Angela Duckworth on Character
Mar 7 2022

2022/03/marshmallows-300x229.jpg Many people think schools are no place for teaching character. Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and founder of Character Lab, disagrees. She talks with EconTalk's Russ Roberts about the implicit curriculum for character, the critical role early education plays in shaping our adult values, and why the Marshmallow Test doesn't determine our destiny.

Includes Top 10 Voting Survey Results for 2021 Favorite Episodes.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jonas Lenz Koblin
Mar 7 2022 at 7:54am

A bit disappointed that no hard / convincing science was made by Ms Duckworth. Didn’t learn anything new… and it seems the Character Lab didn’t discover anything new yet either.

I liked that bird analogy though 🐦

Scott Campbell
Mar 7 2022 at 4:49pm

When I first heard this statement “Character is not taught or learned by the individual but it is revealed by stress and competition”  I immediately thought that it was a true principle.  My experiences in athletic competition and witnessing life, in general, seem to support that conjecture more than refute it.    I would be interested in any science that shows a person’s character is a product of instruction or education or that one’s character can be changed or modified.  It’s analogous to the decision to step on an ant or not as an illustration of destiny.  In either instance it was destiny.  Such is the case with Character. Whatever happens, was innate in the individual.

Luke J
Mar 7 2022 at 7:52pm

My life is just a bit better knowing that Angela Duckworth binged on thin mints at least once; this,  and Russ Robert’s potato chips confession.

Shalom Freedman
Mar 8 2022 at 2:50am

Educating to good character is an admirable ideal. And certain character traits such as those mentioned by Angela Duckworth such as courage, grit, kindness, honesty certainly seem desirable for all.  But the fact is the reality of human character is far more complex than the ideal, and involves the real stories and lives of individuals. Each one of us is a character and has a character of their own. And however predictable and set our characters often seem to be, it is as is noted toward the end of the conversation , our freedom which enables us to defy and contradict our own past character and behavior. And of course, this very contradictoriness and unpredictability makes life so uncertain and so at times so interesting.

Mar 8 2022 at 9:38am

Great episode. Angela provides great content to help people flourish. Yes, I agree that the family is an important place to learn how to build character.

That said, unless I missed this- I was a little disappointed Russ didn’t discuss the role that organized religion plays in building character. I’m not an organized religion expert, but it would seem to me that building character, whether it be the character-building cardinal virtues in Catholicism, or Judaism and the Torah emphasis on character-building through Tikkun and Middot and the use of moral laws to build character, would hold a high place when it comes to character-building.

And it’s interesting that Angela quotes Confucious to make her points, which although debated, is considered a religion by some, or at least a belief system.


Mark Raymond
Mar 8 2022 at 5:48pm

Engaging conversation – thank you Angela and Russ. In awe of Angela’s clarity of thinking and wonderful personal examples. Some of the language didn’t resonate – exploiting ( how does that reconcile with character and helping others?), toggling ( computer metaphor ?, we’re not computers ) and even the word grit implies that it’s a grind. For me, character is something to be cultivated over time ( like we cultivate a garden)  through reflection, regular practices, and clarity about what’s important.

Umberto Malzone
Mar 9 2022 at 1:32am

I don’t think the existence of an implicit ‘character’ curriculum is deniable, or the emergence of one is avoidable in a school education, and the recognition of this is laudable. However, when thinking about explicitly constructing this curriculum, the Hayek quote Russ Roberts has drilled in to my brain presents itself.

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine the can design.

I don’t intend on being merely a naysayer, but provide the following two points for contemplation on what a character education in school might look like.

1.    ‘Character’ implies goals and values. Elsewhere Roberts has raised the issue of there being no ‘we’ with no singular ‘justice.’ Duckworth and Roberts were in total agreement about attending funerals, but I was shocked to hear about taking office hours in a parking lot. For me, the professional duties of teaching trump private and personal concerns. I mention this to show that general character traits don’t raise problems, but they come into conflict in a hierarchy of values. Instilling honesty sounds great, but what about all of those white lies that grease our interpersonal relationships? When you have a conflict between social cohesion/harmony and honesty, how would a character curriculum deal with it?

The school I attended had a no tolerance policy for fighting. No matter who started it, both parties were punished. There is a character lesson to be found here: turn the other cheek, be the bigger man, etc. I got into a fight once. I did not throw the first punch, but I did retaliate in kind. The school punished me with a suspension, but my family approved of my actions. The lesson of ‘turn the other cheek’ is contrasted with ‘stand up for yourself.’ There is a value judgment to be made, and here what is decided at school is in direct opposition to what was taught in the family (looking back, I find the action consistent with libertarian principles of zero aggression and self-defense).

2.     I mention fighting because, hearkening back to the oft-repeated Hayek quote, what a curriculum intends to inculcate or teach is not always what it does in practice. Messages are not always received as intended. One side effect of the zero tolerance policy mentioned above was that students did not learn to ‘turn the other cheek,’ but instead retaliate off school grounds (there’s a Japanese saying ‘Edo no kataki wo Nagasaki de utsu (take revenge on a slight you got in Edo later, far away in Nagasaki) which encapsulates this sentiment).


The values and character developed in school can be wildly different. Duckworth’s story about cheating reminds me of one episode that I approve of my conduct in, but I think she’d be ashamed of. I received a detention (unjustly from my point of view), and I and six or seven other students were serving our detention when another student was washing the blackboard while the teacher was not present. He knocked something off of the blackboard, and it fell and broke the glass on a projector. He bolted out of the room. When the teacher returned, she asked who broke the projector. All of us were silent. For us, this was a display of solidarity and loyalty. I am sure some people would censure our behavior.

But character is complicated, and doesn’t lend itself to a one size fits all approach. Talk to someone from a different culture, and the character they esteem might be very different than your own. It can be different within a family, or even a marriage. In this kind of situation, who decides what kind of character to teach?

I think this is why many people want it out of schools, since like my parents, the values reflected in character they value can be diametrically opposed by what is worked into the curriculum at school. Alas, I don’t have any good new solutions (school choice? Vouchers?).

The idea of character building in schools in interesting, but I think the real issues arise when you start looking at the specifics, not the abstract idea.

Colin Jarrett
Mar 9 2022 at 11:30am

So you believe that one should only go to funerals if it does not in any way interfere with work? Taking office hours from the parking lot actually seems like Angela did a good job of fulfilling her professional obligations as best she could given the situation. I suspect that many professors would cancel or postpone office hours for a funeral, and that it would be met with understanding by the students.

You say “For me, the professional duties of teaching trump private and personal concerns.” I think you’re likely being hyperbolic here, but perhaps not. If a close family member is hospitalized or dies, would you visit them and help as you can or attend their funeral, or only if all your professional duties are in order first and it doesn’t conflict at all?

Somewhat to the point of the episode, if one thinks that teachers should teach anything at all beyond the strict subject matter (assuming it’s even possible to strictly teach the subject matter), teaching students how one should act in various situations (eg visit and/or help the friend in the hospital, go to the funerals of those you know well) can provide great value.

Umberto Malzone
Mar 9 2022 at 5:59pm

I won’t say the principle is exceptionless, but it is not hyperbolic. I chose the subject of funerals specifically, because of personal experiences and the values contained within the sentiment of attending them. When my grandfather died, he specifically left instructions that I was not to be informed until 6 months after his death so that it would not interfere with my studies and work. I mention this here because the values of Mr. Jarrett and my grandfather and myself are not in alignment, and so I have doubts ‘how you should act in certain situations’ have universal answers that can be taught.

I also chose the topic of funerals, because I know people who don’t have them, and don’t go to them as a principle. Some see it as a privileging of the dead over the living, and I can see a Peter Singer style argument that the money and time is better spent on lives that can be saved, and not those that have already ended. Disagreement is possible, but I think they have a coherent argument. The convention, at least in the culture of places like the US, is that funerals are important and you ought to go, but I can’t bring myself to want to force the convention on someone who thinks differently.

