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DUCKWORTH: Way to turn the tables on me, Stephen. 

*      *      *

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 the value of complaining?

DUBNER: “Oh, God, I can’t believe we have to listen to more Talking Heads at the end of this podcast.”

Also: what do you mean when you say you “don’t have time”?

DUCKWORTH: I’m just, in a very socially-graceful but also self-serving way, giving somebody the brush-off. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, question for you today. It’s actually not a question. It’s a command. No stupid commands. Tell me one thing that you personally complain about that you probably shouldn’t. This is assuming that there are legitimate complaints, of course. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I complain a lot about my 19-year-old daughter leaving coffee cups on the white counter and empty Splenda packets everywhere. 

DUBNER: I can vouch for the volume of your complaints about that. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, fair! It’s annoying to me. And recently, actually, she pointed out to me that this was an irrational pet peeve. Maybe all pet peeves are irrational. That the coffee cup wasn’t doing any harm, nor was the Splenda. Except to me, psychically. 

DUBNER: So, it’s interesting, when you began that rant and you said how bothersome it was, I thought you were talking about how bothersome your complaining was — that you didn’t want to complain. But you mean the thing that she does really bothers you, and therefore you complain. So, the question I asked is: what’s something you complain about that you probably shouldn’t? Are you saying you shouldn’t complain about that because A) It disturbs her? B) It doesn’t produce anything worthwhile? C) Maybe the complaining makes you more upset than if you didn’t complain? D) Maybe it irritates people around you? 

DUCKWORTH: Not D. I don’t care that my complaining might have secondary or tertiary negative effects. I’m frustrated because the complaining was agentic, the complaining was purposeful. I was complaining to change her behavior. 

DUBNER: Do you know Robin Kowalski, by chance? Not Stanley, but Robin? 

DUCKWORTH: Who’s Stanley Kowalski?

DUBNER: “Stellaaaaaa.”


DUBNER: That was a very bad Stanley Kowalski. Hang on. “Stellaaaa!!” That was much better. The first one was like “Urkel Stella.” So anyway, Robin Kowalski, no relation, wrote a book, 2003, called Complaining, Teasing, And Other Annoying Behaviors

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s good. 

DUBNER: And what I found interesting is she describes the variety of reasons that people complain. And I’d like you to maybe think about your coffee-cup encounter in the context of this, and maybe we can broaden the context a bit, because she argues there are at least five easily-recognized functions that complaining serves: Venting feelings or catharsis — which I would argue your coffee cup complaint probably does satisfy to some degree; lubricating social interactions — when I read that, I thought, “Yes. I do that kind of complaining.” 

DUCKWORTH: Give me an example. I can’t even imagine this. 

DUBNER: You’re having lunch with someone and they’re horrified by, let’s say, the action of some politician. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, this is common-enemy complaining. 

DUBNER: There you go. 

DUCKWORTH: I do a lot of that in my life. 

DUBNER: Not with your daughter in this case, though. Here’s another one. Conveying a social image like, “Oh, God, I can’t believe we have to listen to more Talking Heads at the end of this podcast.”

DUCKWORTH: That, to me, is almost a version of the second thing. 

DUBNER: Signaling of some sort. Here’s another: comparing ourselves with others. Like, “I would never listen to that horrible music.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh! “Holier than thou” complaining. 

DUBNER: Nice. You have much better names. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. Maybe I should collaborate with Kowalski. 

DUBNER: With Robin, not Stanley. And then, finally: seeking explanations. I don’t quite understand that. You complain because — well, yeah. “Why aren’t they letting us in? The building has been unlocked!”

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, look, there are all these subspecies of complaining, but I think where we’ve come to an agreement is that complaining is a vocalization of your personal dissatisfaction with something or someone. 

DUBNER: This is the sexiest definition of anything I’ve ever heard. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s pretty good. And, I agree, these social lubrication examples are good. And they seem to be true. We must complain in part to strengthen ingroup bonds and to make clear where we stand. But I think there is a function of complaining where you think it’s going to bring about change. 

