?” “I’ve cheated my entire life.” This is the slippery slope of cheating. If any of us could stop after one half-step on the slippery slope, great. But most of us can’t.

DUBNER: What does cheating have to do with not just our self-control and not just our self-identity, but with what we think about as our goals?

DUCKWORTH: What do you mean?

DUBNER: Well, Aidan is cheating a lot. And it may be that depending on his goal, that could be a benefit to some degree. Maybe he’s going to end up working in some realm where understanding how to cheat and why people cheat is a great benefit. Maybe he’ll work in law enforcement. Maybe he’ll work in software.  

DUCKWORTH: Maybe he’ll be in the F.B.I.

DUBNER: So, that’s why I want to know what you think personal goal setting has to do with our conception, let’s say, of how willing we may be to cheat. Because look, if you look at the most elite educational institutions in the world, including your own alma mater, Harvard, including West Point, including Stuyvesant High School — one of the best high schools in New York City — all of these places, and many, many, many, many, many others, have had big, big, big cheating scandals. So, if the idea is that I want to achieve a goal that includes harnessing the reputation and power of this institution, and if the way to get that goal is to perform very, very, very well on the things that are measurable, and if the way to perform better on things that are measurable are to bend some rules, then maybe I’m willing to do it. And maybe it’s not a moral issue, maybe it’s utilitarian?

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s exactly what goes through the head of somebody who is cheating, right? I mean, maybe being honest is a goal. Maybe that’s a goal, but you have other goals, right? I remember reading:   there’s, like, a woman who had lied about where she lived so that her kids could go to a better public school district. But the question was, how bad is that? What happened, actually, to this mother — she had, I think, just gotten divorced. She certainly didn’t have a lot of money, couldn’t pay for a private school, wanted the best for her children, used, I think, her father’s address instead of her own, and then would drive every morning her kids, and, of course cross the county line or whatever, drop her kids off. The school somehow had suspicion about this. They investigated, they prosecuted, and I believe she even served jail time. The version of the story that I read from this journalist’s point of view is that: if you are cheating in a system which itself is unfair, is it still cheating?

DUBNER: I think there’s also a calculus a lot of people perform when there’s an institution involved. So, if I’m an individual or a family and who is being cheated, if I choose to cheat, is some big, faceless, board of education or government — I think about this a lot with people who cheat on their taxes. They have a very almost airtight story they tell themselves, which is, “Well, I’m already paying some taxes. And the rate is too high. And so, I’m going to find a way to protect myself from that.” And what they don’t think about then is: who are the victims there? The victims are the law-abiding suckers, who pay their full share.  

DUCKWORTH: And, of course, the people in society who are supposed to be on the receiving end of redistribution through taxation. They also suffer. You start to minimize it, I guess, by not paying attention to who the victims are, or just saying like, “Yeah, but everybody suffers so little. Like, who cares?”

DUBNER: Can you just talk to me a little bit more about what we know about cheating becoming, essentially, a habit? How does that happen, and how quickly does it happen?

DUCKWORTH: The research on this has been done by a number of people, but I think most famously by Dan Ariely, who is a psychologist. I think his affiliation is still Duke University, he’s a bit of a globetrotter.

DUBNER: And who was, himself, one of the authors on a paper on honesty that had to be retracted, because some of the data were somewhere between messy and faked.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I know, you can’t make this stuff up, but that’s true. He was a co-author on a paper that had to be retracted. Literally, the paper was on honesty, and literally the paper was retracted because somebody had fudged the data. In this paper, there were multiple behavioral scientists. It was, like, a field study — I think, with an insurance company. And so, it’s also possible that somebody in the corporate partner, who wanted the results to turn out to be interesting and important, changed this one — this one line of data actually had a different font. It was pretty definitive when they actually looked at the Excel file, and they’re like, “Huh, this one line is different.” So, clearly somebody changed the data and there was lying happened, cheating happened, and whatever. The question is who is responsible for it?

DUBNER: Right. But if I’m the author — I know he was one of several authors on a paper — but if you’re the author on a paper, and it has to be retracted, I mean, this is looping back to when you cheat, who’s actually harmed by it. But this is slightly different, which is: when something you work on has been found to be dishonest, to what degree do you bear responsibility, even if you can’t figure out exactly how the bad thing happened.