I don’t want to censure anyone but myself for their moral convictions or judgment, which is why I tried to give two examples where the values Ms. Angela Duckworth and I diverge, while giving only my own personal conclusion, and I think these values are reflected and embodied in character.

I’ll admit the professional over personal may seem extreme, but I had in mind people like police officers, doctors, diplomats, and soldiers. I don’t think it is a stretch of the imagination to picture a commanding officer of a military unit who choses not to take leave to mourn the death of a loved one because they don’t want their unit to suffer the loss of efficiency which might cause deaths.

Another situation to consider is someone doing life changing education in a poor part of the world. A relative is dying, and they could go back home and nurse them for the next six months, or they could continue their work teaching these kids. Should they go back, or should they keep teaching? For people with a certain character, either choice is valid, and for others, it is a quandary.

For a positive note, I think general character education with hacks like keeping the cookies far away can be informed by scientific study, and ought to be taken into a curriculum, but I share the sentiment expressed around the 23 minute mark that big C character questions are in a sense open ended questions with no right answers, and I’m not sure how those can be related to a curriculum any better or different than a class on ethics or philosophy.

I think it is also significant that the class Ms. Angela Duckworth teaches was expressly optional, and wonder how the dynamics would change when translated into compulsory education.

Sure wish I had some better answers.


(As for exceptions to my principle, I have room for a utilitarian calculus. If a relative is sick, and many people are available to help them out, but only I can cover for myself at work, then work wins, but in the reverse, I’d head to the hospital. You may think me cold, but emotionless I am not. Also, I am open to the option of quitting my job if I think my personal duties are more important than my professional ones.)

Gregg Tavares
Mar 9 2022 at 2:21am

I wish I understood the POV that loves “Love Actually” vs those like myself who watched it because people like Russ mentioned it (this is actually why I watched it) and then being shocked that it seemed more like “Lust Actually”. Superior lusts after his subordinate. Middle aged man lusts after a college student maid he can’t even converse with and has spent almost zero time with. Friend lusts after his best friend’s wife and tells her. 2 people in a porno. Um’ ok. Sounds like “Love” to me. Another is a college kid looking to get shagged by as many girls as he can hit at once. Apparently he gets a threesome. Now that’s “Love!”  WAT?

It’s fascinating how divided people are on this.

See the negative and positive reviews on IMDB for other points of view

Mar 9 2022 at 10:46am

Thank you for your succinct yet revealing advance warning! It provides a public service to those who would have regretted spending the time/money to find out the hard way.

Luke J
Mar 14 2022 at 9:17pm

Hahaha. You are at least 1/3 correct. For example: Collin’s storyline.

However, viewers might find more than what your comment indicates. It is sweet, shallow, funny, and poignant.

Mar 9 2022 at 3:43pm

Angela Duckworth made some important points “about how we’re different” from “a big black crow, … or a feral cat.”

Angela Duckworth: But I think there is a reason why we have such a big brain, Russ, or at least this is an affordance of having a big brain, especially a big prefrontal cortex, which is one of the key distinguishing features of the human brain, even compared to our closest primates, that we have an enormous prefrontal cortex.

So there is a difference in future orientation.  I think it’s inarguable that human beings are able to envision with HD detail a future five, ten, twenty years from now.  People are thinking about what will happen to this planet, if we keep going this way, in a hundred years.  And that does not seem possible for your typical crow or cat.

And I think the question that we were coming to earlier, free will and the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s idea, that perhaps what is uniquely human is that we not only have wants, but we have second order wants.  Second orders are what I want to want.

The complexity of human thought is not only to envision possible futures, but to ask the question not only “How am I responding?” but “How do I want to respond?”

That ability of our distinctive consciousness to use our imagination to both “envision” and evaluate the abstract (e.g. potential distant futures) also extends to abstract mathematics and the development of science.

Even animals have some ability to see visible concrete distinctions corresponding to natural numbers, such as the difference between zero, one, two, or more predators nearby.  But there is no animal that will be able to engage in conversations with humans about square roots, let alone rational vs. irrational numbers.  Nor will they be able to understand the equations we use to describe our mathematical descriptions of the design of the universe.

As it has been said, God has given “us more understanding than the animals of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the sky” (cf. Job 35:11)

This perspective was important to the foundation of modern science.  Scientists such as Kepler understood not only that creation was the product of rational design, but also that humans were created in the image of God with the distinct ability to think God’s thoughts after Him, i.e. with the capacity to discover and understand the abstract rational design of creation.  Seeking to understand that rational design was recognized as an aspect of what humans are meant to be and do.  This expectation of discoverable rational design that is comprehensible to human reason provided a basis for pursuing a scientific study of nature.

For more, historian of science Michael Keas discusses this topic.

David Chisholm
Mar 24 2022 at 2:09pm

The role of primary education is to develop citizens.  And this is how it should be.

In most states it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their religeon or sexual orientation.  These laws are a reflection of the prevailing social culture.  This culture HAS to be reflected in schools. When someone is being picked on for their gender, race, orientation, etc.  Is it the job of the school to instruct the offending children that their behavoir was wrong, and WHY it was wrong.  This is public education helping develop the character of their students to the mean of the society.  Regardless and often because of the parents differing views.   If your views are so extreme that the prevailing culture js abhorrent to you, then home school.

Pretending that public primary education is anything other then citizen building is to miss the whole point.

This is especially true in a democracy.  A democracy requires a literate and educated ellectorate THAT is why we have public schools.



Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 17, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 17th, 2022. And, before we get to today's episode, I have some fun housekeeping work to take care of.

First of all, I plan to do an episode coming up on greed, discussing Adam Smith and Leo Tolstoy. The Tolstoy will be taken from his short story, "Master and Man." Just a fabulous story, but to avoid spoilers, you might want to read it before the conversation. We'll link to the story in the notes from this episode.

I also want to share the results from the listener poll of your Favorite Episodes of 2021. By the way, you can find past favorites--the results of past years' polls--by going to Along the top, you'll see a bar--it's teal-colored, near the top--that includes Browse by Category. Use the Category: Favorites, Annual Top Ten, to find out past years' favorites.

For 2021, here are the top 10 episodes, which is actually 12.

Number 10 was a three-way tie: Sebastian Junger on Freedom; Lamorna Ash on Dark, Salt, Clear; and Don Boudreaux on Buchanan.

Number 9, Jason Riley on Race in America.

Number 8, Tyler Cowen on the Pandemic, Revisited.

Number 7, Dana Gioia on Learning, Poetry, and Studying with Miss Bishop.

Number 6, Megan McArdle on Belonging, Home, and National Identity.

Number 5, Mike Munger on Free Markets.

Number 3, a two-way tie: Daniel Shoup on Parking; and Mike Munger's second appearance in the top five, Michael Munger on Constitutions.

And a tie at Number 1 for your favorite episode of 2021: Sam Quinones on Meth, Fentanyl and the Least of Us; and Rowan Jacobsen on Truffle Hound.

I want to thank the 1,300 or so people who voted. Many thanks.


Russ Roberts: And, now for today's guest: Psychologist Angela Duckworth. She is the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. She first appeared on EconTalk in July of 2016, talking about grit. Angela, welcome back to EconTalk.

Angela Duckworth: Russ. It's good to be with you.


Russ Roberts: Tell us about Character Lab. What does it do?

Angela Duckworth: Well Russ, I started Character Lab--it's a nonprofit--about a decade ago. Met two educators who said: As teachers, we have this intuition that there's all this science coming out on motivation, on emotion, growth mindset, gratitude. 'I wonder,' each of them said to me separately, and then in a chorus, 'I wonder whether scientists should get together with teachers and also with parents and share some of the science of human development, because it would make us better. It would make us better teachers. It would make us better parents.'

