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DUCKWORTH: Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Come on in.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

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

Today on the show: What’s going on with the rising interest in astrology and the occult?

DUCKWORTH: Who is buying crystals around the corner from Angela Duckworth’s house repeatedly?

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have this amazing question from ‘anonymous’, and it goes like this: “Hi Angela and Mike, I have a question about young people’s rising interest in astrology and the occult.” Are you on the edge of your seat yet, Mike?

MAUGHAN: Yes, I actually am now.

DUCKWORTH: “I’m a 37-year-old man with a 26-year-old sister. My sister is smart, well-educated, and she knows how to think critically. In spite of this, she believes strongly in astrology, and she has a growing collection of crystals that she says bring things like luck and wealth into her life. Her friends seem to be increasingly self-identifying as “witches.” The whole thing seems so silly to me. They don’t seem to experience any cognitive dissonance over the fact that they believe in the scientific method, but also think that, quote, ‘charging rose quartz,’ unquote, will help them find inner peace. What’s going on here? Thanks. Anonymous.” I think I now know why this is anonymous.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say, this guy does not want his sister —.

DUCKWORTH: She’d probably know that it was her if she were listening, but —.

MAUGHAN: She’s like, “Wait a minute, I do the rose quartz thing. I have a brother.”  

DUCKWORTH: I have been fascinated with this, I think, rising trend in, I don’t know, astrology? It was a big thing, I think, when I was growing up. I remember being at the supermarket checkout aisle and you could buy a scroll for, like, Taurus or, you know, Sagittarius. Do you remember those? I don’t know, maybe we went to different supermarkets. I must have nagged my mom into buying one at least once, because you, like, unscroll it and it’s, like, “Taurus,” which is my sign, I will say, and it would say things — I think it maybe even gave you a prescription for every day of the month, because they needed to sell more scrolls the next month. You know, better business model. But it also would just tell you things about yourself. Like, I’m a Taurus, so I’m supposed to be occasionally very stubborn, but also very strong and whatever — and I was like, “Oh my God! So true.”

MAUGHAN: Okay. Here, let me say this about astrology as a business. The business of astrology has exploded in recent years.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, it’s not my imagination.

MAUGHAN: No, it is not your imagination. So, a journalist, Sydney Page, wrote in The Washington Post in 2023 about how there are zodiac-centric dating apps, there are dozens of astrology podcasts, there are these best-selling books, there are a ton of different meme accounts on social media. And then, she refers to this study done by Allied Market Research that said that in 2018, the global astrology industry was valued at $2.2 billion. 2018. By 2021, three years later, it’s gone from 2.2 billion to a $12.8 billion industry.

DUCKWORTH: Whoa! So, a sixfold increase.

MAUGHAN: Yes, and by 2031, they expect it to go to a $22.8 billion industry.

DUCKWORTH: I am just, like — jaw is on the floor. You know, I live around the corner — I mean, not more than half a block from my house is this, like, crystals and — I don’t even know what else is in there. But I always wondered, like, how do they stay in business? But, you know, maybe I should invest.

MAUGHAN: Yes, the number one take-away from this question, Anonymous, is that Angela and I will be starting a business in the astrology industry.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! We want to hire your sister.

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, now we have to know who you are. Angela, can I confess something to you? Many, many years ago, my book club flew out to Philadelphia to spend a day with you and to talk through Grit, right?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, you can’t confess that. I already knew that.

MAUGHAN: While we were there — I can’t remember. This must’ve been my friend Tyson or Tanner’s idea. While we were there, we went to a psychic, because we just happened to walk past —.

DUCKWORTH: What? Wait, you did not tell me this.

MAUGHAN: I know, that’s what I’m saying. It’s so funny.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, all of you? Like, your whole book club?

MAUGHAN: No, actually I think, okay, this is what happened. The women went somewhere. I don’t remember. They went to do something, and the men, we were walking by and someone saw a sign in a window that said ‘pet psychic.’ And so, thought it must be a genius idea for us to go to this pet psychic to get our futures told or something.

DUCKWORTH: Even though you didn’t have any pets with you?

MAUGHAN: We had no pets. She said she also could handle humans.

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure. Yeah, she’s like, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Come on in.”

MAUGHAN: But for $20 she suddenly was able to tap into the universe.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so what happened? What happened?

