Better Choices in 2024: Logic or Emotion? (with Stephen Dubner)

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As the author and podcast host of “Freakonomics,” Stephen Dubner spends a lot of time thinking about and studying what goes into good decision-making. He gives Sam tips on balancing logic with emotion, offers ways to use your imagination to help you make a choice, and defends the coin-flip method.

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Samantha Bee, Stephen Dubner

Samantha Bee  00:00

As I’m sure you’ve picked up on by now, this whole first month of the year, we’re looking at how we can set ourselves up to make better decisions in 2024. Now, this is coming off of more than six months of asking my guests for their life changing choices. But today, we are taking a step back and looking at not just how we make good decisions, but how we make any decisions. So nadda, no and that got me thinking about my decision process.  Am I happy with it? Is it effective? Am I actually good at making decisions? Now, if you have ever asked me a question or worked with me in any capacity, you surely know that one of my favorite things to do is Mall. Not cider, not wine, but decisions. I’m a big Mueller. In fact, when I would say things like I need to move this in truly drove the people who worked with me absolutely crazy. You’re like, just decide, I’m like, again, a mall? I gotta sleep on it. I sit with decisions. Sometimes they weigh on me heavily, I think that’s good, an answer isn’t always obvious, who am I to say that I know the answer immediately. There isn’t always power in that getting to something quickly. Doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right. I don’t have hot takes for everything. I mean, except if the question is, if you should get the bread plate at a fancy restaurant, you should always get the bread plate. Every other question. I’m going to need to take a beat on.


Samantha Bee  02:00

This is Choice Words I’m Samantha Bee, and I really believe in the power of saying I don’t know. Today, I spoke with Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame, about the nitty gritty of decision making and how important those three words I don’t know really are. We need more people to feel confident taking a beat. It’s okay to be vulnerable and think something through. If you know something immediately. I mean, that is so great. We definitely need that too, for sure. But I think we’d all benefit so much, if there was less of a macho, like, need to know the answer to everything before it even happens. And more of a desire to spend the time needed to figure out things together. So take a listen, and make good choices slowly, if you need to.


Samantha Bee  03:04

First of all, can I say is it okay for me to give you multiple compliments before we start? Because, your voice is so familiar to me, because I listen to you all the time. And it’s nice to hear your audiobooks, in fact, I’m listening to think like a freak, how was this? I love it, I’m at the part now where you’re talking about David Lee Roth. And I just want to say it’s very impactful to me, I mean, everybody who’s me we are going to talk about think like a freak today because it’s the new year and I want to talk about rational decision making is something that is very much on my mind. But there is a section in think like freak about David Lee Roth and his rider, Van Halen performance rider and how they put something so specific in their rider to ensure that the crew at whatever venue they were going to, would actually read their technical requirements to do their show safely and successfully. And I want to say that I did a tour myself and we did that. Everybody employs that technique in the writers.


Stephen Dubner  04:19

You did it with m&ms or something.


Samantha Bee  04:20

We did it with something else. And what was in my writer was that I needed a framed picture of a witch in my dressing room. No matter where did you doesn’t matter the wedge?


Stephen Dubner  04:33

No way a picture a photograph of anything.


Samantha Bee  04:36

It’s your interpretation, an image of a witch funny and was scary. Doesn’t matter, that’s not the point.


Stephen Dubner  04:43

That is so cute. It’s just a it’s just a very good writer. It makes me want to go out on tour again. Just to come up with a writer.


Samantha Bee  04:52

Wasn’t Stephen Dubner as a writer. You got to make it really difficult for people.


Stephen Dubner  04:57

I think it would be that someone would need to come in and rub my little doggie the way that I rub her because she likes it, but not many people know how to do it.


Samantha Bee  05:05

She’d like it from anybody who doesn’t.


Stephen Dubner  05:08

No, that would be the trick is that she would then bite them. But that would be.


Samantha Bee  05:12

That’s just for you. That’s just a little easter egg for you, that’s your joy. All right, Stephen Dubner this show is about choice, as you may have guessed, from the name Choice Words. And I usually talk to my guests about the big choices that they’ve made. But I actually wanted to talk to you take a step back, to understand how we even make choices. I mean, for starters, everybody. When you ask somebody, when I ask a guest, how do you how do you make choices? How do you make big decisions in your life, everybody has a very different approach. And I want to tell you, a lot of people who answer that question on this show, say, I just swing for the fences. I just go with my dad, I just do what feels right in the middle of the night. But how do you how do you make big decisions? Are you as rational as you seem to be?