And, I thought that was a great idea. I was just starting out in some ways as a young professor. I thought maybe this wasn't the wisest use of my time from a strategic sense, but I usually just do things that I have a gut instinct are the right thing to do.

So, we started this nonprofit. We called it Character Lab, after Aristotle; and 'character' I think is a polarizing word. But, then again, what's not polarizing these days? I'm a fan. I'm on the side of character because when Aristotle said that the good life--the life that's worth living--is a life that's good for others and good for yourself: as much as for others as for yourself. And, when he talked about virtue, I mean, I think essentially he was talking about all the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that we habitually do that are indeed good for others and good for ourselves.

And, I think 'character' has another historical reference that I think of every time I say the word. And, that's Martin Luther King, who, when he was just 18 or 19, he was a college freshman at Morehouse. And he said, 'If you think about education, the purpose of education, character plus intelligence. That is the true purpose of education.'

So, we think that the science of human development--all the ways that kids learn to grow up to be, to thrive for themselves and for others--that's worth having a nonprofit dedicated to. And, what we do, materially, is we connect researchers who study mindset and gratitude and curiosity and learning and more with teachers to do research, but also with teachers and parents to share research findings.

And, it's been about a decade and I'm not only on the side of character, I am on the side of science. And, I think when you ask the question, 'What will be different about the 21st century?' And, when you ask the question, 'Why should we be hopeful about the 21st century?' To me, there's a revolution in psychological literacy based not just on intuition, but based on science.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Long-time listeners, even probably short-time listeners, will know I'm a little bit skeptical about the scientific content. We may get into that in the course of our conversation.

Angela Duckworth: I would love to get into that.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to start with a more basic question about character itself, which is, we're going to be talking about an unpublished essay that you shared with me called "The Big Picture." And, one of the things you say in there is that: 'character' is an old-fashioned word. I would say, even more strongly: It's a word that's out of fashion. It's a concept that's out of fashion. The idea that education, that teaching and development should inculcate character is out of fashion. And, in fact, I would say, looked down on as often a negative. What are your thoughts on that? Are you thinking of the word differently than they do or in a similar way--in just defending it?

Angela Duckworth: Yeah. I agree with you Russ, that character is, for many people, not only old-fashioned but out of fashion. Some would argue, not only out of fashion but should be out of school, in particular. I'll take the stance that, if you look back historically--of course, that wasn't always the case--when children learn to read, very often, when you ask, like, 'Well, what stories are we going to give to children as they learn their letters and their sounds?' So, often there were these, like, essentially moral tales. And, I would contend that to this day, children's stories very often have a moral to the story. You teach them about honesty. You teach them about kindness. You teach them about courage through these stories. And, I don't think that's wrong. I think that's very right.

And, I think there is a place, of course--a primary place--for that to happen in the family. Parents teaching their kids the values that are important to live by. But, I think that the crucible of character development also includes school, which is where children and teenagers spend so many of their waking hours. And, it's the second most frequent place that a child finds themselves after the home.

And, I think when you ask the question, like, 'What role specifically should schools have in character development?' I think and I reflect on my own childhood and my own upbringing. Next to my parents, my teachers and my classmates were my role models. And absolutely to this day, I remember certain lessons that I learned from teachers and from peers as well, that made me who I am.

So, I think character development is in some ways old-fashioned, in some ways out of fashion, in some ways could be argued with. But, I think that if you say, 'Schools are no place to teach honesty, persistence, optimism, gratitude,' then what you're really saying is that we're just not going to do it intentionally--because young people are going to learn those lessons from the people around them one way or the other.


Russ Roberts: And, it raises an interesting question. In a way, what you just said is so inarguable. Who could disagree with that: Who wouldn't want their children to be kind and honest and grateful? Just to take the three nice virtues that we like to think our kids could acquire. And, yet it does seem like it's out of fashion. Why would you think that could be? What has happened to education that that--especially in the K-8 [kindergarten through 8th grade], K-12 level--why is that controversial? Any ideas? I haven't thought about it. Any ideas?

Angela Duckworth: I think there are two reasons, one more obvious and one less obvious, about why some people want to kick character development out of school.

The more obvious argument--and again, I don't agree with it--but the argument is that schools should not be the place where you teach prescriptive norms. In other words, what ought to be values, what's right, and what's wrong. That's a matter of personal choice. That's a matter of family choice. And, of course, you can point historically to times in American history where the teaching of values--how you should believe about other people's race or sexuality--you can certainly point to episodes in history where that has taken a dark turn. But, again, I think the vacuum--pretending that there is any such thing as a vacuum.

I mean, let's take honesty, for example. And, again, I'm going with this most obvious cause for the backlash, if you will, against character development; but I'm not agreeing with it. If you say, like, 'Well, you know, honesty is something that's taught in the home by Mom and Dad, and there's no place to discuss that in the classroom.' But, if there's cheating in the school and the teacher says X or the teacher says Y or the teacher says Z--I mean, you are teaching something about honesty, whether you like it or not. There's an implicit curriculum for character development.

I'm arguing that it should be more intentional and not accidental. And, I am arguing--and here, too, I'm sure I have opponents--I believe that there is some scientific research on what the brain does when you tell a lie and how we come to be honest people, how we perceive honest people, and every other dimension of character, as well.

So, I'm not only arguing for character development to be more intentional, but also more based on research--which we can get into, because I'm not saying that every scientific finding that's been published is true.

But, I want to, Russ, say something about the less obvious countercurrent against character. And, I think in some ways this is actually more from the Left than from the Right. So, there is a kind of a conservative element of, like, 'Well, that's not for schools. I really want this to stay in the home.' But, on the Progressive side, on the Left side, there is a kind of--the word 'character' sounds like it's fixed. It sounds like 'Blame the victim.' And, if you take a very Progressive-Liberal stance on education, you could also resist that phrase. I find the Left likes a term--which I think is roughly synonymous--which is Social and Emotional Learning [SEL]. So, if you've ever heard the initialism SEL, that's a term that educators use a lot. I don't think parents use it as often

But, that's a kind of more minor quibble. That's kind of quibble with terminology and a desire to note these personal qualities as things that are less fixed. And, also, that allow there to be, in the picture, society and structure and so forth. None of which I disagree with.


Russ Roberts: But, it's a deep question, which, we'll get into it in a little bit, about this question of fixedness and whether a person can build character. Whether a person can change themselves. And, whether some people are more able to do that because their situation, rather than some--we have this, I think a little bit of romance about our innate ability to pull our emotional wellbeing up by its bootstraps--their bootstrap--I don't even know how to--I'm going to stop that metaphor.

But, the other thing I wanted to observe, though, that I think is interesting about what you're saying about the school versus the family is that, school has that unique opportunity where you're interacting with lots of people across a wide range of intimacy.

At home, they're all your family. They're your parents, they're your siblings. In school, you've got your close friends, your pretty-good friends. There might be some people, your enemies. People you don't like, people who bug you, people who annoy you. And, I think one of the virtues of a character educational system--if such a thing is possible and desirable--one of the arguments you'd make for it is that, it's a lab. It's a place where you can actually see a wide range of human interaction that you want to get your children good at.

Angela Duckworth: You know, outside the family. I'm Chinese, as you know; and Confucius, at least the way I was taught--so, I hope I'm not misinterpreting Confucius--but Confucius, I was taught, said that all morality begins in the home. And so, because you cannot kill your brother--but you want to--you learn what it means to be a kind and civil person. And, then you just extrapolate that to people who are outside of your home.

But, one could make the argument that much of character development, much of becoming a person who is good--who shows up in the world for the good of others--actually happens outside the home.

And, Character Lab is a name we chose to emphasize science. But, you could make the argument of just thinking about it--as you're talking to me, Russ--that school is a character lab. Right?