MAUGHAN: I don’t remember what she told me. But she told my friend Tyson that he would have a hard year, and for the rest of the year — for 365 days after that — we just always referred to Tyson’s “very bad year.”

DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait, did this have any effect on Tyson? Like, what happened during that year?

MAUGHAN: I don’t know, but I will say this. Tyson had had a crush on Anna the entire time. They were both in book club, they met in book club, and she didn’t reciprocate. But when the “year of trial” that had been “prophesied” by this pet psychic in Philadelphia had expired, Tyson and Anna started dating, and then they got married. I actually spoke at their wedding.  

DUCKWORTH: Wait a second.

MAUGHAN: And now they are expecting their second child. And so, as soon as the bad year expired, Tyson’s life turned around, and everything’s been perfect ever since.

DUCKWORTH: You know, the gullible person in me wants to attribute some magical causality — something, something, something.

MAUGHAN: Is it the gullible person in you or the romantic who wants to see a holiday rom-com based on this pet psychic in Philly?

DUCKWORTH: Maybe the gullible rom-com lover. But look, you were probably doing it as a joke, right? Because I think the people who are doing it are doing it for real — I mean, most of the people who are paying money.

MAUGHAN: And I don’t mean to make light of those people. We did it as a joke. Here’s what I think’s really interesting, though — you kind of hit on it with the Taurus thing — is that, first of all, you make these overly-broad statements, and people want to feel, or believe, things about themselves. So, there’s someone who came up with this idea — a man named Bertram Forer talked about the Barnum effect. Are you familiar with the Barnum effect?

DUCKWORTH: I am, because this is actually published psychological science. It’s not just journalism — well, sorry, that sounds very denigrating to our journalist friends. But Bertram Forer was a psychologist, and he published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology on this topic.

MAUGHAN: So, tell us about the Barnum effect. 

DUCKWORTH: Back in 1949 — the psychologist named Bertram Forer described the Barnum effect — named after, you know, P. T. Barnum, the circus master who was always trying to basically pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible American public. So, he gave a bunch of research volunteers a quote-unquote, like, “personality test,” I mean, it was a “Diagnostic Interest Blank,” as they were told. And you think that there’s something diagnostic about it, because it’s called the “Diagnostic Interest Blank,” and they’re given feedback a week later, because it’s like, “Oh, well now we have to go analyze your results. Of course, that’s going to take some time.” Anyway, the feedback that they’re given is completely generic. It’s just the same feedback. You know, I think there were statements like, “You have a great need for other people to like you.” “You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.” I mean, these are examples of the statements that these research volunteers were given. And the amazing finding is that the vast majority of these research volunteers thought that this sketch of their personality was uncannily accurate. And of course, how could it be, since everybody got the same feedback?

MAUGHAN: Oh, everyone in the study got the same feedback? Oh, that’s hilarious.

DUCKWORTH: Right. The idea was that, like, they didn’t know that other people were all getting the exact identical set of statements. And the finding is that, like, people think, “Oh, that is so me.” And implicitly they think that it’s uniquely them or, like, distinctly them. And, I guess, it’s very similar to me, you know, being at the cash register in the supermarket begging my mom for $1.99 so I can get the Taurus scroll so that when I open it up and it tells me that, like, “Oh, today, you know, you’re going to have a hard question that you don’t know how to answer.” Or, like, “You can sometimes be stubborn.” Or, “You like other people, but sometimes you push them away.” It’s like, you know, that’s maybe true of me. The problem is it’s, like, kind of true of everybody.

MAUGHAN: I think that’s absolutely right. And the Barnum effect is this very real thing. I still read about Geminis and — knowing what I know — thought, “Oh my gosh, this describes me to a T.” Can I read you a little bit and —? 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what are Geminis? Yeah, I was going to say, I want to know more about it, because I know what a Taurus is supposed to be like, but of course, I never bought the Gemini scroll. By the way, if I had, I probably would have unscrolled it, and that would have cured me, because I would have been like, “Wait, this sounds like me too.” But, okay, tell me about Geminis.

MAUGHAN: So, Gemini, it’s a symbol of the twins. It’s for people born between May 21st and June 20th. And this comes from a really popular astrology app called CoStar Astrology. “They’re intelligent and pick up knowledge quickly; perceptive and analytical and often very funny; unreserved childlike curiosity. They adapt to the energy of the room. They can be the life of the party or a complete wallflower. They’re gatherers. They know how to bring dissimilar people together and make them get along. They tend to have large social circles.” Anyway, I read this whole thing, and I was like “Me, me, me, me, me, me.” And then, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s so easy to fall into.” And Taurus — I was reading about you!

