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DUBNER: Thor, you’ve got 20 sharpened sticks leaning against the wall. Why do you need another one? 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: how often do you sit with your thoughts, without any other form of stimulation?

DUCKWORTH: You’re just supposed to lie there on your mat with your own thoughts. I fell asleep many times. 

Also: how much influence do parents have over their children once they’ve hit adolescence?  

DUBNER: They say, “Your kid said this to me. It was such a thoughtful, considerate thing to say.” And I’m like, “My kids said that?” 

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, let me ask you this. How comfortable are you being alone with your thoughts for an extended period of time? 

Angela DUCKWORTH: I guess, it depends on how extended you mean, but I can go for hours at least. 

DUBNER: Not reading, not on your phone, not talking to anyone. Just with your thoughts. 

DUCKWORTH: Just with my thoughts. Yeah, I would say hours. And by the way, I might be vastly overestimating. If you asked me, when’s the last time I sat in a room by myself?

DUBNER: When’s the last time you sat in a room by yourself with your own thoughts for many hours? 

DUCKWORTH: I would say that the time that this happens to me most often is when I am going to get out of bed in the morning, and I find myself lying there, thinking. And I think for that sort of activity, it’s probably more like 20 minutes. 

DUBNER: Okay, not three hours. But still, something substantial. And on the spectrum, then, of people around the world, do you think that puts you at a deep extreme? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t even have to say, “I think” because there’s research on this. Tim Wilson, great psychologist, got really interested in reverie, which is this state of daydreaming or musing. But it’s pleasant, right? So I think that’s one of the key things about reverie, that you want to be alone with your thoughts. And so he designed this experiment where undergraduates are in a room. There’s, like, nothing to do. And that’s really the whole thing. It’s like, how comfortable are you, or how long can you be in this room where there’s nothing to do? There’s no cell phone. You’re just there with your own thoughts. And it’s so torturous for them for even just a matter of minutes, that a good number of them, I think it was three-fourths, would rather be shocked electrically than to do nothing at all, just because being shocked is something, and doing nothing is worse. 

DUBNER: I’m assuming it’s a relatively low-level electric shock they’re getting. Yes?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. But electric shocks are painful. And if you want to get a sense of how hard it is for young people in particular to sit with their own thoughts, you can Google “phones down challenge,” and the first hit that should come up in YouTube is this video of teenagers who are brought into an empty studio and they have their cell phones with them, they’re on a table in front of them. That’s the whole challenge is to not pick up your cell phone. And it is both amusing, but also a little horrifying to see just how hard it is for them just to sit there and think about things and go inward. 

DUBNER: So we’ve all read that people are very reliant on their phones these days and other devices and other stimulations, and it’s a reliance that some people worry borders on addiction. So, what I want to know from you are things why it can be so hard to be alone? Is it necessarily a bad trait? Because I could imagine that, coming from the evolutionary side, someone might say, “Well humans, really, were meant to interact with others. The mind was not really meant to sit and cogitate.” 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think anyone knows whether we have a shorter attention span than we did, although lots of speculation. It would seem to many people that we do. 

DUBNER: But do you think that the cavemen, that’s why they whittled? Like, they couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. I’ve gotta sharpen this stick. 

DUCKWORTH: They had their own version of opening another tab. 

DUBNER: Yeah. And then, “Thor, you’ve got 20 sharpened sticks leaning against the wall. Why do you need another one?” He’s like, “What am I supposed to do? Just sit here?” 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so first, I will say that the ability to go inward and to mind-wander, to daydream, to just think and not be focused on a goal, or certainly on an action, that does seem to be the province of this recently examined area of the brain. Neuroscientists have, in the last decade, got interested in what’s called the “default network.” 

DUBNER: That doesn’t sound like a part of the brain. “The default network”? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you’ve never heard of the default-mode network? 

DUBNER: I haven’t. I’m used to words like “amygdala” and “cerebral cortex.” And then there’s default network? 

DUCKWORTH: Default. I know, it makes you think is it a loan? Is it a behavioral economics nudge? But no, in this case, the default mode network is an area of the brain. It’s the medial surface of the cortex and it was discovered — I think what happened was that neuroscientists have a fixation cross. And this is you’re sitting in the f.M.R.I. —

DUBNER: F.M.R.I., we should say, is a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which measures brain activity while it’s happening. Right? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s correct. Brain activity in real time. And whatever experiment you’re in, they’re often looking at a comparison between baseline and “what happens when we show you these shapes?” or “what happens when you’re looking at these words?” So baseline is, typically, you’re just looking at this little “X “on the screen.