DUBNER: Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

DUCKWORTH: Like the complaint box. 

DUBNER: It’s funny, because they always call it the “suggestion box,” but it really is the complaint box. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I’m thinking about the “Far Side” cartoon. I think it’s “Far Side.” And there’s two boxes, and one says “complaints” and the other one says “compliments.” And there’s a really long line for the complaint box and there’s nobody in line for the compliment box. 

DUBNER: Have you ever noticed whenever you open the complaint box, or suggestion box, and there are, like, ten pieces of paper in there, nine-and-a-half of them are in the same handwriting. It’s one person that does it. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure that’s true. Digression on a digression. But my daughter Lucy — the other daughter. 

DUBNER: The one you complain to less. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I really do. Amanda, sorry. So, we, pre-pandemic, used to go to my mom’s nursing home and go and have brunch on Sunday. And there was this big book at the front that said “comments here.” And nobody ever wrote in the comment book but Lucy, it seemed. And repeatedly she would point out that it seemed to her that somebody was sticking their fingers in the cream cheese. And she had many occasions on which to elaborate on this, in increasingly vivid detail. And we thought nobody was reading these. And then one day, we walked in, we sat down, we laid the napkins in our lap, and the waiter came over and quietly deposited individually-sized cream-cheese packets. Here’s the thing. She’s a teenager, so she was just horrified. So even though her complaining resulted in exactly the thing — you know, sort of best-case scenario: you complain and somebody fixes the situation — I think she was even worse off. She may never complain again. 

DUBNER: How are you sure that the waiter knew that she was the complainer? Maybe the complaint just got through to management. Maybe they were giving everybody good cream cheese.

DUCKWORTH: But here’s the thing. They never took away the big common bowl of cream cheese. They just added the packets to her plate. 

DUBNER: That’s a pretty firm indictment. Okay. Tangent, on a tangent, on a tangent. 


DUBNER: This wasn’t even a complaint book. This was a book at this resort that my family likes to go to — it’s a nature-type resort where you just hike around the mountains and whatever. And there’s nature. So, there’s animals in nature, that’s what they say. And there is a book in one of the little wooden rooms of this lodge where you are supposed to write down the interesting nature that you saw. It could be flora, could be fauna, could be whatever. And my kids would always write down, like, “the abominable snowman, a yeti.” They had no interest in the cockaded woodpecker. I will admit that several years ago, for about 15 minutes, I thought about writing a book called Complaining Nation

DUCKWORTH: That’s a terrible name for a book. 

DUBNER: Thank you. I didn’t write it. But it’s interesting to me that in the U.S. in particular, with so much wealth and opportunity and bounty, that we do have a zeal for complaining about everything. 

DUCKWORTH: You think the United States more than other countries? 

DUBNER: Well, I do think that prosperity provides a certain kind of complaint. Rich-kid problems, first-world problems. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh. Like entitlement complaining. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Think about this: 30 years ago, most people didn’t own a computer. Today, just about everybody has a supercomputer in their pocket or purse. Think of all the things that we end up complaining about regarding that little supercomputer: the toxicity of social media, the fact that all 19 of my email accounts don’t sync on all six of my mobile devices. 

DUCKWORTH: Right, I can’t believe the calendar doesn’t sync if you have Outlook and Google. 

DUBNER: There you go. You could also argue that complaining is incredibly important and useful. You can imagine a lot of cases in which complaining about an organization or an institution that’s doing something not so great, where that complaining has a lot of value. There’s a piece from Psychology Today by Hank Davis. It’s called “The Value of Complaining.” And he lists a bunch of the benefits, including the joy of speaking out against something you judged to be wrong. Sounds like you take joy in speaking out. But then there’s the possibility that like-minded people will find each other and act in concert to make changes. I mean, the downside of that sort of speaking out is something we’ve touched on in the past, this notion of moral licensing, which is you complain about something on your social media feed and you’ve engaged in really nice clicktivism, but not actual activism. 