DUCKWORTH: Okay, can you please read me more about myself?

MAUGHAN: Yes, so Taurus, the symbol is the bull, for those born between April 20th and May 20th. “They’re satisfied with things the way they are. They embody stability. When everything else seems to be falling apart, Tauruses are a rock of dependability in an oasis of calm. They have practical knowledge and experience is their modus operandi. They tend to be grounded and logical. They love routine and are committed to their own comfort. They like to be in control. They would prefer things be consistent than chaotically good. They have a regal quality about them. They’re graceful and diligent laborers. They can be stubborn, bull-headed, and set in their ways, but they’re also great listeners and very dependable. They can absolutely go on forever and are tireless machines.”

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I like that last part about being a tireless machine and going on forever. I have to say, the very opening where they’re like, “They are a rock of stability in an ocean of, like, chaos —” I’m like, “Mm, not really me.” But maybe the other thing that we do when we project ourselves into these descriptions is that we discount some of the ones that are, “Well, it’s not quite me,” but then we latch on to the ones that really resonate.

MAUGHAN: That resonate, yes. 

DUCKWORTH: Like, those statements at the end. And actually, there’s a little bit of science on this magical thinking that I only recently learned about. And I don’t know whether this was a response to the seemingly astronomical increase in astrology, but there’s a Professor of Behavioral Science at University of Chicago in the Booth School of Business there. Her name is Jane Risen, and she has asked the question, “Why do we sometimes believe what we do not believe?” In other words, why do we believe in superstition — because, you know, in today’s day and age, most educated people have at least some healthy skepticism of this stuff that maybe in years and centuries past was actually believed to be true. So, how do we reconcile the fact that part of us knows that it can’t be anything other than hooey and hokum and then another part of us is like, “Yeah, that sounds like — sounds like me. It was a hard year.” So, what Jane Risen proposes is that we can, at the very same time, believe something is false and believe that it’s true; that we can, at the very moment that we are thinking something is ridiculous, also hold out some faith in it.  

MAUGHAN: Does the “think it might be true at the same time” — I’ll just use these examples for me. I didn’t actually believe in this pet psychic. I don’t know that I actually believe anything about this Gemini thing. So, it’s not that I think it’s true, but I think that the things it’s conveying, those are things that are true about me and therefore things that I think are worthy of consideration, even though I think the source is obviously, in my estimation, not worth considering. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that Jane is probably not trying to explain you, who, like, one day, as a kind of joke with two guy friends, like, walks into a pet psychic in Philly. I think she might be more wondering, like, who is buying crystals around the corner from Angela Duckworth’s house repeatedly? You know? And like, my family background is Chinese, you know, my parents were both born and raised in China, and I will say that there are these, like, “lucky numbers.” For example, like, my grandmother wasn’t buried for months after she died — this is my mother’s mother — and it was because they were waiting for the lucky number for the day to be buried. And, like, the idea is that: how can it be in, like, a modern society where you can’t even, like, conjure a verbal argument for, like, why there should be a lucky number or why Tauruses should do this. You know, I think the point that Jane Risen wants to make is that you can, at some level, think that this can’t be true, but that there could be some part of you — and maybe not part of you, Mike, but like, there could be some part of a person’s mind that would say, “Maybe it is true.” So, you can hold these things to be true and not true at the same time. She calls this “acquiescence” — that the rational part of our mind is acquiescing. It’s, like, a pushover. It’s, like, giving in to the part of your mind which wants to believe that this is true. She actually refers to System 1 and System 2 thinking. I think you’re pretty familiar with this idea from Danny Kahneman, yes?

MAUGHAN: I am, but I think we should re-explain it.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, System 1 and System 2 are these kind of metaphors. You know, we have a way of thinking fast. That’s System 1. It’s when we come up with an answer very intuitively, maybe using rules of thumb. And then, there’s System 2, which is slower, and more deliberate, and usually more accurate. And she says, maybe it’s System 1 that generates these kind of intuitive, sometimes magical thinking ideas that are maybe more based on what you want to believe, maybe they’re a little more emotional. And then, System 2 comes along and monitors system one and says, “Hmm, that doesn’t make sense. But what Jane Risen says is that even though System 2 can monitor and even notice the problem with System 1, it doesn’t always correct it. Like, System 2 is a kind of cognitive pushover, but System 1 just sort of is, you know, strong enough to kind of win the day.