DUCKWORTH: I think almost every single co-author on this study actually came out and made some kind of public statement. So, say this happened to me, right? I’m on a lot of papers, and I have a lot of collaborators, and say, there is a paper that came out that has my name as co-author on it, and somebody lied and, like, put in a line of data that shouldn’t be. First of all, I will say: yes, I would take responsibility. I would have to. But secondly, I would say, like, Stephen, how would it be plausible for me to, like, download every data file and then scan it for cheating? It’s really beyond, I think, what’s possible for a — like, I think the president of Stanford right now is being investigated for a paper that I think published in Science, and I think he’s, like, third author on it. His background is neurobiology/neuroscience. And so, those kinds of papers don’t just have data files. They have, like, pictures of neurons. It turns out that these pictures, I don’t know if they were photoshopped —.  

DUBNER: They were actually pastries, maybe, instead of neurons?

DUCKWORTH: That would be very problematic. No, it wasn’t quite that far. But this picture was, like, actually the same picture as in this other paper, but, like, that’s supposed to be a different data set. So, I just want to say, when people say to me like, “Oh, what do you think about the president of Stanford? He was on this paper that needs to be retracted, because there was some fudging of the data.” But I’m thinking to myself like, “Okay, if you’re not the first author, meaning you take primary responsibility, or the senior author — so, it’s your lab, your grant — like, you’re the third author. I’m not excusing it, and I’m not saying that you don’t bear some responsibility, but, like, really plausibly, how are you supposed to audit everything? At some level there’s trust. At some level you trust your collaborators, and you trust your students. I think this is the very reason why Aidan has to think about what the real cost of his everyday cheating is doing. Because what you’re doing is you’re eroding the institution of trust.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss an online trend that showcases immoral behavior as a fun game.

DUBNER: I would appreciate a slightly higher level of creativity than just toilet vandalism.

*      *      *

Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the gray areas of cheating.

DUBNER: So Angela, to Aidan’s second question: is cheating really all that bad?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Yes, Aidan.

DUBNER: Okay. So, a slightly longer answer than “yes” would be, “Yes, especially because cheating happens a lot in academia, which starts very young.”

DUCKWORTH: Like, in education, you mean?

DUBNER: Right. The minute you go to school, you get grades, and I remember kids were cheating in first grade, second grade. And then, because cheating is, as you put it, “a habit,” once you start, it becomes a more natural thing to do. And then, once the stakes get higher than school — things like cheating on taxes, things like insurance fraud — then yes, cheating is bad, because it’s bad for society.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s actually what Dan Ariely would say, is that there is a slippery slope whose bottom — like, what’s at the bottom of the slippery slope? Lots of victims. Eventually you end up cheating on bigger things. But I think this research — and I want to go on the record, when this scandal with this honesty paper came out, since it’s in my close social network, so of course everybody was talking about it, and most people had an opinion that they wanted to share, at least in confidence with their friends — I don’t think that Dan Ariely cheated. I sent him an email, actually, and I was like, “Hey, this is, um, stressful. And I trust you. You’ve always been kind to me,” which is true. He doesn’t know me very well, but literally every time I have asked Dan Ariely for anything, like, “Hey, can you write this thing for teachers? Hey, can you send me this paper? Can you give me advice on this?” He has, unfailingly, been generous. And I know generosity and honesty aren’t the same thing, but yeah, I’ll just go on the record and say: I don’t know what happened. I agree somebody cheated or, you know, lied, whatever you want to call it, but I don’t think he’s guilty.

DUBNER: I would like to think you’re right. You are kind of connecting his generosity with your belief that he’s honest. It does remind me of this big recent news story about this guy Sam Bankman-Fried and his crypto exchange FTX. One reason I find it particularly interesting is because it does come up against this notion of different forms of dishonesty.   One thing that’s remarkable about this case is that Sam Bankman-Fried — even as he’s under scrutiny for having potentially committed fraud, or at the very least screwed up royally, so that this firm that was worth many, many billions is now worth essentially zero. And there will be all kinds of lawsuits and investigations to follow —.