DUCKWORTH: Virtue signaling. Well, all of these things might be happening just in the little home that I have with two other people at the moment. I guess, if I tried to apply some of this logic, I could potentially band together with my husband. Right? He’s like-minded. He probably wants the counters to be clean. And we could act in concert against my daughter. 

DUBNER: You are really hung up on the coffee stain. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, sorry, but it’s really, really bothersome. 

DUBNER: Okay. Let’s re-create. This is Amanda, your older daughter, correct?  Let’s say I’m Amanda. I’ve just been hanging out in the kitchen. I left my coffee cup there. What happens? 

DUCKWORTH: I come down the stairs and then I immediately spy the empty coffee cup with the ring of coffee under it, drying on the white counter. Just to the right of it are the tell-tale Splenda packets that are sitting there empty and ripped-open. And I say something like, “Amanda!” Actually, I don’t know that I can repeat the exact language on the air. 

DUBNER: We bought a whole extra container ship of bleeps. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, okay. “Get the bleep coffee cup and put it into the sink like a normal human being does.”

DUBNER: Wow. You only swore once in there. Is that really all there is? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I try to be succinct. 

DUBNER: I’m shocked that, upon hearing that, she wouldn’t immediately change her behavior. 

DUCKWORTH: You’re shocked that she wouldn’t be immediately reformed and contrite. 

DUBNER: And I’m also shocked, no offense, maybe a little offense, that you who know so much about so many different kinds of behaviors and have so much experience, including research-based and big randomized controlled trials — I’m surprised that you would think that would work. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I have written papers with almost the exact line: that exhortation is never a good way to change another person’s behavior, even your own. So, yes, I guess one could argue that is the height of hypocrisy. 

DUBNER: I didn’t mean to call you a hypocrite. I just think that we all have a hard time identifying behaviors in ourselves that we can easily identify in others. Wouldn’t you say?

DUCKWORTH: I mean, maybe this is the problem with complaining. Right? 

DUBNER: Breakthrough. 

DUCKWORTH: Gosh. I feel like a little grasshopper. I’m learning. Maybe what I’m seeing is something that is obviously irritating to me. I’m trying to bring it to the attention of my offender. And it’s not working. But by the very same token, I am sure that I am essentially knocking over psychological furniture in somebody else’s living room, and I’m totally oblivious. And, I guess, to your point, me complaining isn’t doing a damn bit of good. 

DUBNER: Let’s role-play for just a moment, if you don’t mind. Same scenario. Amanda leaves the cup and the Splenda. By the way, I would argue that consuming Splenda is a bigger sin than leaving a coffee cup. 

DUCKWORTH: We’ve discussed that. She thinks I got her addicted to it when she was a young kid and her sister and her were allowed to drink Diet Coke and put Splenda in their tea, which I allowed, but not in the quantity that she remembers. It’s bad for you. 

DUBNER: I mean, how can it be great? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it screws up your homeostatic mechanisms for understanding sweetness. But we digress. 

DUBNER: Anyway, you come downstairs. The coffee cup is there. Amanda is leaving the room without having cleaned up her mess. What’s a different set of words you could maybe use in that circumstance? 

DUCKWORTH: You mean, what is a more effective or gentler way of complaining? 

DUBNER: Didn’t even want to be judgmental. I just want to say “different.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I could go neutral. I could say, “My, there’s a coffee cup and some Splenda on the counter.” That would be a — a neutral —

DUBNER: I would call that neutered sarcasm. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Sarcasm never works either — it’s pretty much guaranteed. Okay, I could say, “Hey, looks like you’ve had your coffee.” How’s that? Are we still in the sarcasm category? 

DUBNER: I would say that’s even weaker sarcasm, but a little bit of faux ignorance, passive aggressive. Have you thought about incentives?

DUCKWORTH: Like giving her a dollar for every time she puts her coffee cup in the sink? 

DUBNER: Sure. Or fines? It could go the other direction. 

DUCKWORTH: Electric shocks.