MAUGHAN: System 1 is a bully.

DUCKWORTH: You know, it can be, I guess, is maybe what she’s saying. And I do think there are so many things that System 1 has on its side — like, confirmation bias, right? You’re selectively looking for the evidence to confirm what you already thought was true. I think that’s a lot of what goes on with astrology and —.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say, that’s exactly what we talked about when we were reading about Tauruses and Geminis. It’s like, I’m going to just brush over the ones that don’t sound like me, but whoa, they nailed my personality in every way on the rest of it.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly! I just selectively pay attention to things that confirm what I want to believe or that I already believed was true. But look, I would love to hear from listeners. I know you would too, about why more and more people seem to be interested in astrology and the occult. And if you’re part of this trend, we would love to know how you reconcile an appreciation for science with an interest in pseudoscience. Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email us at Maybe, if your fortune is what it should be, we’ll play your story on a future episode of the show. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: are horoscopes self-fulfilling prophecies?

MAUGHAN: I am literally scratching my head, I just realized, at this because… 

DUCKWORTH: You’re just so perplexed?

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about the rising interest in astrology and the occult.

MAUGHAN: What’s really interesting is: the same article that I was reading about the business of astrology talks about how more Americans know their zodiac sign than their blood type.

DUCKWORTH: Wow. I want to say that’s ridiculous, but I also want to say that I don’t know my blood type. 

MAUGHAN: Wait, you don’t know your blood type?

DUCKWORTH: Do I need to know my blood type? Is that, like, important knowledge that I should know?

MAUGHAN: Oh, you are one of these people!

DUCKWORTH: I am one of those people. Why do I need to know my blood type? Am I supposed to wear, like, a dog tag around my neck in case I end up in the E.R.? Because, like, what?

MAUGHAN: I don’t know, I guess —.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I know that it’s good to have the right blood given to you, but since I will potentially be in an incapacitated state — you know.

MAUGHAN: That’s fair.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe I should know your blood type and you should know my blood type.

MAUGHAN: I am O-negative, and I do know that, so there you have it. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I’ll ask my doctor —.  

MAUGHAN: I have the rarest blood on earth. I am the universal donor, but I can only accept O-negative blood. And then, I have some extra thing to it where I’m a perfect pediatric blood donor. So, I get a call every eight weeks asking me to donate blood. 

DUCKWORTH: So, do you donate blood every eight weeks?

MAUGHAN: I don’t do it every eight weeks, but I donate as often as I can.

DUCKWORTH: I now think you’re an even better person than I thought you were before. And, uh, yeah, I guess I, I contribute to that astonishing statistic. I think maybe if they sold little scrolls of paper at the supermarket checkout that said like, “If you’re O-negative, here’s your forecast for the next month” —.

MAUGHAN: No one would buy them because no one knows what blood type they are.

DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s true. Maybe that would be a problem in the business plan. But I think, Mike, this idea of believing in your horoscope, believing that your sign means something, I think in addition to all of that, there could be a kind of, like, self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Like, was it Tyson who got the prophecy that he was going to have a hard year? Well, there is this researcher at Harvard named Irving Kirsch and he studies the placebo effect, and he also studies what happens in psychotherapy and how psychotherapists create what he calls these “response expectancies,” and that’s a term for, like, how you’re going to respond to therapy and how you’re going to respond to the challenges in your life. You know, you believe you’re going to have a bad year, and then you end up doing things that make that happen. I mean, here’s the example he gave — and I’m reading his book right now about how therapists can better understand and create response expectancies. So, he tells a story of not liking spicy food. He, for a long, long time in his life, was the one person who never wanted to put hot sauce on a taco, for example.

MAUGHAN: Right. I’m firmly in his camp, by the way.

DUCKWORTH: So, he’s at some lunch and everybody’s ordering tacos, and he decides that he’s going to actually get the spicy option.

MAUGHAN: Ugh, don’t do it! It always burns your lips off.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so you’re probably cringing, you’re probably bracing yourself, you can almost imagine this happening to you, Mike. 

MAUGHAN: Well, if you don’t like spice!