So the question relatively recently emerged, which is like, what are we doing when we’re doing nothing? What are we doing when we’re staring at this fixation cross on the screen? And it turns out that we’re not doing nothing. The default mode network is what we’re doing when we’re not doing anything else. And the activity in this network does seem to be inversely correlated to activity in executive-function areas, which are really goal-directed, task-directed. 

DUBNER: That makes sense, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And as scientists have gotten more interested in this, the question is: what is it for? And the research suggests that it’s when you’re thinking about self-relevant things. So a lot of our mind-wandering, our daydreaming is not, about like, “Oh, I wonder what the weather is like in Tahiti?” It’s more like, “I wonder what this person thinks of me. I wonder what I’m going to do tomorrow.” So it’s very self-relevant mind-wandering. And you could ask the question, as you did, Stephen, “Wouldn’t evolution favor more of a goal-directed occupation for our brain activity?” But I think there are some things that we do when we’re in the default mode that are useful. Processing information and self-relevant thinking are probably helpful. It’s also associated with imagination and creativity. So, the current understanding is that we tend to toggle back and forth between the default mode and more goal-directed activity. 

DUBNER: That is so interesting, what you just told us, if true. And I don’t mean that you’re making it up, I just know that f.M.R.I. studies are at their very, very early days of really understanding how the brain drives thought, behaviors, and so on. 


DUBNER: But it did make me wonder. So you said the default mode network is inversely correlated with executive function, which makes sense. But I’m curious if there are other correlations, positive or negative, with physiological effects? In other words, is it good for us, on some dimension, to sit and think about close to nothing? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, the study I’m about to tell you about is not a neuroscience study, so there was not a f.M.R.I. component, but Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert, two psychologists who used a different way of studying mind-wandering, something called “experience sampling,” where you ping someone, send them a text message, or otherwise alert them. And then, just in the moment, you ask them some questions. So you’re sampling their experience. And what Matt and Dan found was that when they pinged people and the answer was that they weren’t doing much of anything, that they were basically mind-wandering or daydreaming, there wasn’t a goal or task, that actually they were less happy. And so it may not be that most people like this state. Or it could be other things, like maybe, when you are less happy, then your mind wanders. So maybe the direction of causality goes the other way. 

DUBNER: Okay. So let’s say that I don’t want to be on my phone all the time, and I don’t want to administer electric shocks to keep myself from being unable to be with myself at the moment. Can you give us any specific, fruitful, or useful ways to engage our mind? Is thinking out scenarios useful? Is going back into our memory bank? Is trying to tell ourselves stories or come up with counterfactuals to actual events? What do you suggest? 

DUCKWORTH: Well I’ll be honest, if I even sat on the couch, let’s say, for hours, I think by the time I got to minute 30, I would have forgotten anything that I had thought about at minute five. And I think the mind really is a sieve. Usually what happens when I’m thinking, I whip out a journal to write in. 

DUBNER: Well, if you’re like most people, or at least like the research that I’ve read in the past, writing actually helps the thinking. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Writing is this great invention because it kind of extends human memory. When we’re thinking, and we’ve got a pencil in our hand, and we’ve got a notebook in front of us, then we can write down those thoughts and move on to new ones and then look back and see what we wrote and then connect them. And we’re still in reverie. I think that counts, frankly, as this state of just thinking and not doing. I mean, you do this, right? Do you not write in order to think? 

DUBNER: So yes, it is true. Thinking and writing, to me, feed each other. But what’s really transfixed me is this tangent that you took us on here about memory. As you say, the mind doesn’t seem to be very good at that. On the other hand, Anders Ericsson, when he was starting out, trained a couple guys to memorize many, many digits and found that they were able to go way beyond what you would normally think. But then, if we think back to generations and generations ago the Torah, the Jewish Bible, was just passed from generation to generation, orally. So that does suggest that the human mind is certainly capable of engaging with that component, the memory component, and the storytelling component, and the fact-retention component much more than we do now.  And the reason we don’t do it now is because we don’t have to do it now. Right? But it does make me think that, “Oh my goodness, what potential there is in each and every brain to think harder, deeper, longer, in a way that we’re just absolutely not now.” So I’m less worried about someone “wasting their time by being on Snapchat for an hour,” and more just thinking about the waste of the potential of literally the brainpower in all of us. Not that we want to use it to memorize Gilgamesh, necessarily, but what are we losing by not engaging our brains regularly in realms beyond the standard kind of problem-solving, decision-making, and so on? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And I do think that we mold ourselves to our current situation. I mean, I don’t even know my own daughters’ phone numbers. But why? Because they’re in my favorites. 