Stephen Dubner  06:15

So first of all, I really love this question, because I think it gets to the core of what it means to be a whatever, a blank human, a smart, human, compassionate human, you know, successful human, whatever that thing, because if you think about it, we are making choices all day every day. And that is kind of part of the problem, which is that you can’t think them all through you have to use you know, psychologists have this horrible word called heuristics, you have to have heuristics to think about, here’s a, here’s a type of choice. Here’s a framework, I know this type of choice, I know this framework. So it’s basically just a shortcut, and I mean, you do have to have a million shortcuts, because if not, you’d be paralyzed with like, what kind of cereal you’re gonna have.


Samantha Bee  07:03

Right? Like I’ve read that we make like 35,000 choices are like, an immense number of tiny choices, in addition to the kind of bigger ones.


Stephen Dubner  07:12

Wow, so since that’s the case, then probably the first thing look, okay. Let me just preface this by saying I would not listen to anything that I have to say if I’m looking for actual advice. Because I’m not an expert, I’m not a therapist, I’m not, I’m a nothing I mean, I’m, I like myself, fine, but I’m not. I’m not positioning myself as an advice giver. Okay, just to be fair, but I will say this, I think it’s important to triage and prioritize a lot. And one thing that I’ve been working on lately is downgrading the importance of certain types of decisions. In other words, whether it’s in your personal life, or your work, or whatever you do, I think all of us have this set of decisions or choices that we think are more important than they are for all different kinds of reasons. And one thing I try to do is step back, and I try to do this really often not, I don’t do it often enough, but I try to really do this every day or two and think, kay, what were the things that I really sweated over today that were stupid, that were a waste of my time, either the difference between A and B weren’t that great? Or even if I didn’t think about it, it wouldn’t have mattered, or often this is the case, whatever there are other, can I get someone else to make that choice? Like, am I the best person to make that choice? And so I think that’s a big piece of my process these days, at least. And another big one recently, for me, I can’t remember who taught me this, it might have been my friend Angela Duckworth, who said that, you know, deciding to not make a decision in the moment is also a decision. In other words, and this came about with me, because, you know, I’ve been writing and playing music since I was very young. And so I have boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff. And I can’t get rid of it. I can’t I’m an install just to some degree, but I also hate having and every time you move, you know, you have to storage bins, blah, blah, blah, so I thought, well, this year, I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to go through it all I’m going to sort of annotate it or categorize it, then I’ll digitize some things, I’ll keep some things I’ll throw out a lot and I’ve just been paralyzed by because it’s such a big task and also, I don’t know how you feel about this. I feel nostalgia is a double edged sword.


Samantha Bee  09:43

Okay, say more about. Well, yes, I think I agree with you, I think I agree with you. I feel like it’s, you can’t help it’s sweet. There’s something achy about it on some level. But I also think of there was there was like this French model and writer in as deliver songs and as she has a book and in the book, the words banish nostalgia. Oh my goodness banish nostalgia. And so I do try to practice that as much as possible. Like if it’s nostalgia that doesn’t really serve me and it seems to like harken back to something that is really not real. I try to put it away, I don’t know.


Stephen Dubner  10:30

Yeah, I guess I like to think I can do that. I maybe I even do do that I feel like nostalgia is well, it’s many things. It’s, it’s a really interesting phenomenon to me, but one thing that it is that I don’t like, for me, at least is it’s a little bit narcissistic. It’s like, I am so interesting and important that I have like, I played music for a bunch of years, I was my first career I was in a band, we we were we started not that great, then we got better, and then we got a record deal. And we started making a record and I decided I did not want that life after all. And so I quit, so that was a big decision, that was that was a big one. And but still, I have probably six to eight large boxes of stuff from the band, including one box of like press clippings, and another of set lists. So you know, if you’re in a band, you write out before the before the gig you write out with your fellow bandmates. You say okay, what do we want to play tonight? Ba ba, what order do I have to switch guitars or and then you write it out, and then you duct tape it to the floor, this is how it’s been from time immemorial. Some people don’t do that anymore, but a lot of people still do. Like, do I really need 400? And I think well, they’re all different, like this one was from Charlotte, North Carolina. This one was from New York seat. That’s absurd, isn’t it? To keep those.


Samantha Bee  11:55

I both do think and don’t think that it’s absurd, it is.