DUCKWORTH: So, here’s the thing! He was just like you, but he says that in that moment in time, he looked up and he saw everybody else with these expressions of delight on their faces — because he went with spicy food lovers to this lunch. And he more or less decided that if they enjoyed it, then he would enjoy it. And he said, in that moment, the pain went away, and all that was left was this, like, wonderful deliciousness of what he was eating.

MAUGHAN: What?! 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! Right? So, the idea that expecting to feel pain will create pain, expecting to feel the lack of pain will lead to the lack of pain — I mean, it’s a pretty bold statement. It sounds like you don’t believe it. 

MAUGHAN: It’s a really bold statement. 

DUCKWORTH: You should try it, maybe?   

MAUGHAN: I am literally scratching my head, I just realized, at this.

DUCKWORTH: You’re just so perplexed?

MAUGHAN: Look, I’ll try it.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you can try it! I mean, that’s not such a hard thing, right? The next time you eat something spicy, you can say, “I don’t expect to feel any pain. I expect to feel a little sensation on my tongue —.”  

MAUGHAN: An explosion of delight.

DUCKWORTH: An explosion of delight. Exactly. So, I don’t know if there’s a little bit of that going on in these, like, astrological things like that now that you expect, you know, a certain thing to happen to you, or you expect to feel a certain way, maybe in addition to these just being generic statements that are true for all of humanity and not just, you know, for those who are Gemini or Taurus or — but  I think there is at least, like, something about human nature that this all reveals, right? Like, we have some desire to believe things that the rational part of us doesn’t. Um, but I will ask you, do you have anything that is close to a good-luck charm or, you know, crazy magical thing that you nevertheless have or do?

MAUGHAN: I will say, growing up, as a sports fan, I think that there is so much ritual in sports, which I think people would consider very different than these practices of astrology, but there is this superstition, right? Like, when I was playing football, I wore the same undershirt every single game, so long as we were winning.  

DUCKWORTH: Which you washed, but it was your lucky undershirt.

MAUGHAN: Good-luck charm. Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: So, that was something of a magical belief, right? But, Mike, maybe, like, there was some kind of response expectancy. Like, maybe you expected to play better. You expected to be calmer.

MAUGHAN: Right. I think that we all have these ideas — you know, we even feel a need to do this in a more strong way when things are bad. David Brooks, who I think you know, wrote an article in The New York Times, an op-ed in 2019, and his thought, and I’d love to get your take on this, was that — and I’ll quote here, he said, “Humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is a great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning.” So, he says that there are these periods of transition or disillusion when interest in the occult tends to rise, and that maybe in today’s world of anti-establishmentism and a distrust in entities and organizations, there’s this turn away from organized religion, but people still want some level of quote-unquote “spirituality” and therefore are turning to things that are not an organized system, but rather give you access to some belief in spirituality, or the occult here. Thoughts?

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t read that op-ed, but I’m remembering that there was this very famous study in 1994 of Israeli citizens, who, during the Gulf War, either lived in areas that were very exposed to missile attacks or not exposed to missile attacks. And so, some were, like, in a high-stress condition, and some were in the low-stress condition. So, it was a kind of natural experiment. And what the researchers did is they gave questionnaires to all of the Israeli citizens, and they found that those who lived in the high-stress areas were more likely to report believing in, you know, magical things. I would imagine that the David Brooks op-ed is maybe coming up with the same conclusion, which is: we can’t handle the idea of, like, chaos and unending uncertainty. And so, we reach for these explanations that even if some part of us knows can’t be true, it’s, like, being hungry — we need to be fed. I mean, I want to read you actually a couple of questions on the magical-thinking questionnaire that was given to those Israeli citizens during the Gulf War. And I’ll ask you to answer them. So, Mike, how about this one? “At a time like this, it wouldn’t hurt to shake hands with a lucky person.” 

MAUGHAN: Fair. True.

DUCKWORTH: At times like this, it’s a good idea to keep a good-luck charm in the house to protect your family.  

MAUGHAN: I mean, can’t hurt. Sure.  

DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Do you have one?”

MAUGHAN: Well, and I loved how you talked about previously that you can hold two conflicting things in your mind at once. Like, I know it’s probably not true, but there’s this, maybe, comfort in the idea. Maybe it’s not doing any harm to have a rose crystal in my house. And so, even if it’s not helpful, maybe I’m willing to just say, “Give it to me anyway, and I’ll get comfort from wherever I want.”