You have, as Confucius said, people that you sort of want to throttle, but you can't inside the home. But, absolutely when you are in Junior High School, like, think of all the people you really wanted to push or shove or do something not so great to, and then you learned not to do that.

I do think, also, that you learn to have empathy with people that are your friends, but also not quite your friends, but your classmates.

So, there is a lot of character development. In education, we just think about how we grow up to be the people that we are. I think one thing that I would agree with, the Aristotelian view, is that, character is a habit. Character is not something that you either have or don't at birth, but it's crafted over a life.

And, I think that so much of who we are when we grow up is because of those early school experiences.

And, I remember to this day, conversations--not only teachers in particular--literally, specific conversations. I had an English teacher, Mr. Carr. I tracked down a classmate. I mean, I graduated from high school in 1988. I had Mr. Carr twice. Once, I think my sophomore year; and, I think once my senior year. But definitely it was two years out of four. And, I went and tracked down one of my classmates from when we were seniors. So, this is now, you know, three decades, more, ago. And, I was like, 'Do you remember that time where we cheated on that test? I think it was Faulkner. It could have been The Grapes of Wrath.' And, we were trying to remember, but he was like, 'Oh, you mean that test that he gave us where, like--remember Mr. Carr used to, like, take random vocabulary words out of the book and ask us to, like, remember where they had appeared and to define them?' And, I was, like, 'If my memory serves, I feel like on one of those things, I/we cheated.' He left the room and everyone was like, 'What the heck is this?' And, my recollection was that Mr. Carr came back into the room and without raising his voice, like, gave us that kind of, like, withering, 'I'm disappointed in you. You have failed me,' look, that made me think to myself, 'I will never, ever in my life cheat on anything.'

And, those indelible conversations--right? Like, that to me, is character development. That happened outside of the home.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think I mentioned Ms. Kineen on this program before, which, she was my eighth-grade teacher. And she had an impact on more than my character. A lot of the people in that class were changed by her. And, I did track her down and wrote her a long letter, decades later. I recommend, if Mr. Carr is still alive and thank him.

Angela Duckworth: I did. I wrote it. And, I got some classmates of mine to also write letters of gratitude.

Russ Roberts: Excellent.


Russ Roberts: So, your work--a lot of your work--you're certainly your--the last time you were here on EconTalk, you talked a lot about grit, about perseverance, which is clearly a character trait. What do you think we've learned about whether grit can be--and perseverance can be--taught, learned, and so on?

Obviously, human beings are complicated. We're a mix of traits. Some of our traits are more mutable than others. Some people have trouble sticking with task. Others relentlessly buckle down. Can grit be improved? And, you've of course thought and done work since we first talked on this. So, where are your thoughts these days?

Angela Duckworth: I liked, Russ, when you said, 'Can grit improved?' Because there's a little hesitancy with: can grit be taught? Only just in that, it sounds like you're teaching someone, you know, like, how to play tennis or, you know, solve an algebra equation.

And, there's something about grit developing that feels like, 'Oh, the teacher just saying, oh, like this?'--and, the students saying, 'Oh, right. Like that'--that isn't quite right.

But, I strongly believe that grit can be encouraged. I strongly believe that grit can be improved.

And, I do actually believe there is a role for a teacher in the development of grit.

I have, since writing that book, of course, you know, felt that--which I did before I wrote the book--that grit is not the only thing that should be encouraged or taught or developed.

But, when you ask the question, can it be? I've created a course called Grit Lab. And, the class is an undergraduate class. I now teach it to Wharton MBAs. And, actually, last year I started teaching it to high school students.

And, the idea of the course is that--everything that I do is really just trying to understand and reverse-engineer achievement and effort. Right? Like, when somebody does great things, what do they do? What are their habits? What are their mindsets? What are the skillsets they've developed?

And, the idea of reverse engineering is simply that, if we can demystify achievement, if we can say, 'Look, what you didn't see in the YouTube highlight reel was that they did this in the morning. They did this in the afternoon. They did this on the evenings. This is how they had conversations. Here's how they developed relationships with mentors.'

And, that's what the course is. It's a class where there's 14 topics. We talk about the science of interest, which is, of course, the seed of passion. You can't stay with something for very long unless you're interested in it. We talk about the science of values and the magic of doing things that really feel aligned with your personal identity and your aspirational personal identity--the person you want to be. We talk about the science of deliberate practice--you know, how experts get better in the most efficient way. So, what does high-quality effort look like? We talk about mindset and resilience, the stress response, and more.

And, I think to me, if you ask, 'Why did you create this course called Grit Lab?' To me, I think that, beyond nudges, the behavioral economics approach of changing behavior. You know: Make retirement savings the default, check off the box. So, that when someone gets to that part of the form, being kind of lazy, or just making assumptions that everybody else has checked off the box, they just go with it. Or, put the water bottles at eye level and put the soda out of reach. These nudges, I think have enormous benefits. They're cost effective because they are nearly cost free and they can make small changes in human behavior that are beneficial.

But, to me, the idea of character and character development is changing the person, not just changing the situation. And, that has the possibility for enduring benefit and for, I guess, for lack of a better word, spillover effects--right?--in other realms of your life.

And, as a mom, you know, of two daughters, I'm not out to kind-of-like architect their environment, so that all their choices end up being optimal. I'm interested in developing two young women who, everywhere they, go have a character that will enable them to do good for themselves and for others.

So, Grit Lab, I think in some ways is my attempt at character development in an intentional way.

And, I'll say, Russ, one other difference--and it was a very purposeful on my part--is that, nudges happen to you. You know, nobody has, like, a big sign up that says, like, 'Hey, we're about to default you into retirement savings.' In fact, one could argue that the nudges work better when you don't notice them. Right?

But, my class is exactly the opposite. It's an elective. You have to take it. It doesn't count for any major, in other words. And, when you enter the class, I say, 'This class is designed to teach you the science of passion and perseverance for longterm goals. And, it is designed to change you.' So, 'If you do not want to change your passion and perseverance for longterm goals, there's nothing wrong with you, but you probably shouldn't take this class.'


Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, I love that. A part of me loves it. There's a part that doesn't love it. And let me talk about both.

I think a large part of growing up is learning who you are and who you want to be. Which are two--we hope, I hope two different things because we [crosstalk 00:22:41]--

Angela Duckworth: Yeah. Hopefully, there's a little space there--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We start off unformed in so many ways. And, one of the deepest things I learned, I'd say in the last 10 years, came from a conversation with you. And I put it front and center in my new book, Wild Problems, which is this insight of Harry Frankfurt that we don't just have wants or desires. We have desires about our desires. Or we can.

Angela Duckworth: Second-order desires cause them, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That was--that essay of his, which we'll put a link up to, is a hard essay, but it's accessible to any thoughtful person. It's a really fantastically, provocative idea.

And so, that idea of figuring out who you are, which is very complicated, you have certain labels. You can describe yourself. But your deep, your flaws, your strengths. Learning to see yourself that way--somewhat from the outside--is very challenging. And then once you are able to--but if you're able to do that, you can then imagine who you might be. And, that to me is in many ways what life is about. It's that, those two things. And, it's hard to teach those things. And, if you're not careful--and I would never accuse you of this, Angela, but I want to see if you agree with me--the whole idea of a life hack, the whole idea that, 'Oh, I've got this great trick for you. Just put the cookies--whatever it is.' And, for some things like the cookies, the soda, whatever you are trying to avoid--putting them away, further away, upstairs. Adding to the cost, nudges that you do to yourself--those are phenomenal. I think they are good things to learn.

But, a lot of the things that are, I think, essential to the life well-lived, are harder than the things you might learn in a class. And, I'm curious if--Well, what do you think of that?

Angela Duckworth: Well, I'd love you to elaborate on the harder things. Right? Not just the hacks. Like, 'Oh, I probably shouldn't have Girl Scout Cookies in the house because I'm going to eat all the Thin Mints in one sitting.' Which most of us have done at least once. But, what are those harder things that you might have in mind, Russ, that are not exactly in this category?