DUBNER: Short-sheeting her? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, I have not incentivized this. I haven’t fined. But I’m trying to remember what Alan Kazdin, the Yale psychologist who had this whole Kazdin method of parenting, might say in this situation. Now, Kazdin worked with a lot of younger kids than my daughter. She’s 19. But Kazdin I do recall very clearly saying that when we point out what our kids do wrong, we do almost nothing good. And sometimes we do harm. Because, well, we’ve given them attention for what they’ve done wrong, now they’re resentful. We pull one way, they pull back. And his approach was to just catch them when they’re doing the right thing and then to praise it. I think if that were true, really what I need to do is: if Amanda one day puts the coffee cup into the sink and throws away the Splenda packets, I need to do a cartwheel and praise her to the high heavens. I think that’s the version of what the Kazdin method would say. And I think, of all the motives, that one could have for complaining. One thing that you’ve helped me to do is to realize that, if my intent is to reform a certain person’s behavior in my household, then there are approximately 99 million ways that I could do that more effectively than complaining. 

DUBNER: Well, I think you’re being maybe a little hard on yourself now. 

DUCKWORTH: I feel like I was being a little hard on myself. Say something comforting. 

DUBNER: I think the answer is to complain more, not less. But save your complaints for things that are worth complaining about. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the lies we tell ourselves, and others, about what we really have time for.

DUCKWORTH: “I would write a novel, but I don’t have time.” “I would go to the gym today, but I don’t have time.” 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I know we are always saying, “I don’t have time to do whatever — X, Y or Z.” But I’m wondering how often you think that’s really true? And when it’s not true, what’s the real answer? 

DUBNER: I think the real answer for the median American is, “I do have time, but I don’t want to do what you’re asking me to do.” 

DUCKWORTH: You’re saying the median American is lazy. 

DUBNER: I wouldn’t say lazy. I would just say they really like to watch TV 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, good distinction there. 

DUBNER: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does this American Time Use Survey. Here’s from 2019. They interviewed 9,400 people — so not a huge sample for a country our size — age 15 and older. They found that on average, Americans have about five hours of leisure time each day. Men have more — men have five and a half, women have four point nine. They categorize leisure time as time spent, quote, “watching TV, socializing, or exercising.” And watching TV accounted for over half of the leisure time for Americans, at two point eight hours a day. Do you believe that number?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I 100 percent believe that number. I think it could be higher. 

DUBNER: So if you’re watching TV for two point eight hours a day and someone asks you to do something, what you could do is say, “How long will that take? An hour? Okay, that means I only can watch one point eight hours of TV today.” 

DUCKWORTH: I can only watch four episodes of The Office

DUBNER: And then, either I am or I am not willing to sacrifice that TV. But let me just say, in defense of those people who either may not be watching two point eight hours of TV or don’t believe this number, here’s another data source: now this is from a survey of 2,000 adults only, and it was commissioned by H&R Block, the tax preparer. So I don’t know how reliable this is versus the BLS study. The H&R block survey says that the average person has only four hours and 26 minutes of free time each week. 

DUCKWORTH: Each week? They must be ruling out exercise and socializing, meals, showers. This is all in the definitions, right? 

DUBNER: I raise this point just to show how much variance there is in data collection when you’re trying to address a problem like this. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s all rhetoric, Stephen. 

DUBNER: And I’m sure there’s also a huge variance among people. Like, I don’t know how the American Time Use survey gathers their data. I’m sure they do as well as they can. I know it’s a serious survey that’s been around forever and social scientists rely on it. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s a telephone survey, isn’t it? 

DUBNER: Yeah, is it landlines? Because, as with polling, there’s always the question of: how does the population of people who own landlines differ —

DUCKWORTH: You’re questioning the representation of this. 

DUBNER: Yeah. But also, you have to think about the sample, because if you are, let’s say, not an academic at a fancy place like the University of Pennsylvania, but instead you’re someone who’s working two or three jobs to support a family, then, no, you do not have five hours of, quote, “leisure time” every day. 