Stephen Dubner  12:02

No, thanks, thanks a lot and helping me make the decision?


Samantha Bee  12:04

Well, you know what, it’s not I would say this, I don’t think it’s a decision that you have to make. I think as long as you’re agonizing over the decision, you don’t need to make it if it’s giving you if it’s if it’s sort of painful to imagine throwing out this, you know, essentially this journey through your life, then you’re just not at a place where you should get rid of it. I do kind of think there’s something organic about it. If you’re like, suddenly, because one day you will wake up and go, I have 400 set lists, could I just keep the top 10 for when I’m quitting,


Stephen Dubner  12:45

But the problem there, and this is the real problem is that it requires a lot of thought and thinking right. But I will say this, either Angela Duckworth or somebody else taught me that sometimes a decision to not decide now is a very, very good decision. And I feel I’ve been a lot happier about that. The, to me, the  main sort of formula that goes into any decision is very much however, a blend of rational as you might call it, and emotional. Because a lot of the people that I hang out with, especially a lot of economists and other academics, they really are unbelievably beautiful, rational thinkers. But they often leave out the human part. A lot of the humans I like to hang out with are not particularly rational. And so over the years, I’ve come to believe that just like there’s Yin and Yang are hot and cold, whatever all the elements that go together beautifully. I think rationality and emotion go together beautifully if you allow them. One hard part, however, in decision making, and this is a personal conclusion that I would argue is based on some data, but I don’t have a good feel for the evidence. But I believe that we humans are quite bad at predicting our emotional responses to events. In other words, let’s say you know, my mom, my dad died when I was little, and my mom died when I was maybe 35 or something. And I figured man, I’ve been you know, I’ve had a dead parent for so long. Like I really know how to handle this. And so even though my mom and I had a very, I would say fairly close and very intense relationship. I’ve written a book about a spiritual journey hers going in one direction mind going in the opposite direction. So I was sure when she died that I was just going to pick up the pieces and you know, it’s tomorrow let’s go and it knocked me on my ass. And I realized then that if you think you know your emotional state after that wasn’t a choice, obviously, your decision, but after a change, I think you’re deceiving yourself. And so I think that’s why choices are so hard generally, even if you do the math and get the rational part, right, the emotional part is unpredictable. And that’s what makes life kind of thrilling and a little scary.


Samantha Bee  15:16

That’s what makes it just a beautiful kaleidoscope of experiences.


Samantha Bee  15:22

We’ll be right back with Stephen Dubner after this.


Samantha Bee  15:42

Know I liked what you’re talking about to, at the beginning, when you’re talking about prioritizing decisions, it sort of reminds me of something, some advice that I got when I was having starting to have children about 18 years ago.


Stephen Dubner  15:56

How many do you have?


Samantha Bee  15:57

Like three? I might.


Stephen Dubner  15:59

Congratulate, that’s a good number.


Samantha Bee  16:01

That’s a good number. My eldest is turning 18. So she’ll be a full legal adult.


Stephen Dubner  16:07

Can she take apart and reassemble small firearm yet?


Samantha Bee  16:11

Well, hopefully soon. Though, she actually, she actually asked me for permission to get a second ear piercing the other day. And I said, I think you’re a legal adult. And if you want to get a tattoo of the word murder across your face, you’re actually legally entitled to do so.


Stephen Dubner  16:31

Wow, that sounds like encouragement from us.


Samantha Bee  16:33

So anyway, good, like fingers crossed. But when when we starting to have children, somebody somebody told us, and I don’t remember who it was, they were, like, just categorize things in terms of biggies and smallies. And I feel like that’s a kind of a juvenile way to talk about what you’re saying about just prioritizing the things that we agonize over in a triage system, and I really like thinking about it that way.