DUBNER: It’s funny you say that. My son is always berating me for not knowing his phone number. 

DUCKWORTH: And you should tell him, “Why should I know it?” 

DUBNER: That’s exactly what I say. But then he says, “Yeah, but when we were little, you forced us to memorize your phone number so that if we ever needed to call you.” And he’s totally right. He’s like, “What if you lose your phone and you need to reach me?” And then, my answer to him is, “if I lose my phone, I have bigger problems than needing to reach you.” 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. 

DUBNER: But that’s not a very satisfying answer if you’re my child, I think. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. That usually doesn’t help much. But look, nevertheless, your proper point is that everything about us is use it or lose it. And what are we losing by not using, just because our cell phones make it possible? And I do wonder. Walter Mischel, another psychologist, used to contrast self-control with stimulus-control. And this is because when he studied young children, he realized that one of the things they really struggled with is the ability to really take control of their own thoughts, their own emotions, and their own behavior. They seemed to be controlled by their environment, by their situations. And I do think that is one of the things that is easy to slip into, that you’re just reacting all the time. 

DUBNER: What are your thoughts on meditation? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that was the other thing I was going to bring up. So I said, look, I like writing in a journal, that helps me extend periods of reverie and make them more productive. Meditation, mindfulness — I went to a workshop, now several years ago. I wasn’t intrinsically that interested, but I thought “Oh, mindfulness sounds like the panacea for problems of self-control,” and that’s what I was working on with kids. So I went to this workshop by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was a one-day workshop. And I remember distinctly, first of all, that it was really hard, right? Because like much of that day you’re just supposed to lie there on your mat with your own thoughts. I fell asleep many times. He said not to feel bad about it. I felt a little bit bad in a room of 250 people. And then this is my last memory of it: so the workshop ended at something like 4:30, and I think I had mis-timed it, and I had to leave at 4:15, and I roll up my mat, and then as everyone else was, like, mindfully ending the session. I was like, “Excuse me. Sorry. Oh, so sorry! So sorry.” Just picking up people’s water bottles I had knocked over. So anyway, I’m not very good at mindfulness. I do think that the idea is really important, and the definition that I like for mindfulness is “nonjudgmental awareness of the present.” And that sounds a lot like reverie, right? That you’re noticing what’s going on when you’re just alone, and that you’re not judging, but you’re observing in a very attentive, curious way. So, yeah. Mindfulness as a practice could be a way for people to get better at reverie. 

DUBNER: And what are your thoughts on the relationship of walking and the mind? Because there are people who say that the act of walking is mentally stimulating, much more than you’d think, because you’re constantly mapping and adjusting and so on. And then you also read that many creative people in history from arts, philosophy and so on, that they were big walkers. That Dickens would take his hour and a half constitutional every day. On the other hand, there was nothing else to do back then because we didn’t have Snapchat. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, if he had Snapchat, he would just sit there. 

DUBNER: But I’m curious if you know anything, again, about the kind of psychological/physiological connection between walking and thinking, and whether that’s a profitable route for people to pursue?  

DUCKWORTH: I think there’s research by Art Kramer that says that cardiovascular exercise has benefits for executive function, that’s research that says if you work out a lot, then your executive function can be maintained or improved. I don’t think that means that while you’re working out necessarily that you have better brain function or executive function in particular. 

DUBNER: Right. 

DUCKWORTH: My guess is if there isn’t an abundance of modern scientific research, we do have all these examples. We also have the peripatetics, philosophers who did all their thinking while walking. There’s also something called a walking meditation. And there are also these religious traditions where you’d walk a maze and while you’re walking, you’re thinking. 