DUCKWORTH: Way to turn the tables on me, Stephen. 

DUBNER: I just mean to say that any time we try to get a big signpost number — I mean, when I see that number from the American Time Use survey, that the average American man has five and a half hours of leisure time each day, that sounds gigantic. Again, this is not people who are underemployed or unemployed or retired or six years old. That’s a lot.

DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s start with 24 hours. That’s the day. Let’s subtract eight hours for sleep. 

DUBNER: 16. 

DUCKWORTH: God, you’re so good.

DUBNER: We’re doing that “counting backwards in increments of eight” thing?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, we are. Let’s say people work, what, eight hours during the day? Maybe you’re an extremely hard worker. You work 10. And I’m only going to do two subtractions: your job and your sleeping. No, wait. Sorry. Meals. Oh, and hygiene. 

DUBNER: Commuting? Doing things for other people or around the house? 

DUCKWORTH: Like put your coffee cup back in the sink? For example.

DUBNER: Or like, make that call to the pharmacy or the doctor’s office. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, look at this! We have no time left. 

DUBNER: But, let’s say we accept that number: five point five hours for men, four point nine hours for women. If that’s the case and someone asks you to do something and you say you don’t have time, what does that mean? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it really does mean that I don’t want to do this, or at least, “I don’t want to do this because of the opportunity cost.” 

DUBNER: Yeah, I think when we say we don’t have time to do something, it’s one of the most standard euphemisms there is. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. You don’t want to make their requests feel lesser. And so it’s easier to come up with an excuse, and not having time sounds like a good excuse. And it’s got built-in that virtue of, “I’m a busy, important person.” Or, “You know, my family comes first.” 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t say time, but I usually use the word bandwidth. 

DUBNER: I mean, theoretically, it’s a worse answer because you can buy more bandwidth; you can’t buy more time.

DUCKWORTH: But somehow bandwidth also suggests attention. Right? It’s just like, “I’m just so overwhelmed with all the things that I’m doing. But I would love to. If I had the bandwidth, I would. But I don’t.” 

DUBNER: Like, “This thing that you’re asking me to do doesn’t sound like an idiotic thing, but I can’t do it.” 

DUCKWORTH: No, absolutely not. It sounds fantastic, but unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth. And so you’re saying that I’m just, in a very socially-graceful but also self-serving way, giving somebody the brush off. But here’s the thing, Stephen. I think we often say this to ourselves: like, “Oh, I would write a novel, but I don’t have time.” Or, “I would go to the gym today, but I don’t have time.” There are lots of occasions in which this is not a social exchange. So what do you make of that, then?

DUBNER: Well, it sounds like you need to whip out your Eisenhower matrix.

DUCKWORTH: I actually know about this matrix, because I have read Stephen Covey’s book more times than anyone would believe. 

DUBNER: This is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

DUCKWORTH: He’s written multiple books, but yes. He talks about Eisenhower’s matrix. President Eisenhower had this matrix, and it was his tool for managing his time. It was a two-by-two matrix. So there is important and not important. That was one dimension. There’s urgent and not urgent. That’s another dimension. And, of course, if you think about it, you probably want to spend most of your time doing important things, whether or not it seems to need attention right now. I mean, obviously you want to do things that are important and urgent. Like, your house is on fire! It’s important! It’s also really urgent! But there are lots of important things that don’t have that kind of time sensitivity. Like, I should exercise. I should call my best friend. I should write in my journal. I should work on the novel that I keep telling everyone, including myself, that I want to do. And Eisenhower said that that’s the quadrant in the matrix that gets short shrift. 

DUBNER: Right. Here’s a quote from Eisenhower talking about this notion: “Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term? Especially, whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.” So, what I find so interesting about this notion is that when I see “urgent” and “important,” I treat them as synonyms. And he’s saying, “they are most definitely not synonyms.” 

DUCKWORTH: Urgency has something about the time sensitivity, right? There’s a ticking clock. And importance is just, sort of, like, in the grand scheme of things, how valuable is this thing that you’re working on compared to something else? 