Stephen Dubner  17:03

Yeah, it’s I think part of the problem is that, you know, there’s this, I guess, spectrum that was created by I want to say it was Barry Schwartz, this research psychologist, but I could very well be wrong on it. But it’s the spectrum. Well, this isn’t the complete spectrum. I guess on the one end of the spectrum, you’d have someone who doesn’t care about anything at all. Okay, and we don’t know many people like that, but there are some. But the spectrum that I’m talking about goes from satisficer to Maximizer. maximizer is someone who believes that for every decision, there is a right decision. And it’s really important to make the best decision, you’re an optimizer. And then there’s the satisficer, which is like yeah, pretty good is usually good enough. So I definitely think about that scale all the time, like probably 20 times a day. But what I try to do is I say is this decision is does this one need maximizing? So if it’s something for my work, something that I care about a lot, or something with my family, where there’s something important if someone is sick or whatever, some big issue, I figured, yeah, this is time to think about maximizing to think about really working hard to get the right decision. But in most cases, satisficing is good enough. And I feel like that saves a lot of time. I think the word decision making is interesting and frustrating to me is and this is more related to Freakonomics Radio. And the work that I do generally, is that oftentimes there are what seemed to be good decisions, or what you might call pro social decisions, right? Like that, say there’s some research and there’s some policy being considered but very seldom does the rational thinking behind that decision, turn into action or policy. And that’s because life is messy politics is even messier, and so on. And so I think that’s just an eternal frustration, if you’re a believer, in sort of the scientific method of thinking about decision making, is that even if you think that you know, exactly the right thing to do in a given case, there’s a really good chance that the person on the other side of that decision just disagrees with you. And and then to not blame them for holding a different opinion from you. I think that’s where we’ve gotten in such a jam with our horrible partisanship to the point where we can’t even be friends are in the same family with people who may hold a different position, even if that position isn’t disgusting to us, because that decision or that choice of theirs may be connected to the menu of other fine dishes decisions or feelings that people in a different political party or religion or whatnot may have. And that’s terrible, so I think that the more we can all think about the more we can all reflect, I guess, is the word we would use today. On how important is this one? How strongly do I feel about it? And also, how assure am I that I’m right.


Samantha Bee  20:10

That feels like the missing piece in a lot of people’s brains? Am I sure that I’m right about this? I think people feel very sure that they’re right there.


Stephen Dubner  20:19

How do we get there? I mean, it’s not like we’ve never been like this in history, people have had, you know, there have been many terrible decisions made through history by people who were convinced that they were right. But um, you know, we have more information now but also, theoretically, we should communicate better with each other. And that’s where I don’t mean to jump on the social medias terrible bandwagon that everybody is on these days. But I do think that communicating in a really truncated, shrunken down attenuated form, has turned us all into kind of slogan years, at our worst, and that’s, that’s not good for humankind.


Samantha Bee  20:58

That’s true, and I do think that the way that our media silos us now or in so that you’re constantly in a pool with people who see the world in the same kind of framing as you, and you will often just not be served, you’re just not served other information in a way that delights you.


Stephen Dubner  21:23

The technology has gotten I mean, digital technology is unbelievably good at sorting, right? I mean, if you think about it, if I want to look for a given object or a book on Amazon, in a millisecond, it can find exactly the book, which is an amazing use of computing power. On the other hand, it also sorts all of us, into those silos that you were talking about but can I just say, I personally think of myself as not a super social person, I work on my own. I like that, I don’t think of myself as liking people, on average all that much. But in the last, like this work trip I was on it was for a conference, it was a conference of like 10 or 15,000 economists, which, you know, create your own menu of jokes from that, but it was so good to be with people. And the biggest thing I noticed that felt good for me, is the minute someone would say something that was strong in some way that that exuded a strong opinion, or feeling or emotion, you could see them check themselves, to see whether that strongness that strong opinion, how it was received by the other person. And if it wasn’t received with a quick embrace, then they moderated. Well, moderation is a fantastic human ability. But there are settings in which we are not only not discussed, in which we’re not only discouraged from moderating, but we’re encouraged to not be monitored, and that’s what a lot of online behavior is and so I do think that maybe things will or are getting better my co author, Steve Levitt, who’s a brilliant man, an economist at the University of Chicago, he did a lot of work in crime and the economics of crime and so on. And he came up with a theory, although this part of the theory, I think, is a little bit more argumentative or opinion than than empirical but what was empirical is the crack boom was huge and then it receded, it didn’t go away, but it receded. And it’s very hard to answer a question like, why that was, there could be a million factors, so he was thinking about this in context of why overall crime had risen so much and gone down, it was obvious that when crack selling declined, that overall crime went down a lot, because there was a lot of crime around crack. But in terms of the question, why crack consumption declined, his theory was that it was such a bad drug, it was so damaging to the person that the next generation of users so like the little brother of the crack user, or the cousin or whatever, they would look at the people using and say, that’s not a good drug. And I am with fingers crossed, hoping that we’re looking at social media. A little bit like crack in that yeah, I see the upside but you have to really watch out.