And my guess is that what these things have in common is that, unlike rock climbing, where you are really actively engaged in what’s going on around you, and therefore you’re probably not daydreaming, or mind-wandering. In these predictable walks that you take, you’re busying some part of you in a pleasant way, and that is actually liberating your mind to go off in directions that it wouldn’t be otherwise. And for a lot of people, that probably is a lot easier than just literally sitting cross-legged on the floor trying to just be with their thoughts. 

DUBNER: Golf, I should say, is a walking meditation to some degree. 

DUCKWORTH: You are a walker in New York, and you’re a golfer. Are you in reverie when you’re doing these things? 

DUBNER: When I walk by myself in the city, the act of walking seems to be a catalyst for a certain kind of thinking. And it’s my favorite kind of thinking. Sometimes I’ll have really big thoughts. Sometimes I’ll have very specific like, “Oh, that sentence I was working on, I now know why it didn’t work. I need to flip the last two phrases.” But these are the kinds of thoughts that just don’t happen when I sit and try to think. That’s why I’m interested in for people who have a really hard time sitting alone with their thoughts, if there are ways to trick yourself by finding an activity that inspires, or that conspires, to produce some of this nice sort of thinking. Because, you know, I can’t see how it’d be a very good feeling to be addicted to your phone, honestly. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s right. The idea that if you could occupy yourself in some way that makes this reverie or daydreaming a little better for you, I think it’s a great idea. And I think this is why there are people who not only take long walks in New York or golf, but also just pacing. I mean, aren’t there lots of lithographs of people with their hand in a fist, just pacing and thinking. So, it seems like we’re both pro-thinking. I think we both worry about the opportunity cost of being constantly stimulated by these cheap-thrill technologies. And I think that if journal writing or walking the streets helps people do less of the mindless reacting to stimuli, I think that’s a good thing. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the unique relationship between parents and adolescents. 

DUCKWORTH:  I’ve done a lot of research showing— 

DUBNER: Oh, I thought you going to say, “I’ve done a lot of harm in my teenagers’ lives.” 

DUCKWORTH: No, I’m trying to do less harm. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: So, Stephen, you know my husband, Jason.

DUBNER: I do, a very nice man.

DUCKWORTH: He’s very nice. So he said, about our two teenage daughters, who are close to adulthood, one is 18 and the other one is nearly 17, and Jason said, “There’s not much you can do after a kid turns 10 to influence really anything about them.” Now, that’s a pretty extreme statement. And I wondered if you would agree.  

DUBNER: I’m sure that he was kind of exaggerating-ish.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, otherwise we wouldn’t be parenting, right? 

DUBNER: I do tend to mostly agree, but not entirely. So the mostly agree part is related to the fact that there’s a ton of research showing that what you do in the early years of a kid’s life, and maybe even more important, what you do before the kid is born, like what kind of person you are, has a great effect on how they turn out. You know, obviously there’s nature, genetics, which is at least a large component, if not the majority, but not even necessarily in the direction that people think. So one thing that we wrote about was the effect of what we called culture cramming, Baby Mozart, taking them to museums. Plainly, that was not the magic bullet. There’s a lot of correlation because the kind of families that tend to do that a lot are high-I.Q. families. Families that had a lot of books in the home tended to have kids who read a lot better. But it wasn’t that these books magically jumped off the shelves into the kids’ brains. It’s that the kind of parents who have a lot of books —. 

DUCKWORTH: They’re doing lots of things.  

DUBNER: Yeah, and they tend to be higher I.Q. people. But, the thing that is showing up in data over and over and has been for years is that what you can do for kids is, it boils down to love them, give them basic cognitive and physical and emotional support. And that seems to work really well. And there is evidence from your field, Carl Pickhardt, who wrote about the ages at which a parent exerts the most influence on children. Here’s a short passage: “The child up to ages 8 to 9 admires, even worships parents for the capability of what they can do and the power of approval that they possess. But in adolescence, beginning around 9 to 13, parents get kicked off the pedestal. It seems they can do no right.” So, I’m sure that’s an overgeneralization but that resonates for a lot of us. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, if nothing else, that adolescents are moving toward independence, and therefore they are much less likely to — 