DUCKWORTH: And all the investors lost their money. Like, if you had crypto on this exchange, I think it’s now worthless, right?

DUBNER: That is probably for the most part true. But one thing that really interested me is: even after the disaster had happened — and when most people like him would be getting their lawyers and coming up with the kinds of stories they’re going to tell — he has been doing the opposite. He’s been talking publicly, he’s been doing interviews, he’s appeared at some conferences, and so on. And there was one interview with a journalist from Vox, whose name is Kelsey Piper, who had interviewed him before. So, this was just a direct message thread on Twitter shortly after. Kelsey Piper texts to Sam Bankman-Fried, “You said a lot of stuff,” — this is over the years — “about how you wanted to make regulations, just good ones.” In other words, Sam Bankman-Fried positioned himself as, “I am the business-friendly, institution-friendly crypto exchange, because I believe rather than being this sort of gray or black market — like some crypto has been historically — I think we should integrate ourselves with the real economy and with regulators in Washington.”

DUCKWORTH: I want to be above board.

DUBNER: Right, above board. So, this journalist asked, “Was that pretty much just P.R.?” Sam Bankman-Fried writes back, “Yeah, just P.R.. F*** regulators. They make everything worse.” So, that sounds pretty bad. At least now he’s being honest. Right? But then there’s more. Now, he’s asked about this movement called the “effective-altruism movement,” which Sam Bankman-Fried was, I believe, probably the biggest donor too. This is a movement run by a philosopher named Will MacAskill and a few other people. And they had been arguing from a philosophical standpoint that if you want to solve problems in the world for real, the best way to do it is to be effective in your altruism, as the name implies, but also to encourage people who are capable of making a boatload of money and then taking that money and directing it to charitable causes. So, in this interview, he’s asked about this. He replies, “It’s what reputations are made of to some extent,” meaning how one manages one’s reputation by being part of this effective-altruism movement. He goes on to say, “I feel bad for those who get by f***** it — by this dumb game we woke Westerners play, where we say all the right shibboleth, and so everyone likes us.” I’ve rarely encountered such honesty that reflects such — I don’t know what you call that.

DUCKWORTH: Depraved? Like, he’s justifying cheating under the pretense of, like, “In this corrupt system, actually, I’m net doing more positive.” There’s actually another paper by Dan Ariely. This one has different co-authors. This was in Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics just last year. The title is “Robin Hood Meets Pinocchio: Justifications Increase Cheating Behavior, but Decrease Physiological Tension.” And the co-authors are Guy Hochman, Dar Peleg and Shahar Ayal. These are all psychologists. The point of the study is that you are incentivized to cheat. And in this experiment, the conditions include where you can give the payoff to a charity of your choice. So, they’re basically looking at the motivation to cheat on behalf of somebody who’s not you. This is completely altruistic. And they have different permutations of this experiment. They also have these participants hooked up to a lie detector. You know how lie detectors work, right?  

DUBNER: I know from watching movies, that’s about it. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, the basic idea in lie detection is that when you have a physiological response to the act of lying, because maybe you have cognitive dissonance, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m lying.” Or maybe you’re nervous that you’re going to get found out. But the basic idea is that liars, in the act of lying, should have, like, this elevated, sympathetic nervous response — this kind of fight or flight response. And one thing that happens when you have that is that you sweat a little. Your palms sweat, right? That’s where the expression comes from. So, they’ve got this clever experiment. They’ve got people hooked up to lie detectors, and what they find is that under the conditions where you are justifying cheating — falsifying your results on this little game, because you think it’s going to a good cause, you not only cheat more in those conditions, but you also have less of a physiological response. In other words, you don’t have this kind of, like, sweating of the palms. And I think that’s probably what happens to Aidan. There’s some justification. I mean, I know Aidan doesn’t think that money is being donated to charity, but I’m sure there’s some rationalization where there’s really no real victim. And in fact the whole system is corrupt anyway. I mean, you can make up a thousand stories.

