Hi NSQers, Happy Labor Day! We’re off for the holiday weekend, and so we’re sharing one last rerun of the summer. This episode is one of my personal favorites from the early days of the show. It’s packed with great research, hilarious stories, and, of course, the signature Stephen and Angela banter that we’ve all come to know and love. We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode, but for now, enjoy these conversations from the NSQ archive!
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DUCKWORTH: We want to be praised. We want to be praiseworthy. I want to get a candle.
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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 forget some of our favorite books?
DUCKWORTH: We don’t always remember what we remember.
Also: do we overestimate our significance in other people’s lives?
DUBNER: This is so forward! He’s just arrived. And he wants to come join our group.
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Anglela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’ve been thinking about a conversation that we had about A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Do you recall this conversation?
Stephen J. DUBNER: I do recall that conversation. You said you loved that book. Loved, loved, loved it, but you couldn’t remember a single thing about it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, I thought you might have even forgotten the conversation about how I had forgotten. But anyway, my point is that it’s a really interesting thing that people can read books that they absolutely love — so much that they’re evangelical, they’re trying to get everyone to read this book.
And then, when you ask that person, “Oh, well, what’s it about?” There’s this long pause, because, like me, they have no idea at all who the protagonists were, the plot. Was it a tragedy? They just have this residue of emotion that says, “I loved the experience of this book.”
And it makes me think of that— Actually, I don’t think it’s actually a Maya Angelou quote, “People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” I don’t think Maya Angelou said that, but I do think it’s an interesting question: whether we may forget what is in a book, but we don’t forget how it made us feel. What do you think?
DUBNER: There’s a nice thought on this topic that resonated with me. Pamela Paul, who’s the editor of The New York Times Book Review, she says, “When I’m reading a book that I even really like, I remember the physical object, the edition, the cover,” she says, “I usually remember where I bought it or who gave it to me,” which, to me, is really lovely and important information. “What I don’t remember,” she writes, “is everything else.” So, what’s in the book. So, I don’t think that this is uncommon. Do you have those kinds of connections to books?
DUCKWORTH: I do sometimes remember the cover, or even whether I took out that outside papery part. It gets in the way. So I often remember, did I take the cover off of this one, or did I not? I find that my memory does hang onto some things which, honestly, I find to be not that useful.
Mostly I remember, though, how I felt. I remember whether I liked it, or whether I didn’t like it. Maybe that’s what I want to remember. When I’m reading it, I want to know whether I’m going to want to look fondly back at this or recommend it to Stephen. It could just be functional.
DUBNER: I will say, I share your lack of remembering a lot of what I read. And I’m also a fairly slow reader, so it’s a very time-consuming activity that yields very, very little solid return. But I will say, there are a number of books in my possession, maybe not more than a dozen or so, that I treasure as much as any physical objects that I have, because they are books that I bought in a certain place, or in a certain state of mind, or that I associate with a certain period of my life. And that is an association that is so much stronger for me than remembering the salient set of facts.
So there’s a biography of Ring Lardner, a writer that I loved. It was a biography by Jonathan Yardley. And I can picture the cover. I can picture the feel. I can picture the smell of the book. I can picture the table I bought it on. It was at a remainder table outside of a Barnes and Noble on 73rd or 74th and Broadway, and I remember the shape of the building. And the reason I remember that book so well is because it was a biography of a writer that, for me, set a path forward for, oh, this is how you can have a life as a writer.
And even though I didn’t want Ring Lardner’s life, because he was an alcoholic and did all kinds of destructive things, the set of experiences around the buying and reading the book were so, so strong. Even though, if you ask me now to name 10 really significant things about Ring Lardner, I can maybe come up with four. And I don’t care. I’m happy with that. So, you read a lot. You read before bed every night.
DUCKWORTH: I do.
DUBNER: And I assume you read sometimes for information, but sometimes for pleasure. So if you’re reading for pleasure, I don’t think the intent is to remember the plot, and the characters, and so on, because you’re in the moment. When you’re reading, let’s say that you’re collaborating on a paper with some other researchers. I am sure you focus in a way that you remember incredibly well, because you’re processing it totally differently.