DUBNER: Right. And his argument was, we pay too much attention to the urgent at the expense of the important, which is because the urgent is often short-term. And so, it’s the fire you need to put out now. And the important is often long term, which requires a lot of attention over time. But, you know, when I saw that, it reminded me of why I hate texting. 

DUCKWORTH: Why do you hate texting? 

DUBNER: Because many people — and please forgive me, friends and family who text. Many people who text me, text something as if it’s important or urgent. And it’s often neither. 

DUCKWORTH: I think the very medium of texting implies that it’s urgent. “I couldn’t email you!” Or, of course, I could, but then it would take you four minutes to see this. 

DUBNER: Do you know how to create a macro in iPhone texting and iMessage?

DUCKWORTH: No, I don’t even know what a macro is.

DUBNER: You know, like a little repeated keystroke, ‘cause what I need is a repeated keystroke in my iPhone, that’s all caps that says, “Thank you for texting. Please email me later.” 

DUCKWORTH: You want a little antisocial auto reply? I do remember this when I was a teacher. Schools are a place where urgency dominates importance all day long. Because there really are so many urgent things: a kid has a nosebleed, there’s a fire alarm — you’re just constantly reacting. And then things that are important but less urgent, like, “Hey, I wonder whether there is a better idea than this block schedule,” or like, “What are we really doing here with our English literature curriculum?” I feel like they got so little attention because the whole culture was geared towards the urgent. 

DUBNER: Give me an example of an institution or even a person that you feel does a really good job — other than the late Eisenhower, perhaps — of prioritizing the important from the urgent.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know about an institution, but I think that when each of us recognizes what Eisenhower warned us of — that we are ignoring the quadrant in the Eisenhower matrix that is important but not urgent — I think we create false urgency. We give ourselves deadlines. We sign up for book contracts. I mean, here’s a trivial example. I know it’s a little bougie, but anyway, it’s true. I’ve been doing yoga through the whole pandemic online. And typically I’ve been doing it with my local yoga studio. And they just have a Zoom call, and I log in at the right time, because otherwise I’m not going to get to the Zoom room. And so, when it comes to 6:00, there’s real urgency. And even by 6:05, it’s too late. Now, the yoga studio started offering, about midway through the pandemic, these on-demand yoga classes. There’s a recording, and effectively it’s the same thing because my camera’s off. I’m not interacting. And so I thought, “What a great idea. I can have some flexibility now. If I can’t make it at 6:00, I’ll do it at 6:30. 

DUBNER: Can we guess what happened when they made this change? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, let me see what a behavioral scientist you are. What do you think happened? 

DUBNER: I’m going to say that that preexisting urgency, even though you may have sort of chafed against it, in fact formed a commitment device for you. And that when you were able to do it any time, you did it less. 

DUCKWORTH: Well done, Stephen. That is exactly what happened. I think this is why we need to manage ourselves and actually create pre-commitment devices. And one of the forms of pre-commitment is like, “Hey, if you don’t do it now, you can never do it.” Judgement and decision-making and social psychologists have actually studied the psychology of urgency. It’s called the mere urgency effect, at least by Chris Hsee at Chicago. He ran a series of lab experiments where you’re doing some task. You’re in the lab, you’re getting paid for it. Actually, he paid people in Hershey’s Kisses. And he can vary the importance by paying you more or less. So you can either do an important task; you get lots of Hershey Kisses. An unimportant task; you only get one or whatever. And then, he could also vary the time urgency by telling you how many minutes you had to do the task. And the interesting thing is that he could, by manipulating these things, discover that Covey and Eisenhower were right. People will voluntarily do tasks that are less important — in this case, getting fewer Hershey kisses — when there was this expiration date on it. So Eisenhower and Covey were right to warn us about getting stuck in boxes in the matrix, especially the unimportant-urgent box.

DUBNER: Right. But the point of the matrix is that you can put things in these different quarters. So if you have “urgent” and “not urgent” going across the X axis and “important” and “not important” going along the Y, you’ve got four boxes now, and then you can consciously decide, “Okay, anything that is both not urgent and not important, I’m going to put that in the do-it-never box.” 