Russ Roberts: So, one of the things--I mean, I would put--I think a lot of these challenges that we're talking about--you and I are joking about the cookies--but they're about forms of self-control. And grit and perseverance are just one aspect of that. Making sacrifices for others that don't just make you feel good. In fact, they might not make you feel good. They might hurt. But you might do them anyway. And, why? Under what circumstances? Thinking about what those circumstances might be. You know, I like to use the example of a funeral of someone that you were close to. It's so easy to rationalize not going. I mean, the person's dead. You could say, 'They're not going to know whether I'm there or not. In fact, they don't even want me to go. They probably would prefer that I--'

Angela Duckworth: Right. You can always create that. And, you were wondering whether there is a kind of education, a kind of character development, which is qualitatively different for the big decisions of about who we are. Okay. Well, [crosstalk 00:25:42].

Russ Roberts: That's a small one. That's a small one--in a way. I think it's actually not really a small one. Those kind of decisions.

And, I would just say--here's a life hack that I like. And so, I'm not against life hacks: When you're in a situation like that, and you have a dilemma, it's not a bad idea to get outside counsel, meaning a friend, a loved one, a confidante, a mentor who might be able to help you step outside your usual urges.

Angela Duckworth: Take some perspective--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and get some perspective.

Angela Duckworth: Outside your ego, perspective.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. You need both. You need a life hack. You need some deeper thinking, I think about who you want to be and who you are. That's what I'd say.

Angela Duckworth: I agree. Right. So, you could say that there are some trivial, small-c, character choices that we make. You know, you might regret eating a whole box of Thin Mint cookies. But, it's not the kind of thing on your deathbed that you're going to worry too much about. I mean, unless you do it every day. I also think there are, like, kind of--

Russ Roberts: You may get there sooner--

Angela Duckworth: You may get there sooner, almost certainly. If you want to say that there are big-C character choices, right? Like, the more significant ones. And Russ, you give--you give--the example of a funeral. I had this exact choice last week. A dear friend, and a prominent scholar, Sigal Barsade, who was a Wharton professor, died. She was 56; and it was a year-long battle with a brain tumor. So, it was both expected and unexpected. The family, and Sigal, decided to have the funeral and the burial in Los Angeles. And, I had a choice. I got an email from Jonathan. I think it was, like, two days before. I teach on Wednesday nights. I thought to myself, 'Okay, the funeral is Thursday morning.' Also, I had unmovable commitments to do a global webinar on the morning, like, before that.

So, I was looking at all these flights and I'm thinking:Okay. If, if, if. Like, if I take this flight and if my husband, you know, spirits me to the airport and I get TSA Pre [Transportation Security Administration Precheck], and this works out and that works out, and if I have a car meet me there. And: if I can stay at this particular hotel--you know, if all these things happen, then maybe I can go. And, it took me about, you know, 30 to 45 seconds to decide that that's what I should do.

And, I'm actually, Russ, I'm kind of embarrassed that it took me that long. It should have taken me one second to say, 'Yes.' You know? 'Yes.' Like, you don't not show up for the funeral of somebody you truly loved. And, I have made that mistake before.

I will tell you the airline gods were with me, everything worked out. I'm forever going to be grateful and proud that I made the right decision. I didn't screw that one up. I will never forget the things that were said at the service, which was beautiful. And, I remember thinking--because I had taken effectively two red-eyes to make this all work. And, the next day of course I had my full schedule. I took my office hours with my students by Zoom in the parking lot, like walking around with my phone, which I had also timed, when to charge it so it wouldn't die, so that I could do all this. And, I was in some ways physically exhausted. But, I remember thinking to my myself, 'This feels so right.'

And, that to me is also, may be the hidden side of character. It's not because you'll be richer or that even people will like you more, but when you develop character and when you manifest the aspirational self that you would like to be but aren't always, it just feels so right. And, I don't even know that 'happy' captures the sense that you have.

And, I have made a mistake in the past that was not like that. I mean, there were two weddings that I should have gone to, that I failed to go to. And, I can't exactly remember the exact circumstances. There was also a time when a friend was in the hospital in a different state. I am sure there were extenuating circumstances. And, like you said, you can--

Russ Roberts: Always are--

Angela Duckworth: Right. You know, you could say, 'Oh, a rational agent wouldn't do this.' And, to this day I regret those failures of character of mine.

And the question is: Is there any role for a class that you take or some kind of formal character development or something, other than just life experience, that enables you to develop character more rapidly--I guess, for lack of better word. And, I do think so.

When I ask myself, like, 'Why did I make different choices this week than I have in the past?' I mean, it is in part because of what I've read. It is in part because of things that wiser people have told me. And it is in part because I've studied--as an academic--self-control. And, I understand better that when we are in difficult choices, like, 'Well, on one hand, I'm exhausted. On the other hand, I should probably go to that wedding,' I understand the decision-making process better. And, I think I am able to make wiser choices because of all of that.


Russ Roberts: I think grit or perseverance are part of this. I don't know you very well, but I have a feeling you're pretty--you're a high achiever. I'm pretty confident about that. And, kind of focused.

Angela Duckworth: I'm pretty achievement-oriented [?].

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Kind of good at doing things and not procrastinating and so on.

Angela Duckworth: Yeah. I don't procrastinate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't think so.

Angela Duckworth: Not usually, but sometimes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don't think so, just guessing. But, some people, and I'm not going to--I'll let you comment. I think some people see improving grit or perseverance as a matter of productivity. It's a question of being better workers; being a better student and being able to then get a better job; make more money; contribute more to the economy. And, I hate that. I'll go out on a limb. And, I think that's the wrong way to think about it. And, I wonder how you think about it and whether you are part of--I assume there are people who like your work just for that reason and nothing else. And, I'm curious what your thoughts are.

Angela Duckworth: I think people who would hear that Russ Roberts and Angela Duckworth don't think that the point of grit ultimately is just productivity would be surprised. Because, [?] a Chicago economist, and somebody who writes all about achievement and fills her book with examples of Olympic athletes and Nobel Laureates. It would be an obvious inference to make.

And, it's true that I do believe that, when you want to reverse-engineer excellence, it's--in a way it's--like, the easy thing to do is to look at who has won an award or done something that has objectively been deemed excellent by society.

But, here's what I think the ultimate telos--right? the ultimate point--of grit is. Right? The end of it. I think what happiness is, is alignment of your goals. There is a kind of, 'I'm doing my wants and my second-order wants. I'm doing what I want to want and what I want.' And, there isn't a lot of conflict of, sort of like, 'Oh, but I'm tortured.'

When I look at really gritty people who pursue with a passion that they don't have any other words for other than romantic terms--'I love what I do. I'm passionate about what I do,' I mean, these are the terms that we would use for our husband or wife. These are the kind of people who feel unconflicted.

If you imagine that a person has a collection of arrows--so, the cover of Grit, which of course is done by an artist, not me--it's got this big arrow going to the right and then all these little arrows that are against you. And the idea is like: You're gritty and you're opposing all the outside forces. But, you know what gritty people are: If you could look inside that they are a bunch of arrows. The thing is that their goals are all pointing the same direction. Like, they have a unity, a kind of a purpose that's coherent.

And, I have felt times in my life, conflict. It's like, 'Oh, I kind of should go to medical school because my dad really wants me to go to medical school. But I feel this pull to kids in education.' And, that was deep conflict. And, a lot of misery for me--and my dad, by the way.

To me, the telos of grit is this alignment of purpose, where what you do during the day is aligned with your values. It's aligned with your interests. When you think of the five things that you have to do, they're all part of a whole. They're like, 'Oh, right. Because that's because I have a super-ordinate goal that those five things serve.