Samantha Bee  24:28

Yes, I’m watching I’m waiting for the I’m waiting for the the swing back. I was a little bit as a parent, I was a little bit excited that they were at least talking about banning Tiktok. Like a little bit I know. There’s a lot that goes along with that, but there was just a little part of me that thought, well, it wouldn’t what would it be so would it be so awful if we didn’t have it?


Stephen Dubner  24:55

How much are your kids into TikTok and what do they like it for?


Samantha Bee  24:59

I think that It mostly all kids are so it’s not it’s it’s not unique to my household but.


Stephen Dubner  25:07

I think the […]


Samantha Bee  25:08

Not as big on it, but I bet on the Rumspringa that’s all they do. They just sit there phones for 16 hours a day. I think that they like it because it’s funny, they like, they just like it because it’s Mike. it’s like it because it’s it is. Because it’s funny, and it is funny. I don’t like it because it’s funny, and I’m not making […]  Yeah, because I’m not responsible for those funny things, so I can’t bear it. I’m too jealous.


Stephen Dubner  25:37

I like your candor, though.


Samantha Bee  25:40

There’s more with Stephen Dubner in just a moment.


Samantha Bee  26:00

So I usually do I start the show, we’re well into the show now. But I always start by asking a guest about a life changing choice that they’ve made. And I know you’ve made so many, but in the spirit of reflecting on 2023, can you point to an interesting or great decision, a fake one that you made last year?


Stephen Dubner  26:24

This wasn’t from last year, this is from a million years ago, but when you asked the question, this is really what so I grew up and became. So I was, I didn’t really I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do or be able to like there were a lot of things that I that I wanted to do, like any kid like to be a shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles and so on but, you know, that’s kind of hard to do. And so I did, I played music, and I wrote and a few other things. And you sort of envision what it might be like to be really successful at that I think that’s a common, no kid thing for just about everyone. And so as it turns out, I did I mentioned earlier, I did music and was successful. And we’re kind of at the maybe the brink of a much larger success when I decided that that life was probably not healthy for me that being a rock star is awesomely fun. But everything about the lifestyle in the environment would make it I’m not saying impossible would make it really hard to live the kind of life I wanted to live, which was I wanted a family and I wanted you know, I wanted more not predictability but I wanted a sort of a version of wholesomeness if that makes any sense, okay. So I did I quit that that was very hard decision, because my entire identity was in the band. All of my friends were in this network aso that was a hard one, but it worked out. And then I got down to writing. And I went to grad school and was doing journalism. And after about four or five years of working like a dog and getting a little bit better every day, I was hired by the New York Times. And that was to me like I kind of pinched myself every day, I thought, I couldn’t believe that me from where I’d come from, had made it to the New York Times where most of my colleagues had much better education from the ground up, and they seem so worldly and sophisticated, and so on. And I was very, very happy about it. And I was proud, I was really proud. And I thought if you would ask me like in the first month, how long will you be here, I would have said, I will die at the New York Times, I promise you just the thought of being able to say that I worked at the New York Times was a thrill for me. That’s how much it meant to me. And then fast forward five years later, I decided to quit. And I decided to quit. Because even though I did love the New York Times, I what I really wanted to do was just be on my own and right. You can be a journalist, you can write articles, but you’re part then of a big machine. And I liked, I always thought of writing a little bit more like creative typer and artists than, let’s say a crafts person. And journalism is a little bit more on the craft side. And I wanted to have months and months of unbroken time on my calendar where I could work on for me what it was was books. And so before I decided to leave, I started working on my first book, which by the way, grew out of an article I’d written for the New York Times Magazine, so I was very beholden to them and I appreciated them they gave me a six month leave to write the book when I when I took the when I started on leave my editor or the editor of the Times Magazine, my boss, who was a very wise and very, very kind mentor. He said, just so you know, you’re not going to finish in six months, then you’re going to come back and then you’re going to have to juggle, but it’ll be okay. And he was right about that I came back. But like on day one coming back, I said to them, hey, listen, guys, I really appreciate your giving me this leave, but that’s what I want to do. I want to do that. And I said, But I in appreciation for having been so good to me, I promise I’ll stay for at least a full year, and so on. So this was a huge decision for me. And most people I knew, just thought I was an idiot for doing it. They say you’re a writer and an editor and you’re at the New York Times, why on earth do you want to do it, but there was, in my mind, a very clear notion that it was a better fit with who I am and who I wanted to be. And so that was a decision that I would say, if I had polled people, I probably would have had, like, 10% support. And yet, even though it was difficult and a little bit painful, because like when you are a writer, or an editor at the New York Times, and you call someone like anyone, they return your call, then you’re like, hey, I’m Stephen Dubner. I’m working on a book about baba, baba, bah, it’s a different story. But um, I knew it was right for me, just like I knew it was right to stop playing music. But that was a really hard decision that happened to work out right happened to work out well. And that I don’t regret it.