DUCKWORTH: To take our advice, to do as we say. Yeah, but really, the parents of teenagers, we all experience this. There’s the difference between coming home from work, if you work outside the home, and just being enveloped in this, “Mommy, Daddy, you’re home!” To what feels like the opposite, right? My kids are often just annoyed at me. Just a low-level baseline annoyance that sometimes spikes if I say or do the wrong thing. There’s a really brilliant neuroscientist named Nim Tottenham. She’s at Columbia. And she’s done all this research on stress and fear. She had this graph where you can just see this sharp inflection point at age 10. So when you’re a child, you are easily comforted by your parents. They can buffer you against the fear response. You can be assured by them that everything’s going to be okay. And this doesn’t really work as well when you’re an adolescent. So adolescent human beings are not buffered, as it were, against fear and triggering of the amygdala, and so forth, when they’re older. 

DUBNER: There’s also research, that I’m sure you know, showing the influence of peers that grows as you get older, which is another contributory argument.  

DUCKWORTH: It’s part of the package, right? The whole package is: it’s time to become my own adult and not just a carbon copy of my parents. 

DUBNER: But I would say this. So I think this is an interesting and important question about what is the optimal age or the cutoff age at which parents can exert a lot of influence, although I would say the cutoff age is probably 50 or 70 or something. I mean, honestly. Because the relationship between parents and kids plainly doesn’t end when the kid becomes 12, or is out of the house, and so on. But I think — this is going to probably sound a little more negative than I mean it to sound — but with parenting, as with a lot of other leadership positions, teaching, or coaching or whatever, it’s a lot easier to make something terrible than it is to make something great. 

DUCKWORTH: You can do more harm than good. 

DUBNER: Yeah, and I think with parenting, as with teaching, or coaching, there’s potentially more downside than upside. So if anything, I’m not saying we need a parental Hippocratic oath, but the idea is right. 

DUCKWORTH: First, do no harm. 

DUBNER: Yeah. The poet Philip Larkin has this wonderful, terrible poem — terrible in the sense of horrifying. It’s called “This Be the Verse.” And the famous verse is, “They you f*ck up, your mom and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you up with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.” So that I think is maybe a rather stark way to point to what’s important to think about parenting, which is, it may be that if you look at all the parents who are consumed with helping their kids to become better, kinder, smarter, healthier, etc., I think it’s almost a paradox. Like, there’s probably not that much you can do, except that if you already feel that way about your kid as a parent, you’re probably already doing it. And, more important, you’re not going to do the negative stuff. You’re not going to do either the absenteeism, or the discouraging, or the violence, or any of those things. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I mean, in general, there’s this concept in psychology that bad is stronger than good. I mean, it kind of goes with the second law of thermodynamics, right? Like it’s just easier to destroy than it is to create. And, therefore, then as parents, we should just first and foremost try not to do harm. So that all makes sense. And there is a lot of research that shows that having neglectful parents who just allow there to be chaos in your life, even when you’re a teenager, it can do a lot of harm. In fact, I’ve done a lot of research showing — 

DUBNER: Oh, I thought you going to say, “I’ve done a lot of harm in my teenagers’ lives.” 

DUCKWORTH: No, I’m trying to do less harm, but, I have done some research showing that when you look at teenagers and they just tick off on this little list of terrible things that could have happened in their lives. The more things they tick off, they have an emotional negative reaction, right? A stress response. Then, that leads to failures in self-control of all kinds. So, yeah, it’s bad, and you can easily do harm. And Walter Mischel, the psychologist behind the marshmallow test —

DUBNER: I feel bad that I only know Walter Mischel because of the marshmallow tests. And I know he had a long, distinguished career, right? 

DUCKWORTH: He did. He’s most famous in the public for the marshmallow test, this test of kids waiting, and delaying gratification, and then it being an index of their self-control. But he’s also famous for a second thing — for looking at “person effects,” as he called them, like things about you that influence your life, and then “situation effects.” 