And then on the other hand for me, my wife often accuses me of skimming at best certain written materials. the school that our daughter went to, the high school that she went to, they sent about 8,000 emails a week, just on and on, and they were long.
DUCKWORTH: Eight-thousand long emails.
DUBNER: And I would try to read them, because I am the parent of a child in a school that I theoretically cared about. I would spend like 20 minutes reading an email. I was like, “There’s nothing there. What a waste of time.” So inevitably, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, I just stopped reading the emails. And then, once in a while my wife, who still read all of them, would say, “Oh, you need to read this one.”
And I’d say, “Okay I’ll read it.” And then I would say, “Yeah, I read it.” And she said, “Did you read it, or did you skim it?” And I would say, “Yeah, I skimmed it.” If I read it, I would absorb it. So, I think it has a lot to do with intent and intention. And therefore, I think for you to beat yourself up for not remembering the plot or characters of a book, even that you loved — what it means is you had no real investment in that regard. And that’s fine.
DUCKWORTH: That’s not what I was trying to remember, in other words. So when you’re reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, or even a memoir — I mean, memoirs are my favorite genre. I feel like memoirs are like pizza. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s great, it’s never bad. I love reading people’s stories in their own words.
And maybe, right before I go to sleep after a long day, and I’ve decided to read somebody’s life story, it’s not my objective to remember what happened when they were 16, and then what happened when they were 18, specifically. I am remembering it for the emotional experience. Actually, in my department of psychology at University of Pennsylvania there is a world-class memory researcher, and—
DUBNER: Do you remember this person’s name ?
DUCKWORTH: Mike Kahana.
DUCKWORTH: Look at that. How impressive was that? So, I told him that I forget a lot of plots and so forth. And he was like, “I don’t know that you really do forget the plots.” And he gave me an example — if he read me the opening line of a book. Would that trigger?
DUBNER: You need a cue.
DUCKWORTH: You need a cue. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the password to my computer. But if I sat down—
DUBNER: Come on, it’s just you and me; tell me the password.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. Or my Social Security Number. But anyway, if I sat down on my computer and I lay my fingers on the keyboard — boom. I got it.
DUCKWORTH: So, I think he’s right that we don’t always remember what we remember. And I might be selling myself short in saying that I don’t remember anything about the plot.
DUBNER: There’s a related element that comes to mind. So, when I was writing my first book, which was a family memoir, I was doing two things at once. I was reporting out the story of my parents when they were younger, and it was partially a memoir with me in it as a kid, and so on. So there was literally the reconstruction of history and the reconstruction of memory.
And one of the memoirs I read along the way, as inspiration, or a guidepost, was a book by William Helmreich. And I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the book. But the quote I remember was something along the lines of, “With knowledge comes memory, for knowledge and memory are one and the same.”
And the point was that the more that I learned about my parents’ history and the more that I spoke with other people in my family about our own family history, the more I remembered, because the knowledge triggers or activates dormant memories. And memory does need to be reinforced. I mean, are you familiar with “the forgetting curve?”
DUCKWORTH: Yes, vaguely from my Intro Psych days. Oh, wait a second. I forgot. I didn’t take Intro Psych.
DUBNER: What do you mean? Is that true?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I wasn’t a psych major, which is a little bit of an error.
DUBNER: What were your pre-med or something?
DUCKWORTH: I was neurobiology, because in my family there’s a hierarchy of awesomeness. And I’ll just say that psychology is not at the top of that hierarchy.
DUBNER: Well, now it is, damn it.
DUCKWORTH: But anyway, the forgetting curve. Yeah. Remind me, Stephen.
DUBNER: Well, it was Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, late 19th century. And he did experiments with how memory works. And I think he started with himself, like many scientists do, and he would memorize these short sequences of letters or syllables, meaningless. And he would test himself periodically to see.
And basically, the drop off is huge. You forget a lot immediately. Then, the good news is it levels out really fast. So, you haven’t forgotten much more after one month than you did after one day. And the even better news is that as soon as you feed the inputs back in, you remember again pretty well.