DUCKWORTH: And stop thinking about it. Actually that’s good. Because I have a lot of things that are sort of just lingering somewhere in my conscious awareness. 

DUBNER: Throw them away.

DUCKWORTH: Throw them away. 

DUBNER: Right. Then, if something is urgent but not important, then you can — as they argue — delegate it. It’s not worth your time, but it does need to get done, so find some other way to do it. Let me go back to the notion of saying you don’t have time to do something. Do you think that the pandemic experience will change the way we use that euphemism? Because we’ve had a different set of excuses for getting out of encounters over the last year and a half. Like, “I’d really like to come to your meeting, but pandemic.” Do you think that people will have reached into themselves for this burst of honesty? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to do that. I do think the pandemic has made a lot of people more reflective and to say things aloud like, “I want to be intentional with the time I have.” 

DUBNER: Oh, that’s better than bandwidth. 

DUCKWORTH: I like that too. Well, you want me to say in my stock reply, “I’m trying to be intentional about the way I live in life.” I think I’m going to go with bandwidth, Stephen, because I don’t want people to feel bad. In my case, I don’t think I’m just saying, like, “Hey, I’d rather watch TV for four hours a day.”

DUBNER: Okay. But can I just say, if, however, you were able to persuade yourself that “intentional” was real, and it sounds like it’s real, then I think it could be more convincing. And also it’s about you. It’s not about them. It’s not, “your thing is not worth my time.” You’re saying, “I’ve become more intentional and I plan to spend my time doing things that are less stupid than the thing that you want me to do.” 

DUCKWORTH: So you want me to send back a reply: “Thank you so much for your email. I took the time to read it. I am, at this point, trying to prioritize my research, my teaching, and spending as much of my life as possible doing No Stupid Questions with Stephen Dubner.” 

DUBNER: Perfect. 

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

In the first half of the episode, Angela and Stephen discuss the dangers of consuming the sugar-substitute Splenda, and Angela says that it may alter homeostatic mechanisms for perceiving sweetness. There doesn’t seem to be any credible evidence to substantiate that claim, but there isn’t a consensus as to whether low-calorie sweeteners, including Splenda, are good or bad for you. Researchers have found that Sucralose, the main ingredient in Splenda, may affect sweet receptors in the gut and pancreas and alter the gut microbiome. However, these metabolic effects seem to be insignificant compared with those produced by sugars. Robert Margolskee, the President of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says that he tends to avoid low-calorie sweeteners, but when he does consume them, he prefers aspartame, because it gets broken down before it could have effects on the gut and the pancreas. 

Later, Angela references what she thinks is a “Far Side” comic — she recalls a drawing with a long line of people for a complaint box and no line for a compliment box. But, as far as I can find, Gary Larson, the creator of “The Far Side,” never made anything like this. Angela may be thinking of a popular 2005 drawing by cartoonist Mike Baldwin. In the image, there are two customer-service windows, one for gratitude and one for complaints. True to Angela’s memory, the complaints window is swamped with people, but no one is lined up to deliver gratitude. The representative in that window sits alone, looking bored and reading a book.

Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder about the methodology behind the American Time Use Survey. You may be asked to take this survey if you completed the Current Population Survey and provided your contact information. Census Bureau interviewers reach out to randomly-selected people who are at least 15 years old and represent a, quote, “range of demographic characteristics.” Interviews are not just limited to landlines. You might also be contacted on your cell phone, or sent a letter asking you to call a toll-free number to complete the survey. 

That’s it for the fact-check!

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger and Jacob Clemente. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. Our 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 And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure that you complain to yourself more about other people than you complain to yourself about yourself. 

DUBNER: The nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.  

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  • Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University.
  • Stanley Kowalski (fictional), Stella DuBois’s husband in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947).
  • Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center.
  • Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and professor in the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.
  • Christopher Hsee, professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.



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