DUBNER I wonder if this conversation we’ve had about cheating, and the incentives thereof, and the victims thereof, and the justifications thereof, and so on, and so on, and so on, might suggest that we should go back to the beginning and talk about education and how it works. And I don’t mean to dump everything on our education system, which is a convenient and common thing to do — say, “Oh, our education system is broken. We do everything wrong. Da da da da da da.” I think that’s probably a significant overstatement.

DUCKWORTH: Not always helpful.

DUBNER: Right. But I do wonder if this is yet another reason to think about how we teach our children and other people’s children and the degree to which we emphasize grades over learning. Because, if grades are paramount, there’s always going to be incentive to cheat, and with the incentive to cheat will come some cheating. And as we’ve discussed here, it can become a habit. Then, do we turn into a society of cheaters where it hurts everyone down the road? And so therefore, should we use this as an occasion to look at how cheating really starts to happen, which is not always but often in school, and think about using that as a motivation to change the way we think about teaching, generally. 

DUCKWORTH: So, are you proposing, for example, that if we could not have quizzes, and tests, and final exams, and so forth, then there wouldn’t be the occasion to cheat, and therefore we wouldn’t have children learning to cheat, and then later on we’d have a more honest society? Are you thinking that it’s, in a way, the assessments to blame? Is that what you’re getting at? 

DUBNER: Yeah. And I’m hardly the only person to suggest that intense, high-stakes assessments can be bad for education. I mean, obviously that’s a big conversation, and I’m also not saying that we need to eliminate quizzes and tests and exams, because there are all different sorts of functions that those can serve.

DUCKWORTH: I think the question that you’re asking, Stephen, is whether the assessment system that we have built in part and parcel from kindergarten onward, in formal education, whether that’s at the root of the problem. I don’t think it is. And here’s why. I told you about this woman at the airport who pretended she couldn’t speak English, cut the line —  later see her speaking fluent English at the food court. Like, there are so many occasions in life where we can cheat. Any time where there’s trust, there’s the opportunity to cheat. And so, if you took out all quizzes, tests, and final exams from formal education, you’d still have recess, right? You know, in recess, like, “Oh, is that person over the line or not over the line? Did you catch that ball?” Like, you are going to still have opportunities to tell the truth or to not tell the truth. It’s true that we have these high-pressure testing situations in which cheating becomes more advantageous, as it were. But I don’t think we fix the problem by taking those out, because there’s so many other occasions to cheat.

DUBNER: I would love to hear from listeners about a time that you or someone you know cheated and how it worked out.

DUCKWORTH: I like that prompt. And, um, I heard this expression recently from my daughter, Lucy. Have you heard of a “devious lick”?

DUBNER: Oh, I have not heard of a devious lick.

DUCKWORTH: It sounds lewd.

DUBNER: It sounds like a delicious cocktail.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, well, it could sound like that too. I think it’s, like, a TikTok phenomenon. Oh my god. I sound so old telling you about this, but you sound even older cause you haven’t even heard of it.

DUBNER: “Well, there is a thing called TikTok, and then on TikTok, they show these little videos.”

DUCKWORTH: I think adults of our age should only be allowed to use the phrase “TikTok” when speaking —.

DUBNER: About an actual cuckoo clock.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Right. So, I guess a “lick” is, like, stealing something. And, like, a “devious lick” is this social-media phenomenon where — usually it’s an act of vandalism. So, like, you’ll have a school where, like, somebody posts, you know, “clogging up all the toilets with bathroom tissue.” So, it’s not exactly cheating, but I think it falls into this broader category of dishonesty. So, I like your prompt, right? Record a voice memo about a time where you were dishonest — whether you cheated, lied, or stole, whether you did a “devious lick,” or something like it. And then, how it turned out, and if you could add whatever self-awareness you have now, looking back on this act.

DUBNER: Nice. Use the voice memo function on your phone. Send it to us at I have to say, Angela, as you were telling me about the “devious lick,” I was so disappointed because I thought, “Oh, well, this is going to be a great case where modern technology has updated the way that we behave.” But if you’re still just clogging up toilets in your school? I mean, kids, we were doing that a long time ago.

DUCKWORTH: They’re doing it at scale though now, Stephen.