I mean, it makes perfect sense. And I also think that there’s an argument to be made against the desire to remember so much. There are mental illnesses associated with remembering too much.
DUCKWORTH: Rumination, you mean.
DUBNER: Talk about that for a minute.
DUCKWORTH: Well, rumination — the idea that you could experience something, something not even traumatic, but you made a slight error in conversation with a collaborator, and you’re just turning it over and over in your head, and you don’t even want to, but you keep compulsively doing it.
So rumination is one of the hallmarks of depression. And it’s something we all do, by the way, to some degree. But that idea that you could remember “too much” or “too often,” that definitely happens. So, maybe it’s a good thing that we have this sharp fall-off as a default.
DUBNER: Going back to your issue of not remembering certain things that you think you want to remember, my guiding light on memory and how it works was a quote I read a million years ago. I believe it was by Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books. And, for all I know, Maya Angelou said this. I have no idea. But, the quote was something to the effect that, “Your memory is like an attic. And if you stuff it full of useless junk, when you have something you actually need to remember you won’t have room.” So, my strategy, whether it’s voluntary or not, is essentially to flush as much as possible, as soon as possible out of my working memory. So, you remember this live game show we used to do, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I dimly recall that.
DUBNER: You were on it a few times. We would have four or five guests each night tell us some interesting set of facts. And I would spend the eight or 10 hours before the show preparing — trying to understand what they were going to talk about, come up with interesting avenues of conversation. So it was a very, very intense preparation, because it’s a live show.
And there were these different guests, you had to introduce who they were, where they’re from, if they had an academic affiliation, et cetera, et cetera, then they would talk. And then the audience would interact. The co-host would interact. And then there was a live fact checker. So it was this kind of big, complicated machinery. We taped for usually two to three hours.
When the show was over, we would all laugh and hug and then go to a bar and have some drinks. By the time we got to the drinks, I had no idea what anybody had said about anything. Now, it may have been that we were drinking also. Usually one contestant would win. I had no idea who even won the thing.
DUCKWORTH: Oh really? You even forgot that?
DUBNER: Yeah, because it was immaterial to me.
DUCKWORTH: Because you didn’t need to know.
DUBNER: Yeah. What I needed to know in the moment was really important. And then once it was gone, it was gone. So I’m not saying that’s the way to be, but it works for me.
DUCKWORTH: So, one of the things about memory that I do remember. There are these memory competitions where people try to remember as many digits of pi, which is a non-repeating decimal, and they go really far, like hundreds of digits. So, the way that anybody remembers anything in these competitions is to create meaning out of them.
So famously, one of the first studies on this was done by Anders Ericsson, our good friend who studied expertise, and he found that you could train more or less a random person off the street. He recruited an undergraduate to see how far he could stretch the limits of short-term memory. In other words, you see a number and then you turn the page over. Okay, how many digits can you remember? And this undergraduate happened to be a track athlete.
DUBNER: A distance runner, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: So this runner would make meaning out of certain stretches of the digits, and thereby, actually, in a way, cheat, because it was a short-term working-memory task. But what the runner was doing was accessing running times — his times, famous times, and other meaningful sequences of digits. So, he was using long-term memory to hack this short-term memory task.
And now, all of this comes back to meaning. So what that book meant to you. I remember that I was a young girl when I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I felt some communality with the protagonist. I remember I’m a girl. She’s a girl. She’s confused. I’m confused. I remember that it made me feel not alone.
And then, about two years ago, my own daughter, Amanda, just found A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the same book that I had read. Green cover, by the way, cloth, hardback. And it was on a shelf somewhere. And then she read it. I think what I’ll remember about A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is not any of the details of the plot. But I remember how it made me feel. And I will remember how I felt when I learned that Amanda had taken that book off the shelf.
DUBNER: That’s a nice set of memories to have. Much better than remembering plot points, I would argue. When you brought up Anders Ericsson’s original research with training someone to memorize random numbers, it does make me think about just now living in a digital era where we all have access to so much information all the time.