And, to me, that is much more important than, 'Did you, or did you not win the Nobel Prize?' And there is a kind of--again, 'happiness' fails, I think, to describe this--but a kind of rightness, a kind of peace. A kind of harmony that I, at least, experience, the more I am like that. And, I hate the corrosive feeling of being at war with myself.

So, grit to me, is more about alignment than it is about achievement.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The word I would use is 'flourish'. You flourish when you can harness your skills in a direction.

Angela Duckworth: 'Flourish' is better than 'happy', right? Like flourishing. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Right. It means you're harnessing your skills in the direction that you want to use them.

But, I do think there's a--I'm going to pick on economics for a minute. In the economics world, I was talking about maximizing. And, I think if we're not careful, we forget about exploration. In my new book, I talk about we're really good at getting to where we need to go, but we don't spend enough time thinking about where we want to go in the first place.

And, there's a lot to be said for wandering--not aimless wandering, not mindless wandering, necessarily. A little bit of that at times. But, you know, I think the risk of over-emphasizing grit or perseverance or success or whatever, however you want to couch it that's less material--the idea of getting the most out of life, which is something I've used myself, which I now have some regret about, using that phrase, because it's always forward, forward, forward. Like, overcome those other arrows. Get ahead, get ahead, get ahead.

Angela Duckworth: Right. Like: Leap over that obstacle.

Russ Roberts: Yeah: 'Nothing's going to stop me. Nothing can stop me.'

And, there's sometimes you should stop. There's some things you are pursuing that actually they might not be so good for you, or they might not be in your best interest, like going to medical school. It's okay to give up because you realize, 'Hey, man. This is not me. It's not what I want.' And, I think that tension between what we might call persistence, perseverance, grit, and thoughtfulness, mindfulness, uncertainty.

Angela Duckworth: Yeah. And, wandering. Right? Exploration.

So, let me suggest that the key word here is toggling. Right: I agree with you that, if you think about grit as being steadfastly pursuing a goal and just like one step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, relentlessly without rest, that doesn't allow very much that mental picture for wandering, for exploration, for saying, like, 'Wait a second. Before taking one more step in this direction, like, maybe I'm even heading for the wrong mountain range.'

So, I think the toggling is this. And, whether you call this all sort of what grit really is, if you really understand it, or if you think that's a cheat and you just want to say like, 'Grit has to be toggled with this other thing,' is kind of semantics. But, the toggling is, I think, what a lot of ethologists, who study animal behavior, would call the tension between the exploration and exploitation modes of foraging, for example.

If you are a little bird and you come upon a new meadow, you know, and you start picking seeds out of the grass or worms. And, this little patch is pretty good. You have a choice at any time to move on to a new patch and to explore. I don't know, maybe that patch over there is even better. Maybe there are more worms and seeds.

Or, you can exploit this patch. Right? And, that's the exploration/exploitation trade-off. You always have to make this choice. And, there's a cost either way, which is opportunity cost.

And, the question is, like, when does the bird move? And, one could argue that's essentially what we have in life: Should I try this, you know, completely different direction, read a different book? Try a different internship? Or, should I just really specialize and go forward in this one direction? So, should I explore or should I exploit?

So, I think one thing that the animal behavior scientists would agree is that, the trade-off has a certain dynamic: Which is, first of all, it's never, like, all of one or the other. So, there's always a toggling.

They would also say--I think early on in a meadow that you're exploring or in a lifespan, exploration is privileged--because you just don't know. Right?

So, the calculus benefit is exploration because you know less, and you also have longer to live, to exploit. Then of course, if you're, like, towards the end of your life, and you're just trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do, you know, and you're 80, then you've sort of gotten the calculus wrong because the clock is running out and also you should have had 80 years to figure out a lot. So, then exploitation is favored.

So, the toggling has a kind of lifespan shift from one, you know, center of gravity to the other.

But, there's new research by somebody who I absolutely think you should have as a guest, Russ. He's so brilliant. His name is Dashun Wang and he was a physicist, but he became a Kellogg Professor not too many years ago. And, he, like me, is kind of obsessed with achievement and with the dynamics of human excellence. And, what he's done is applied kind of artificial intelligence and, like, very sophisticated modeling techniques to enormously large data sets, to ask questions about, for example, the value of exploration versus the value of exploitation.

And, one of my favorite papers, he identifies that these periods of exploitation of a good idea can be called 'hot streaks.' And, he looked at three large data sets: scientists, painters, and Hollywood--or anyway, movie directors. I guess they don't have to all be in Hollywood. And, he has these, like, three big databases and he can measure impact of your work through, you know, citations, or how much your painting sold at auction, or IMDb [Internet Movie Database] ratings.

And what he finds is that, across these three very different creative professions, there are hot streaks that last between four and five years. The modal number is one. So, most people have a hot streak, but most of them--relative to themselves, they're not all Steven Spielberg, but for themselves they have a high impact period of their career. And, very few people have two. It's exceedingly rare to have three. But the most interesting thing to me about what fell out of this research was that Dashun wanted to know, like: What begins a hot streak? Where do they come from?

And, what he found is that there's a period of exploration. I mean, he uses Van Gogh as an example. So, Van Gogh really struggled for a time, mostly when he was painting in Paris. And, before the paintings we all know and love--the sunflowers and so forth. And, if you look at the paintings that Van Gogh did while he was in Paris--I mean, they're not bad. Right? They're not, also, as good as the ones that we all recognize. And, during that period of exploration, he was trying different techniques. He was quitting certain things that were, like, kind of dead ends. And, then when he moved to the South of France, he had a hot streak. He had a period of exploitation of techniques that, you know, emerged during the exploration period as really terrific.

He uses Jackson Pollock as another example. And, you know, there are of course others.

I think to me, it says that when people ask the question, like, 'I want to be excellent at what I do. I want to have, you know, a goal that I'm aligned to in every possible way.' It doesn't mean really that you have to put one foot in front of the other without rest, for your whole life. It means that you might need to toggle between periods of, you know, extraordinary focus.

And, then just as you said, Russ, a kind of wandering.

But I'll add this final note on all of this research, which is that, if you look at Van Gogh's life in more detail--so, David Epstein, the writer we both admire and somebody whose thinking I admire a lot. He, like me, got a little obsessed with Dashun Wang's paper. And, he wrote a short essay about this it's on his website, where he finds a letter that Van Gogh wrote to his brother before he had the hot streak. Right? And just the angst and the torture of not knowing where you're going is so clear.

But, I think David's essay makes a beautiful point, which is that there is a difference between wandering without any intention of ever having some focus and wandering with the intention to have some focus.

And, I think that kind of wandering where, you know you're exploring, but you hope at some point to be walking in a slightly straighter line with more progress--I think that really is qualitatively different. And, when I reflect on my own life, I wandered for 10 years between graduating from college and starting my Ph.D. And, that was a tortuous 10 years.

But, I will tell you, Russ: I was wandering with intention. I knew I wanted to be an expert in something. I was not content to do things for one year at a time, two years at a time and constantly making pivots.


Russ Roberts: While you were talking, I was thinking of David Epstein because his book Range, which we talked about here on EconTalk, certainly talks about the value of trying different things. And, I think it came up on my episode with Lorne Buchman on his book, Make to Know, where a lot of times you're waiting to see what emerges, but it's not mindless waiting. You're attentive. And, that's what the wandering ideally is. Although, sometimes it's okay to wander aimlessly now and then, I think.

Angela Duckworth: Yeah. Get in a little wandering for your own sake, too.

Russ Roberts: Exactly.

Angela Duckworth: That's not to say everything has to be intentional.