DUBNER: I’d like to think you could be much, much, much more devious than that. I don’t want you to get carried away, but I would appreciate a slightly higher level of creativity than just toilet vandalism, because that is really — that’s old school, and I think new times call for new vandalism.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, Stephen, I have something to say — both to you and your call out for, you know, more inventive devious licks, and also to Aidan. And, I’m sorry, it’s going to be very schoolmarm, because I’m definitely “team honesty” here.

DUBNER: You’re going to appeal to his inner self somehow, aren’t you? You’re going to tell him that he’s going to feel better about himself if he stops?

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to give him a technique — like, a way of thinking about a choice, because there are always these options to cheat and then, of course, to not cheat, right? To be honest. So, in behaviorism — in this branch of psychology, you know, it’s been around for decades now — there’s this guy named Howard Rachlin, now deceased, but he was a great behavioral scientist, and he said of self-control dilemmas, anytime you’re going to decide, like, “Should I cheat on this exam? Should I cut the line?” In any of these choice options, you can either frame things narrowly, which is: “just this once.” Like, “Just this once, should I cut line? Just this once, should I cheat on the test? Like, who would suffer?” Or you can do what Rachlin called “patterning” and other scientists call, like, “choice bundling.” It’s kind of like what Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, said about “the categorical imperative,” which is to say that you want to think of every choice as something that you would make again, and again, and again, to infinity. Now, Kant said, of course, when you make the choice, you should ask yourself, “Is this something that I would rule that everybody would do for all of society: act as you would want all other people to act?” But with yourself you could just say, like, “Is this the way I want to act every time I’m waiting in line for the bathroom? Is this the way I want to act every single time somebody asks me to tell the truth?”

DUBNER: And is there evidence that this changes behavior?

DUCKWORTH: There is, you know, not a lot of it, I will say, but there’s been a little bit of research suggesting that, for example, when you ask somebody — not in the realm of cheating — but, like, in a more typical impulsivity question, you know, “Do you want to have a healthy snack or an unhealthy snack?” If you ask people to make a one-off decision, very frequently they choose the unhealthy snack. But if you say, like, “Whatever you decide, this is the snack you’re going to have to have for the rest of the week,” so the next time you’re like, “Oh, it’s three o’clock, maybe I’ll have a doughnut just this once,” you can also frame that as, like, “Do I want to have a doughnut every single day at three o’clock, or do I want to have an apple?”

DUBNER: I mean, yeah. Is there any doubt?

DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Yes, please. Two doughnuts.”

DUBNER: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Just so I understand, you’re saying I can have doughnuts for a week, and I’m supposed to say “no”? Is that really what you’re trying to tell me?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And at the extreme, it’s, like, a doughnut every day at three o’clock forever, Stephen.  

DUBNER: I can see why we are a society of cheaters, because, honestly, if that’s the choice between doughnuts and not cheating, yeah, doughnuts sound delicious.

DUCKWORTH: I know there’s got to be some people who would be like, “Oh, it sounds great —  doughnuts to infinity.” But there are many people where, when the framing changes from just this once to forever, that when they ask themselves about a pattern of behavior, they would choose the healthier pattern. They would choose the more honest pattern.  

DUBNER: I don’t mean to belittle the whole idea by focusing on the doughnut, which just kind of captured my imagination, but it sounds like you are saying directly to Aidan, “Aidan, consider that this is not a choice that affects you in this moment or on this day, but consider if this is the person that you want to be, essentially.” Is that what you’re saying to Aidan?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, one could argue that what character really is, is the pattern of your behavior over time. And so, you get to choose. Like, what pattern do I want? And if Aidan, upon reflection, you think, like, “I want to be the sort of person who consistently, in all kinds of situations, cannot be relied on to tell the truth” —  look at me with this loaded tone in my   that is a choice. But I think there is so much to cheating, lying, and stealing of this kind of, like, “just this once” victimless framing, and I think if we expand the framing to be, like, “It’s not just this once. It’s starting down a slippery slope.” And also, if you expand the framing to be like, “Oh yeah, well there is this victim, and there is that victim,” I think it will incline us toward honesty.  