And some people have argued that there’s much, much, much less need for certain kinds of memory in the world today. And I think that is actually a bigger and interesting topic that we should talk about another day. If, of course, we can remember.
DUCKWORTH: If we can remember. I’ll remind you. Stephen, you’ve written a book. You’ve written more than one book. How much do you think people remember, and how much do you care?
DUBNER: I think I used to care a lot more. It’s like the chef who spends eight hours on a meal, and then it’s eaten in 15 minutes. And people are like, “Yeah, that was good.” “Like what do you mean that was good? That was eight hours,” and that eight hours was preceded by 10 years of learning, and thinking, on.
But you know what? I get in a car and drive, I don’t think about the hard work of the people who learned how to build an engine. That’s the way it is. The people who produce aren’t the same as the people who consume. So, I think I used to care a little bit more. The thing that tickles me is how often people remember exactly wrong.
DUBNER: I just know this because Twitter is alive and well, and people say, “I read in Freakonomics that whatever name your parents give you is going to hugely affect your outcome in life.” And I was like, “Well, actually, we wrote that it was the exact opposite of what you are suggesting.”
But that has to do with people’s own biases and how we absorb facts to fit our existing theories, and so on. So, it’s a nice idea, I guess, as a writer, that people would pay enough attention to remember correctly what I’ve written. But yeah, I figure it’s my job to write. Theirs is to read and then to forget.
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DUBNER: Angela, here’s a question from a listener via Twitter. We are @NSQ_show, by the way. And this is from Nate in Houston. Nate asks, “Do we as humans overestimate or underestimate our significance in other people’s lives? Has there been any psychology research done on this topic?”
DUBNER: So, Angela, I’m guessing as with many questions, the answer is: It depends, right? There are some instances where we underestimate our significance and others where we overestimate. But I love this question, and I want to hear what you have to say.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think this question is terrific, because it’s not just there are two sides of the coin. It’s just that there are certain circumstances that we overestimate our influence on other people, and then some where we do the opposite. We underestimate. We’ve talked actually, Stephen, about the spotlight effect, right? Tom Gilovich.
DUBNER: Everybody’s paying attention to what I’m doing.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And what I’m wearing and my hairstyle.
DUBNER: Now with you, we actually do pay attention to all those things. But, with most people, we don’t.
DUCKWORTH: If I had to choose, I just think we so often overestimate. We get self-conscious, and we get insecure.
DUBNER: Yes. So Nick Epley, who’s a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, he did an experiment once where you would have research subjects go into a room wearing a big oversized t-shirt that had Barry Manilow‘s face on it. And this was apparently among a cohort that really didn’t like Barry Manilow. And the point he was trying to prove was that people care a lot less about what you’re wearing, or thinking about what you’re wearing, than you actually do.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, good. I was hoping that that didn’t have some terrible ending.
DUBNER: And they were killed.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Exactly right. Yeah.
DUBNER: I hate to beat up on Barry Manilow, because no one deserves to be beat up on like this. But—
DUCKWORTH: Also, there’s nothing to beat up. He’s great.
DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. If you think he’s great. But I do know that in Australia years ago there was some park that a bunch of noisy teenagers would come into and make trouble and noise all night long, skateboarding and drinking and blah, blah, blah, playing loud music, whatever. And the way the authorities finally drove them away was by playing very loud Barry Manilow over the loudspeakers.
DUCKWORTH: Sorry. We digress. But I do think there are circumstances where we underestimate our significance to other people.
DUBNER: Can you give an example?
DUCKWORTH: So, in my department, there is a psychologist named Erica Boothby, and she’s been studying how we actually often get it wrong. For example, compliments. So we all give and get compliments. And we all have some intuition that when we compliment someone, they feel better. And we know that we have felt good when other people compliment us.
But in a series of studies, what Erica Boothby finds is that we underestimate the effect of compliments. So, yeah, we think they’re good, but wow, they’re really good. We may not compliment people as much as we ought to. And I do think there are people who somehow, some way, have learned to give compliments more liberally. But I think many of us do refrain. You walk by somebody and you think, “Well, that’s a nice shirt.” How many of us will shout down the sidewalk, “Hey, love the shirt!”