Samantha Bee  31:35

You’ve reached into two times over have reached the ultimate goal for so many people. So it’s almost I agree with you that it’s almost unimaginable for lots of people to walk away from either of those sets of circumstances. How do you.


Stephen Dubner  31:50

Maybe it’s that I’m a coward? And I’d rather quit before I get.


Samantha Bee  31:52

It is not that Stephen Dubner, no,  I’m you, you know yourself so well. You know, yourself so well. How did you come to know yourself that well, that you could, that you’re so guided by? I guess? What was the process like when quitting the band? For by way of example, did you act on it? did? Did you feel that coming for years? Did you know that you would quit? What was there an inciting? Was there a catalyst? Or it was just a lifestyle incompatible with who you are?


Stephen Dubner  32:33

Yeah, those are excellent questions. I would have to you could do my job much better than I have a feeling like so. So yeah, yes it’s a very perceptive question about like, how long did you think about this decision? In the case of the band the answer was quite a long time, probably a year, and a half so when you’re in a band, as anyone who’s ever been in the band knows, it’s a little bit like being married to several people at one time. It’s a very complex relationship with overlapping modes and nodes. I think we were all fairly immature, we were also we also happen to be very young I mean, honestly, the thing that finally led me to make the switch I do remember is I was sort of in secret, thinking about what I could do next, if I were to quit. And that was a really hard thought process, just because it was painful. Because I loved being in the band. I loved the band, I loved playing music and I thought, well, okay, these are the three things I thought I could do, I could be a writer, because I’d always written and I loved writing. For some reason, I thought I might be a financial and a financial planner, or financial advisor guy staying, okay, because, well, I like I have an older brother, I knew nothing about money. And we grew up very poor, and I had an older brother. He was like, you know, I mentioned my dad died early. So he was like a great fatherly figure in that way. And I thought, you know, I really love I think money was an amazing invention that people sometimes overlook, it’s it solved a lot of different problems. But because there’s so much emotion attached to money, a lot of us make really terrible decisions around it. And I thought, you know, I would like to learn the best ways to behave around money, and then help other people learn that I thought I’d be like a, you know, a kind of financial therapist. So there was writer, financial therapist, and then a therapist, therapist, I thought I might go to graduate school for psychology, might be a therapist, and but then I decided I’m too selfish for that. Like, I don’t want to hear about other people’s problems.


Samantha Bee  34:37

To onboard all these problems. I have my own decisions to make, please.


Stephen Dubner  34:42

Exactly, but in the process of thinking about that, I did find a couple and then I was still in the band, this was all this is all on the side. I did find a therapist, that was a friend of a friend and I remember having a great conversation with her about decision making essentially Sam about like, how the hell do you just like jump off what feels like a cliff, even if you think it might be a good idea, and she gave me such a simple piece of advice that was so beautiful, I use that I use it all the time still, which is okay, you have to use your imagination a little bit, imagine you wake up tomorrow, and you’re not blank for me it was in the band. What does that feel like? What does it look like? What does it smell like? What do you do with your day? What kind of what, you know, what’s the opportunity cost of being in the band? In other words, if you’re doing something that means you don’t have the time and resources to do this something else? What are the other things you could do now that you’re not in it? And that was the I think of it as kind of a Jedi trick that I was able to imagine what it would be like to wake up and it didn’t feel horrible and painful. So it was blank slate, and it was still scary but it was viable, and I knew that for me it was the right decision.


Samantha Bee  35:59

What a great exercise in imagination, like imagining what a day smells like, when you’re not in the band. What do you wake up and see what’s out your window? What are you going to do at 10am?


Stephen Dubner  36:13

Yeah, it’s, you know, our minds. One thing I like about the human brain is how many different dimensions it works on, like, our brains perform a lot of different functions, and imagination and curiosity and rational thinking and math, and they’re all they’re all in there. And so in this case, I just needed someone to direct me to use a part that I hadn’t really been using very much. And then let that decision, take advantage of other parts of the brain that had more experience that had more information and so on.