DUBNER: So, thanks for the question, Aiden. It was provocative, plainly. And I hope you’re listening.

DUCKWORTH: I’m guessing, Aidan, that you will choose the pattern that your father seems to exemplify. That’s my schoolmarm angle — schoolmarm-cum-behavioral scientist.  

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, Angela tells the story of a woman convicted of falsifying documents to enroll her daughters in a higher-performing school district. Angela was thinking of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single mother from Akron, Ohio, who was jailed in 2011.

Tessier-Lavgine says that the images that have come under scrutiny originated in his collaborators’ laboratories, but that he takes responsibility for quote, “any concerns that arise with respect to any work with which I have been involved.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear from some of our listeners. We recently released a brand new NSQ episode in the Freakonomics Radio feed. The episode explores how your immediate environment affects your mood, focus, and success. During the conversation, Stephen says that he needs complete quiet and comfort to get things done, but his Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt can concentrate, “whether it’s 100 degrees or 50 degrees, whether it’s noisy or not noisy, whether a building is designed well or whether it’s a cave.” We asked listeners whether they identified more with Team Stephen Dubner or Team Steve Levitt. Here’s what you said:

Jared JENSEN: Hello, Stephen and Angela. This is Jared in Queen Creek, Arizona. When it comes to needing a quiet space for working, I am definitely on Team Dubner. We recently had a similar instance that Angela was talking about with smoke detectors going off in their home, and it drove me absolutely nuts. I couldn’t stand working even though my office was in the opposite part of the house as the smoke detector that was intermittently chirping. In fact, I was in a meeting with about 30 people, and one of the guys that was reporting out had a smoke detector that kept chirping intermittently in the background. And I could feel the tension in the meeting growing as people were trying to let him know that his smoke detector was chirping, which he was obviously oblivious to. And finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, about half the group chimed in and asked him to mute his mic and go find the smoke detector that was chirping. It was funny how he had no idea it was going off, whereas the rest of us were just being driven at the wall by his nonstop chirping.

Tina GAITHER: My name is Tina Gaither, and I’m from Streetsboro, Ohio. I’m going to side with the Levitt camp. I, especially in college, had no issue with focusing, regardless of what was going on in the background. It would drive my roommate nuts, because often she would walk into a room and I was studying with both radio and TV on. However, I will say, that’s starting to change as I’ve aged, and I’m finding that I need to turn the music down or completely turn the T.V. off in order to concentrate and focus.

Kelly DANIELS: Hi, Steven. Hi, Angela. I’m Kelly Daniels. I once ran into trouble in Mexico. I’d been staying there for a while and wanted to write a novel. I would try to write on the beach in a little café or, you know, one of those little open air cafes and order a coffee. And I just couldn’t concentrate. It was just too lovely. And the temptation to just get up and walk along the beach, jump into the ocean was too great — or to switch from coffee to beer. But my No. 1 favorite place to write are libraries, especially, like, a kind of a more modern library, a large one. I can just really settle in for a good four-hour session and find a little desk in the corner and get my coffee. And that’s my favorite. Thanks. Bye.

That was, respectively: Jared Jensen, Tina Gaither, and Kelly Daniels. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. You can go listen to our special NSQ episode for Freakonomics Radio, “Can Our Surroundings Make Us Smarter,” in the Freakonomics Radio podcast feed. And remember, we’d still love to hear your stories about lying, cheating, and “devious licks.” Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss what happens when super disciplined people lose self-control.

DUCKWORTH: Tiger Woods: very self-disciplined about his training, not so self-controlled in the domain of lust.

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 To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: You’re still mad about that lady who cut in front of you in the airport.

DUCKWORTH: So mad about that lady. Yeah. I’ll never forgive.

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  • Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
  • Shahar Ayal, professor of psychology at Reichman University.
  • Guy Hochman, professor of psychology at Reichman University.
  • Immanuel Kant, 18th-Century German philosopher.
  • Will MacAskill, professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford.
  • Dan Peleg, professor of medicine at Tel Aviv University.
  • Howard Rachlin, professor of behavioral economics at Stony Brook University.



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