DUBNER: Yeah, none. I think the answer is zero.
DUCKWORTH: No, no. One. I do that.
DUBNER: To strangers?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I’ll just say, “Oh my God, I love that dress.”
DUBNER: You do do that a lot.
DUCKWORTH: I do!
DUBNER: You are an aggressive complimenter.
DUCKWORTH: I am.
DUBNER: Now, there’s got to be a downside to that, though. Don’t people doubt your sincerity if you compliment them all the time?
DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, I only do it when I really like the shirt or the dress.
DUBNER: It needs to be sincere. So, if I say to you, “Angela, wow, you look really great today.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, by the way, sarcastic compliments, Stephen—
DUBNER: Don’t work. Let me write that down.
DUCKWORTH: So, Dale Carnegie, Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. We’ve talked about this self-help book.
DUBNER: Wait, Dale Carnegie was Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, wait, wait wait. How To Get People—
DUBNER: How To Win Friends And Influence People.
DUCKWORTH: Can’t remember the title of the book. But I remember how it made me feel. Sorry. But do you remember the chapter or the recommendation?
DUBNER: About saying people’s names all the time, Angela? Angela.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, that is what everybody remembers from that book. But there are all these other things in the book. And one of them was to be liberal with your compliments, to be liberal with your praise.
DUBNER: Okay two questions for you. Number one: who’s your favorite Carnegie? Andrew or Dale?
DUCKWORTH: I think Dale because, wasn’t Andrew Carnegie mean?
DUBNER: Kind of. Some people would say. And number two: when you talk about the research that your colleague — Erica Boothby was, it — has done to look at how compliments affect other people more than the complimenter might think.
I’m curious whether she, or anyone else, has done research comparing compliments — in other words, verbal niceties, verbal gifts — to, let’s say, physical gifts. So, if I compliment someone and say, “I really think you’re a wonderful, brilliant human.” Does that matter as much as if I just buy them a nice present and don’t say anything?
DUCKWORTH: I think when you give somebody a candle, that’s not the same thing as praise.
DUBNER: Well, I don’t know, I guess it depends what the point of the compliment is. If I’m trying to compliment someone to make them feel good about themselves, or to make them happy for the day, or to repay them a kindness, even.
Let’s say someone does something nice for me, and I say, “It is such a mark of what a good person you are, and a kind person you are, that you went out of your way to do this.” So that would be one way of repaying the kindness. Or I could buy him a candle. I’ve never actually bought anyone a candle.
DUCKWORTH: Please don’t. People give candles way too much. And candles burn things down, by the way. History is rife with examples.
DUBNER: I did have to ban a certain teenage female in our family from owning candles with real flames.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, teenagers, especially girls, really love those candles. And, I think the key, though, is that with the candle would have to be a card that says—
DUBNER: “Here’s a candle.”
DUCKWORTH: “Hey, I really like your shirt.”
DUBNER: But then I’d think, “Wait a minute, what does this candle have to do with my shirt? And you’re giving me a compliment and a gift? Aren’t they substitutes?” I guess that’s what I’m getting to. Aren’t they substitutes to some degree?
DUCKWORTH: No, because, when Adam Smith said that we all want to be praised and we all want to be praiseworthy — I think it was in A Theory Of Moral Sentiments — he wasn’t saying, “We want to be praised. We want to be praiseworthy. I want to get a candle.” I think he was saying, “We want to have the esteem of other people.” And even though giving somebody a gift is an indirect way of saying that you think highly of them. I really don’t think they’re the same thing.
DUBNER: Okay. Let’s leave candles behind for a moment and get back to this essential question that Nate wants to know about underestimating versus overestimating our significance in other people’s lives. So let me ask you about a particular scenario. In a work situation, let’s say you’re the authority figure, and you may be grumpy one day, or say something to someone that’s perceived as very, very critical, and you may not be aware of how influential you are. Who should say what to you? How should they make you aware of that in a way that’s not confrontational?
DUCKWORTH: And in this hypothetical, I’m the supervisor?