Russ Roberts: Right. And, I also thought about, we had Ben Cohen on here talking about The Hot Hand, which is very much about these episodes of incredible productivity--where, again, productivity isn't just, you're making more widgets. Just your soul sort of comes to life. And, you have your greatest work for great artists like Van Gogh.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to take us in a different direction. I want to throw you a curve ball, something you said reminded me, made me think about. You know, about the bird, the bird and the meadow, and trying decide whether to focus on this particular patch or whether to try to explore something else. And, I've been looking a lot of birds lately walking to work, which I hadn't been doing before. And, I'm on the streets of Jerusalem and we got these big hooded crows. They're pecking at stuff. They're really interesting-looking birds. And, we have smaller birds. And, you have to think, you have to ask yourself, 'How intentional is that bird?' The brain of that bird is really, really small and we don't really [crosstalk 00:45:17]--

Angela Duckworth: Hence, the expression 'bird brained'--

Russ Roberts: Well said. And I don't think we know much about the animal world and how much they look ahead. I think very little--but I'm open minded about that, agnostic. I'm assuming it's possible they would get more than we would imagine with their brains. But they are small. And, the bird is very impulsive. You can see it pecking and looking and nervous and shooting over here and shooting over there. If you had a cam on the bird--and there are such--you can watch them, I think there are such things. A bird spends its day flitting. Here to there, over here, maybe chasing things, running away from things.

And, the same thing is happening all around us in Jerusalem. We've got this great population of feral cats here that I happen to like, and photograph. And, some of them are fed by strangers, which is really interesting. But they're all street cats. They're just wandering around, of different colors and shapes.

And, I'm thinking, 'What's going on in there? They're wandering around here.' Some of them are relatively friendly. They'll look at me and I'll take their picture and it's as almost if they're saying, 'Yeah, I appreciate that.' And, others are like, 'You're taking my picture, how dare you?' And they run away. And some are afraid of me, just like human beings.

And, then I think, 'Are we that different?' I have a colleague here at Shalem College in the philosophy department, Yuval Dolev, and he says, 'How much of our actual decision making is intentional?' So many of the things that happen--not even reactive, we don't even understand why we're [crosstalk 00:46:52].

Angela Duckworth: Oh, you mean just automatic and [crosstalk 00:46:54].

Russ Roberts: We find ourselves in some new situations. And, we'll tell ourselves a story as to why we made that decision. But really, we're kind of at the whim of certain things. He's not saying that's what he believes, but he wonders about it. And, it's a thoughtful question.

So, my question is: Am I really that different from the bird and the cat? I mean, I think I am. I like to think I am. And, I wrote a book about decision-making; and you've written a book about control and grit; and you teach a class on it. Are we living an illusion here? Are we really--do we have the free will that we think we have to mold ourselves or are we just telling ourselves a story after the fact?

Angela Duckworth: Well, let's start with how we're the same as a big black crow, right? or a feral cat. And, then let's talk about how we're different, because I think we are both the same and we are different.

So, I do think that more and more behavioral scientists, including Wendy Wood, who's arguably the world expert on habits and she has a book and it's called Good Habits, Bad Habits, and I recommend it. She has discovered in her recent research that so much of our behavior is unconscious. It's habitual. And, we make up stories. So, she has a study where, you know, you, in careful ways, measure how much coffee people drink and when they drink it. But, also, you ask them, why did you drink coffee that day? And, they always have a reason. They think, 'Oh, because I was tired, because I really needed it.'

But, really, actually, the data suggest a different story, which is that it's just habit. It's just automatic.

And, just, as you say, we create a narrative in retrospect that isn't really accurate.

So, I agree with you that we are like crows and feral cats--I guess domestic cats, too--in that I think a lot of our behavior is instinctive. Unreflective, non-consciously ordered. We do it, but it's not at all the kind of behavior that we recognize as, like, our choices, our decisions, and our free will.

So, that's how we are like cats and crows. But, I think there is a reason why have such a big brain, Russ, or at least this is an affordance of having a big brain, especially a big prefrontal cortex, which is one of the key distinguishing features of the human brain, even compared to our closest primates--that we have an enormous prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of the brain.

I do believe that research--because we have actually put, believe it or not, pigeons, for example--maybe not crows, but pigeons into the lab and given them delayed-gratification tasks. You know: if you peck this lever, you get a pellet right away. But, if you can wait, then you can press this lever and then--you press the lever and there's a delay, but then three pellets come out. Right?

And, we know from that research that there's some ability for a lower-order animal than a human to wait--to delay gratification--but not much. So, there is a difference in future orientation. I think it's inarguable that human beings are able to envision with HD-detail [High Definition detail] a future 5, 10, 20 years from now. People are thinking about what will happen to this planet, if we keep going this way in a hundred years. And that does not seem possible for your typical crow or cat.

And, I think the question that we were coming to earlier, free will and the philosopher, Harry Frankfurt's idea that perhaps what is uniquely human is that we not only have wants, but we have second-order wants--second orders are what I want to want--the complexity of human thought is not only to envision possible futures, but to ask the question, not only how am I responding, but how do I want to respond?

When a friend really needs me in the future, I think--unlike a crow or a cat--I can say, 'I deeply regret missing those two weddings. I deeply regret not seeing my friend in the hospital. I want to want to go to see the next friend who really needs me and I am going to change my behavior.'

So, I am a believer in free will and the uniquely human capacity to imagine possible futures and to make at least some choices intentionally. Maybe it's not the majority of my behaviors, but I do believe that at least some of my choices and behaviors are made with conscious awareness and that I have agency.


Russ Roberts: That was beautifully said. I like to think about the stimulus we face. The crow smells something over here; goes. The cat sees a predator; runs. We have the ability to stand our ground in the face of danger and help someone who might need our help. We have the ability, rare perhaps, but I think we have the ability to avoid temptation that that crow has more trouble with maybe than we do. There's an episode coming out by the time our episode airs, it will have aired. It's been recorded, with Luca Dellanna. He calls the brain a confabulation device. It basically is. Its main purpose is to tell us stories--

Angela Duckworth: Lies?--

Russ Roberts: that rationalize what we do. And, he's onto something there, obviously. But, you're suggesting, I think correctly, and he's also interested in this: Is there room to see if that story is really the one you want to tell yourself, the one that you have to listen to? The one you only tell yourself ex-post? Maybe you could tell it ex-ante, if you chose to?

But I think a lot of what the self-control or growing up that I was referring to at the very beginning of our conversation is about not responding to stimuli. Is to find that space, which is really hard, where instead of impulsively doing seems--that drives you--you take a breath. You pause, and you think, 'Is this what I want to do?' And, of course, wandering can help you get better at that, I think.

Angela Duckworth: You know, in some ways it's a question of: Are you going to live life like you're the object of the sentence, or are you going to live life as the subject of the sentence?

And, I think agency is saying, like, 'I'--you know--'I ate the cake. Not 'The cake was eaten by me,' or, 'The cake was there and then of course I had to eat it.' But it's: 'I ate the cake.'

Walter Mischel, who, of course, was one of the greatest psychologists ever--and, he has, of course, passed now--but he invented the Marshmallow Test to measure delay of gratification and the ability to control oneself. He often, as a developmental psychologist, Walter primarily worked with young children. And he would say that when children are born, they are entirely stimulus-driven. Right? They just react, kind of like a crow or a cat. And, they're babies.

And, he was very influenced by Freud, which people might not realize because he was a very empirically driven scientist; and of course, Freud wasn't. But, the term 'delayed gratification' comes from Freud. Freud said that when a child matures, perhaps the most important thing they are able to do is delay the gratification of their impulses and to not be stimulus-driven for our entire lives.

And, to me, I feel like the project of developing our character is to say: Life happens, for sure. Right? Let's say that life is a stimulus. And, I do believe that, you know, our project in life is to decide how we're going to deal with it. You know, you get a diagnosis of a brain tumor that happens to you, but agentically[?], you know, when you're the subject in a sense, how do you respond to it? Do you respond to it with bravery and dignity or not?

You know--your friend calls you and says, 'I really need you to come visit.' You know, for me, that was a failure of my character. I did not visit my friend. I failed to be loyal in that moment. And, the next opportunity I have, I hope not to.