Samantha Bee  36:49

And when you tell the rest of the members in your band, as you’re on the precipice, as you’ve achieved success, they must have thought you are out of your gd mind.


Stephen Dubner  37:01

Well, maybe, I don’t know, and you know, to this day, I’ve never asked them because it’s too. I don’t know, I’m not good at having that kind of conversation there, maybe you are?


Samantha Bee  37:12

No, I’m terrible at it no, absolutely awful. I do want to talk because we’ve been speaking for a long time. But I do want to ask you about the power of saying I don’t know, when it comes to decision making. Because you say that those are the three hardest words to say, and the English language, and I think that I agree with you. People don’t say, I don’t know, nearly often enough.


Stephen Dubner  37:37

Agree. I think this I mean, that may sound radical to some people. But I think if you think about it for a minute, you’re like, oh, yeah, I should do it a lot, because if you think about it, everybody knows some stuff. Nobody knows everything, even if you know a lot about your area, there may be areas, there may be parts of that area that you don’t know about. I don’t know, oh, see, I just did it there. I don’t know how it came to be that we humans feel that it shows weakness or stupidity to admit. In fact, if you hang out in certain circles, like academia, which is a circle, I hang out in a lot, which I like, or among any kind of scientist, their whole lives are animated by not knowing stuff, right? Like if they if they knew everything, they would have nothing to do, they’d have nothing that drove them. But in the business world, especially you see this in politics. I mean, I love it if a politician were to stand up and say, you know, I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I do know that we need to address it, and here’s another thing I’d like them to say. There’s a there’s no easy answer. We kind of know that but we don’t say it often enough. And be even if we work really hard and collaborate and come up with the best possible solution. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it might improve it by 10%. Like in what world is 10% improvement, not good in the world of politics  it’s not unfortunate.


Samantha Bee  38:58

I also like them to say, look, I changed my mind about that. Because now I have more information, I know better.


Stephen Dubner  39:06

Yeah, I do try to say this all the time among my colleagues, it’s known I’m kind of a joke in that. I will just say, I’ll often say like, I don’t know anything about this at all. So let’s at least learn a little bit and then make a better decision because I hate BS. I mean, I hate industries that are built around BS. So I have many friends in an industry that I feel is really beautifully practiced that polishing up BS and turning it into wisdom, which is management consulting, like there are a lot of brilliant people who go into it. They were very smart people, they work really hard, but they are hired by firms who are often in trouble to come tell them what to do and they’ll come up with a plan and a beautiful invoice for that plan. I agree, and it’s communicated with fantastic confidence that this plan will work, they don’t know that it’ll work.


Samantha Bee  40:06

No, so your top 10 business mantras on a poster and hang it in every room in your office. Everyone will get the picture. I don’t think so. All right, this was for me. A chef’s kiss conversation. I have enjoyed speaking to you so much. I want to I’m going to end this conversation though. With a little game. You’re gonna play this game. You’re gonna love it. It’s right up your alley. Okay, I’m going to list a few common ways that people make decisions and can you rapidfire tell me if it’s a good way to make a decision? Okay, zero being this is terrible, this is terrible. And five being perfection, you’re a genius. Okay, go with your first instinct.


Stephen Dubner  41:00

That’s a tough one, that’s that’s a really tough one, Sam, because we know from data that often our guts are really good. So I’m going to I’m going to cower, I’m going to coward out on that one and give it a three.


Samantha Bee  41:13

I like out of five. Okay, flip a coin.


Stephen Dubner  41:16

Yeah, I’m a big fan of the coin flip.


Samantha Bee  41:18

Coin flip works.


Stephen Dubner  41:19

Turns out the coin flipping is fantastic. Not because you have to follow what it says. But the minute you see it, if you know it’s the wrong decision, then you know what you tell yourself. So yeah, I’m given the coin flip of five.


Samantha Bee  41:32

Decisive, decisive magic eight ball.


Stephen Dubner  41:39

Sure, I’ll give it a 1.5, I love the magic.


Samantha Bee  41:43

Yes, your mom, your mom knows.


Stephen Dubner  41:48

You know? Yeah, moms or moms are good. I mean, dads are good, too. They’ve got experience and they care about you. I’m gonna give it a four.


Samantha Bee  41:56

Okay wow, let’s say that a loving a loving parent. Okay, ask your therapist, depends.


Stephen Dubner  42:06

Yeah, so my problem is I’m a big believer in therapy for people for whom it works. And many people I know it works well for. On the other hand, I, I have a lot of friends and relatives, who are either therapists or psychologists and so on. And they are among my wackiest friends to say, so, but I love them. And I know they mean really well 3.25.