DUBNER: Sure. Let’s have you be the mean person. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: The mean supervisor.
DUBNER: Who is usually not mean. But, you know.
DUCKWORTH: Bad day.
DUBNER: But what’s really at the root here is you have failed to properly estimate how significant you are in these other people’s lives.
DUCKWORTH: How can that be remediated? Adam Galinsky, he’s a great psychologist. And he wrote an essay once about how he gave negative or critical feedback to a junior person. He said something that was partly influenced by his mood. But he thought nothing of it. And it turns out that it did have an outsized impact on this more junior person. And then he calibrated after that to realize that, especially when you’re in a position of power, you can actually underestimate your affect on other people, especially when you’re giving critical or negative vibes of any kind.
So, in terms of fixing that problem, I think that if we could give everyone the benefit of the doubt here, and when your boss says something that really offends you or hurts your feelings, if you could tell them in a way that starts off with the assumption that your boss didn’t mean to do lasting harm. But you have to begin with, “I know you want the best for everyone. But.” That’s my recommendation.
DUBNER: Let’s say that I am some kind of boss person or authority figure. And let’s say that I want them to estimate me less. I want them to act more creatively, more proactively, on their own. But I think that they’re worried about my outsized influence. What’s a person like that to do? To signal that, you know what? I’m not what’s driving your ship, necessarily.
DUCKWORTH: I think in all these cases where we are getting it wrong, either overestimating or underestimating what other people think and our influence, I think the answer’s pretty simple, which is—
DUBNER: Give a candle.
DUCKWORTH Yeah. Exactly. No, the answer is to ask directly. And I know that itself makes people break out in hives of self-consciousness.
DUBNER: It does for me. But I like where you’re going. So, talk more about that. How do you do that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, once you are aware of this basic insight from social psychology, that we can overestimate or underestimate how much people like us, how much they care about what we just said or the shirt we just wore, I think the more direct thing is maybe asking the people I work with, “What do you think?”
At least you could calibrate. The whole take-home of this research is that, because we don’t know whether we’re under or over, we do need to ask. Because in the moment, it’s not going to hit us over the head.
DUBNER: What about if someone feels that they are not very significant in the eyes of some other person or group. And they don’t want to feel that way. They either want to change their perception, or they want to change their reality. Are you suggesting they go to this group and say, “Hey I feel that you guys—”
DUCKWORTH: “Don’t like me?”
DUBNER: Well, I wasn’t going to go quite that direct. I was going to say, “I feel that my presence in this group is marginal.” I remember this incident from fifth grade where a new kid had moved to our little rural town and our school was very small. So a new kid was a pretty big deal.
And we were at recess when I met him and he was a good athlete. And he wasn’t cocky, but he was not shy. And I remember, on that very first day, he walked up and said — I think it was directly to me — a bunch of us used to go camping on the weekends, because we were in the country. That’s what we did. He said, “I hear you guys are going camping. You mind if I join?” And I was like, “Oh, my God, this is so forward. He just arrived. And he wants to come join our group.”
DUCKWORTH: How presumptuous.
DUBNER: I was incredibly impressed, and it was a very likable trait, because he just said, “I want to be part of this group.” And I feel like that is a kind of direct communication that Angela Duckworth would endorse, but that very few people are actually able to muster. So is that what you’re suggesting that more of us do all the time?
DUCKWORTH: Well, first, I want to know, did he come? And how did it go? Did you make s’mores?
DUBNER: We were not a s’more-making group. We were young boys who were more likely to burn and blow things up.
DUCKWORTH: Destroy property.
DUBNER: I remember that one trip was just out in the backwoods behind one of our houses, but we christened that campsite later “Mustard Pine,” because somehow we got in a mustard fight and slung mustard all over all of the pine trees. So, no. No s’mores. But he did become a key part of our circle and was an incredibly good guy. As it turns out, his forwardness was an indicator of his personality.