DUBNER: What does that mean, “person effects”? Meaning your internal characteristics and how they drive outcomes?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, self-control, or you mentioned I.Q., or other things that would be, say, part of your personality. And then the situation effect would be like things that are not your personality, right? Like your opportunity or how many people are in the room. And his famous claim is that the situation can be more powerful than the person, that our life is at least as much our circumstances than who we are and what we bring to those circumstances. So that’s what he’s famous for also. But parents would track him down. They would ask him for parenting advice. He would say to them, “If you are coming to ask me for parenting advice, you don’t need any advice, because you’re the sort of parent who would track down a Columbia professor to get advice, and you’re probably fine.” I think that’s roughly true. I think that with teenagers though — I wonder, and I’m now speaking out of turn in a way, because I don’t know if there’s data on this — that when you try to give your teenager some pointers, it’s not always the smartest thing to do because they’re just not in that mode where they’re receiving it the way they would have when they were nine. But I think there might be some nuance there. And I personally think that with my own two kids that things that they would not seem to be listening to might be seeping in in other ways. Do you kind of have that suspicion that you kind of get rejected in the most overt or obvious ways, but somewhere in there, your kid is registering your values? 

DUBNER: I do. I also see that it seems to be a pretty common strategy with teenagers or older kids to overtly ignore the advice, or the sensibility even, while in the presence of the parent. But then, when the parent is not around, they exhibit it. So I’ve had people that my kids met at some event or whatever. They say, “Your kid said this to me. It was such a thoughtful, generous, nice, considerate thing to say.” And I’m like, “My kid said that? Are you sure you were talking to my kid?” I remember when I was a teenager the last thing I wanted to do was to follow the kind of moral or ethical advice right then and there. But I think it does soak in. But getting back to your husband’s original question about does the influence really diminish a lot? I think there’s probably, as we’ve agreed, good evidence that, yes, it does, but obviously not to zero. And also, I think there’s a lot of variance. And I just wanted to say from my own experience, so I was the youngest of eight. And our dad died when I was about 10. And then for the last several years of high school, it was just me and my mom. So, obviously, we spent a lot of time together, and I loved her very much. But I could not wait to get out of there. And she was very, very religious and I was not feeling that. I was never really overtly rebellious. But, if you had asked me then: is she a big influence on you? I would have said absolutely not. And then I went off to college. I was playing in this band. And I really want to drop out of college. And she said to me, not a stern tone, because she was trying to not be outright rejected. She said, “You know, I don’t think that’s a good idea, because you may not do music forever, and you may want to go to grad school. And it’s going to be a lot harder to go back to college and finish up.” And I was like, “Grad school?” We were trying to become rock stars; we weren’t thinking about grad school.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m in a band here. 

DUBNER: But I thought about it. And I figured she was smart, and she was much more experienced in life. And I was a little scared of her, honestly. So I listened, and I stuck it out. And then when I ultimately did quit playing music, I was really glad I had listened, because I ended up going to graduate school almost immediately afterwards. And it turned out to be really useful in my future. 

DUCKWORTH: She planted a seed. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Thanks, Mom. And for your husband, tell him maybe not to give up so quickly if he’s so inclined. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, he’s very, well, shall I use the word gritty? I might. And here’s something that he has done. He writes letters to my kids. It’s so cute. Right? I mean, and he prints them out in hardcopy. He’s a little bit of a Luddite. So he doesn’t really like the idea of electronics, or email, especially if it’s something where he feels like there’s going to be a lot of pushback, and there’s going to be a lot of conflict, and there’s going to be a lot of emotion. And then the conversation is not going to go anywhere. 

DUBNER: So are these letters intended to be read now, or much later, or indeterminate? 

DUCKWORTH: I think they’re written to be read now. 

DUBNER: Are they read now? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m not 100 percent sure they all are. In one case, I asked, “Your dad wrote you a letter about this.” And my daughter was like, “Yeah, I know. And I didn’t read it.” I don’t know if that meant that she was never going to read it. My guess is that they’re all read at some point, and I’m guessing that he’s getting his message through. 

DUBNER: And I would also hazard a guess that the kind of parent who writes a letter to his kid is probably the kind of parent that’s not going to pull a Philip Larkin and totally screw up the kids. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. One would think that he is at least doing no harm. 

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s questions.

In the first part of the show, Stephen and Angela discuss both walking and writing as catalysts for reverie, but they left out one big one: the shower! I was reminded of this while reading memorist Glennon Doyle’s most recent book, Untamed. In an early chapter of the book, Doyle’s daughter says to her, “Mom, it’s like I don’t have any ideas all day, but then when I get in the shower, my brain is full of cool stuff. I think it’s the water or something.” Doyle responds to her, “Could be the water. Or it could be that the shower’s the only place you’re not plugged in — so you can hear your own thoughts in there.” She goes on to explain to her child that this is called “thinking,” and it’s “something folks did before Google.” Also, I would like to recommend the Reddit page “shower thoughts,” for those who are interested in this particular kind of reverie. This is a subreddit dedicated to “those miniature epiphanies you have that highlight the oddities within the familiar.”