Samantha Bee  42:33

I knew a therapist once who fed. Okay, I’m sorry who fed her horse, carrots with her mouth. Do you know what I mean? That’s.


Stephen Dubner  42:45

I have no problem with that.


Samantha Bee  42:46

No, but you should have a problem, and it’s a bad idea.


Stephen Dubner  42:49

It’s really why because the horse bites.


Samantha Bee  42:51

Because of course bites your face.


Stephen Dubner  42:53

Oh, sorry.


Samantha Bee  42:55

They can’t see front, they can’t see right in front.


Stephen Dubner  42:58

Oh, so this wasn’t about emotional, too much intimacy, this is just.


Samantha Bee  43:02

This is just stupid.


Stephen Dubner  43:04

Oh, yeah.


Samantha Bee  43:04

Okay, just don’t ask, don’t ask that person.


Stephen Dubner  43:07

Hang on, let me jump that, never that […]


Samantha Bee  43:12

Don’t feed them dead ahead with a carrot in your mouth because they see the carrot. But maybe not your face, okay two more. Take a poll?


Stephen Dubner  43:25

I don’t want this to be over.


Samantha Bee  43:26

I don’t either, but we have to we have to.


Stephen Dubner  43:28

Take a poll. Oh, taking a poll is okay except for two reasons. It depends very much on the composition of the people in that poll. And number two so, you know, some of the worst data in the world is survey data, because it’s not a very rep. It’s not a very good way to get information. So I’m going to say no, one and a half.


Samantha Bee  43:50

One and a half, I agree with that because often focus groups are just people they found at the mall. They were off on a Tuesday.


Stephen Dubner  43:57

Did you know, did you know that both the focus group and the mall were invented in Vienna?


Samantha Bee  44:03

I did not know that.


Stephen Dubner  44:05

There you go. That’s your non usable fact for the day.


Samantha Bee  44:08

I want to go to Vienna not because of there was a waltz.


Stephen Dubner  44:12

There has never been good pastry too.


Samantha Bee  44:15

Yes. Okay, last one asked Nate Silver?


Stephen Dubner  44:22

So I do know Nate Silver a little bit. So I’m gonna give I’m gonna give Nate a 4.8 on the politic and sport front and TBD on all other categories.


Samantha Bee  44:36

Okay, Nate, you know what, wherever Nate Silver is right now he’s shivering. He just he gotta chill. He doesn’t know why. And I love that.


Stephen Dubner  44:46

Okay, you know, it’s a it’s like a touched by an angel thing. It’s good to know that people are thinking about.


Samantha Bee  44:51

Exactly, well, this was such a pleasure. Thank you so much. What a great conversation.


Stephen Dubner  44:57

My pleasure, I loved speaking with you. I feel like you’d ask me one nice short question. I would give an 18 million word answer for which I apologize.


Samantha Bee  45:06

The goal, that’s what I want, I only had one question.


Stephen Dubner  45:10

Goal achieved.


Samantha Bee  45:12

All right.


Stephen Dubner  45:13

I wish you well in every single thing in your life and.


Samantha Bee  45:17

What a nice sign off, I wish you well in every single thing in your life.


Stephen Dubner  45:22

You’re getting competitive.


Samantha Bee  45:23

Sign off I’ve ever heard.


Samantha Bee  45:30

That was Stephen Dubner and I had no choice but to look up one thing, what band was he, and he made this huge life choice and somehow he didn’t name drop it and like a dolt. I didn’t even ask him. Was he the fifth Beatle? Okay, so now but he was in a band called the right profile, and I’m gonna need to hear and play, until then, good news, there’s more choice words with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like a special outtake from my recent interview with Sarah Silverman. And as we continue in our quest to make better choices in 2024 be sure you come back next week to hear from Tara Schuster. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.



Thank you for listening to Choice Words which was created by and is hosted by me. We’re a production of Lemonada Media, Kathyrn Barnes, […] and Kryssy Pease produce our show. Our mix is by James Barber. Steve Nelson is the vice president of weekly content. Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittles Wachs and I are executive producers. Our theme was composed by […] with help from Johnny Vince Evans . Special thanks to Kristen Everman, Claire Jones, Ivan Kuraev and Rachel Neil. You can find me at @Iamsambee on Twitter and at @realsambee on Instagram. Follow Choice Words wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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