DUCKWORTH: Right. Just as a cost-benefit analysis, you’re like, “What’s the harm?” Like, what’s the harm of buying a scroll of paper at the supermarket for $1.99 to get what’s probably, you know, reasonable advice?

MAUGHAN: Yeah. And I, I think there’s a lot of “non-harm” — maybe that’s the way to say it — “non-harm” in that. I will say, it’s interesting, I was reading this one thing by a man named Sten Odenwald, who’s an astronomer and the director of STEM Resource Development at NASA. They were asking him about astrology — obviously there’s the science of astronomy. Astrology is the pseudoscience. He talked about practicing astrology comes with all kinds of risks, that we become too dependent on it for important decision-making. I do wonder if Anonymous is worried about his sister — not because of her ability to look at these things, maybe hold two things in her hand, but diving too deeply. And like you’re saying, even if it is, in a sense, just confirming what we already want to believe about ourselves, or do believe about ourselves, or it’s helping us make a decision that we were already leaning toward. I don’t know, maybe there’s no harm in that so long as it’s not abused that way.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Mike, I’d like to end this conversation with something that doesn’t have to do with, you know, whether you’re a Taurus or a Gemini, but your Myers-Briggs personality score. Did you ever take the Myers-Briggs personality test?

MAUGHAN: Yes! I think it’s fascinating you’re ending — I was so afraid to bring these up, because I didn’t want to compare them to pseudoscience, but I —.

DUCKWORTH: Well, now, now I want to know. What is your Myers-Briggs personality type? And then, I’ll tell you why I’m bringing this up. 


DUCKWORTH: I am an ENFP, so we’re close. So, the actual technical term for this personality test is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, because you get a “type.” There are four letters that you get. Each of which have, like, one or the other choice. So, there’s, like, two possibilities. And basically, it makes 16 different personality types. I’m an ENFP. You are, what, an ENTJ? 

MAUGHAN: Mhm, yep. 

DUCKWORTH: So, here’s what the letters mean. For E, it’s extraversion. The alternative is I for introversion. By the way, that is a pretty well-established personality difference.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say — groundbreaking! You don’t say?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m not saying that the questions on the test are good ones, but anyway, all psychologists would agree that there are people who are more extraverted versus introverted. But then, the second letter, we both got an N for being intuitive and the alternative to that is being sensing. So, I guess intuitive people are supposed to, like, imagine the possibilities of how things could be and see the big picture. And, I think, S is people who are more focused on reality as it is, and they are supposed to pay attention more to concrete facts and details. The T versus F is thinking versus feeling. You got T for thinking, and I got F for feeling, right?

MAUGHAN: Okay. I would have expected the opposite for us.

DUCKWORTH: Hmm, I took the Myers-Briggs personality test when I was at McKinsey, and I apparently got the maximal score for feeling and, like, a zero for thinking. 

MAUGHAN: What?! 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know, right? And then, the instructor had to come over and make sure that I scored it properly and they’re like, “Yeah, pretty much a zero for thinking.” And then the last letter, I’m a P for perceiving, I think, and you’re a J for judging.

MAUGHAN: That sounds negative. Sorry, everyone. Do I just, like, judge people?

DUCKWORTH: Not “judgey,” judging. So, those who are “perceivers” are supposed to be those who prefer to leave their options open and to see rules and deadlines as flexible. I guess, on the flip side, you’re supposed to like rules and deadlines and prefer to have detailed step-by-step instructions. So, look, for those who would not identify as devotees of astrology and the occult, I think there are many of us who probably engage in some element of this Barnum effect. You know, this Myers-Briggs personality indicator has got to be the most popular personality test in the world. So, many people know their four letters, like, ‘Oh, I’m an INTJ. Oh, really, I’m an ENFP’.

MAUGHAN: Right, I didn’t even remember what ENTJ meant, but I knew that those were my letters. 

DUCKWORTH: But you remembered your letters! Now, I’m not saying that there’s no validity to the Myers-Briggs, but I do think there is something about nearly any personality test telling you something that is true either of everyone or true of you sometimes. And then, that’s all we remember or that’s what we latch on to, because we have confirmation bias going on.

MAUGHAN: You know what’s crazy is even as you’re describing that, I’m trying to think maybe I should mold myself to that more. That’s so stupid. Like, “Oh, if that’s what I am, then maybe I should be that.”

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think Irving Kirsch at Harvard might have something to say about response expectancies.