So I do think that there is a kind of rich philosophical and psychological context in which this question of whether we're the objects of the sentence or the subjects of a sentence, which is true. And, of course, they're both partly true, but I think trying to live life with an idea that you're the subject of the sentence is the better way.


Russ Roberts: And, certainly Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, is an example of what you're talking about--about things happen to you, but how you respond to them are up to you.

Angela Duckworth: How many times have you read that? I've read it, like, six times.

Russ Roberts: Only once. I've only read it once.

Angela Duckworth: It's so good. Keep going. It's like watching Love Actually: it just gets better and better.

Russ Roberts: Angela, I've always liked you. I always liked you, but now my respect for you has taken on a new level.

Angela Duckworth: Oh, I didn't know which way that was going to go. We should watch that together, Russ.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Love Actually, it's a barometer.

Angela Duckworth: It is. It's a barometer of your character.

Russ Roberts: It is. A lot of people hate that movie. It shocks me. I've seen it five or six times. I know a lot of it by heart.

Angela Duckworth: I dislike those people profoundly.

Russ Roberts: Okay, maybe we'll edit that out. I'm kidding, Les [EconTalk's audio editor--Econlib Ed.]. Keep that in. Don't edit that out.


Russ Roberts: I had planned that we would talk more about this question of delayed gratification than we ended up talking about. But, I do think it's an interesting example that--you mentioned it like everybody knows what it is, but the Marshmallow Test is this idea that, if you can avoid eating the marshmallow that's in front of you right away and get a larger reward in a few minutes, that that correlated with people's lifetime outcomes. That it was a character trait, not just a learned behavior.

And, I have to mention that work has come under attack recently. Some people suggested it doesn't replicate--it didn't replicate in their work--and attempt to find that again. But, it's a deep question about whether this is an aspect of yourself or whether it's something you can acquire.

In other words, is it destiny? If you're a person who can't delay gratification, you'll never be able to go to grad school, you're going to flunk out of--etc., etc., and you won't do well in life. Or is this something you can acquire? And, I think that is, as you point out in the essay that we started talking about, is a really fundamental question about the way psychologists look at the world and human beings.

Angela Duckworth: So, this is the most important thing that I try to teach my students. I say: The human mind is a kind of either/or machine. I want to know what the answer is. Is it either that character is fixed, or is it developable? Is it either the person, or the situation?

And, I will say that the vast majority of scientific research that I'm familiar with on any aspect of human functioning that you can imagine, always has the answer of both/and[?].

So, let's take the Marshmallow Test. It has come under attack, I think less because it doesn't replicate, but more because it's a correlational finding. That: How long you wait for the marshmallow correlates with things like income later on in adulthood. And, the major complaint is that, if you statistically control for all the things that you ought to, that the correlation is really small. And if you control for some things you could argue, it's like hardly different from zero.

Then there's counter-arguments, by the way: that you've kind of controlled for things like self-control. And so, like, of course the correlation goes down.

But, just to abbreviate what's obviously a complex conversation about that: Walter Mischel was famous, not for one thing, but for two things. One was the creation of the Marshmallow Test--which it was popularly understood as, 'Oh, how long you can wait for two marshmallows at age four, predicts your lifetime income.' That's kind of a, you know, 'Your character is destiny. This is a fixed trait because, look, I can measure it at four, and you're still being influenced by it when you're 34 or 44 or 54.' Like, that's the popular understanding.

But, let's think about what Walter was also famous for. The other thing that Walter was famous for in psychology is the power of the situation. And, what Walter was getting at was that, when we think of any behavior--how you act in the Marshmallow Test, how you act on the job, whether you decide to cheat on your taxes or not cheat on your taxes--is both a function of the person--you know, their character--and the situation. Not either the person or the situation: both the person and the situation.

And, just to blow minds a little bit, because students look at me and they're just like--their brows are creased and they just don't--yeah. And, I'm like, 'Yeah, because you're going to have to think really hard about this.'

When I talk about character, I want you to think of it as both being somewhat stable--like, 'Yeah, I saw Russ in 2016. I have a sense of who Russ is, his values, his leanings, his love of Love Actually.' Right? You know: That's probably not going to change very much. And, so, both that there's stability and that there's change.

Character is both stable and malleable. The behavior that we observe in each other and ourselves is both a product of our character and of the situation.

So, I know this complexity doesn't sell well. It's hard to make a TikTok video. I don't think it'll go viral. But, to me, I feel like a lot of the polarization that every country, including the United States, has experienced is a product of either/or thinking: Either you believe in this or you believe in that. Is it possible--and I wonder whether you're optimistic or pessimistic about this--that with our big prefrontal cortex, like with our big brains, we could potentially accommodate the both/and reality of human development and human nature?

Russ Roberts: Well, I try to do my little small part by reminding people that it's complicated. 'It's complicated,' is my way of saying, [crosstalk 01:01:24].

Angela Duckworth: [crosstalk 01:01:23]. It's complicated.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Angela Duckworth: Nature/nurture. It's complicated.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It doesn't sell that well, but I think it's [crosstalk 01:01:32].

Angela Duckworth: 'It's complicated'--it's not sexy.

Russ Roberts: It's not a bumper sticker. Yet, I'm sure a listener right now will prove me wrong.

Angela Duckworth: Please send us bumper stickers.

Russ Roberts: I'm sure they will. I'm sure they will.

Angela Duckworth: Okay. Good.

Russ Roberts: Maybe we'll create one. We'll put it on the EconTalk store--

Angela Duckworth: I'll put it on my computer--

Russ Roberts: We'll put it on our swag store.


Russ Roberts: I want to close with a comment. Something I learned from Mike Munger, a long-time EconTalk guest. He was visiting me one time and we were watching one of my kids play baseball on his team, on my kid's team. And, one of my kids--I can't remember whether it was the team or my kid--it was a stressful game. It was baseball. And, baseball can be a particularly challenging activity--hitting a fast-moving object with a small stick or trying to catch it with a small glove. And, I said something about sports' building character. And, he said, 'Sports doesn't build character. It reveals it.'

I still get goosebumps when I think about it, because it's certainly true that when you put a 16-year old or 14-year old kid in a situation of stress in public, in front of their peers, and they are on stage, and they fail at least two times out of three--usually in baseball as a batter--it kind of tests a person. How are you going to respond to this? And, we're going to watch that in real-time and in real space.

And, it's actually quite a beautiful thing, I think, about being a parent. I've thought about it enough to watch your children encounter--one of the great things I think about kids playing sports is to watch that.

And I think--Mike was right, but of course he was wrong. And, I think--I'm sure he'd agree with us--that it both reveals and builds. It's both. It's complicated. And, the way you respond to defeat is not destiny. It's not written in your genes. You have a chance. Somebody throws a tantrum or doesn't do well after failing has a chance to rise above that. And, they may not do it for a long time. It may take them a lifetime. But, they can. And, I think that's part of what we've been saying today.

Angela Duckworth: I think our circumstances both reveal our character and develop our character: because, human nature, it's complicated. And, on my gravestone, if they would allow more than one word, then I don't want it to be 'grit.' 'Both/and.' Right? I mean, to me, my mission in life, Russ, is to increase psychological literacy.

And, I think as we move forward into the 21st century, and if we're ever going to come together again as communities and truly develop character, then we have to actually embrace both/and; it's complicated; complexity. And, I don't think that leaves us, like, hopelessly confused, actually, in the end. I think it gives us more agency and compassion at the same time, understanding that we can be the subject of our sentence, but in some ways we're all the object of the sentence. It really is both/and in almost every scenario that I can imagine. And, I'm glad to have had this conversation because I do think conversations like this get us a little closer to that complexity and that nuance.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Angela Duckworth. Angela, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Angela Duckworth: Thanks, Russ. I hope I see you again.