During the conversation about parental influence, Angela mentions psychologist Walter Mischel’s belief that situation has greater influence on human beings than individual personality traits. This is a controversial stance called “situationism,” which many of his peers disagreed with. In his 1968 book Personality and Assessment, Mischel concludes that the very concept of personality is problematic because people behave so differently, depending on the situation. Interestingly, his famous marshmallow study seems to contradict this idea. The study measured children’s willpower and conscientiousness by timing how long they could resist a marshmallow. Children who resisted longer ultimately went on to achieve higher education and experience lower drug use than children who displayed lower willpower and conscientiousness — thus, demonstrating the power of personality. This reportedly drove the poor situationist crazy. 

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. 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 our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela drop a reference to something that you’d like to learn a little more about, remember visit to check out all of the studies and references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: You need a sandwich. 

DUBNER: That’s your answer to everything. 

DUCKWORTH: It is! I think the whole world would be a better place if we could all sit down and break sandwiches together. 

Read full Transcript


Question #1: How comfortable are you being alone with your thoughts for an extended period of time?

  • When discussing reverie, Angela mentions an experiment by Tim Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. His experiment gathered undergraduates in a room with the choice of either sitting alone with their thoughts or shocking themselves. 67 percent of male participants and 25 percent of female participants were so bored that they chose electrocution.
  • Angela also recommends watching the “Phones Down: 20 Minute Challenge” from Jubilee Media. Teenagers sit in an empty room with their phones in front of them, and are told not to touch them.
  • Angela and Stephen talk about “the default-mode network,” the part of the brain that displays activity when you’re “not doing anything.” Neuroscientists identified this area through fMRI experiments — a technology still in its infancy.
  • Angela mentions Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert’s research on the wandering mind. In a study, they messaged 2,250 adults to identify their activity and mood at different times of the day, and found that people who were mind-wandering were less happy than others. You can read the full paper, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”
  • Stephen refers to a memory experiment by psychologist Anders Ericsson, in which individuals were trained to remember a long series of digits, demonstrating that humans have a strong fact-retention ability. The experiment is described in depth in his book, Peak. Stephen and Angela talked extensively about Ericsson and his work in No Stupid Questions Ep. 8, “Wouldn’t It Be Better to Hear Your Eulogy Before You’re Dead?
  • Angela talks about research from psychologist Walter Mischel on self-control and stimulus-control, especially in children. You can read more into his original study here. He was also a mentor to Maria Konnikova, author of The Biggest Bluff, who was featured in the Freakonomics Radio episode “How to Make Your Own Luck.”
  • Angela mentions attending a mindfulness workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn has a Ph.D in biology and is a professor of medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also a writer and teaches meditation with the intention of achieving mainstream recognition of mindfulness in society and medicine.
  • Angela mentions the work of Art Kramer, who determined that cardiovascular exercise can have benefits on executive function. Kramer is a psychologist at Northeastern University, and you can read more about his research here.
  • Angela talks about the peripatetics, or “the walking philosophers.” This term stems from the fourth century B.C.E. when a school founded by Aristotle was built within walking distance of the Athens walls.

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Question #2: Do parents have any significant influence over their children once they reach adolescence?

  • Stephen and his Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt wrote about “culture cramming” in the chapter of their book “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” They analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and found culture cramming activities (like making your child listen to Mozart) do not have a significant effect on early childhood test scores.
  • Stephen talks about Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence. Picikhardt concludes that parents “get kicked off the pedestal” between the ages of 9 and 13. You can read his summary of this research here.
  • Angela mentions a paper from Columbia University neuroscientist Nim Tottenham on parental ability to “buffer” fear and stress responses in children. You can read more about her research here.
  • Stephen quotes the poem This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin. Larkin was an English poet who published much of his work in the 1960s and won numerous awards in the 1970s. He was also a professor at the University of Hull in England.
  • Stephen and Angela mention psychologist Walter Mischel’s research on “person effects” vs “situation effects.” In his book, Personality and Assessment, he claims that situations are more influential on human behavior than individual personality.