MAUGHAN: I think Mike is falling victim to all of these things. What am I doing?

DUCKWORTH: Look, even if there isn’t much to the pseudoscience of astrological signs and types and the year you’re born, I think there is a pretty solid science of why it is that we find these forecasts and these simple descriptions so gosh darn appealing.

This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike and Angela insinuate that 20th-century psychologist Bertram Forer was the first person to use the term “the Barnum effect,” also known as “the Forer effect.” While Forer was the first to publish research on the phenomenon, clinical psychologist Paul Meehl actually coined the term. Meehl initially used it to condemn psychologists who he saw writing unclear and nonspecific descriptions of their patients. He wrote, “I suggest — and I am quite serious — that we adopt the phrase Barnum effect to stigmatize those pseudo-successful clinical procedures in which personality descriptions from tests are made to fit the patient largely or wholly by virtue of their triviality.”

Later, Angela wonders why it’s important to know her blood type. Incompatible blood can lead to kidney failure and clotting. But that’s a rare occurrence. Medical practitioners test their patients’ blood before transfusions — so Angela doesn’t need to wear a “dog tag,” or medical I.D., around her neck. However, there are other good reasons to know your blood type. For example, after a traffic accident or natural disaster, a hospital might put out a call for blood donations of specific types that are in high demand.

Finally, Mike says that he has the rarest blood on earth. If he’s indeed O-negative, this is incorrect. AB-negative is the least common blood type. The distribution of blood types can vary based on where you are in the world — but in the United States, about seven percent of the population is estimated to have Mike’s blood type, O-negative. However, O-negative blood is unique in that, while people with all blood types can receive it — people with O-negative blood can only receive O-negative, which makes donations important in case of emergency. Mike also noted that he has, quote, “some extra thing” which makes him a perfect pediatric donor. It’s likely that Mike has CMV-negative blood. CMV is a common flu-like virus that up to 85 percent of the American public has been exposed to by age 40. Most people with CMV have mild or no symptoms, but it can be dangerous for infants and people with weakened immune systems. The Red Cross refers to donors like Mike, whose blood is both O-negative and CMV-negative as “heroes for babies” because they have the safest blood for newborns to receive.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on IQ testing.

Bela SCHUG:  Hi NSQ, this is Bela Schug from Rutland, Vermont. NSQ really only focused on one small niche of how I.Q. tests are used — for identifying kids for gifted and talented programs in public schools. I.Q. testing in schools is used   to identify students who are in need of specialized instruction because of intellectual disability or learning disabilities. I appreciate your point about how creating opportunities for enrichment for students identified as gifted and talented makes other students lose chances to develop their potential. I grew up in a place where such programs were not offered. I was not challenged in school, and now I see a similar situation for my kids here in Vermont, where gifted and talented programs generally don’t exist. My younger one doesn’t like school at all, because he’s bored. Schools need to give pathways for kids to move at a learning pace that fits across the whole range of human diversity.

Peter:  My name is Peter, and I’m recording this in response to the I.Q. testing episode. I was tested as a small child and told I had an extraordinarily high I.Q. and the only impact it had, I think, was to make me a very unpleasant and strangely insecure child, thinking I should be smarter than everybody and everything should be easy for me, when really I don’t think I was any different from anybody else.

That was Bela Schug and a listener who would like to be known as “Peter.” Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on why people are increasingly interested in astrology and the occult. Do you appreciate this pseudoscience? If so, why is it meaningful to you? Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Do you suffer from analysis paralysis?

MAUGHAN: Because I have so many choices in   today’s world — it feels like we should be grateful, but sometimes it feels a little like tyranny.

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 The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. 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!

MAUGHAN: Well here’s something else you might want to believe: the best careers for Tauruses.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, what? What is it? Like, what was my calling that I missed?

MAUGHAN: “A food blogger.” You would nail that.

DUCKWORTH: See, that’s the only thing I’m going to remember. I’m like, “Yeah, that, that sounds exactly like me.”” 

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  • P. T. Barnum, 19th-century American showman and businessman.
  • David Brooks, New York Times Opinion columnist.
  • Bertram Forer, 20th-century American psychologist.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • Irving Kirsch, associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies and lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
  • Sten Odenwald, Director of STEM Resource Development at NASA.
  • Sydney Page, staff reporter for The Washington Post. 
  • Jane L. Risen, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.



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