DUCKWORTH: So, that was a high-status kid from go. And a high status-kid directly saying, “I would like to be friends with you,” is one scenario. A low-status kid looking at you and saying, “I want to be friends with you.” That can go wrong. Just envision the scenario that the least-popular kid tugs on the shirtsleeve of the really popular kid and is like, “Doesn’t seem like you like me very much. Do I have that right?” That’s not good.
DUBNER: So let’s talk about that low-status kid, or maybe more appropriately, since you, and I, and most people who listen to this, are adults. What about the low-status adult? Again, someone in a work environment or social environment. Is there a way to inject yourself, or to become a bigger part of the group without taking too big a risk? Because everybody’s worried about saving face. You don’t want to be rejected.
DUCKWORTH: I think this is often why people benefit from therapy. Therapists, it’s like their job to like you. And if you go to your therapist and directly say, “I feel like nobody likes me. I feel like nobody wants to have a conversation with me.” There, I think you can trust them. So, you’re still being direct.
DUBNER: But then aren’t I going to think, “Well, wait, my therapist doesn’t actually like me. I’m paying them to like me.”
DUCKWORTH: Well, you might think that. But, pretty much every person I have ever met who had this desire to go to graduate school for six years, so that they could sit and talk to people about their problems, just at baseline, they care so much about other people. It’s not only that they’re paid to do it, it’s that they want to do it, even if nobody paid them.
DUBNER: This message has been brought to you by the American Psychotherapy Association.
* * *
During the discussion about books, Angela says that while she often forgets plot and character names, she does remember whether or not she removed the “outside papery part.” Angela likely meant the “dust jacket,” also known as a “book jacket” or a “dust cover.” Book jackets have been around since at least 1830. Unlike today’s jackets, book jackets from the early 19th century encased the book entirely, as if you were mailing a parcel. Books from this era were often bound in silk, and jackets would keep them safe from wear and tear until they were placed safely on the shelf at home. Towards the end of the century, publishers began to add words and graphics to catch the attention of potential buyers, and the modern dust jacket was born — thus, paving the way for books that people like Stephen and Angela would remember for their design and color, and less for their literary details.
Finally, Stephen is uncertain about two literary references. During the conversation about memory, he attributes the following quote to sociologist William Helmreich: “With knowledge comes memory, for knowledge and memory are one and the same.” Stephen thought the quote came from Helmreich’s 1976 book Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator, but he was actually thinking about Israeli historian Saul Friedlander’s 1979 Holocaust memoir When Memory Comes. And to add another layer of complexity, Friedlander was actually referencing a book from his childhood — the Austrian novelist Gustav Meyrink’s retelling of the Jewish legend of Golem, an animated creature made out of clay. The actual passage reads like this: “When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing.”
Stephen also references what he thinks is an Arthur Conan Doyle quote comparing human memory with attic space. In this case, Stephen was correct. The passage is from the author’s 1887 detective notel A Study in Scarlet. He writes, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose— It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
That’s it for the fact check.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!
DUCKWORTH: My mom had this needlepoint business. And all of these women who worked there would just blast Barry Manilow all day. That’s all they played.
DUBNER: They are known as Fanilows.
- Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review.
- Michael Kahana, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Hermann Ebbinghaus (deceased), German psychologist.
- Thomas D. Gilovich, psychology chair at Cornell University.
- Erica Boothby, postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
- “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read,” by Julie Beck (The Atlantic, 2018).
- “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve,” by Praveen Shrestha (Psychestudy, 2017).
- “When You’re in Charge, Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout,” by Adam Galinsky (The New York Times, 2015).
- “Why We Can’t Get Over Ourselves,” by Nicholas Epley (Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, 2015).
- “Exceptional Memory: Extraordinary Feats of Memory Can Be Matched or Surpassed by People with Average Memories That Have Been Improved by Training,” by K. Anders Ericsson and William G. Chase (American Scientist, 1982).
- Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief Paperback, by Stephen J Dubner (2006).
- Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005).
- When Memory Comes, by Saul Friedländer (1978).
- Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner, by Jonathan Yardley (1977).
- Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator, by William Helmreich (1976).
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (1943).
- How To Win Friends And Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1936).
- A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887).
- A Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith (1759).
- Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, by Stephen Dubner.